The green economy giveth… and taketh away, too, giving rise to a whole new generation of occupational health and safety challenges. Jon Herbert examines a recent International Labour Organisation report.

Green is good, isn’t it? It is the sustainable colour of the 21st century. But a recent international report finds that not all is quite rosy in the new, caring economy.

The key aim of sustainability is to remove the interlinked bad impacts that industrial endeavour, people and the places in which they live have had on each other for centuries. While the triple-bottom-line principle of “people, planet, profit” that drives sustainable development is admirable in theory, green technologies designed to save the environment, and those that live within it, are inadvertently creating new hazards.

The International Labour Organization (ILO) says that now is an ideal time to solve problems old and new. As Planet Earth battles to find new non-intrusive ways to power industry and the economy profitably, without damaging communities ― and still creating “decent” jobs — the ILO report Promoting Safety and Health in a Green Economy (2012) emphasises that developing new skills and a co-ordinated approach to design that intrinsically rules out fresh health and safety risks is essential.

The report argues that a greener economy alone “does not make jobs decent, healthy and safe by default”. The problems created by sustainable development are not insurmountable; but they cannot be neglected either.

Two steps forward, one step back

The irony, the study reveals, is that rapid progress almost inevitably has a downside.

The irony is made broader by the paradox that, in replacing some substances known to be harmful to the environment with more benign alternatives, man is introducing additional hazards.

One example is the substitution of solvent-based paints with water-based equivalents that create biocides. The replacement of hydro-chlorofluorocarbons by chlorofluorocarbons has increased the risk of not only exposure to carcinogens, but also created greater fire hazards.

Another issue is the emerging solar energy industry, which is widely seen as an ideal zero-carbon transition of energy from sunlight into electrical power. Unfortunately, in some instances, workers may be exposed to cadmium telluride, a known carcinogen.

The answer, says the ILO, is adequate controls, but this means being able to anticipate, identify, evaluate and control newly emerging hazards at the initial design stage.

However, we should be optimistic, it suggests. The amount of effort going into combating climate change, controlling waste and creating energy-efficient, low-carbon working methods makes this a perfect point in history to review the status quo of occupational health and safety (OHS) across the world.

Global responsibilities

We now live in a world of extended supply chains where our actions? have international repercussions. The majority of future employment will still come from the greening of traditional industries, with most being in the developing world. Clearly, we have global responsibilities.

To make the challenge even more complex, many OHS risks are known but others have still to be revealed. To paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld as US Secretary of Defence in 2002, “there are known unknowns… we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns ― the ones we don’t know we don’t know”. The precautionary principle must apply.

The ILO’s response is that “a true, green job must integrate safety and health into design, procurement, operation, maintenance sourcing, use and recycling”. “Prevention through design” calls for policy changes resulting from a wide dialogue between government, workers and employers.

A safe and healthy working environment and the protection of the general environment are often two sides of the same coin, it adds.

While many of the examples given might seem obvious or even small on a global scale, they are very significant for the workers and communities involved. They are also the shape of things to come.

Green energy

Renewable energy is one of the world’s fastest-growing sectors. More jobs are created per unit of installed generating capacity and capital invested than with conventional fossil-fuel power stations.

It is now estimated that some 4.2 million workers worldwide work in renewables. This figure is set to rise at an accelerating rate. There could be 20 million renewable energy workers by 2030. Half of these work in jobs associated with growing and harvesting biofuel feedstock. The other half is employed within processing industries for solar, wind, hydropower, marine wave, tide and geothermal energy extraction.

The photovoltaic (PV) solar industry potentially poses a particularly significant risk. It can involve the use of up to 15 different hazardous materials. The fear is that workers may be exposed to these not only during manufacture and installation, but also in eventual end-of-life disposal.

Further analysis of the PV manufacturing process reveals that fresh hazards can be created when specific chemicals are used in conjunction with silicon. PV cell-making also involves a number of cleaning agents that may be toxic.

PV panels also have the potential to create a “significant new wave of electronic waste” some 20 to 25 years into the future, say the report’s researchers.

The use of not only cadmium telluride, but also gallium arsenide, presents even more complex recycling challenges.

It is very easy for young, go-ahead industries to produce low-cost PV units in large export numbers while creating an unacceptable long-term legacy of pollution. Evidence from some ambitious Asian economies proves this to be so.

When it comes to installation, solar power systems present physical hazards familiar to employees used to working in construction, but new to electricians and plumbers fitting PV arrays or solar water heaters to roof tops. These include the prospect of falling from considerable heights, manual handling in precarious situations, high temperatures, confined-space working, electrocution, plus hazards for fire-fighters and residents if fumes are released from burning PV units.

There can even be risks from concentrated sunlight when the sun’s rays are focused by a receiver.

Where the wind blows

Wind power produces a different set of challenges. Turbine blade manufacture involves hazards similar to the automobile and aerospace industries. Workers can be exposed to epoxy resins, styrene and solvents, gases, vapours and dusts, plus fumes from fibreglass, hazardous aerosols and carbon fibres.

The ILO says that commonly associated health problems include dermatitis, dizziness, sleepiness, liver and kidney damage, blisters, chemical burns and reproductive ills.

The sheer size of components being manufactured can create its own safety issues. These extend into installation and maintenance. They include musculoskeletal disorders, working in awkward postures in constricted spaces, the physical load effects of climbing towers, injuries from rotating machinery, and the danger of falling objects.

Adverse weather can multiply the effects of each of the above.

Hydropower

Hydropower harnesses the gravitational power of water descending from a height. At present, hydropower technologies account for 17% of the world’s electricity — making it the largest global renewable energy source.

Its environmental impact — and, in some cases, health and safety concerns — come from building and operating dams, roads and power lines, plus changing water flow patterns and levels.

Small-scale hydropower, as opposed to big earth dams, is roughly equivalent in size to other new renewable technologies, with 53% of units found in developing countries. They present very few extra hazards.

However, large hydropower stations share the same risks as any other major construction or electrical transmission project, with the potential for unexpected energy releases from unguarded lines or work in energised sub-stations.

There is also the possibility of chemical releases from sulphur hexafluoride gas and polychlorinated biphenyl. Serious accidents are a frequent feature of large dam schemes.

Bioenergy

Bioenergy includes the production of liquid biofuels, biogas and modern biomass for heating and power generation. Bio-ethanol and bio-diesel can be made from algae, jatropha and curcas (both mono-crops) and are in cooking oils and animal fats.

As solids, liquids or gases, bioenergy raises OSH and environmental concerns in feedstock production associated with normal agriculture and forestry, including exposure to agro-chemicals.

Manual harvesting in parts of the developing world can lead to death by heat exhaustion, the report warns. During thermal processing, workers are frequently exposed to carcinogens, carbon monoxide, sulphur oxides, lead, volatile organic compounds, and traces of mercury, heavy metals and dioxins.

In storage, biomass presents a fire risk when dry and the potential for explosions when small particles are dispersed into the air.

For local communities, there is also the unpleasant possibility of air pollution, spores, and foul liquids with deleterious health effects.

In use, biofuels tend to offer the same hazards as conventional fossil fuels in terms of flammable liquids, gas storage and safe turbine operation.

Waste management and recycling

Sustainability means that recycling will, increasingly, be an integral part of product design and waste management. However, new recycling technologies, with an emphasis on processes that preserve the performance qualities of materials, will themselves introduce new risks, say the researchers.

The prospect of ultra-small nanoparticles and exotic chemicals looms ever larger. Additional waste-to-energy policies could create extra risks in the form of increased gas production, explosions and dangerous substances in confined places.

Another intriguing prospect is the idea of mining landfill sites in future to retrieve lost but valuable resources. This could re-expose a wide range of harmful materials that have been in prolonged contact with other agents.

It is estimated that there are currently between 15 and 25 million waste pickers in the world, with China being the globe’s largest waste producer, employing 10 million people. In many countries, women and children from poor backgrounds are part of this informal workforce. Basic health and safety measures in the form of better training, better equipment, improved disposal layouts, protective equipment, washing facilities and sanitation would make a tremendous difference, the report says.

Recycling centres in the developed world can still be hazardous; a study of Swedish facilities identified not only risks, but also a high rate of injuries. In the UK, workers have suffered mercury poisoning due to poor practices in recycling eco-light bulbs.

Scrap metal recycling has proved no better. Common causes of illness in the US are heavy metal poisoning, trauma disorders, and skin and respiratory diseases.

Frequently, infectious medical waste and toxic industrial waste are still not separated from domestic waste and finish up within a recycling stream.

In the new utopia, social inclusion and environmental protection will inevitably pivot on providing safer, healthier workplaces and decent work for all, the ILO concludes. The clock is now ticking.

Promoting Safety and Health in a Green Economy can be downloaded from the ILO website.

Last reviewed 26 February 2013