FairWarining Reports

Solar Installer’s Death Points to Job Hazards in a Growing, Green Industry

Hans Petersen took a deadly misstep in April while checking his work on a rooftop solar power installation atop a Northern California public housing complex. Petersen, working without a safety harness or a barrier to prevent a fall, tumbled off the pitched roof and landed three stories below on a concrete walkway. He was airlifted to a nearby hospital, where he was pronounced dead.

Following a six-month investigation, California’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health is now seeking $26,500 in fines against SolarCity, Petersen’s employer, in connection with the death of the 30-year-old solar panel installer. The company has been cited by the state agency for one “serious” violation of failing to ensure that employees used fall-protection gear.

SolarCity was also cited last week for two “general” violations. According to agency inspectors, the company failed to train supervisors on the safety and health hazards faced by workers at the site and did not  provide Cal/OSHA with records demonstrating that any fall-protection program was carried out.

Peter Rive, chief operations officer of SolarCity, said the company was waiting to receive Cal/OSHA’s full report on the incident and has not decided whether it will appeal.

The potential safety hazards in installing solar equipment are important because the field is widely touted as a potential boom industry that could produce an abundance of carbon-free energy and well-paying “green jobs.” It also has benefited from billions of dollars in state and federal tax credits and grants, especially through the stimulus plan passed by Congress last year.

While employment in most economic sectors continues to sputter nationwide, the solar industry added 10,000 new jobs last year, according to the trade group Solar Energy Industries Association. SolarCity, based in Foster City, Calif., is one of the nation’s largest solar installation companies, with approximately 780 employees.

But installing solar panels combines three of the most injury-prone jobs — roofing, carpentry and electrical work — making it particularly risky, safety experts say. At the same time, there are no federal or California workplace safety rules — and few, if any, rules in other states — that specifically apply to solar installers. As a result, companies deal with a hodgepodge of regulations.

No one keeps comprehensive figures on injuries or deaths in the the solar installation industry. However, California health authorities have investigated three workplace deaths in the industry in slightly over two years.

In June, 2008, a 34-year-old solar technician was electrocuted when the metal bracket he was hauling touched high voltage power lines. He fell 35 feet from a scaffold to the ground. In the other fatal incident, in April, 2009, a solar installer was carrying panels on a roof when he crashed through a skylight and plunged 40 feet.

According to two SolarCity employees contacted by FairWarning, neglecting to use safety harnesses on installation jobs was common before the accident, even though such gear was available in the warehouse. The employees, who asked not to be identified for fear of losing their jobs, said wearing a safety harness was usually up to the installer.

SolarCity’s Rive, however, disputed those comments. He noted that the company’s safety plan for the job called for workers to use protective gear. He said the reason Petersen wasn’t using the gear was “something that we’re still trying to understand and trying to prevent from happening again.”

Since the accident, company spokesman Jonathan Bass said, Solar City has invested roughly $500,000 to strengthen its safety practices. Company auditors are now doing spot safety checks at 40 percent to 50 percent of job sites, said Bass, compared to a maximum of 10 percent before the accident.

The two employees who spoke with FairWarning said safety gear has been required on all jobs since the accident, and Rive said disciplinary action has been taken against workers not following safety protocols.

Labor, environmental and industry groups all acknowledge that workplace safety needs to be improved in the solar installation field.

Sue Kateley, executive director of the California chapter of the Solar Energy Industries Association, said she is pushing solar companies to look beyond their focus on cost issues and devote more attention to safety. At a July solar industry conference  in San Francisco, Kateley told her audience that she believes that “safety has got to get up there and become the first priority.”

Kateley, in an interview, said workers sometimes fail to wear safety gear because of a pervasive macho attitude in the construction industry. “They’re big and they’re tough and they think they’re invincible,” she said. “They still need to put their tethers on.”

Petersen’s friends and co-workers, however, described him as anything but macho. “He was the kind of person who made me believe there are good people,” one of the co-workers said in an interview.

A passion for alternative energy drove Petersen, a graduate of Oberlin College and a one-time seminary student, to find work as a solar installer. “He cared about his job, he cared about his friends, about the impact he was having, about the craft,” the co-worker said.

Petersen’s father, Glen, a Lutheran pastor, said his son loved to work with his hands and left the seminary to pursue carpentry and then solar work after a stressful summer of pastoral work at a Houston hospital. Petersen had been working for SolarCity for about six months when he died.

The elder Petersen said the family would wait for the full accident report from Cal/OSHA before deciding whether to sue the company, though he said the family was unlikely to take legal action.

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About the author

Jill Replogle is a researcher-reporter for FairWarning.

8 comments to “Solar Installer’s Death Points to Job Hazards in a Growing, Green Industry”

  1. Louis

    Just came across this after looking to have an install done at my home in PA.
    I’m and EH&S professional with 20 years in the business. Behavior based safety is critical and happily becoming more widely accepted. It’s been a cornerstone of my work since I began. All the protocols and all the training to fill up a library and lifetime of classrooms will do nothing if the employee chooses not to follow the process. It’s one thing if the protocol has a catastrophic flaw.. it’s another altogether if it’s in place, tested over time, consistently updated to meet new conditions and the measures are not followed. Even the most conscientious of workers are prone due to external environmental and administrative pressures. It’s rarely a “macho thing” though that does influence the general mindset (zeitgeist). It’s the “what were you thinking at the time” is what’s important. Many employees recognize the value of their income to themselves and to those who depend on it. To a secondary degree they recognize the happiness (love, entertainment value, friendship) they bring to many around them. Whether it’s sharing a birthday with a daughter, spending time with an aging parent, watching the world series over beers. These are the immeasurable aspects of life-value which we are all guilty of undervaluing. It’s no small epiphany when you hear such changes in outlook after someone has a nearly fatal accident. That’s a key point to reinforce and follows a similar tactic to persuading a potential suicide attempt. That instant when the person decided to forgo a key protocol, venture too close to an edge, fail to note the locations of power lines; that is the moment when the person undervalues the impact of his life on others. This is the underpinning key to behavior based safety.. one that we’re only just beginning to fold into the theories and other process mantras which the experts tout.

  2. Randy

    I,m a union electrician working on my 3rd solar project in the California desert and if you are caught without your fall protection you are fired on the spot. We did have a brother die of heat stress a few weeks ago.

  3. Imelda Worstel

    Well said, but everyone needs to understand that adding Solar in their house is an purchase that should increase the actual value of their residence if / when they decide to sell. With the environment the way it is going we cannot dismiss any solution that supplies 100 % free energy at no cost to both the buyer and more notably the world!

  4. Chris

    Hans was a great friend and an incredibly kind person. May his death prevent other unnecessary deaths in the future.

  5. Arizona Solar Rebates

    Its true — it doesn’t matter what your business is, you have to follow the rules and frankly, most don’t.

  6. Dean Stroud

    It doesn’t matter what your trade is, if you are working above 6 to 7 feet Cal/OSHA and Fed/OSHA states (very clearly) you must be tied off…it’s the law. When an installer is under a deadline to complete the job and choose not wear a harness because it slows him/her down is when accidents usually happens. It is the employers responsibility to train their employees and enforce safety rules for their companies, and accidents like these may cease to exist.

  7. Kevin Jones

    You may want to search the Australian media websites about the deaths of four young insulation installers. These are being investigated by OHS regulators and coroners. There are marked similarities between the Californian solar energy initiative and an Australian scheme that was roundly criticized as poorly setup and badly administered.

  8. Mort

    I shudder to think that workers are relying on Cal/Osha to enforce safety on the job. Are any of these installation companies organized? Or are you aware of any ongoing union organizing in the field?

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