Learning to LEED? Jennifer Law guides us through the ups and downs of green, sustainable and ergonomic design.

MY first encounter with ‘green’ ergonomics was around 2007 when I met with a local furniture dealer to review some of their new office products. As I toured their showroom they were using terms like Cradle-to-Cradle to describe keyboard trays, Greenguard for chairs, and daylighting in new workspace layouts. What did these words mean? After doing a quick internet search to learn more, I was led to other sites that referenced sustainability and LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environment Design). Then there were more questions. What was the difference between green and sustainable? How would this affect the very basic goal of ergonomic design; to improve the comfort, productivity, efficiency and wellbeing of employees?

Therefore aside from obvious desk components that affect user posture and comfort, the surrounding environment is just as important. Decades of related scientific research has shown that certain environmental conditions, specifically in workplace settings, can either positively or negatively affect our minds and bodies as a whole. This includes but is not limited to light, air quality, temperature, noise, and color.

The U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) was founded in 1993 as a non-profit organization that promotes sustainability in building design, construction, and operation. The USGBC developed the LEED Green Building Rating System that provides third-party verification of green buildings from commercial to residential, retail, healthcare, schools and neighborhoods. In addition, through its partnership with Green Business Certification Inc. (GBCI), USGBC offers a suite of LEED professional accreditation that denotes expertise in the field of green building. Projects may earn one of four levels of LEED certification. The current point system is as follows: Certified = 40-49 points, Silver = 50-59 points, Gold = 60-79 points, Platinum = 80 -110 points.

Office Ergonomics Assessment Software

With LEED being widely used across industries, several studies explored whether the needs of building users were being met with respect to office layout, lighting, temperature and acoustics. For this reason, the USGBC recognized the need for an enhanced focus on the building occupants.

In March 2012, a formal pilot credit (Pilot Credit 44) was developed to recognize ergonomics. The intent of this credit was to provide 1 point towards LEED certification for the incorporation of an ergonomics strategy during the design process.

Adding an ergonomics requirement to the LEED system was a vital yet natural extension because the overall goal is the same – designing the workplace to accommodate its users’ health, wellbeing and productivity. There were even indications of harmony between the traditional LEED categories and ergonomics credit. For example, a basic desk chair may be replaced with an ergonomic task chair constructed with a percentage of recycled material, thereby contributing to both occupant comfort/health and environmental sustainability efforts.

On April 2, 2015, The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) announced its recognition of LEED. Participation in NIOSH’s Prevention through Design (PtD) activities became available as a possible 1 point LEED Pilot Credit towards LEED certification. PtD addresses occupational safety and health needs by eliminating hazards and minimizing risks to workers throughout the life cycle of work premises, tools, equipment, machinery, substances, and work processes including their construction, manufacture, use, maintenance, and ultimate disposal or re-use. The ASSE/ANSI Z590.3 Prevention through Design Guidelines was first published in 2011 to address occupational hazards and risks in design and redesign processes.

Since then, the USGBC and NIOSH have worked to recognize and support high-performance, cost-effective employee safety and health outcomes across the building life-cycle through early attention to safety and health hazards. Many U.S. companies openly support PtD concepts and have enhanced their management practices to implement them.

Jennifer Law CPE, Growing Green Places

As of January 2016, the LEED Ergonomics Pilot Credit 44 was refined yet again to specifically address “computer users”, defined as full time equivalent staff that utilize a computer for more than 50% of their workday. The new requirements entail applicants to engage an ergonomist or health and safety specialist to assist in the development of an ergonomics strategy to include reviews of design options, mock-ups and user feedback. This would be followed by one year of tracking the performance of the strategy to ensure all goals were met in order to obtain 1 possible point towards LEED certification. The goals include meeting the standards/guidelines of HFES, ANSI, ISO, or CSA.

Recognizing that green or sustainable does not always necessarily mean comfortable or safe, was a pivotal element in this guideline. For example, sustainable wood flooring may earn LEED points, but if its Slip Index is under 0.2, it will increase the risk of slips and falls while also preventing an office chair’s casters from staying in place as desired. No matter how environmentally responsible the product, if it does not uphold the best practices for human interaction and performance, it will have little value. As stated in the Pilot Credit 44 description, the intent is, “To improve occupant well-being (human health, sustainability and performance) through integration of ergonomics principles, specifically in the design of work spaces for all computer users”.

Between OSHA, HSE, ISO, ANSI, BIFMA, etc., adding the LEED element seems like just another guideline in which to adhere. Plus there is still controversy as to whether green buildings are truly more energy efficient and cost effective. Various research has found conflicting results; especially if participants can pick and choose the easiest points to take the cheapest road to certification. Therefore it is best for each organization to carefully weigh the benefits and drawbacks of implementing a LEED program and to determine the intended returns. It may depend on the company’s values – similar to one’s personal reasons for eating the more expensive organic vegetables versus the affordable conventional varieties.

Others may be driven by energy savings, water preservation, social responsibility, human health or all of the above.

Regardless of the intended impact, LEED will certainly plant the seed of environmental quality improvement within a building; if not raise awareness of environmentally responsible choices if that is part of the end goal. From an occupant health and safety perspective, it could spare some office employees from headaches resulting from wall paint emissions containing VOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds) and save others from tripping over recycling bins placed in unfavourable locations which had not been considered in the design process.

Therefore if the root of LEED programs is to cover the same goal of occupant comfort, health, and wellbeing while also branching out to make environmentally responsible choices for your company, perhaps the green concept may grow on you.

Ergonomic Risk Magazine

This article appears in the Fall/Winter edition of our magazine, Cardinus Connect. It features loads of great articles on ergonomics, including articles on monitor height, home workers and even Pokémon GO. You can download our free magazine here.

Jennifer Law is a Certified Professional Ergonomist and a Vice President of Marsh’s Workforce Strategies Practice. You can find her on LinkedIn here.


  • http://www.asse.org/prevention-through-design-given-leed-pilot-credit/?pg=2
  • http://www.usgbc.org/credits/preventionthroughdesign
  • http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/programs/PtDesign/
  • http://www.asse.org/professionalaffairs/ptd/
  • Attaianese, E. (2014) Human factors in design of sustainable buildings. Retrieved from 5th International Conference on Applied Human Factors and Ergonomics.
  • Parsons, K.C. (2000) Environmental ergonomics: A review of principles, methods and models. Retrieved from Applied Ergonomics (6):581-94.
  • Rodea, A., Mercado, L. (2014) Ergonomics, environment and sustainability. Retrieved from 5th International Conference on Applied Human Factors and Ergonomics.
  • Vink, P. (2014) The sweetness of discomfort. Retrieved from Inaugural Address, Dept of Industrial Design and Engineering, Delft University of Technology.
  • http://www.safetybok.org/integrating_ergonomics__sustainability/
  • http://tg.hfes.org/edtg/about.html
  • Lynch, M. (2014) Achieving LEED credit for ergonomics: Laying the foundation. Retrieved from Work, 49:401-410.
  • http://ergo.human.cornell.edu/cuergousgbc.html
  • http://www.usgbc.org/node/5764637?return=/pilotcredits/all/v4
  • The Problems with LEED – The Project for LEAN Urbanism – http://leanurbanism.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/Orr-LEED.pdf
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