How Sustainability Can Increase Worker Safety

Economies all over the world are feeling the pressure to invest in new energy, manufacturing and construction technologies. The overarching goal is to transition to more environmentally sustainable practices from top to bottom. This is an important moment for the health of the planet. But what about worker health and safety?

The CDC notes that for products to be sustainable, the work must be sustainable as well. True sustainability needs to include worker safety in addition to environmental sustainability.

Here are a few ways that the sustainability movement is improving workers’ lives.

1. No More Sick Building Syndrome

A mountain of evidence suggests that human health is at a far greater risk from indoor air pollution than outdoor air pollution. The built environment and its designers have taken indoor air quality for granted for many years, and we’re only just beginning to appreciate some of the ramifications — including sick building syndrome, or SBS.

SBS is a situation in which spending time in a building results in poor health among its occupants. This can range from mild or flu-like symptoms to chronic illnesses. Synthetic, toxic and unsustainable building materials are usually to blame, including asbestos, formaldehyde, volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in paint, wood treatments and some types of flame retardants. Employers should conduct an honest and comprehensive indoor air quality and materials assessment to understand the scope of work required to eliminate these from the workplace.

Mycelium insulation. Credit: Willem Velthoven, FlickrCC

The Green Building Alliance makes note of several sustainable alternatives to these problematic, chemical-laced synthetic materials. Recycled cotton makes a good insulator. Wood and aluminum can stand in for PVC window frames and other plastic elements. Additional material research will deliver even more interesting alternatives, such as insulation made from quick-growing mycelium or wall panels made from cork.

2. More Focused Employees and Fewer Workplace Accidents

Employers and employees benefit mutually once the decision is made to transition to sustainable materials. Once the indoor air is clear of avoidable, health-eroding contaminants, it’s likely the workplace will see a drop in absenteeism and fewer onsite safety incidents.

Abundant research has drawn a connection between the health of workers and their likelihood to be involved in accidents at work. Employees who are distracted while on-the-job by health problems cannot focus and engage with their work to the extent required. A healthy workforce, on the other hand, can be fully present and more aware of their surroundings and coworkers.

3. Involvement in Pro-Social Causes Boosts Retention

Employee retention is important. From the employer’s perspective, replacing skilled workers is time-consuming and expensive. It also means a potential loss of critical skills. The time required to bring replacement employees up to speed could result in knowledge gaps and a lapse in attention to important procedural and safety measures.

A survey on “green workspaces” by the Society for Human Resource Management found that 61% of employees are “likely” or “very likely” to stay with an employer that has implemented a sustainability program. Engaged and committed employees result in a safer workplace, and vice versa.

4. Automation and Lean Manufacturing Reduce Risk

“Lean” operations are those that seek to perform more, and better, work while using fewer resources. There are several ways this approach might manifest in the workplace and several opportunities, in turn, to improve worker safety:

  • Turning heavy machines off while not in use reduces wear and tear, saves energy and reduces the likelihood of failure (and employee injury) at a critical moment.
  • The best implementations of advanced robotics and automation stand a good chance of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Automation also makes it possible to reassign employees from high-risk jobs and into more cognitively demanding, higher-paying ones.
  • Lean manufacturing encourages ongoing improvements to boost productivity while lessening the burden on human workers and the environment. When employees have the right productivity tools available, they’re more likely to work conscientiously and safely.

Pursuing leaner operations helps organizations of all kinds reduce their carbon footprint and energy expenditures. It also encourages safe and conscientious workplace performance, even while boosting productivity.

Sustainability-minded lean operations also encourage longer-term operational planning, which helps eliminate “crunch” periods that result in hurried or careless performance and lapses of judgment as deadlines approach.

Safety and Sustainability Go Hand-in-Hand

Sustainability involves the conscientious use of material resources. Safety involves the wise management of other resources — namely, human life and labor. It’s not difficult to see why there’d be overlap between the two as well as opportunities to invest in both sustainability and safety simultaneously.