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Safety culture put to the test in growing solar industry

Time pressures, inclement weather, lack of certification can’t impede safety
By Amanda Silliker
| Canadian Occupational Safety

On Oct. 19, 2017, a 60-year-old man was installing solar panels on the roof of a two-storey house in New York City. He was testing the anchors installed to hold the panels when he fell off the roof and died.

“He was up there yanking on it to make sure it was secure and he came off the roof,” Gary Padgett, a retired construction worker, who lives across the street, told the New York Daily News. “He wasn’t attached. There was nothing on the roof to tie to... Nothing would have happened to him if he’d been tied on. Nothing. It’s such a shame. I stood over here, I watched him die right there.”

Photovoltaic systems, also known as PV systems or solar power systems, come with a wide variety of hazards that all installers must understand, especially as the green industry continues to ramp up across Canada. In 2013, installations of solar electricity systems grew by nearly 60 per cent over the previous year, and the total value of industry sales was nearly $1.5 billion, up from $1 billion in 2012, according to the Canadian Solar Industries Association (CanSIA). Ontario is one of the top 20 solar electricity markets in the world and Alberta’s solar industry has grown by five times since 2015. By 2020, solar electricity will employ around 10,000 people per year in Canada, says CanSIA.

Since the solar industry is fairly new, one challenge employers might face is creating a strong culture of safety. A lot of workers are coming in from other industries, such as oil and gas, and are assuming the work will be similar. Although the nature of solar work is high risk, there is a general misconception among installers that they can’t get hurt, says Ben Scipione, director of health and safety at Paramount Safety Consulting in Hamilton.

“They think it’s not required to have any health and safety,” he says. “We have worked on many projects where people had a different mindset when it came to safety — they were reactive versus being proactive.”

There is also the concern that sometimes small business owners (which dominate the solar installation space) use the excuse that they can’t afford safety training, or they simply don’t think it’s necessary because they never got hurt on the job.

“But an injury is an injury. A fatality is a fatality — it doesn’t consider the size of the company,” says Scipione, who acknowledges that some small businesses do put a lot of money into safety. “You measure success with safety.”

When considering the hazards associated with solar panel installation, electricity should be at the top of the list. The moment the panels hit the sun, they are generating power, says Scipione. Disconnecting the grid from the system at the main power breaker does not stop a PV system from producing electrical power in the presence of light (even on cloudy days). Workers face the risk of electric shock and arc flash.

“Although it might not be much electricity, it’s still generating enough that could kill somebody,” Scipione says.

All workers present during solar installations should be trained in electrical safety as well as lockout/tagout. A certified engineer must be onsite during an installation to complete the required wiring.

Aside from the death of the installer in New York City, another solar installer recently died after falling off a 35-foot roof. He was not wearing fall protection equipment and there were no anchor points on the roof. Yet another installer died when he tripped and fell though a skylight. He was not wearing proper personal protective equipment (PPE).

Personal fall arrest equipment or guardrails must be put in place. Setting up a permanent guardrail is preferred, says Scipione.

The right type of ladder must be used and workers need to be trained on ladder safety.

Work at heights training is also essential for these workers, as is making sure they are not afraid of heights. Some workers legitimately may not know they are scared of heights until they get up to the roof, while others just don’t want to disclose their fear to their employer.

Ed Knaggs, vice-president of HES PV in Victoria, recommends employers give other jobs to those workers who are squeamish at heights.

“A person who is afraid of heights can prep all the gear, get it ready, transport it up to the roof so all the people can worker faster — and they are usually quite happy to have that job,” he says.

There needs to be a rescue plan in place any time a fall arrest system is being used. If an individual does fall, there is only a short period of time to rescue him because the harness cuts off blood flow and can result in suspension trauma, says Knaggs.

“That’s a big one that a lot of people don’t know. They put all the safety measures in place, they are really safe, but the guy can fall off the roof and someone has to run to find a ladder to get him.”

One emerging trend in the solar industry is the use of backup battery power. Workers need to have the right PPE and be trained on working with batteries. They need to understand that some batteries operate at high temperatures and there is an electrical risk from the high voltage/currents of large batteries. Some batteries may catch fire or explode, according to the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work.

Batteries also pose chemical hazards to workers. There is an electrolyte in the battery that is acid based, and if it spills, it can be very hazardous.

“Some batteries have sulphuric acid in them, so there is a corrosive nature to them and the sulphuric acid itself, you don’t want to get on clothes or in eyes or on your skin,” says Rob Harlan, executive director of the Solar Energy Society of Alberta.

A spill response procedure must be in place and workers need to be trained accordingly.

In a new industry, new materials are likely to emerge of which occupational health and safety impacts are not yet understood. For example, a recent technology is cadmium telluride, a type of solar cell that is more efficient, but is not yet an industry norm due to its high cost, says Scott Seidel, operations manager at North American Solar Academy in Webbwood, Ont.

The location of a solar panel installation can also pose hazards to workers. In San Luis Obispo County, Calif., between 2011-14, there were 44 workers who came down with an infectious disease while constructing two photovoltaic power plants. In response to these incidents, California recommended better dust control measures for work sites, equipping earth-moving equipment with HEPA filters and respiratory protection for workers.

Installations can sometimes be done in remote locations or near bodies of water, which bring additional risks.

WEATHER

Inclement weather can put solar workers in an emergency scenario. Wind, rain, lightning, snow and the extremes of hot and cold weather can increase the risks of all activities associated with installing solar panels on a roof, says Ontario’s Infrastructure Health and Safety Association (IHSA). The association notes that working in these conditions requires increased awareness of hazards and stricter safety practices associated with fall protection, emergency planning, hoisting, rigging and housekeeping.

For every job, someone needs to be responsible for checking the weather in the morning, at lunch and again in the afternoon, says Scipione.

“You’re working outside in the summer; anything can happen. Once the weather drops two or three degrees, you can bet the bank it’s going to rain. But are we going to have lightning too with it? That’s the problem,” he says. “You definitely don’t want to be in a field where there’s A) power, B) the air is energized with electricity.”

Heat stress needs to be top of mind in the solar industry because the vast majority of work takes place from March to November, with summer being the busiest time. It gets up to 38 C on a rooftop very easily, so workers need to take frequent breaks in a cool area and hydrate every 20 minutes. Symptoms of heat exhaustion include: weakness, feeling faint, headaches, breathlessness and nausea.

Knaggs suggests workers get to the site early and complete the heavy work first, leaving the wiring work for the afternoon.

Unfortunately, many solar installers are not following the guidelines for working in heat.

“It depends on the employer, but a lot of times they are more interested in getting to the next job, getting this one finished as quickly as possible and move to the next one,” says Seidel. “It almost always comes down to the point where workers are in discomfort.”

Ultimately, it all comes down to money. 

“If I am bidding on a job and I am following guidelines to make sure workers are hydrated and getting frequent breaks, I may need to add an extra day to the quote. And if my quote is a day higher in labour than my competitor’s, then I’m not going to get that job,” Seidel says.

The pressure to get a job done quickly can take a toll on workers. With Ontario’s Feed-In Tariff (FIT) program (developed in 2009 to encourage and promote greater use of renewable energy sources), installers had to hit certain operational dates or they could have lost their contract, says Knaggs. Fortunately, he has not seen this time pressure have a direct impact on safety.

“Most workers are pretty smart and they know that working safer is a faster way to work,” he says.

As an example, Knaggs points to a good guardrail system being in place.

“It gives them A) confidence in their employer that he has done a whole bunch of steps to protect their well-being and B) it removes that thought of ‘Hey I could fall off this roof,’” he says. “So, with the guardrail system in place, they feel more confident, so they can work better and faster.”

It’s important that any time pressure the employer experiences does not get passed down to front-line workers.

“If he is constantly on them and putting demands and pressures on them to finish a job by a certain amount of time, then that encourages shortcuts, unsafe work practice, that kind of thing,” says Seidel.

ERGONOMICS

Musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) are also a problem within the industry. Most material-handling injuries experienced by installers are due to awkward postures (such as improper lifting techniques), overexertion (such as trying to lift items that are too heavy) or repetitive work tasks.

Solar panels can weigh up to 50 pounds each and they are awkward to lift.

“It’s almost like lifting up a door. They are that kind of size and shape,” says Knaggs. “You’re lifting with a bit of outstretched arms because it’s awkward and then twisting to put them in place.”

As a best practice, workers should lift and carry the solar panels in pairs. They should also be using ladder hoists to lift the panels up on the roof.

Workers often find themselves underneath the panels during an installation.

“Say, for example, that frame is 4 feet off the ground and you have a person who is 6 feet tall. That person is going to have to bend backwards to get up underneath that 45-degree angle to put bolts in and they are going to be doing that for eight to 10 hours a day,” says Scipione. “It can become a musculoskeletal disorder, definitely.”

Offering sufficient breaks and ensuring the shorter workers are assigned to under-panel work can help reduce MSDs, he says.

Workers should also do some stretching exercises before starting the job — but the industry is not quite there yet, Seidel says.

“You’re dealing with an industry that’s male-dominated. It’s a high-testosterone industry, trades are, so they tend to reject this kind of New Age thinking. It’s ‘My father, grandfather did it this way and this is the way I do it,’” he says. “I don’t think people recognize the value of being prepared ahead of time to prevent injuries.”

EDUCATION

While there currently are no formal training requirements for solar installers, they should be trained on working at heights, electrical hazards, safe transportation and lifting of materials, exposure to hot or cold environments and emergency planning, for example, suggests IHSA. Seidel would like to see a formal certification for solar installers sometime in the near future.

“Education is always the best deterrent for injury. The more knowledge you have of a situation, how to do it, the less chance to get hurt and the greater chance to do it properly,” he says, adding it will give employers more confidence in the workers too.

CanSIA is looking to develop a solar training and certification program. It has presented a proposal to various government departments and agencies to seek funding support and initial interest has been strong, the association says.

A certification would effectively help ensure workers follow all of the manufacturer’s instructions for solar panels — a current problem in the industry, Seidel says.

“You get into a situation where to follow the manufacturer’s instructions may take an extra two hours if you come across a problem with the roof, for example, whereas if you take a shortcut, you may be able to do a makeshift quick fix, but now you have hampered the system. You’re not doing it 100 per cent correctly so it could pose an issue down the road,” he says. “That’s what happens when you have an unregulated industry. If you’re an electrician and you take a short cut, you could lose your license and be out of work. But with a solar installer there is no license to lose. You just move to another employer.”

Workers conducting maintenance on solar systems need to be particularly vigilant because they don’t know what they are walking into.

“The problem maintenance workers have is generally, they did not do the initial installation. They are not familiar with how it was installed. They are kind of hoping the people ahead of them did the job properly,” says Seidel. “There’s a lot more risk involved.”

Before they touch anything, maintenance workers should conduct a visual inspection of the system and work area. Telescopic cameras can be used to see under the solar panels, rather than crawling under them. A roof video camera can also assist with remote monitoring.

A lot of the maintenance workers also work alone, Seidel adds. Appropriate warning signs should be posted to notify workers of any hazards.

It’s important for the solar industry to do its part and get as many people trained as possible because the industry is only going to continue to grow, says Knaggs.

“We are really, really close to our tipping point,” he says. “Now there is awareness out there that wasn’t there before. People know what solar can do and it is becoming a household item.”


Pre-installation checklist

Answering “No” to any of the following questions (just a sampling of what a comprehensive list should include) indicates a need for improvements to be made before solar systems are installed.

• Is there sufficient co-operation, communication and exchange of information among the building owner, site manager and workers to allow the safe performance of the work?

• Have workplace hazards linked to the organization of the work and work-related stress been assessed as part of the workplace risk assessment?

• Are there measures in place to ensure communication of information to workers who may not have a good command of the working language?

• When work at height is necessary, are there mobile elevating work platforms and scaffolding available?

• Has the condition of the roof been assessed to ensure it is dry and free from slipping and tripping hazards, such as moss, snow, ice and vent pipes?

• In the case of skylights or holes/cavities, are they safeguarded?

• Is a safe distance kept for workers, tools and materials from high voltage power lines during maintenance/repair activities?

• Are workers aware that low voltages can cause surprise shocks and, thereby, falls?

• Is work arranged so that manual handling operations, such as lifting and carrying, are avoided or reduced to a minimum?

• Are measures in place to avoid (or reduce to a minimum) the need for workers to work frequently or in prolonged kneeling or squatting positions?

Source: European Agency for Safety and Health at Work

This article originally appeared in the December 2018/January 2019 issue of COS.

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