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Many homeowners plan to retrofit their home to save their electricity bill, but green retrofits, if not planned properly, will cause safety hazards to both the builder and the owner.

Retrofitting existing buildings to achieve better energy efficiency has been considered one of the effective strategies to reduce carbon emissions and achieve energy saving targets. Many governments provide incentive for homeowners to undertake energy efficient green retrofits. For example, the home insulation program in Australia, the Green Deals in the UK, and the Weatherization Assistance Program in the USA. These incentives induce many homeowners to undergo retrofitting works to save energy usage.

Green jobs are not necessarily safe jobs. On the contrary, green jobs may be more dangerous than traditional jobs because green jobs involve hidden hazards that are not yet known to the industry practitioners and the public. Existing occupational health and safety legislation may not be adequate to regulate green jobs. Green retrofits may require a combination of skills related to construction works.

For example, the installation of a solar hot water system would require the skills of a roofer, an electrician and a plumber. This sector also easily attracts unskilled workers as jobs are small in scale. With an ever-increasing volume of green retrofits in the construction industry, inherent safety risks should not be neglected.

Safety hazards involved in green retrofits have been overlooked. The primary focus of green retrofit research is on finding the right technology for optimal energy saving. Previous research investigated the risks of green retrofits but safety risks were not included. Evidence shows that green retrofits if not handled properly, could cause deaths.

Insulation is one of the most popular green retrofits. It is noteworthy that insulation work often involves working in dangerous places like the roof cavity and attic. Insulation can consist of different materials such as fibreglass, cellulose, reflective foil and rigid foam. Very often, homeowners and even insulation installers are not fully aware of the safety and health impacts of installing insulation.

For example, fibreglass insulation is the most popular green retrofits in the US, accounting for 48 per cent of the insulation market share in the country in 2014. However, fibreglass insulation may cause irritation to skin, lung and eyes. Reflective foil is a safe insulation material, but inappropriate installation processes can cause electrocution to the installer and fire risks in the retrofitted home.

In 2009 and 2010, four young insulation installers, aged between 16 and 25, died when they were doing insulation work induced by the Home Insulation Program. Three of them died because of electrocution and another one died because of heat stress. Insulation work for existing houses is not as simple as one may think. The ceiling cavity is a confined space with many unknowns and is poorly ventilated. Metal staples should not have been used to fix reflective foil, but there was no proper supervision and training for the insulation installers. These incidents would have been avoided had there been better safety awareness of insulation works for existing houses.

There’s no doubt that green retrofits contribute to better home energy efficiency. However, the safety risks of green retrofits need to be evaluated before the project starts. Next time you consider retrofitting your house for better energy efficiency, don’t forget to consider safety.

 
  • The original version of this article incorrectly stated that 'fibreglass insulation is cancer causing'. This is incorrect, and the article has been updated to reflect those facts. I apologizes for the inconvenience caused.

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