The rush to go green is taking a toll on the workers who construct wind turbines and install solar panels.
As the Los Angeles Times reports, a surge in alternative energy projects requiring lots of workers – many of them inexperienced – is raising concerns that serious injuries will skyrocket.
No one knows precisely how many of these workers already have been harmed but there are many examples of on-the-job injuries and deaths. The website for a Scottish activist group, the Caithness Windfarm Information Forum, says there have been 58 fatalities internationally since the 1970s involving turbine operators and others who work on the equipment.
Figures for the solar industry are even harder to come by. But, as FairWarning reported last October, authorities in California alone investigated three workplace deaths in the industry in slightly over two years.
FairWarning, and now the Times, noted the case of Hans Petersen, who took a deadly misstep while checking 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.
Petersen’s employer, SolarCity, which was charged by California regulators with three civil infractions including a “serious” violation of failing to ensure that employees used fall-protection gear, told the Times it is spending millions to improve safety. SolarCity, which has appealed the civil citations, is being investigated for possible criminal charges by the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health.
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.
In the case of wind turbines, the Times points out that many technicians work in bathroom-size spaces, high above the ground, surrounded by high-voltage electrical equipment. Workers also sometimes inspect turbine blades while suspended alongside them, on sites whipped by strong winds.
The result: technicians have fallen hundreds of feet, and others have been crushed by, or trapped in, moving machinery.
While watchdog groups say the existing state and federal regulations are inadequate to protect workers, wind and solar energy industry trade associations say they are offering, or developing, safety recommendations.