Equipment Notes: Solar Energy
Roofing Safety Risks & Their Protection
by Dan Dallenbach, territory sales manager, Roofmaster
(Editor’s Note: Dan Dallenbach has 25 years of sales and marketing experience in the roofing industry, both in manufacturing and distribution. He has spent the last several of those years with Roofmaster® Products Company.)
Installing solar systems and working with and around solar panels is a risky business. Lifting and arranging unwieldy solar panels, the potential for falls off many-storied rooftops, and panels that heat up as soon as they’re uncovered are some of the serious hazards that solar workers face. They’re also subject to the risks of traditional roofing, carpentry, and electrical trades, which are already some of the most accident-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 by creating a manual of their own that details 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.
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: equipment to be used for safe lifting and handling of solar panels; type and size of ladders and scaffolding if needed for project; fall protection for rooftop work; personal protective equipment for each installer; and all equipment needed for the job should be inspected and verified to be in good working order before being brought to the worksite.
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, back injuries, and cumulative trauma that can stress the spine. The panels can also heat up quickly when exposed to sunlight, causing burns if not handled safely. Safety measures for roofing and solar workers include: lift each solar panel with at least two people while applying safe lifting techniques; transport solar panels onto and around the worksite using mobile carts or forklifts; and never climb ladders while carrying solar panels. To get solar panels onto rooftops, use properly inspected cranes, hoists, or ladder-based winch systems. Cover panels with an opaque sheet to prevent heat buildup and photovoltaic generation and always wear gloves when handling panels.
Solar construction often involves working on roofs and from ladders. Safety measures for roofing and solar workers include: 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 3’ feet above the rung that the worker will stand upon; and 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. Also, be sure to place the ladder on dry, level ground removed from walkways and doorways, and at least 10’ from power lines and secure it to the ground or rooftop.
Trips and falls are a common hazard of all construction jobs, including solar. Rooftops solar installations are especially hazardous because the workspace diminishes as more panels are installed, increasing the risk of falls. Safety measures for roofing and solar workers include: keep all work areas dry and clear of obstructions; for fall distances of six feet or more, install guardrails around ledges, sunroofs, or skylights; use safety nets for fall-prone areas; provide each employee with a body harness that is anchored to the rooftop to arrest a potential fall; and cover holes on rooftops, including skylights and on ground-level work surfaces.
It’s important to recognize that with solar electric 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 solar electric 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 include: cover the solar array with an opaque sheet to block sunlight; use a meter or circuit test device to ensure that all circuits are de-energized before working on them; lock out the power on systems that can be locked out and tag all circuits you’re working on at points where that equipment or circuit can be energized; and never disconnect solar module connectors or other associated solar wiring when it is under load. Proactive safety planning and its successful implementation on the job can help ensure that accidents don’t happen.