Installing and maintaining a solar panel system are complex tasks that require specialized equipment, highly trained personnel, and a strong understanding of the potential hazards on the job site. In this article, we’ll describe some of the most common risks of photovoltaic (PV) installation and explain how to identify and mitigate these hazards. Here are the top five solar safety hazards:
Fall Protection and Job Site Trip Hazards
Plummeting from a roof or ladder is an obvious concern for solar workers, but falling from any height can be hazardous. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that falls are the leading cause of work-related deaths among construction workers in the United States. Because solar installers often work on rooftops, understanding how to minimize fall and trip hazards is essential.
Potential Injuries From Fall and Trip Hazards
It’s vital to understand the risks associated with falling or tripping when working on a solar panel installation. A fall from any height has the potential to cause:
- Head injuries
- Broken bones and sprains
- Spinal injuries
- Internal organ injuries
To minimize the risk of injury, you’ll need to evaluate any trip or fall hazards, maintain a clean workplace, and train employees on fall-protection policies and procedures.
Evaluate Fall and Trip Hazards
Unfortunately, banana peels aren’t the only trip hazard to watch out for. Anything at the job site that could cause an unintentional loss of balance can be dangerous. By evaluating workplace trip and fall hazards, you can eliminate them before someone gets hurt. OSHA recommends keeping these questions in mind when assessing the workplace:
- Is debris scattered throughout the site?
- Are extension cords, ropes, or lines present?
- Is the floor or ground slippery?
- Is the workplace clean and orderly?
Take note of all potential trip and fall hazards at the job site and create a plan to eliminate them or make employees aware of them.
Maintain a Clean Job Site and Eliminate Fall and Trip Hazards
Keeping the workplace clean and organized not only boosts productivity but can also help to prevent work-related injuries. Once you’ve identified all the potential trip and fall hazards, it’s time to eliminate them:
- Clean up any construction debris at the job site. If debris is present, dispose of it in a construction-debris dumpster.
- Use toolboxes, tool belts, and storage devices to prevent tools from lying around the job site.
- Use fences and barricades to physically block entrances to hazardous areas such as wells, pits, and shafts.
- Use rigid covers to block skylights and other holes on rooftops or the ground.
- Determine if guardrails or restrain systems are necessary.
- Stop working if it’s raining, snowing, or surfaces are icy.
- Avoid working extended shifts to prevent fatigue.
Fall Protection Policies and Procedures
OSHA has strict guidelines in place for fall protection and prevention. Employers must ensure that all employees are trained to understand and comply with these policies:
The 10-foot Rule
According to OR-OSHA Division 3/Subdivision M (Fall Protection) OAR 437-003-150, employers must ensure that fall-protection systems are used when employees are exposed to the risk of falling 10 feet or more to a lower level.
Employees must use fall protection systems when they are exposed to the following hazards of falling 6 feet or more:
- Holes (such as openings or skylights)
- Wall openings
- Floors, balconies, and walkways with unprotected sides or edges
Note that workers must be protected from falls into or onto hazardous equipment regardless of height.
Fall protection systems are necessary to comply with OSHA’s 6-foot and 10-foot rules. This equipment is designed to either prevent a fall or arrest the descent of a fall. Typical fall-protection gear includes:
- Personal fall-arrest systems
- Personal fall-restrain systems
- Guardrail systems
OSHA rules allow no higher than a 6-foot free fall for fall-arrest systems. This is imperative as the farther you fall, the greater the forces exerted on you. Minimizing the free-fall distance is an important consideration when using fall-protection equipment.
For detailed information about fall-protection systems, see OR OSHA rules: Division 3 Subdivision M (Fall Protection).
Responding to Fall or Trip Accidents
Because falls or trips have the potential to cause serious injuries, solar workers must have a plan in place to respond to emergencies. It’s easy to panic during a high-stress situation. Therefore, proper training is necessary so that workers are more likely to respond correctly.
OSHA states that employers must offer “prompt rescue of employees in the event of a fall or shall ensure that employees are able to rescue themselves.” A worker suspended in a fall-arrest system can lose consciousness or become injured if the harness cuts off circulation in the body. Therefore, workers must be rescued quickly to prevent injury.
Self-rescue training also is essential for solar workers—especially those who work alone. We recommend taking OSHA and safety manufacturers training courses to learn more about self-rescue procedures.
Solar Electrical Safety
It may seem obvious that solar installations can pose electrical hazards, but identifying those risks can be challenging. Because solar workers are exposed to numerous electrical hazards on the job site, knowing how to identify the risks and prevent injuries is vital.
Potential Injuries From Solar Electric Hazards
Electrical shock can be a real buzzkill for solar workers. In fact, OSEIA states that electrocution is the cause of 12 percent of all workplace deaths among young workers. Electricity can cause a wide array of injuries, including:
- Electrocution (death from electrical shock)
- Severe burns
- Numbness, tingling, and paralysis
- Vision, hearing, or speech impairment
- Falls from unexpected shocks
Identify Solar Electrical Hazards
It’s important to identify any potential electrical hazards and train employees to eliminate or control these risks.
Electrical hazards include but are not limited to:
- Overhead powerlines
- Electrical systems, tools, or cords that aren’t grounded or double-insulated
- PV panels, batteries, and other solar equipment
- Overloaded circuits
- Metal ladders or scaffolding near electrical circuits or lines
- Moisture on worker, equipment, or location
Work Smart To Avoid Electrical Hazards
Once the electrical hazards on the job site have been identified, employees must be trained to eliminate or avoid these hazards.
- Inspect all equipment to ensure it’s not damaged and is properly grounded.
- Place physical barriers around live utilities.
- Never work alone. Always work with a “buddy” who is trained in CPR.
- Stay a safe distance from power lines (at least 10 feet away, according to OSHA guidelines).
- Cover all solar panels with an opaque sheet to prevent them from generating electricity.
- Lockout/tagout and de-energize AC and DC power sources.
- Test circuits to confirm they have been de-energized before working on them.
- Use a current clamp to check for electricity before working on a solar array.
- Be careful with inverters. They can maintain a charge even after the power source has been removed.
- Never disconnect PV module connectors or other PV wiring that is under load.
- Refer to NEC and manufacturing guidelines on proper handling, installation, and disposal of solar batteries.
- Always wear the right PPE for electrical safety.
It’s crucial to communicate with employees that solar panels can produce heat and electricity even after the power has been turned off. A worker surprised by the heat of a panel could fall off the roof and become injured.
Responding to Electrical Accidents
Always have a plan in place and train all employees to respond to electrical accidents. If a worker is shocked or electrocuted:
- Shut off the power supply if the worker is touching an energized circuit.
- Ask someone to call 911.
- Don’t touch the victim if they are still in contact with a live circuit. If you can’t shut off the power quickly, use an item that is non-conductive to move the victim.
- Stay with the victim while someone else contacts emergency services.
- If necessary, administer CPR only if you are trained to do so.
Next on our list of solar safety hazards is ladder safety. Residential solar installation and maintenance require lifting heavy and bulky items up and down ladders. Therefore, it’s essential to prioritize ladder safety on the job site. OSHA states that a competent and qualified person must train all employees on proper use, load-carrying capacities, placement, and care in handling ladders.
According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 22,170 ladder-related injuries in 2020. Of those injured, 5,790 were in installation, maintenance, and repair occupations. Clearly, ladder safety is an important topic that is often overlooked in the workplace.
Potential Injuries From Ladder Hazards
Falls from ladders can result in several types of injuries. Even falls from low ladders can cause:
- Sprains or fractures
- Back, neck, and head injuries
- Cuts, bruises, and puncture wounds
Tools falling from ladders can cause:
- Eye injuries
- Puncture and bruise injuries
Common Mistakes Made With Ladders
To prevent ladder-related injuries, every solar worker—even the lowest rung—should be adequately trained to avoid these mistakes:
- Standing on the top step of the ladder
- Using a step ladder that isn’t the right height for the task
- Not inspecting ladders before each use
- Using damaged or defective ladders
- Using ladders on loose or uneven surfaces
- Not using metal ladders near energized equipment or powerlines
- Overreaching while on a ladder, causing one’s weight to shift outside of the ladder’s side rails
- Not using three points of contact when climbing up or down the ladder
- Not facing the ladder when ascending or descending
- Skipping rungs when climbing up or down the ladder
Preventing Ladder Injuries
- Inspect ladders before each use and after dropping them. Remove any damaged or defective ladders from the job site or clearly mark them with a label stating, “Do Not Use.”
- Use fiberglass ladders with non-conductive side rails near energized equipment.
- Use ladders that extend at least three feet above the last rung that the employee will be standing on.
- Evaluate the roof to detect hazards and locate the safest spot to set up the ladder.
- Place ladders on a dry, stable surface, away from walkways and doorways. Secure ladders to the ground or rooftop and make sure the rungs are parallel to the ground.
- Stay at least 10 feet away from overhead powerlines.
- Grab the horizontal ladder rungs and maintain three points of contact with the ladder while climbing up or down.
- Never carry a solar panel or other heavy equipment while ascending or descending a ladder. Lift the panels onto the roof with a hoist system or winch to prevent injury.
- Avoid using ladders if you are fatigued or injured.
Responding to Ladder Injuries
If you have fallen from a ladder:
- Don’t panic. Assess the situation and determine if you are injured.
- If you’re able to do so, get up slowly.
- If you can’t stand or walk, remain calm and ask a coworker for assistance.
- If the injury is severe, have someone call 911.
- If you aren’t hurt, take a break for a while before returning to work.
Back Injuries From Lifting at a Solar Job Site
Back injuries account for one out of every five workplace injuries. Of those injuries, approximately 80 percent were to the lower back, and almost all of them occurred while the employee was in the act of lifting. Sprains, strains, and cumulative trauma to the back are estimated to affect one million workers annually. I’m the Statman, “ski-bi dibby dib yo da dub dub.”
The effects aren’t just felt by an incapacitated worker; they’re felt by the boss too. According to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, an average back injury will cost a solar company $8,000 directly. Ouch!
Lifting Injuries Sustained During Solar Panel Construction
Whether it’s a sprain or a strain, lifting too heavy can leave you feeling broken. It’s best to make objects as light as possible before lifting them. Use straps, handles, carts, or dollies when lifting heavy stuff. By the way, it’s safer to push a dolly than to pull it.
Maybe you’re a natural strongman. In that case, you’ll have to look out for cumulative trauma: the kind that builds up over time caused by lifting in awkward positions or using an improper lifting technique. Listen to your body; discomfort may be an indication that you’re injured. Don’t try to work through the pain.
Three Things To Remember When Lifting
- Lift with your legs
- Maintain the curves in your back
- Don’t twist
Just in case you were born yesterday: Don’t exceed your physical ability, take a break and recover before going in for more, and keep the object close to your body when lifting. Practice that, and you’ll be the Michael Jordan of lifting things.
OSHA Lifting Guidelines
Rooftop lifting is the most dangerous type of lifting done by solar installers. OSHA recommends that you use a crane operated by an experienced crane operator to move panels and other equipment to the rooftop. OSHA says they’re okay with ladder-mounted winches, but that sounds like an accident waiting to happen.
At the shop, you’ll want to store your equipment and tools on waist- to shoulder-height shelves. Use a cart to transfer the tools and equipment to the truck, and If you’re shopping for a new truck, buy one with an integrated toolbox. When loading, use two people to lift large items last into the truck and ensure they’re in an accessible position.
A great piece of advice is to warm up after a long drive. Walk around the property, do your safety inspection, and warm up your muscles. Look for trip hazards, locate your workers, look for unprotected openings in the roof, and any other safety hazards. Use the time when you initially arrive to get your bearings while limbering up.
I Hurt My Back During a Solar Panel Installation
- Stop working
- Assess the pain level and nature of the injury
- Report the injury
- See a doctor
Report the injury to your employer; they should have guidelines in place for this sort of thing. Remember that injuries sustained at the workplace have to be assessed by a physician to qualify for Worker’s Compensation insurance.
General Green Job Hazards: Everyday Risks for Solar Installers
Falling off the roof and electric shock can cause significant harm, but the high frequency of injuries associated with general job-site safety cannot be overlooked.
Reducing Exposure to the Daily Hazards of Working in a Solar Panel Installation Crew
Implementing policies and procedures to reduce the daily risk to your crew is one of the easiest and most effective ways to prevent loss due to solar safety hazards. A typical workday has its associated risks. Like hydration, I would consider these the little things we can’t forget about just because we do them every day. We can reduce the risks by protecting our bodies with Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), making sure we are properly trained on the power tools, and drinking plenty of water to stave off dehydration.
Personal Protective Equipment Used in Solar Installations
OSHA has strict PPE standards for solar panel installers. An employer can face non-compliance and potential OSHA fines if:
- Employer does not provide high-quality PPE
- Employer does not properly supervise the use of PPE
- Employer fails to enforce the use of PPE
- Employer does not properly train employees on the use of PPE
Since OSHA monitors PPE compliance, it’s essential to supply, instruct on, and encourage the use of:
- Eyewear and face protection
- Protective footwear
- Respirator or dusk mask (if you’re in the attic)
- Protective clothing
Hazards Using Power Tools During Solar Panel Installation
Let’s get this out of the way. Extension cords have been the source of many injuries sustained while installing solar panels. Avoid cord-related falls and snags by eliminating them completely. Use tools that run on battery—simple as that.
Proper training in the use of power tools is paramount. Everyone should know how to use the tools safely and effectively. OSHA requires it. One person should be selected to train, inspect, and maintain all of the tools used on the job site. Probably the dude with the most experience.
Staying hydrated and avoiding heat exhaustion while installing solar panels.
Working in the cooler parts of the day can boost productivity and reduce the risk of heat stroke and dehydration. But sometimes, we have to be on the roof in the middle of the day, and that’s why OSHA made its rule about drinking water. OSHA says:
“Potable water must be on the job site at all times.”
OSHA Rule in Division 3 Subdivision D 1926.51
Drink up—this Florida sun is hot! I suggest Gatorade.
There you have it: our guide to identifying, preventing, and responding to solar hazards. Note that a comprehensive solar hazard safety course is beyond the scope of this article. If you’d like to perform any work on a solar system, we recommend taking training available from OSHA and professional training courses before attempting to do so.
As you may have gleaned from this article, installing a solar panel system is a complex and hazardous job that requires skilled labor and specialized equipment. If you’d like to upgrade your home with a residential solar system, we suggest hiring a reputable solar installation company. At Lake Mary Solar, our fully licensed and insured solar installers will take care of the entire process so that you can kick back and enjoy the benefits of renewable solar energy.
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