Global: Will workers pay for clean energy?

The potential occupational health and safety benefits of clean and green energy are seen as a slam dunk, a clear improvement on the dirty, heavy, hazardous polluting world of oil and coal. And for generations those jobs were certainly killers, occupationally and environmentally.

But that doesn’t mean clean energy jobs are risk free jobs. Michael Renner of the US-based Worldwatch Institute, writing this week in the organisation’s ‘Green economy’ blog, noted: “Some weeks ago, my former Worldwatch colleague Zoë Chafe—now a PhD student with the Energy and Resources Group of the University of California at Berkeley—queried me whether I was aware of any major occupational health and safety issues in the renewable energy industry.

“What quickly came to mind was a March 2008 newspaper story about polysilicon, a material critical to the solar photovoltaics (PV) industry. The article reported that a number of Chinese companies were cutting corners in the rush to fill booming demand and keep costs low. Instead of recycling a highly toxic byproduct, silicon tetrachloride, the companies were stockpiling the substance in drums or simply dumping it, rendering land infertile and exposing both workers and surrounding citizens to dangerous concentrations of chlorine and hydrochloric acid.”

Renner continued: “It may be tempting to regard this as just another case of China’s “Wild East” development model. The truth is that the solar PV industry, regardless of location, uses “extremely toxic materials or materials with unknown health and environmental risks,” in the words of a January 2009 Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition report. The study speaks of a “limited window of opportunity to ensure that this extremely important industry is truly ‘clean and green,’ from its supply chains through product manufacturing, use, and end-of-life disposal.”

Renner, though, cautions that it is “also important to assess the situation in a comparative manner.” He cites a Journal of the American Medical Association paper this year that, while acknowledging there are some limits concerning available data and studies, concludes occupational hazards in the fossil fuel sector – with regard to mining and power plant operations – are substantially higher than those associated with wind and solar energy.

Renner says: “This is true not just in absolute terms (the fossil sector is presently still so much bigger), but also with regard to the relative risks (ie. per unit of output.)

“The perhaps most rigorous comparative assessment to date, undertaken by the European Union, confirmed this judgment. In the US context, the JAMA authors find that “the potential occupational health benefits of transitioning to renewable energies are considerable.”

Renner concludes: “The wind and solar industries hold tremendous potential to halt humanity’s race to the climate precipice. Their appeal will be even stronger if they are developed in such a way as to respect not only environmental limits, but also to protect those who often find themselves on the frontline of exposure—the world’s workers.”

But this is not the whole story. Many green jobs are old jobs in green livery. The waste industry morphed into the recycling industry, keeping its horrific fatality record all the while. Manufacturing, transporting, assembling and maintaining wind turbines has and will make workers sick. Ditto other “clean” sources, that haven’t had the benefit of a full lifecycle analysis of related costs and burdens (like, say, the chronic diseases of coal mining of the health and waste headache of nuclear).

And novel technologies and substances – for example, nanotechnology – will be hurried into use to save the environment with scant regard for health risks a working generation down the line.

There’s nothing so far to suggest the management of green industries will be any more caring than its less green predecessors, so switching from old to new industries, to recycle Philip Larkin’s memorial comment on the parental legacy, “may give you all the faults they had, and add some extra just for you.”

This is not lost on Renner. He acknowledges that concerns about safety in new and old jobs underscore “that, as always, regulations, transparency, and the right to organize are critical elements in making workplaces safe and working conditions (and wages) decent.”

This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.