The solar industry has come a long way on safety, but there is still room for improvement when it comes to protecting installers, writes Poppy Johnston.

Solar installation sites are risky places to work. People are handling heavy, bulky panels at heights and crawling around in ceiling spaces where they may encounter live electrical cables, asbestos and dangerously hot temperatures.

The good news is workplace health and safety has become a focus in the solar industry of late. In some Australian states and territories, solar installation sites have become a priority for workplace safety and electrical safety regulators. Industry bodies are also stepping up to improve safety across the industry.

Smart Energy Lab general manager Glen Morris, who has been working in the solar industry for 30 years, has observed a notable improvement in safety. “It wasn’t that long ago, maybe 10 years, that people would just climb a ladder onto a roof, maybe with a harness on, and install panels,” he says.

Although the same legislation regulating working at heights and other safety concerns has been in place for decades, he says enforcement is now more vigorous.

“These days, solar installers look more like builders putting up a house,” says Morris. “They’ve got to put in edge protection, they’ve got to have a documented safety work method identified onsite, and COVID-19 safety plans have to be in place.”

However, he says there has been some pushback.

“We must admit adding safety doesn’t make any money,” says Morris. “And it’s always hard to compete in a market where not everyone’s doing the right thing. But coming home at the end of the day is what matters.”

Travis Cameron is the founder and director of safety consultancy Recosafe. He says the solar industry has come a long way to embed health and safety practices.

In the early days, the industry largely flew under the radar, but with large installation numbers occurring daily and an increase in incidents, regulators began incorporating safety programs and initiatives.

Cameron also says that lessons have been learnt from the Home Insulation Program that was introduced under former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, which unfortunately was affected by several workplace health and safety incidents. Because solar installations are also supported with subsidies, governments are taking measures to prevent unsafe work practices.

Still a long way to go

According to Michael Tilden, assistant state inspector from SafeWork NSW, while speaking at a Smart Energy Council webinar in September 2021, the NSW safety regulator saw a rise in complaints and incidents in the solar industry during the previous 12 to 18 months. He said this was in part due to a rise in demand for renewable energy, with 90,415 installations recorded between January and November 2021.

Sadly, there were two fatalities recorded in that time.

In 2019, Tilden said the regulator visited 348 construction sites, targeting falls, and found 86 per cent of those sites had ladders that weren’t set up correctly, and 45 per cent had inadequate edge protection in place.

“This is quite concerning in terms of the level of risk these activities present,” he told the webinar.

Tilden said most of the serious injuries and fatalities occur between just two and four metres. He also said the bulk of fatal injuries tend to occur when someone falls through roof surfaces, as opposed to falling off a roof edge. Unsurprisingly, young and inexperienced workers are more vulnerable to falls and other safety breaches.

The risk of losing a human life should be enough to persuade most companies to abide by safety regulations, but there is also the risk of fines upwards of $500,000, which is enough to put many small companies out of business.

Prevention is better than cure

Ensuring a workplace is safe starts with a thorough risk assessment and consulting with stakeholders. A Safe Work Method Statement (SWMS) is a document that sets out high-risk construction work activities, the hazards arising from these activities, and the measures put in place to control the risks.

Planning a safe worksite needs to start well before a workforce has been dispatched to the site. It should begin prior to the installation during the quoting process and pre-inspection so workers are sent out with all the right equipment, and safety requirements are factored into the costs of the job. A “toolbox talk” with workers is another key step to ensure all team members are across the various risks of a specific job and have had the appropriate training to mitigate them.

Cameron says safety should also feed into the design stage of the solar system to prevent incidents during installation and future maintenance. For example, installers may avoid putting panels near a skylight if there is a safer alternative, or install a permanent ladder so if there is a fault or fire, someone can get onto the roof quickly without causing injury or harm.

He adds there are duties around safe design in the relevant legislation.

“I think eventually regulators will start looking at this,” he says.

Avoiding falls

Managing falls follows a hierarchy of controls that starts with eliminating the risks of falling from edges, through skylights or brittle roofing surfaces. If the risk can’t be eliminated on a particular site, installers must work through a series of risk mitigation strategies starting from the safest through to the most hazardous. Basically, when a work safety inspector comes to the site, workers must prove why they couldn’t go to the higher level or they risk a fine.

Temporary edge protection or scaffolding is typically considered the best protection when working at heights. Installed correctly, this equipment is deemed much safer than a harness system and can even improve productivity.

Advances in this equipment have made it easier to install. For example, worksite equipment company SiteTech Solutions offers a product called the EBRACKET that can be easily set up from the ground so by the time the workers are on the roof, there is no way they can fall off an edge. It also relies on a pressure-based system so it doesn’t physically attach to the house.

These days, harness protection – a work positioning system – is only permissible when edge protection of scaffolding is not possible. Tilden said in the event that harnesses need to be used, it’s critical they are set up properly with a documented plan to show the system layout with anchor point locations to ensure a safe radius of travel from each anchor. What needs to be avoided is creating dead zones where the harness has enough slack in it to allow a worker to fall all the way to the ground.

Tilden said companies are increasingly using two types of edge protection to be sure they can provide full coverage.

Watch out for skylights

Skylights and other unstable roof surfaces, such as glass and rotten timber, are also dangerous if not managed correctly. Viable options include using an elevated work platform so workers aren’t standing on the roof itself, and physical barriers such as guard rails.

SiteTech chief executive officer Erik Zimmerman says his company has recently released a mesh product that is designed to cover skylights and other fragile areas. He says the system, which uses a metal mounting system, is much lighter than alternatives and has been popular, with more than 50 sold since the product launched in late 2021.

Electrical dangers

Dealing with electrical equipment also opens the possibility of electric shock or electrocution. Key steps to avoid this include ensuring electricity can’t be turned back on once it is turned off – using lock out/tag out methods – and being sure to test that electrical equipment is not live.

All electrical work needs to be done by a qualified electrician, or be under the supervision of a person who is qualified to supervise an apprentice. However, on occasion, unqualified people end up working with electrical equipment. There’s been efforts to stamp out this practice.

Morris says the standards for electrical safety are robust, but where some states and territories fall short is on electrical safety compliance. He says Victoria, and to some extent, the ACT have the highest watermarks for safety. He adds that installers accessing the federal rebate scheme through the Small-scale Renewable Energy Scheme will likely get a visit from the Clean Energy Regulator as it inspects a high proportion of sites.

“If you have an unsafe mark against you, that can affect your accreditation,” he says.

The HERM Logic Inclined Lift Hoist is designed to make it quicker and safer to lift solar panels and other heavy equipment onto a roof. Photo: HERM Logic.

Save your back and save money

John Musster is the chief executive officer at HERM Logic, a company that provides inclined lifts for solar panels. This piece of equipment is designed to make it quicker and safer to lift solar panels and other heavy equipment up onto a roof. It works by hoisting panels up a set of tracks using an electric motor.

He says there are several different options for getting panels on roofs. The most inefficient and dangerous way that he has witnessed is an installer carrying a solar panel with one-hand while climbing up a ladder and then passing the panel to another installer standing on the edge of the roof. Another inefficient way is when an installer is standing on the back of a truck or elevated surface and getting someone on the roof to pull it up.

“This is the most dangerous and hardest on the body,” says Musster.

Safer options include elevated work platforms such as scissor lifts, overhead cranes and hoisting devices such as the one HERM Logic provides.

Musster says the product has sold well during the years, partly in response to stricter regulatory oversight of the industry. He also says companies are attracted to the device because it increases efficiency.

“In a highly competitive market, where time is money and where contractors work harder to do more with fewer team members, installation companies are attracted to the device because it increases efficiency,” he says.

“The commercial reality is the faster you set up and the faster you transfer materials onto the roof, the faster you get a return on investment. So there’s a real commercial gain.”

The role of training

As well as including adequate safety training as part of general installer training, Zimmerman also believes manufacturers can play a role in upskilling workers when selling new products.

“What typically happens is someone will buy a product, but there’s not a lot of instructions on how to use it,” he says. “Some people don’t read the instructions anyway.”

Zimmerman’s company has hired a gaming firm to build virtual reality training software that simulates the activity of installing equipment onsite.

“I think that sort of training is really critical,” he says.

Programs such as the Clean Energy Council’s solar installer accreditation, which includes a comprehensive safety component, also helps raise the bar for safe installation practices. While voluntary, installers are heavily incentivised to get accreditation as only accredited installers can access the solar incentives provided by governments.

Other risks

Cameron says asbestos risk is something to always be mindful of. Asking questions about the age of a building is usually a good starting point to assess the likelihood of asbestos. 

Particular attention should be paid for young workers and apprentices in providing appropriate supervision and training.

Cameron also says workers in Australia are facing extreme heat being on roofs and in roof cavities, where it can get upwards of 50 degrees Celsius.

In regards to long-term stressors, workers should be mindful of sun exposure and injuries caused by poor posture.

Going forward, Zimmerman says battery safety will likely become a bigger focus as well.