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‘Green’ isn’t black-and-white for occupational health

By Lawrence Cummer

It’s not always easy being green. And, without the right occupational hygiene measures incorporated into the workplace, it could be hard on employee health.

That’s an issue that Dr. Karen Bartlett, an associate professor at the University of BC’s School of Environmental Health, is trying to bring to light through her studies and research. The inconvenient truth uncovered by Bartlett is that, while most employees are thrilled by their organizations’ participation in green efforts, they are also experiencing degrees of discomfort, and potential for increased sickness and

reduced productivity.

She and her colleague, Dr. Murray Hodgson, have been trying to bridge the worlds of green building design and occupational hygiene through the post-occupancy evaluations (POE)—or building performance evaluations (BPE)—of six eco-friendly buildings. They investigated employee opinions on sustainability efforts, but also satisfaction in areas like comfort, lighting and air control.

“What we’re finding is that people will love the façade of the building—that they’re in a LEED ‘Gold’ certified building, or whatever—but then you ask probing questions like how sick do you get? How was the state of their air quality? They suddenly start falling to the end of the scale,” Bartlett says.

Occupational health professionals need to start working together earlier with building engineers on the health of the building, for the individuals as well as the outside environment, Bartlett suggests. That is something she says is not happening today. Only through the two groups closely collaborating can organizations avoid repeating past mistakes that have brought about poor employee health issues, like sick building syndrome. [a href="Videosite/index.php/component/option,com_seyret/Itemid,110/id,19/task,videodirectlink/" target="_blank"][strong]

[Video: Jeremy Rifkin discusses the role of OHS in designing the workplace of the future]


“We’re heading in that direction if we don’t start looking at [working cooperatively] really soon,” she stresses.

Energy conservation isn’t always a breeze

Bartlett pointed to decades-old energy conservation efforts incorporated into buildings following the oil crises of 1973 and 1979 as the culprit for sick building syndrome, which the World Health Organization reported in 1984 could have then been associated with up to 30 per cent of new and remodeled buildings.

She and other occupational hygienists fear similar approaches to energy conservation are being integrated into today’s buildings and her research supports this concern.

Buildings designed to incorporate greater insulation in order to reduce heating and cooling costs by lowering energy demands from ventilation were at the root of sick building syndrome, agreed Alberto Behar, president of the Occupational Hygiene Association of Ontario (OHAO).

“Green efforts can be harmful,” Behar says, and he witnessed this approximately 30 years ago while working with Toronto Hydro. The organization had built an extremely energy-optimized building in a downtown Toronto location, but the building had poor air quality. After research, the occupational health and safety group determined that they needed to pump in more fresh air, which additionally increased the ventilation and energy demands.

He reminds occupational health and safety professionals to test air quality and to remember that as a “golden rule” a building should have at least 30 per cent fresh air. Behar also reminds that energy conservation efforts and reacting to them to ensure workplace health and safety is nothing new, and “it is kind of part of our culture.”

He agrees with Bartlett that occupational hygienists need to be involved earlier in the process of environmental efforts; otherwise, they simply end up cleaning up the problems after they arise.

Other common sustainability efforts, like use of daylight for lighting, can create similar problems, says Bartlett.

In the case of “daylighting,” she says that it is rare that an office is properly designed to ensure adequate lighting for both those who are close to windows (and suffer glare) or far from them (and suffer from eye strain). The results can be discomfort, headaches, eyestrain, lowered productivity and sick time.

Ultimately, she notes, employees getting too much glare will hang curtains, those with too little light will use lamps. The energy efficiency becomes lost, and no one is any happier or healthier.

Occupational safety promotes environmental protection

A number of environmental disasters could have been avoided, or lessened, if their organizations had better promoted occupational safety, says Dave Gouthro, safety manager for Highland Asphalt in Halifax.

He points to the Sydney Tar Ponds in Nova Scotia. The hazardous waste site, which suffered in the last century from the contaminant runoff from nearby steel-mill ovens, could have been avoided if modern occupational health and safety best practices had been in place, he suggests.

“If we look after things on the OH&S side, for the most part it’s going to be a positive thing for the environmental side,” he says. This is especially true, in regards to chemicals and disposal.

“If people don’t care what they are doing with used chemicals and they just dump them out in the lot in the back, on a health and safety side that isn’t good because employees would be exposed to it, and obviously it also wouldn’t be good for the environment.

“So if we go around making sure that we have good disposal habits and good housekeeping, it’s also good for the environment. I’m concerned that it’s an OH&S issue, but at the same time if we do it right then the environmental part is also taken care of.”

Gouthro says the relationship between occupational safety and environmental conservation parallels the interconnection of the ecosystem. Safety motivated by the protection of the worker, extends to protect the community, and vice versa.

Jason Hoffman, past president of OHAO, says he believes we will soon see greater overlap between occupational hygiene and environmental conservation teams.

“They overlap, it’s just the units are different,” he says. “The principles are similar; it’s just one is more of a micro- versus macro-scale.”

“If we bring in a product that’s environmentally friendly, it’s going to have low toxicity (for the workers) as well.”

Hoffman also notes that occupational hygienists have the toxicology background needed to help support environmental safety.

Keeping environmental innovation in check

One aspect around green efforts is business as usual: occupational health and safety professionals need to stay on top of every new material or product handled in their organization, whether being implemented for eco-friendly reasons or not.

Gouthro says his organization recently started to incorporate recycled asphalt into their mix. No new product or material was involved in this recycling effort, so his OH&S group did not need to be consulted; however, as any new products, for example eco-friendly cleaning materials, are introduced he pays close attention and ensures every product has a WHMIS report properly filed.

Hoffman says his company, ArcelorMittal-Dofasco Inc., has a few thousand products in its chemical inventory, and any new eco-friendly product must be properly tracked and handled through its life from use to disposal.

Both Gouthro and Hoffman say communication and collaboration between groups are key. Hoffman says that any new products or larger projects (anything with a capital range above $50,000) must go through systematic joint approvals of both ArcelorMittal’s environmental safety and occupational health groups before project leaders can advance them.

“With anything in the workplace, not just the environment, good communication with the safety person is needed,” says Gouthro. He says that safety individuals faced with the potential of being otherwise bowled over by environmental efforts must “build up the trust and rapport with all levels of the company and with whatever lines of communication you can have, so that when something’s going on they let you know.”

It’s not necessarily easy, UBC’s Bartlett suggests.

She says occupational health and safety professionals need to ensure they are part of any solution during the design stage “by use of willpower.”

Lawrence Cummer is a freelance journalist based in Toronto. You can reach him at

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