The green movement has made the environment safer in many ways and has created eco-friendlier jobs. As with any new employment sector, these jobs are helping to invigorate the economy and get workers back to work. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration broadly defines green jobs as those that help to improve the environment. While eco-friendly, however, they still pose risks to workers who perform them.
Some standard dangers, such as those pertaining to falls, confined spaces, electrical shock and fire, may be associated with green industries. In addition, green jobs may have unidentified risks, such as solar-energy workers potentially being exposed to cadmium telluride, a known carcinogen.
Let’s look at some green industries and their potential hazards.
Wind generates electricity using turbines and is growing in popularity as a clean, inexpensive source of energy. Although it’s a somewhat new industry, the hazards are not unique. Serious injuries and fatalities are mostly due to severe burns, electrical shocks, arc flashes, fires and crushing injuries. In one reported fatality, the victim was injured while working in the bottom power cabinet of a wind turbine in Oklahoma. While checking electrical connections, he contacted a bus bar, and an arc flash erupted, causing fatal injuries. In another fatal accident, a worker used an 80-foot ladder to access a wind turbine generator and fell. He was found wearing his safety belt, but the safety lanyards were not connected and were later found attached to their tie-off location at the top of the turbine generator.
Biofuels are produced from renewable resources, such as grains, plant materials, vegetable oils and treated municipal and industrial wastes. In the United States, there are two major types of biofuels in use: ethanol and biodiesel. Ethanol, a flammable liquid that ignites at ordinary temperatures, is produced by the fermentation of grains and is blended with gasoline (at about 10 percent) in most automotive fuel sold currently in the United States. Biodiesel is a combustible liquid that burns readily when heated. It is often blended with petroleum-based diesel for sale in the United States.
Since these fuels are flammable or combustible, using them or working around them poses risks. Production-associated hazards aside, workers must take care working with them as they would with fossil fuels. Safe work practices and engineering controls can be the best way to keep workers safe. These processes include using properly designed and labeled containers and keeping the liquids away from any open flames or other ignition source.
The energy from the sun can be converted into usable electricity through the use of photovoltaics (PV) or concentrating solar power. PV systems are more common and use semiconductors to make electricity. As previously mentioned, some of the materials used in photovoltaics, specifically cadmium telluride, have an inherent risk to those working around this technology. Additional hazards associated with working with or around solar energy are basically the same as those found working around conventional forms of electricity. They include arc flashes, arc flash burns, blast hazards, electrical shock and hazards associated with lockout/tagout procedures. Recently in California, a fatality report involved a solar panel installer. He died when he fell 45 feet from the roof of a three-story apartment building. Not one of the three-man crew was wearing personal fall protection equipment, and there was no other fall protection system in place.
Prevention through design
These new green industries are coming on strong in an effort to protect the planet while keeping the economy growing. In some instances, the technology has moved faster than anticipated, making it difficult to get safety measures in place quickly. Dealing with green industries’ hazards, both new and familiar (but possibly different), is a wrinkle in the world of safety.
These unknowns have led to the concept of prevention through design (PtD), which addresses occupational safety and health needs in the design process to prevent or minimize the work-related hazards and risks associated with the construction, manufacture, use, maintenance and disposal of facilities, materials and equipment. PtD is the idea that safety should be designed into new technologies to help ensure that our workers remain safe in their jobs.
KELLY is a safety and health specialist with Intec, a safety consulting, training and publishing firm that offers on-site assistance and produces manuals, training videos and software for contractors. She can be reached at 800.745.4818 and firstname.lastname@example.org. Joe O’Connor edited this article.