In recent years there has been an increased emphasis on green energy and environmentally friendly technology development. As a result, the solar power industry has grown exponentially, and workers must be aware that hazards exist. In fact, those working on solar projects encounter many of the same electrical and job hazards typically encountered by linemen and wiremen daily. Therefore, it is imperative to understand what solar energy is and the associated dangers.
There are two commercially viable sectors in the solar industry: solar thermal and solar electric. The solar-thermal sector pertains to energy being created when the sun is used for heating water. These systems can be direct or indirect. Indirect solar-thermal systems are alcohol- or glycol-based. Climate typically dictates which system can be implemented because extreme cold can damage direct systems.
Solar electricity is created by concentrating solar power or by photovoltaics (PV). PV systems are made from semiconductors such as monocrystalline silicon, polycrystalline silicon, microcrystalline silicon, cadmium telluride and copper indium selenide or sulfide. When the sun shines on these materials, it generates electricity. The system then uses a built-in inverter to convert direct current to alternating current. The greater the number of solar modules within a PV system, the more electricity it can produce.
According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s Guide on Green Job Hazards—Solar Energy: “Various worker health and safety hazards exist in the manufacture, installation, and maintenance of solar energy. Employers working in the solar energy business need to protect their workers from workplace hazards and workers need to understand how to protect themselves from hazards.”
PV systems usually come in a panel and are commonly installed on rooftops positioned to receive as much direct sunlight as possible. Solar panels can be awkward and heavy to carry. Additionally, they often need to be hoisted up ladders or scaffolds to elevated positions and installed very high off the ground. As a result, the risk level for injury or falls is very high.
Prior to installing a solar panel, it is imperative to conduct a pre-job assessment and adopt a safe work plan. This plan should include equipment being used for safe lifting and handling of solar panels; type and size of ladders and scaffolding needed; fall protection for rooftop work; and the PPE required for each worker.
Panels should be brought to the job site on industrial trucks, mobile carts or forklifts. At least two people should work together to lift solar panels, adhering to ergonomically safe lifting techniques. They should wear gloves and never attempt to carry solar panels up a ladder or scaffolding. Unpackaged panels can be covered up with opaque sheets to prevent heat buildup and thermal burns.
Shock and arc flash
One of the most serious dangers faced by solar-energy workers is electric shock and arc flash. This includes arc flash burn and blast hazards. Whenever components of a PV system are “live,” with electricity created by the sun, they can result in electric shock and arc flash. Even with little to no light, enough voltage can be generated to cause an injury.
When connecting solar energy to a grid, employers and workers must abide by 29 CFR 1910.269, OSHA’s Electric Power Generation, Transmission and Distribution Standard, as well as 29 CFR 1926 Subpart V, Electric Power Transmission and Distribution. Workers should be trained in safe work practices and standards.
Workers should always treat wiring coming from a PV system the same as a “live” utility line. When working on a system, wiremen should de-energize and follow lockout/tagout (LOTO) procedures. If this cannot be done, they must justify the reasoning and use an Energized Electrical Work Permit. Linemen working on a PV system connected to the grid should also employ LOTO procedures or follow the appropriate safe work practices with live line tools and proper PPE. Finally, workers should never disconnect PV module connectors or wiring when it is under load.
Even though there are no OSHA standards governing the solar-power industry directly, existing regulations address many hazards workers face. Employers and employees should also abide by National Fire Protection Association 70E requirements.
Many employers have even taken it a step further by creating their own safety manual, specific to their business and implementing safety measures beyond those in existing standards and regulations.