Last reviewed 28 May 2020

If jobs in the environment sector are to be truly sustainable, green work will need to be good for workers, too, with safe and healthy working conditions. Vicky Powell looks at the main hazards for sustainable jobs in 2020, even without the challenges of the pandemic.

Green but not risk-free

The UK is facing challenging targets for increased energy efficiency and reduced emissions, which will continue to boost green jobs. This is good news for the economy and for the environment. But although these jobs may be feel-good, they are not risk-free.

The green economy is diverse, with a wide range of roles on offer, from the most basic to highly skilled, specialised jobs, covering a surprisingly wide range of sectors from waste and recycling to the solar, wind and biomass technology industries.

Skills gaps are to be anticipated in these sectors in the coming years as a result of the speed at which the green economy is expected to expand.

An obvious danger is that inexperienced workers could end up involved in processes that they have not been trained for, putting their safety and health, and those of others, at risk.

In addition, green jobs will usher in new hazards, calling for new combinations of skills. It can’t be assumed that previous health or safety knowledge can simply be transferred. The European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (EU-OSHA) gives the example of installing a solar water heater, which involves combining the skills of a traditional roofer, plumber and electrician with new green products and systems.

Old jobs in new livery?

However, health and safety campaigners have warned that green jobs are sometimes just old roles with trendier new names. The trade union magazine Hazards has highlighted the case in point of the waste industry morphing into the recycling sector.

Most of the current case law in the waste and recycling sector focuses on safety failings. For example in May 2019, Liverpool recycling company Centriforce Products Limited was fined £120,000 and ordered to pay costs of £10,540.95 after an employee, Paul Andrews, was fatally crushed by falling plastic bales.

In another case, which focused on work-related health failings, an occupational hygiene survey of a plasterboard recycling company’s site indicated that workers were being exposed to dusts at more than 20 times the legal limit. This, with other safety shortcomings, resulted in the business being fined £60,000 and ordered to pay costs of £2330.

Indeed, the rate of fatal injury in the waste sector is 17 times higher than the UK industry average, second only to the agriculture sector in terms of being the most dangerous sector in which to work.

As well as focusing on safety in the sector, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) is currently working through its Go Home Healthy campaign to raise awareness of the danger of health hazards such as lung diseases in the sector.

The HSE has pointed out that many waste management activities bring potential exposure to a wide range of respiratory or breathing hazards. Such activities include:

  • handling waste and recyclables during collection and sorting activities (eg at kerbside and material recycling facilities)

  • processing activities (eg composting, paper, plastic, metal and waste electronic and electrical equipment recycling)

  • disposal activities (eg landfill).

Airborne dust and fumes from waste material may contain various metal, wood, plastics and chemical pollutants. Micro-organisms may grow quickly on organic wastes such as vegetation and food waste and become airborne (called bio-aerosols) when waste is collected and handled, especially when composted.

Dust and fumes can cause many long-term health problems including asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), bronchitis and emphysema.

The HSE has recently published a new research report on dust and bio-aerosol exposure at municipal waste handling sites, which actively warns that the collection, separation and composting of municipal waste generates organic dust and bio-aerosols which may cause occupational health problems if worker exposure is not effectively controlled.

Similarly, an article in the Annals of Work Exposures and Health, published by the British Occupational Hygiene Society (BOHS), recently highlighted a case of two young children who were poisoned by leadfrom their father’s work at an electronics recycling facility.

The father’s work activities — grinding up the lead glass from cathode ray tubes — did not expose him to enough lead to immediately affect the health of a grown man, but the lead dust that came home with him on his body and clothing quickly affected the health of his young daughter and son resulting in behavioural, developmental and learning difficulties in the children.

The authors of the Annals article also warned that workers who are most likely to be affected by these sort of “take-home exposures” in the waste and recycling sector are often and increasingly not only low income, but also in precarious employment situations, such as contractors and undocumented migrant workers.

Vulnerable workers and novel risks

The waste and recycling sector is not the only green business industry said to attract relatively higher numbers of casual, migrant or contracted workers.

A report by EU-OSHA on new and emerging risks associated with new technologies by 2020 has warned that wind farms have the potential to be very dangerous worksites. In the case of offshore sites, with large turbines in deep water, working sites are expected to become more widely dispersed and to have lower profit margins to pay for safety than the oil and gas industries.

Construction of offshore wind farms is also in itself hazardous and the sector is expected to face skill shortages as the wind sector competes with other technologies for qualified staff. In the case of wind farms located onshore, the Agency’s report points out that much of the maintenance work is contracted out, and that cost pressures may lead to increased risk-taking. Again, the report notes that many of the workers on these smaller wind farms are migrants with low skill levels and a poor occupational health and safety culture.

Although casual labour is also common in the construction industry, in the case of the green construction and building retrofitting sector, there are some positives. Off-site automated construction of modular buildings has improved onsite safety, as far fewer tasks are undertaken onsite.

Nevertheless, risks remain, eg in the connection of services (water and electricity) to prefabricated modules but, with correct designs, experts believe these should be negligible. However, as green building moves into larger settings, it is predicted that new risks will emerge as workers are exposed to novel substances.

Retrofitting of existing buildings could expose workers to increasing roof work as they install solar panels and smallscale wind turbines, with the risk of falls, as well as exposure to lead and asbestos as they disturb old structures.

As another example, small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) increasingly use their land to produce electricity as a sideline and may use their own workers, or subcontractors, to install or maintain their renewable energy systems ad hoc. Again, new risks will emerge — the workers may not be sufficiently skilled and trained in these types of jobs. The Agency’s report also highlights how the increasing adoption of solar panels has introduced new risks for emergency workers accessing roof spaces that remain live even after the mains supply has been cut.

Finally, the high pace of innovation in the green economy means that many environmentally friendly technologies haven't yet had the benefit of a full lifecycle analysis of related costs and burdens.

For example, as Hazards pointed out, while we are aware of the chronic diseases associated with coal mining and the potential health and waste headaches of nuclear power, the potential health risks associated with toxic materials used to make, say, solar panels or the batteries of electric vehicles are, as yet, less well known.

In a healthy economy, funds are more likely to be available to invest in occupational health and safety to make green infrastructure and business processes safe, but even in the context of strong economic growth, governments and employers will need to recognise the value of occupational health and safety — both in terms of its impact on profits and in keeping the workforce safe and healthy.