A toxic environment for green workers

A member of the Advanced Home Energy team blows loose-fill cellulose insulation into an attic.

TEXT OF STORY

Kai Ryssdal: President Obama will have much to say in his State of the Union address tomorrow night on the topic of jobs. He will say we need more of them. And he's probably going to say that he's going to spend a lot of money to try to make that happen. The White House is already on the record with some of its jobs promises. The president is spending millions of dollars to create green jobs, making homes more energy-efficient. And not too long ago he announced more than $2 billion in grants for clean-tech manufacturing.

But Sarah Varney from KQED reports that green jobs are not necessarily clean ones.


SARAH VARNEY: The pricey enclave of Piedmont, Calif., is an island of green in the Oakland hills. Driveways are filled with Priuses; roofs topped with sparkling solar panels, and everyone, it seems, is cleaning out their attic.

Dvri BRAKHA: As you can see the insulation is moving up to the six-inch hose and going to a bag, a special bag designed for removing insulation.

Dvri Brakha, co-owner of Advanced Home Energy, stands next to a house that's in the midst of a green cleanse. Two of his workers -- wearing white plastic suits, booties, goggles and respirators -- are vacuuming out decades worth of dust, insulation, even mice droppings. After they're done, the workers here will pump in new insulation made from recycled blue jeans.

Mike Wilson directs U.C. Berkeley's Center for Green Chemistry.

MIKE Wilson: These are dirty jobs. They are often conducted in confined spaces with high levels of dust and in many cases, using adhesive materials that are volatile. That contain toxic substances.

This niche industry will likely grow, exposing more workers to hazards. Most states do mandate special procedures for removing asbestos and lead. But of the 80,000 chemicals used in commercial products, just a few hundred have been tested for their effects on human health. And the state and federal worker protection agencies don't have the staff to enforce even existing regulations.

Wilson: Jobs in the green economy are embedded in that system. And there's no doubt in my mind that we are going to see worker exposures and lack of compliance by employers simply because the enforcement mechanisms are so weak.

Green industry trade groups are keenly aware of worker safety. The number one cause of work-related deaths for construction workers is falls. And workers carrying heavy roof-top solar panels on pitched, slippery roofs have died falling off buildings and through skylights.

Workers are supposed to wear harnesses and other protective gear, says Sue Kateley, executive director of CALSEIA, a solar company trade association.

Sue KATELEY: I've had constant problems with people telling me that construction workers don't like wearing harnesses on the roof because it's not manly, and I'm saying, wear them anyway. It's almost you feel like it's working with people when they first had to learn how to put their kids in child seats.

SYLVESTER Hodges: We're trying to get rid of that attitude. The macho, "I don't have to put gloves on to do this, I'll just do it like this," or "I don't need to put my respirator on..."

Sylvester Hodges runs a green training program in a poor Oakland neighborhood where his students learn carpentry skills, and the values that started the green revolution in the first place. Still, there's a long way to go. Even greener materials, like the recycled blue jeans used to insulate attics, are routinely sprayed with flame retardants. There are some less toxic flame retardants, but the most commonly used accumulate in everything from human breast milk to shellfish.

In San Francisco, I'm Sarah Varney for Marketplace.

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