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Grad Helps Make Green Buildings Safe for Workers

Researcher Develops Tool to Integrate Safety Into Design

Mohamed Omar
Mohamed Omar, a 2011 Work Environment graduate, conducted research on the safety of green building features.

By Karen Angelo

Green buildings are intended to do good – conserve energy, protect the environment and improve the health of occupants. But some green systems are putting people who install and maintain them in harms way, says a research study conducted by Work Environment graduate Mohamed Omar. 

“We found that many of the green buildings that house these systems were not designed with workers in mind,” says Omar, a Lowell resident who works as an environmental management engineer at Harvard University’s Office of Environmental Health, Safety and Emergency Management. “Unfortunately, in the rush to go green, safety is often overlooked.”

Working with his adviser Prof. Margaret Quinn, Omar found an increased risk of occupational safety and health hazards for five common green building features –  geothermal wells, green roofs, rainwater harvesting systems, energy recovery wheels and 
natural light percolating systems.

His findings showed that workers could slip from unguarded rooftops or fall through skylights not designed to support the weight of a person. Some of the systems were installed in confined spaces, trapping technicians or forcing them to work in awkward positions that can increase the risk of slips, falls and musculoskeletal strain injuries. 

But the study has an upside. Many of the hazards could be eliminated in the design phase. 

“Green should be safe and safe should be green,” says Omar who in June defended his thesis on integrating health and safety into the design, commissioning and operation of green buildings certified by the U.S. Green Building Council Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system. 

Omar developed a new rating tool that fits in with the LEED system, making it easy for architects to integrate safety into green building features. 

“Mohamed’s research is important because there are increasing case reports of occupational injuries and fatalities associated with green building technologies,” says Quinn. “He evaluated the impact of green buildings on the health and safety of the people who operate and maintain them and then developed a new rating tool and scoring system that can be used by architects and engineers so they can anticipate and eliminate these hazards in the design phase – before the building is constructed and hazards are built in for the lifetime of the building.”