The U.S. Green Building Council announced a new pilot credit related to worker safety.

Worker safety should trump potential liability issues when it comes to sustainability and design.

Almost five years ago, John Gambatese, professor in the School of Civil and Construction Engineering at Oregon State University, wrote in ENR that there was a blind spot in sustainable design practice when it came to worker safety and health.

"Tremendous focus is placed on materials, energy and the environment, but designers typically give little, if any, consideration to the safety and health of the people who install the green features or build the projects," he argued at the time.

Recently, the U.S. Green Building Council, working together with the National Institute of Occupational Safety & Health, took a small but important step forward by providing an incentive for designers to consider construction and operational worker safety during the design phase of buildings.

The incentive takes the form of a pilot credit in USGBC's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design rating system. The pilot credit describes and promotes a cross-disciplinary "safety design review." It also provides a list of systems to consider, such as roofs. Designers may  try to reduce fall hazards by installing a parapet wall or a guard rail, or by specifying non-fragile glass for skylights.

Construction workers, specifically, may be protected by a safety constructability review envisioned by the pilot credit. A possible outcome could include a decision to use steel columns that arrive on site with pre-drilled holes for insertion of fall protection lines. Another possible outcome could be a decision to fabricate off-site components at ground level to minimize falls.

Batya Metalitz, USGBC's technical director for LEED ratings, says that designers commonly have four to five pilot or education credits available to them above the standard 100 points in LEED. Safety now becomes one of them.

Separate from LEED and ratings, the idea of prevention through design in the past has been controversial among engineers.

In 2011, an article in one of the American Society of Civil Engineer's own journals stated that ASCE withdrew support for and broke ties to a Prevention Through Design committee after ASCE staff and board members became more concerned about liability issues.

But there are good reasons to press forward with the effort. Christine Branche, director of NIOSH's Office of Construction Safety and Health, says construction, operations and maintenance workers are at risk for injury and death in all phases of a building's life cycle. "Given the growing importance of rating systems in new and renovation construction in the United States, including the safety of workers in a credit is a critical step in the right direction."

After a year, USGBC will review the pilot credits to decide if they will remain available.

Now is a good time to keep in mind worries about expanded liability but not allow the concerns to sidetrack a higher purpose. The practical details of liability will require designers to ask insurers to provide policy coverage for the potentially increased exposures. No matter what happens, we look forward to LEED evaluating the program and if it succeeds awarding even more rating points for prevention through design. Worker safety and health should always be part of the sustainability equation.