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Renewable energy sector presents unique work site hazards

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Renewable energy projects feature some of the same workplace safety risks as those existing at other work sites, but the unique nature of these projects can exacerbate these dangers, and safety experts are exploring new standards and solutions to mitigate these risks, experts say.

Fatal incidents in the renewable energy sector appear to be relatively rare in the United States, according to government statistics. Five workers in the solar, wind, geothermal and biomass electric power generation industries died in the workplace over the 2012-2016 period, per data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Four out of the five fatal injuries were caused by falls, while the other was attributed to a motor vehicle accident.

Employees working in the renewable energy sector encounter some of the same risks as those in other industries, such as falls, confined space hazards, fires and electrical currents, but the particular characteristics of these projects, such as the height of wind turbines, may increase the vulnerabilities of the workers, experts say.

“There are a lot of issues when you have someone 200-plus feet in the air,” said Scott Lassila, Houston-based managing consultant with Aon P.L.C. “Fall protection is a big issue. Once they’re up and running, people are climbing ladders, they’re in a confined area.”

“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.”

Hartford Financial Services Group Inc. outlines several key safety considerations for solar energy projects on its website, including the lifting and handling of solar energy panels, the type and size of ladders and scaffolding, fall protection for rooftop work and personal protective equipment for each installer.

“You don’t have the falls at the height that you would with a windmill, but the electrical issues are still there,” Mr. Lassila said, adding that solar panel connections are now being installed closer to the ground compared with 10 to 15 years ago, when the standard practice was to install those connections at higher levels. “From a safety perspective, it’s what can we do to better this project from the start more so than as an afterthought.”

Existing U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulations such as the agency’s fall protection standard and OSHA’s lockout/tagout standard, which addresses the unexpected energization and startup of machinery, do apply to these projects, experts say. Fall protection and lockout/tagout violations are generally in the top five cited violations every year, according to OSHA.

“Even though these are emerging industries, the hazards are hazards that have already existed, so the OSHA standards have been in place,” Ms. Morady said. “These are standards that have been drafted and been enforced by OSHA for years and years.”

“If you look at the requirements that OSHA has for electric power transmission and distribution under the general industry, the hazards are really the same, but there are nuances within the actual activities going on,” Mr. Lassila said. “OSHA is the minimum guideline, and a lot of the companies I’ve dealt with are going somewhat above and beyond what’s actually in the standard as it applies to electrical generation, transmission, distribution, falls, lockout/tagout, crane safety.”

The American Society of Safety Professionals in conjunction with the American National Standards Institute last week launched the first U.S. industry consensus standard written specifically for the construction and demolition of wind turbines. The standard establishes minimum requirements for protecting workers involved in the construction and demolition of a utility-scale, land-based wind turbine, including setting requirements for site hazard identification and the equipment used, in addition to detailing steps employers must take during training to help prevent worker injuries and fatalities.

“I think this new industry standard is going to be really helpful because it just helps raise the awareness within the industry so that employers are on notice about hazards they might not have thought of before,” Ms. Morady said.

The standard calls for contractors to develop a site-specific plan that addresses the safety concerns of working in a remote location, including lack of emergency response, unreliable communication networks and environmental issues such as weather and wildlife. Contractors must also evaluate wind turbine hazards such as unguarded moving parts and exposed electrical components. The standard contains requirements for cranes and rigging used during the construction process and identifies qualifications for crane operators, riggers and signal workers.

“We had a hard time evaluating those risks,” said Tim Fisher, director of standards development and technical services for the American Society of Safety Professionals in Park Ridge, Illinois. “The one thing the standard does that is important is that it forces a planning program. I don’t think it really existed here in the U.S.”

The standard took about nine years to write, compared with the more typical four years, as technology changes slowed down the process, as did the need to gather and incorporate as much stakeholder input as possible, he said.

Standards are generally revisited every five years, but this one will be re-examined in about 18 months to incorporate additional fall protection provisions and measures to protect the public such as barricades and access to the sites, as well as new technological advances such as drones, Mr. Fisher said.

“If we’re talking about renewable energy and wind turbines, because of the height of that equipment, drones can be easily used for pre-assessment, maintenance, evaluation,” he said. “As the technology gets better, you may even be able to have them do some of the rough tasks such as painting.”