Billed by many energy industry watchdogs as a clean energy revolution, the United States saw a 100% increase from 2000 to 2018, making renewable energy the fastest growing energy source in the country.
The US Energy Administration anticipates most new planned US utility-scale electricity generating capacity additions in 2021 will be powered by renewable energy.
In our research, we discovered that almost 55,000 megawatts (MW) of new wind and 45,000 MW of new solar is slated to be installed between 2020 and 2030 just to maintain pace with state renewable portfolio standard requirements alone.
And with the predicted rise in renewable energy use comes the reality that renewable energy workplace accidents and mishaps will go up right along with the demand for clean energy alternatives.
Although the energy source is different, workers who are part of the US renewable energy sector are susceptible to many of the same hazards posed by traditional energy and construction sites.
The good news for employers, workers, and members of the public who depend on renewable energy is that, at least compared to worker safety for jobs related to fossil fuels, the renewable energy industry is considered substantially safer.
Pelsue looks to use our nearly 60 years of expertise to give you a guide to workplace safety best practices spanning several industries. In our last blog, we focused on Workplace Safety for the Wastewater Industry. Here, we’ll focus on the renewable energy sector of the utilities industry.
The goal of this guide is to help you understand the different hazards utilities workers face on the job so that you can confidently identify them and take steps to prevent or mitigate them in your workplace.
How Does the Renewable Energy Industry Measure Up when it Comes to Workplace Safety?
In 2019, renewable energy sources accounted for about 11% of total US energy consumption and about 17% of electricity generation. That same year, the U.S. Energy Employment Report stated that over 600,000 people worked in zero-emission technology industries, including renewables and nuclear in the U.S. Since that time, it is estimated that the sector now employs more than 3 million people in the U.S.
Included as part of the renewable energy utilities sector are solar, wind, water, geothermal, bio-energy, and nuclear energy.
Some of the most common hazards faced by workers in the renewable energy sector include falls, confined space injuries, electrical, and fire.
With global averages in energy-related deaths significantly higher than in the US— biomass at 24,000, rooftop solar at 440, and wind at 150 per thousand terawatt hour (TWh)—we should note that a majority of the US worker-related deaths from solar, wind, geothermal, biomass, and electric power generation industries over the 2012-2016 period were caused by falls. Hydropower reported 1,400 deaths per TWh with nuclear showing 90 death per TWh.
How to Check to Make Sure Your Energy Workplace is Safe
Knowing what to look out for in your work environment is critical for mitigating risk and increasing worker safety, no matter the environment. As an industry leader in the design and manufacturing of customized solutions, Pelsue is committed to enabling safe and productive work environments. This blog continues to explore both the potential dangers and safety solutions to enable you to establish a culture of safety.
Not surprisingly, falls are a major workplace hazard, especially for the more than 120,000 US workers who choose wind-powered careers in this growing renewable energy sector. Wind turbine technicians and solar installers oftentimes find themselves on lifts and cranes several stories high, be it at a wind farm or an industrial or residential site.
In the case of wind farms, you can imagine that with the average height of a turbine being upward of 280 feet, fall prevention and protection is a must, especially when you factor in high winds and bad weather.
“One of the biggest challenges with these industries is their location,” said Ilana Morady, a San Francisco-based associate at Seyfarth Shaw L.L.P. “Medical and first aid can be a challenge because wind turbines are often located in really remote areas. You have issues when someone is injured making sure that first aid is available and that emergency responders can access the site and get there quickly.”
While not quite as elevated, trips and falls are commonplace for workers at solar installation jobsites, especially where roofs and ladders are concerned. Not to mention, the more panels are installed as a job progresses, the less workspace is available to stand on safely, increasing the risk of slips and spills.
When it comes down to it, those working at great heights (or any height above 6 feet off the ground) should be protected from falls using guardrail systems, safety net systems, and personal fall arrest systems.
Large equipment, such as cranes, should be constructed safely and maintained only to be operated by qualified and licensed workers.
Most importantly, workers should be trained properly, made aware of the dangers they may be exposed to, and informed of the correct and proper emergency response protocol, including first aid, especially for workers located in remote areas who may not have quick or easy access to a hospital.
Think green jobs offer safer workspaces than others? Solar energy workers, especially, are vulnerable to the danger of electrocution and arc flash hazards and face increased risks when hooking up solar panels to an electric circuit.
It’s also critical for workers in the field to pay attention to overhead power lines, being careful to remain at least 10 feet away due to their extremely high voltage in order to prevent or reduce the risk of electrocution and death. While preventing such a fatality ranks at the top of the workplace safety list, workers who receive a lower-dosage unanticipated jolt of electricity can still find themselves suffering from severe burns and falls from elevated heights.
Workers also must remain vigilant were their tools and equipment are concerned to ensure they do not make contact with power lines.
Like any other construction site, renewable energy employees face the same dangers as others who work in confined spaces.
Confined spaces are considered large enough for workers to enter and perform jobs, but not necessarily designed for people with limited or restricted means for entry or exit. In the case of a renewable energy workspace, a confined space may contain unguarded machinery, live wires, poor ventilation, or heat stress.
The resulting hazards may include poor air quality, hazards from asphyxiants, chemical exposure, fire hazard, radiation, electrical, collapse, water barrier, and biological.
In confined spaces, hoists and SRLs (self-retracting lifelines) are essential in saving lives in the event a rescue is needed, or if a fall occurs. Proper ventilation, too, is vital when working in a confined space because we need to be able to breathe clean air vs. harmful air that may contain hazardous levels of toxic gases, dust, and other risky particles. It’s important for workers to utilize a gas monitor anytime they are posed to enter a confined space in order to test the air then detect and alarm when there are dangerous levels of oxygen or combustible and toxic gases. Workers should also have access to either an axial or centrifugal blower based on workplace space dimensions and location specifics.
A major hazard to the biomass industry is the chance of fire due to steam, pressure, heat, dust, and electricity that come with the job. It’s critical that workers properly and carefully dispose of what is typically referred to as a “hot load” of municipal solid waste as it could mean that there is some level of thermal activity. When these loads are unintentionally or improperly disposed of into an energy from waste (EFW) incineration facility, the risk of fire increases.
To prevent the occurrence of fire in this situation or at any renewable energy workplace site, it’s always best to have mitigation plans in place to be followed by all workers coming into or working within a facility or at a job site. However, in the case where something goes wrong, it’s imperative that employers make sure workers have accessibility to proper personal protective gear such as respirators and protective wear like hard hats and helmets, hearing protection, safety glasses, and clothing built to protect against heat and steam.
Another measure that should be taken seriously by all members of the team is having an evacuation plan in place in the event a plant is knocked offline due to lightning strike, fire, or any other emergency situation that may result in loss of power.
If you don’t already have one, create your own Emergency Action Plan using OSHA’s Expert System.
Additional Workplace Safety Tips Keep Renewable Energy Workers Safe on the Job
In addition to making sure your organization has a corporate safety plan and a job-site safety checklist in place, OSHA offers recommendations and descriptions of mandatory safety and health standards covering a wide range of renewable energy or green job hazards commonly found in workplaces.
OSHA also recommends the renewable energy sector consider implementing what The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health refers to as PTD or “Prevention through Design.”
Pelsue believes that workplace safety should be a priority within the renewable energy sector of the utilities industry and every other industry. Taking a proactive approach to injury prevention and treatment, such as making sure workers receive proper training ahead of entering a work zone and are using the right tools and equipment the right way, demonstrates a strong commitment to the well-being of your organization’s most valuable resource—your employees.
Pelsue has manufactured various forms of equipment offering safety to the workers in the field with renewable energy workplace safety in mind.
Our goal at Pelsue is to help you get the job done safely!