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Liability Implications of Lighting for Health
A recent report from Guidehouse Insights on healthy buildings hardware for the post-COVID era noted that some building owners are reluctant to invest in technologies focused on occupant health out of fear that doing so would imply that they are responsible for preventing disease transmission on their premises and create a liability to do so. Such concerns are not unfounded—throughout the pandemic, legal experts and lawmakers have grappled with liability issues, which are not entirely resolved.
Although the COVID-19 pandemic has brought this topic to the forefront, it has broader relevance for healthy buildings technologies, particularly lighting, well beyond the current public health situation. As the lighting industry increasingly promotes the use of lighting technologies to enhance the health of building occupants, it needs to consider the potential liability of the professionals that design and specify lighting solutions.
Light and Health
Laboratory studies have clearly demonstrated that light influences humans’ circadian rhythms, daily fluctuations of bodily functions, such as sleep, appetite, body temperature, and hormone production. In simple terms, when light stimulates certain cells in the eyes, called intrinsically sensitive retinal ganglion cells (ipRGCs), the production of the hormone melatonin, which regulates the sleep-wake cycle, is suppressed. The importance of circadian rhythms extends well beyond a single night of sleep—disrupted circadian rhythms have been associated with a range of health problems, including cancer, cardiovascular disease, and mood disorders, among many others.
Lighting for Circadian Health
Modern lighting and control technologies have enabled the development of lighting systems to facilitate healthy circadian rhythms of building occupants. The general idea is to stimulate ipRGCs early in the day, to foster alertness, and to avoid stimulating them later in the day, to promote sleep.
Although there is a dominant design standard for circadian lighting, the matter of how to best implement circadian-supporting lighting is far from settled. In fact, there are multiple competing approaches to measuring the circadian effects of lighting, research on how electric lighting affects occupant health is ongoing, and experts disagree about whether our understanding of the topic is sufficiently advanced to be put into practice.
Evolving Technologies Lead to Liability Concerns
These technical impediments are not the only barriers to the widespread adoption of circadian lighting. Some lighting designers and engineers worry that specifying circadian-tuning lighting systems may make them liable for the health outcomes of building occupants. Lighting designers accept responsibility for the visual safety of the illuminated environments they create—that is a key part of their job—but it’s within the scope of their expertise. An excellent article that touched on this issue noted that lighting designers are expected to be “amateur biologists.” However, lighting designers are professionals, not amateurs. That matters.
The lighting community needs to address the ethical and legal implications of this new dimension of lighting. A starting point may be broad agreement on the aims, scope, and limitations of architectural lighting for health. This may lead to training/certification programs to equip lighting professionals with the skills and knowledge to confidently design or specify circadian-tuning lighting systems, indemnification agreements, and other more creative strategies for ensuring that innovative approaches to lighting for health can be pursued responsibly. This will require cooperation between professional associations, government bodies, and industry stakeholders, much like the collaborations that facilitated the successful commercialization of solid-state lighting. The widespread adoption of LEDs for general illumination was not solely due to advances in technology but also numerous initiatives that addressed a range of market barriers. An equally broad approach is needed to support lighting for health.