Green Jobs: Keeping It Safe While Keeping It Green

Foto: Marina Lohrbach - Fotolia.com

Green is commonly associated with things that are good for our environment. Now we use "green" to describe products, industries, the economy and even jobs, and as a verb - greening - to describe the process. There is a growing movement to improve and protect the environment by reducing carbon emissions, pollution and waste, and a shift toward more energy efficient and environmentally friendly practices. Along with the benefits of "greening the economy" come changes to traditional jobs as well as the creation of new kinds of jobs - and with these changes come new challenges to worker health and safety.

"Green" jobs cover a wide range of jobs in different sectors, but all contribute in some way, to preserving or restoring the environment. They can include jobs that help to protect ecosystems and biodiversity, reduce usage of energy and raw materials, or reduce waste and pollution. Many new green jobs are actually old jobs that have shifted over to cleaner, greener industries, and/or are in conventional sectors that are making real efforts to green its operations. Waste management and recycling workers have to handle products that may be energy efficient but may contain highly toxic substances, for example lithium in electric car batteries.

New technologies or work processes designed to protect the environment can lead to new hazards or to new combinations of hazards. For example, workers who install solar panels on rooftops are faced with a combination of hazards similar to those faced by roofers and electricians. Like roofers, they use ladders and scaffolding and are at risk of falling from heights. And like electricians, they face electrocution and burns from contact with overhead lines while installing solar panels.

Health and safety and labour organizations in Europe and North America have expressed a shared sentiment that these emerging jobs need to be good for workers, as well as for the environment. And with the green economy expected to grow quickly, there is concern that skills gaps could be created, and put workers, inexperienced and not properly trained in the new processes, at risk for injury.

The way forward

A report from the International Labour Organization (ILO) suggests that "a true green job must integrate safety and health into design, procurement, operations, maintenance sourcing, use and recycling". They emphasize that policy changes are necessary to support approaches such as "prevention through design" when creating green jobs.

The North American Institute of Occupational Health and Safety (NIOSH), as part of their Prevention through Design (PtD) initiative, is developing a framework to create awareness, provide guidance, and address occupational safety and health issues associated with green jobs. Basically PtD is a concept that promotes eliminating hazards at the design stage of a project.

Prevention through design addresses workplace health and safety needs, and involves preventing or minimizing the work-related hazards and risks to workers, through the planning, engineering and design of the work, process and equipment. A growing number of businesses, organizations, and countries are supporting and implementing PtD concepts to pre-empt and "design out" hazards.

In addition, to prepare workers for new occupations and new ways of working, employers must ensure that employees receive adequate, relevant health and safety training and information. By assuming a proactive approach to hazard elimination in green jobs, therein lays an opportunity to improve the health and safety of workers in general.