Sustainability, renewables and the environment are coming more and more into focus within the global environment. However, as Vicky Kenrick of recruitment consultancy, Allen & York explains, without the appropriate action, this growing trend could present health and safety risks to workers
The sustainability industry has presented a number of new hazards for health and safety managers and, given the humanitarian and commercial benefits of achieving sustainability, this is likely to emerge as a hot topic worldwide for organisations working within this green arena. A safe and healthy workplace and the protection of the general environment go hand in hand.
At their most basic level, sustainability and safety are essentially about conserving and protecting resources. In the case of sustainability, these are typically natural resources. In the case of safety, the resources are human. Due to this common goal it is seemingly even more important to ensure high safety standards within the new and growing green industries.
Green technologies, products and processes need to be evaluated for worker safety and health just like any other occupation, product or practice. Such evaluation can identify work related hazards that can then be prevented or controlled. Conversely, it can also help identify those green practices, products and technologies that could improve worker safety and health.
Job roles which combine health, safety and environmental responsibility have been around for some time and come labelled with a variety of acronyms – HSE, SHE, QHSE, EHS – and are a perfect example of the close relationship between environment, health and safety.
RenewableUK (formerly the BWEA – British Wind Energy Association) have raised the profile of health and safety within the UK wind industry. Working in partnership with lead organisations and key stakeholders, including the HSE and Crown Estate, the company has actively communicated on health and safety matters, published best practice guidance, recommended training and held an annual Health and Safety Renewables conference, which is an indication of the importance of health and safety within renewable energy and the growing number of job opportunities available in this sector. The main growth area is offshore wind and in such a high risk environment it is essential that the correct safety procedures are put in place.
NIOSH in the US is leading a national initiative called Prevention through Design (PtD) which has sustainable design at its heart. Arguably, one of the best ways to prevent and control occupational injuries and well being is to ‘design out’ or minimise hazards and risks early in the design process. In the UK there has been a requirement since 1994 for construction companies, project owners, and architects to address safety and health during the design phase of projects, and companies have responded with positive changes in management practices to comply with those regulations.
This is another vital part of developing the new skills needed to transition to new types of green jobs or to learn how to use new products and technologies. Health and safety managers have to continually ensure they are aware of such new potential hazards – recent news of a chemical firm being fined £100,000 for ignoring HSE legislation highlights the importance of health and safety management when hazardous new chemicals are used.
While sustainable green jobs are aimed at the improvement of the environment, the revitalisation of the economy and creation of further new employment opportunities, one of the greatest risks is that, in the haste to create these new jobs in large numbers, less attention is paid to the growth safety requirements.
Recent worldwide investment in renewable energy technologies for example, aimed at meeting our demands for lower energy consumption and reduced greenhouse gases, bring with it hundreds of thousands of new roles worldwide. However, concerns could be raised regarding insufficient attention being given to occupational risks in such jobs. For example, some physical hazards that workers face when installing solar panel systems are similar to those in construction, but are new to electricians and plumbers installing PV panels on roofs. These may include working at heights, high temperatures and voltages, and confined spaces during construction and maintenance.
The development of bio-fuels, whether in solid, liquid, or gas form, also raises health, safety and environmental concerns. Hazards are often associated with bio-crop production and are similar to those in agriculture and forestry, which require up to date health and safety monitoring. The production of sugar cane or soybean can be associated with exposure to agro-chemicals. Manual harvesting of sugar cane also involves heavy physical loads in typically hot and humid environments – signalling a requirement for HSE managers to be increasingly aware of these issues which they have to manage.
As the green economy develops, it is critical that the health and safety of workers is integrated into its fabric. A true green industry should integrate health and safety into its building design, procurement, operations, maintenance sourcing and waste management.
Moving towards a green economy implies setting higher standards for environmental protection and incorporating workers’ safety and health should be an integral part of the sustainability strategy.