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May 9, 2019
High performance & sustainability, Safety, Environmental

Construction work ranks among the most dangerous jobs in America. As such, preventative safety plans and OSHA requirements are critical to our success. However, traditional safety measures are focused on daily task hazards and high-risk activities, while other subtle dangers lurk on every jobsite, often going undetected until the effects show up 20-30 years later.

Net Zero trailer
Pepper's Net Zero trailer produces the amount of energy it consumes.

Last week, we had the privilege of speaking at the Living Future Unconference in Seattle. Living Future is a source of inspiration when it comes to creating a lasting impact through the built environment.

Our session was titled, "Construction Jobsites are Workplaces Too: Considering the Health of Those Who Occupy Buildings Before Turnover," and in it, we addressed a topic that is starting to come up more and more across our industry - air quality. For us, this wasn't just a presentation; it was a call to action. Over the past year, we've put a lot of energy into improving the environmental conditions in which we ask our teams to work. After all, just because it's a construction site, it shouldn't mean our employees and trade partners should lower their expectations about working conditions. Our Net Zero trailer is one of our strategies, but it only addresses the project office. To make a bigger difference in our industry, we have to consider the health of our most prominent workplaces - our construction sites - which still have room to improve. 

Learning from the past

In the first part of our talk, we set the stage with an overview of historical safety measures, as depicted in the timeline below. We've come a long way!

Timeline of historical safety measures
Timeline of historical safety measures

We also shared the environmental hazards we deal with today because of past decisions and unknowns. Pepper Environmental Technologies is charged with addressing the worst conditions on our jobsites. From our experience, we shared the realities of some of the most dangerous materials, where they're found, how frequently we come across them and how they are addressed. We have situations in which we have to remove hazardous products that could affect end users. However, to do so, somebody has to physically remove it. Workers can be exposed to inhalation, ingestion and dermal exposures during removal.

Engaging the design community in safety planning

The diagram below is the model our safety team follows when developing safety plans, where the most effective activities eliminate the hazards rather than simply protecting workers from the hazards. Our industry has been very good about implementing policies designed to keep our workforce safe. Typically, our safety measures can effectively address the first three or four steps. However, through various measures we've taken at Pepper, we've come to realize that when it comes to air quality, no amount of protection will completely erase all exposure to every hazard. It's just not enough with particulates small enough to penetrate the skin.

Diagram of safety controls

So instead, our next step is to create awareness in our industry, and particularly among the design community, about what hazards can't be eliminated through our current safety plans. We want to form closer partnerships with the design community and trades in support of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health's (NIOSH) Prevention through Design (PtD) initiative, which was specifically created to: "prevent and control occupational injuries, illnesses, and fatalities through the inclusion of prevention considerations in all designs that impact workers." 

As such, we see the biggest opportunity for prevention with the materials that are specified by designers. The more our industry references Living Building Challenge Red List-free materials and other healthy materials databases, the better for our workforce. It won't be easy, but it will be well worth the effort.

Living Future was a first step in what we hope is the start of a fruitful conversation about creating a healthier construction workplace. If you are interested in learning more or would like to join the conversation, we encourage you to contact us.

About the Authors

Mike Grant

Mike GrantVice President, Pepper Environmental Technologies

As the lead manager for Pepper Environmental Technologies, Mike brings to the team his 20 years of experience and expertise with a variety of environmental technologies. Mike provides the team with environmental consultation and conducts OSHA compliance training that includes confined space hazards, asbestos awareness, and respiratory projection programs.

Daniel Ruane

Daniel Ruane, CSP, CHSTVice President of Safety, Illinois and Wisconsin

Dan has 19 years of experience as a safety professional in the construction industry. In his role as vice president of safety, Dan is responsible for planning, implementation and maintenance of Pepper's safety training programs. He is involved in pre-planning of projects to ensure all safety and health concerns are addressed and conducts regular project safety audits.

Dan is actively involved in promoting safety in the industry. He serves as chairman of the Builders Association (AGC Chicago Branch) Safety and Health Committee and is a member of the American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE). He speaks at several events throughout the year including quarterly forums and the spring summit/safety awards ceremony. Dan holds a Bachelor of Science in Occupational Safety and Health from Illinois State University, and he is a Certified Safety Professional (CSP) and Construction Health and Safety Technician (CHST).

Susan Heinking

Susan Heinking, AIA, NCARB, LEED FellowSenior Vice President, High Performance and Sustainable Construction

A licensed architect and LEED Fellow, Susan has 20 years of experience designing and managing sustainability programs and initiatives within the built environment. Susan leads the High Performance and Sustainable Construction Division at Pepper Construction Group. She applies design to action by providing tools to evaluate investments, lower costs, and achieve sustainability goals for her clients. She also designs and implements innovative solutions for the construction industry, such as the Net Zero jobsite trailer that debuted at Greenbuild 2018 and the Building Performance Tool application that quickly analyzes the ROI of design and constructability options. She is the driving force behind Pepper’s companywide carbon drawdown program, inspired by Paul Hawkins’ work "Drawdown," working towards decarbonizing the construction industry. In addition, she is currently focused on leading Pepper’s Environment, Social and Governance (ESG) initiative.

Susan is an active advocate for sustainability in Chicago and other regional markets. She has initiated and participated in many influential projects and groups, such as Chicago’s Energy Benchmarking Ordinance, the AIA2030 Chicago Working Group, Chicago’s AIA COTE, RETROFIT Chicago, the Chicago Biomimicry Group, the Illinois Green Alliance Board of Directors and the Associated General Contractors of America Environmental Steering Committee.

Currently, she serves on the Illinois Energy Conservation Advisory Council, where she uses her technical expertise in commercial buildings to advocate for energy efficiency to develop a new stretch energy code for the State. She also serves on the board of Turning Point, an organization that supports domestic violence survivors in McHenry County.

Susan holds a Master of Architecture degree from the University of Oregon and is a frequent speaker at national sustainable conventions.

Read more about Susan's accomplishments.