The last couple of years have been something of a watershed moment for renewable energies, and solar energy jobs in particular. As the price of fossil fuels have risen, the cost of renewable energy generation has fallen and production has ramped up. Renewable energy accounted for two-thirds of new power added to the world’s grids in 2016,
according to the most recent International Energy Agency report, as environmental and economic forces combined to make renewables an attractive proposition for public and private interests.
Among the many and varied sources of renewable energy – wind energy, hydropower, geothermal energy, and biomass energy – it has been solar power that has been the fastest and biggest driver of the sector’s rapid rise. There have been steady improvements in solar panel technology for years – both in their effectiveness and how much they cost to produce – which has turned an industry that was once viewed as too expensive to be viable, into the fastest growing energy source in the world. China is estimated to have installed
54 Gigawatts of solar power capacity in 2017, an amount about equal to the amount of electricity generated in Japan in the same year.
The increased interest and demand for solar energy means that there is an impressive inclination in solar energy jobs. More US workers are now employed in the solar industry than in generating electricity through oil, gas and coal combined,
according to a recent US energy and employment report. The same report projects solar to have the highest rate of growth in the energy industry. More and more people who used to work in the fossil fuel industries are moving to solar because they realize their skills are transferable. There is quite a lot of crossover in required skills and knowledge, but there are also things specific to the solar industry so it is important that workers get the proper training in their orientations.
Solar Energy Jobs
There are a variety of roles available to those looking to work in the solar industry. There are two main categories of jobs: Small-scale, or rooftop, projects that add panels to homes, offices and other buildings; and utility scale solar power farms that generate large amounts of electricity for the grid. Small-scale is experiencing strong growth, particularly in the US, as demand for installation of solar panels increases because of tax incentives and shrinking costs. Utility scale solar farms are taking off as well as advances in technology have increased efficiency. China is leading the way in the scale and ambition of these large scale solar farms. Much of the work in solar is related to construction, especially in large-scale projects where construction is the biggest single project component.
What needs to be included in a solar worker’s orientation
Many of the risks that workers in the solar energy industry face are similar to those in construction and other hard-hat industries. Workers who have previous experience in the coal or oil and gas industry are switching careers because they find that many of their skills are transferable. However, while some of the health and safety training is pretty general to the hard-hat industries, there are some specific hazards that must be addressed to ensure a safe workplace for all employees and contractors.
Train Workers to Avoid Slips, Trips and Falls
Slips, trips and falls are one of the major causes of injuries and fatalities, not just in solar or the hard-hat industries, but in all industries combined. In total there were 849 deaths caused by slips, trips and falls in the US in 2016, according to the
most recent figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Falls are a major concern in the solar industry, given that photovoltaics, or solar cells, are usually installed at a height. However, workers should be made aware that a fall from pretty much any height can result in injury. A solar worker orientation needs to include the correct procedures to follow to prevent injuries from falls:
- Evaluate the work site to identify potential hazards
- Identify and eliminate fall hazards
- Identify fall hazards that can’t be eliminated
- Use a guardrail system
- Use fall-restraint systems that stop falls from occurring
- Use fall-arrest systems like harnesses that prevent a worker from having a dangerous impact once a fall has occurred. The system use a harness and lanyards to arrest a person’s fall.
- Train workers how to use personal protection like fall-arrest and fall-restraint systems
It is also important that workers know what to do if an injury does occur as a result of a slip, trip or fall on the work site. There needs to be prior planning for how to deal with an emergency situation. The occasion of the emergency is not the time to develop a plan for how to deal with such a situation. Personal protection systems are vital and everyone should know what to do if there is an accident and a worker is left hanging in their harness because they may experience pressure on their arteries leading to unconsciousness and further injury.
Workers should be trained so that they can perform self-rescue, if that is a viable course of action. Workers should receive training on this subject because it can be difficult, especially considering that they are in a highly stressful and uncomfortable position. There should be procedures in place for the prompt rescue of workers trapped in harnesses. First aid kits should also be available in the event of a worker being injured.
Train Workers to Stay Safe in the Heat
Given that solar cells work best in hot and sunny climates, solar energy jobs usually require workers work to stay outdoors in very hot weather which can be dangerous. Heat-related illnesses can cause dehydration and even death. Workers need to be aware of the warning signs so that injuries and illnesses can be avoided.
OSHA lists some of the warning signs and symptoms that workers need to be made aware of in their orientation:
- Loss of consciousness
- Lack of sweating (usually) hot, dry skin, and
- Very high body temperature
Train Workers to Stay Safe with Electricity
Electrical hazards are a significant hazard in the solar energy jobs. Working in this sector has a lot of similarities with construction and other hard-hat industries but there should be even more of a focus on electrical safety given the risks. The first step in keeping your workers safe is to train them to identify and evaluate
the electrical hazards they may encounter on the work site:
- Overhead power lines
- Systems and tools that are not grounded or double-insulated
- Overloaded circuits
- Ladders that conduct electricity
- Hazards that could become worse if they are wet
- Power tools and equipment
Once potential hazards have been identified, they should be evaluated and as many eliminated as possible depending on the specific working conditions. Orientations should train workers how to handle electrical hazards.
A Lockout/Tagout procedure needs to be implemented to keep workers safe from electrical hazards caused by power tools and equipment. Workers should receive training in how to correctly and safely use power tools.
Specific details regarding solar energy jobs should be included. Workers need to be aware that the only way of turning off a solar power source is by removing its fuel i.e. the sun. Even a small amount of sunlight can produce voltage which can cause injury. This is possible even in low light situations so constant vigilance is required by workers. For example, a small but unexpected electrical shocks can cause a worker to slip from a ladder causing injury. Workers need to be trained to never disconnect photovoltaic connectors if they are under electrical load as this can result in an electrical arc which can cause severe burns.
How to Deal with Injuries Resulting from Electrical Hazards
Electrocution, burns, paralysis, convulsions, speech and vision problems can all be caused by electrical hazards. Workers should be trained so they know what to do in the event of an injury resulting from an electrical hazard. The power source should be shut off immediately, either by turning off the mains or covering solar panels with an opaque material. The injured person may still be in contact with a live electrical current so they should not be touched until you are sure the power source has been shut off. Stay with the victim until emergency services arrive and first aid and/or CPR should be administered if required by a trained individual.
The solar energy jobs have a bright future ahead of it as improvements in technology make solar cells cheaper and more efficient. It is now a viable and profitable sector. One of the biggest challenges solar faces is the skills shortage making it harder to find workers. It is important that standards in training and safety do not slip as solar continues to grow and more workers are hired to keep up with demand. Many workers are hired from the fossil fuel industries to work on utility scale solar farms. They have the advantage of having many transferable skills and knowledge of safety procedures. However, there are some hazards that are specific to solar and workers need to be made aware of these in their orientations to ensure a safe workplace for all.