Solar Energy: Safety Risks and How to Prevent Them

By Kathy Simpson

Installing solar systems is a risky business. Lifting and arranging unwieldy solar panels, the potential for falls off many-storied rooftops, panels that heat up as soon as they’re uncovered – these are some of the serious hazards that solar workers face. They’re also subject to the risks of traditional roofing, carpentry and electrical trades – some of the most injury-prone occupations around.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requires employers to implement safety training and protection for their employees. Many solar installation companies have taken OSHA’s requirements a step farther, creating manuals of their own that detail the specific measures they require to manage solar energy safely.

Safety issues are common for solar installations, but proactively putting preventive measures in place can help mitigate on-the-job injuries.
 

Every Worksite Presents Different Risks

No two worksites are the same. Before a solar installation begins, it’s essential for the installer to visit the site, identify the safety risks and develop specific plans for addressing them. Plans should include:

  1. Equipment to be used for safe lifting and handling of solar panels
  2. Type and size of ladders and scaffolding if needed
  3. Fall protection for rooftop work
  4. Personal protective equipment for each installer

All equipment needed for the job should be inspected and verified to be in good working order before being brought to the worksite.
 

Lifting and Handling Solar Panels

Solar panels are heavy and awkward to lift and carry. Loading and unloading panels from trucks and onto roofs can cause strains, sprains, muscle pulls and back injuries as well as cumulative trauma that stresses the spine. The panels can also heat up quickly when exposed to sunlight, causing burns if not handled safely.

Safety measures for solar workers:

  1. Lift each solar panel with at least two people while applying safe lifting techniques.
  2. Transport solar panels onto and around the work site using mobile carts or forklifts.
  3. Never climb ladders while carrying solar panels. To get solar panels onto rooftops, use properly inspected cranes, hoists or ladder-based winch systems.
  4. Once unpackaged, cover panels with an opaque sheet to prevent heat buildup.
  5. Always wear gloves when handling panels.

Ladder Safety

Solar construction often involves working on roofs and from ladders. Choosing the right ladder and using it properly are essential.

Safety measures for solar workers:

  1. Select the ladder that best suits the need for access – whether a stepladder, straight ladder or extension ladder. Straight or extension ladders should extend a minimum of three feet above the rung that the worker will stand upon.
  2. Select the right ladder material. Aluminum and metal ladders are the most commonly used today and may have their place on the job, but they’re a serious hazard near power lines or electrical work. Use a fiberglass ladder with non-conductive side rails near power sources.
  3. Place the ladder on dry, level ground removed from walkways and doorways, and at least 10 feet from power lines and secure it to the ground or rooftop.

Trips and Falls

Trips and falls are a common hazard of all construction jobs, including solar. They can happen anywhere on the jobsite, especially off roofs or ladders. Rooftop solar installations are especially hazardous because the work space diminishes as more panels are installed, increasing the risk of falls.

Safety measures for solar workers:

  1. Keep all work areas dry and clear of obstructions.
  2. For fall distances of six feet or more, take one of three protective measures: install guardrails around ledges, sunroofs or skylights; use safety nets; or provide each employee with a body harness that is anchored to the rooftop to arrest a potential fall.
  3. Cover holes on rooftops, including skylights, and on ground-level work surfaces.

Solar Electrical Safety

Solar electric (photovoltaic or PV) systems include several components that conduct electricity: the PV solar array, an inverter that converts the panel’s direct current to alternating current, and other essential system parts. When any of these components are “live” with electricity generated by the sun’s energy, they can cause injuries associated with electric shock and arc-flash. Even low-light conditions can create sufficient voltage to cause injury.

It’s also important to recognize that with PV systems, electricity comes from two sources: the utility company and the solar array that is absorbing the sun’s light. Even when a building’s main breaker is shut off, the PV system will continue to produce power. This makes isolating the power source more difficult, and requires extra caution on the part of the solar worker.

Safety measures for solar workers:

  1. Cover the solar array with an opaque sheet to “turn off” the sun’s light.
  2. Treat the wiring coming from a solar PV array with the same caution as a utility power line. Use a meter or circuit test device to ensure that all circuits are de-energized before working on them.
  3. Lock out the power on systems that can be locked out. Tag all circuits you’re working on at points where that equipment or circuit can be energized.
  4. Never disconnect PV module connectors or other associated PV wiring when it is under load.

Personal Protective Equipment

Personal Protective Equipment is an essential part of every solar installation. It’s the employer’s job to assess the workplace for hazards and provide the PPE deemed necessary for the employee’s safety. Hard hats, gloves and steel-toed shoes with rubber soles are among the commonly required PPE for solar projects.

Employees are in turn responsible for using PPE in accordance with their employer’s instructions, maintaining it in a safe and reliable condition and requesting replacements when necessary.

Risk is part of running any business, but when it comes to an employee’s safety and health, risk should be avoided at all cost. Proactive safety planning and its successful implementation on the job can help ensure that accidents don’t happen.

Visit www.thehartford.com/renewable to view more renewable energy resources and insights.

 

The information provided in these materials is intended to be general and advisory in nature. It shall not be considered legal advice. The Hartford does not warrant that the implementation of any view or recommendation contained herein will: (i) result in the elimination of any unsafe conditions at your business locations or with respect to your business operations; or (ii) will be an appropriate legal or business practice. The Hartford assumes no responsibility for the control or correction of hazards or legal compliance with respect to your business practices, and the views and recommendations contained herein shall not constitute our undertaking, on your behalf or for the benefit of others, to determine or warrant that your business premises, locations or operations are safe or healthful, or are in compliance with any law, rule or regulation. Readers seeking to resolve specific safety, legal or business issues or concerns related to the information provided in these materials should consult their safety consultant, attorney or business advisors. All information and representations herein are as of 7/15/15.