A surge in alternative energy projects and related employment in the US is seeing inexperienced workers recruited to jobs they do not have the skills, training or supervision to do safely, US reports suggest.
The US experience echoes that in Australia, where a government energy efficiency home insulation programme saw a spate of injuries and deaths in workers employed by get rich quick non-union contractors. In the UK, concerns have been raised about fatalities in wind farm construction and the notoriously deadly recycling industry.
In the US, online news agency FairWarning reported in October 2010 that authorities in California alone investigated three workplace deaths in the solar panel industry in slightly over two years. Installing solar panels combines three of the most hazardous jobs — roofing, carpentry and electrical work — with work at height, making it particularly risky.
Wind power, too, has its risks. ‘The dark side of solar and wind power projects’, a 3 August 2011 report in the Los Angeles Times, points out that many technicians on wind power projects 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.
The Times adds that the risks go beyond the manufacture and installation phase. It reports the complicated wiring under solar panels has left some firefighters so bewildered they have allowed residential rooftops to burn. Some panels contain materials such as cadmium and selenium, which could be explosive or carcinogenic, according to the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition.
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.
The US federal health and safety regulator, OSHA, remains concerned. But OSHA is facing its own battle for survival. As budget cuts to federal agencies appear inevitable as a consequence of the debt deal agreed by Congress, safety enforcement in any workplace, green or otherwise, could itself be in danger.
According to a report in the online magazine In These Times, OSHA has no fat to trim, with a current budget of only $558.6 million. “Many public health and safety advocates say that that figure doesn’t leave OSHA with the resources needed to adequately inspect workplaces. There are only 2,218 inspectors at both the federal and state level who inspect 7.3 million workplaces employing more than 135 million workers (that’s one inspector for every 57,984 workers.)”
The article concludes: “At this rate, OSHA can inspect a workplace on average once every 129 years and state OSHA inspectors could inspect one every 67 years. For a country the size of the United States, health and safety experts say you need at least 12,000 inspectors, six times more inspectors than OSHA currently has, in order to properly inspect America’s workplaces.”
While traditional workplaces fall off the enforcement radar, green jobs may never even make a blip.