At an American Public Health Association annual meeting session a couple of years ago, I learned from the panelists that green jobs aren’t always safe jobs — for instance, energy-efficient buildings and wind turbines can be designed without proper consideration for how workers constructing or servicing them will be protected from falls or assured adequate ventilation in confined spaces. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health’s Prevention Through Design program is addressing these issues and others related to green jobs, but there’s still a lot of progress to be made.
Occupational health and safety at the manufacturing stage are also important. In the case of solar photovoltaics, manufacturing solar panels currently involves using toxic compounds that can harm workers’ health and the environment if not handled properly. As You Sow, a nonprofit that promotes corporate responsibility, has released a new report on best practices in the photovoltaics industry. Clean & Green: Best Practices in Photovoltaics. Here are some highlights from their best practices, which resulted from a survey sent to 100 solar companies around the world and consultation with cientists, engineers, academics, and industry consultants.
Management: Companies should have strong environmental management systems, including a direct line of accountability straight to senior executives, and “have a worker health and safety committee to identify and address health and safety challenges and act as a forum for solving challenges.” Companies should also have key performance indicators for environmental health and safety.
Disclosure: Companies should share their efforts in environmental health and safety; many companies do so through corporate social responsibility reports that describe progress toward key goals and milestones.
Supply Chain: Supplier selection should involve environmental and worker-health criteria, and companies should audit suppliers for compliance with codes of conduct that include environmental health and safety requirements. Decisions about where to site new facilities should take into account the local context for ensuring safe working conditions and environmental stewardship. Companies should engage with local governments and NGOs on environmental and worker-health issues, and establish whistleblower hotlines.
Manufacturing: Processes should be designed to minimize workers’ potential exposures to hazardous materials, for instance, through airtight assembly lines that eliminate the need for workers to come into physical contact with panels before they’re encapsulated in modules. Survey respondents described safety teams with rotating participation, job hazard analyses, trainings, audits, workplace safety internal controls and committees, and sampling by industrial hygiene teams among the steps they take to ensure worker health and safety during manufacturing.
Research and development: Developing photovoltaics that use less-hazardous materials is the best way to reduce the use of and exposure to hazardous substances that currently characterize PV production.
There’s far more in the As You Sow report, and another great source of information and resources is the Blue-Green Alliance’s Clean Energy Manufacturing Center.
Of course, solar energy is far more sustainable and better for overall public health than burning fuels, and coal mining kills workers with alarming regularity, both through mine explosions and fires and with black lung. But photovoltaic manufacturing can still get safer for workers and the environment as a whole, and it’s great to see efforts by As You Sow and others to make this happen.