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Occupational Health and Safety in Renewable Energy Sector

According to International Energy Agency (IEA) by 2022, Global Renewable Energy generation is expected to grow by over one-third to over 8000 terawatts per hour, equal to the total power consumption of China, India and Germany combined. The renewable energy sector at present employs nearly 9.8 million people worldwide in different stages of renewable energy production.

As the renewable energy industry continues to grow, new challenges begin to emerge. With an increasing number of workers now employed in various aspects of the sector, Occupational Health and Safety become a prime concern. While it has been suggested that renewable energy production may result in fewer occupational injuries and fatalities than fossil fuel extraction and processing, each type of renewable energy production process presents unique occupational hazards in construction, operation, and maintenance of the facilities.

Given the case, renewable energy sector does not have industry-specific standards and indicators for Occupational Health and Safety.  Research on worker safety, particularly long-term occupational health effects, in renewable energy industries is limited. Worker safety standards and indicators are often based on experience from other industries that are assumed to have similar hazards.

According to Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA), the hazards in the renewable energy sector are not unique and OSHA has many standards that cover them. For example, the Electrical hazards in solar and wind energy are covered by OSHA’s Work Hazards and Safety Practices in the Electric Power Industry.

But there are some unique risks that are sector specific. This argument can be justified by considering the following

  1. Unlike conventional energy plants, renewable energy plants are not geographically bound and inaccessible by the public. So the risk to the public is a major factor in the OHS of renewable energy.

  2. Risk due to operation in challenging areas. Renewable energy plants are located in extreme conditions such as isolated, remote, difficult-to-reach areas and extreme weather conditions. The hazards under such situation can be more severe and very different from the conventional energy industries.

  3. Risk due to transportation of workers to challenging areas is not well defined, particularly in offshore wind farms.

  4. In wind farms, there are potential risks for both the personnel and the general public such as turbine collapse, Wind blade breaking etc.

  5. Due to limited research in OHS of RE, there can be unidentified risks.

Given the scenario, global leaders in renewable energy have tailored OHS system that suits their requirement for mitigating risk and increasing efficiency. These systems that organisations follow include the Occupational Health and Safety indicators used in general by similar sectors as well as industry-specific indicators and risk prevention activities. Also, organisations like International finance corporation (IFC) and Global Wind Organisation (GWO) recommend indicators using which Occupational Health and Safety can be quantified.

Therefore, in the absence of recognised standards and well-defined indicators, we can programme an effective OHS system, standards, and indicators for a company by comparing the OHS indicators and preventive measures taken by global leaders in the renewable energy sector and incorporate them with the recommendations provided by the organisations.

For this purpose, we have compared the OHS system of 13 global leaders of the renewable energy sector by analysing their respective sustainability reports. The companies compared are Vestas, Acciona, First Solar, ABB ltd., General Electric, Sunpower, Siemens Gamesa Renewable Energy, Atlantica Yield, Everbright International, EDP Renovaveis, GRI Renewable Industries, Inox Wind Limited, AGL Energy limited.

The standards employed by the companies are:

  1. OHSAS18001 (employed by all 13 companies)

Occupational Health and Safety Management Certification is an international standard which provides a framework to identify, control and decrease the risks associated with health and safety within the workplace.

  1. Global Wind Organisation Training Standards (Employed by Vistas and Acciona)

GWO provides training standards for wind energy sector. It provides Basic technical training standard and Basic safety training standard. This basic training covers first aid, manual handling, working at heights, fire awareness and offshore sea survival.

For quantifying and measuring the occupational health and safety parameters, the companies use both Leading Indicators and Lagging Indicators.

Leading Indicators also known as activities indicators (OECD 2003) are preventive measures taken to avoid a potential risk. A hazard should be prevented from manifesting by understanding and managing the circumstances preceding it. Indicators that can measure these circumstances and can give “advance warning” about what might be going wrong are called leading indicators. According to the analysis made, few of the leading indicators used by the global leaders in common are

  1. Near miss From Fatal Injury

  2. Unsafe conditions and Hazards identified

  3. Safety Audits

  4. Awareness programs (Safety Walks)

  5. Safety Drills

  6. EHS training Man Hours

  7. Critical Suppliers with OHS Management System

  8. Percentage of respondents to Employee survey

  9. Percentage of Employee Feedback

  10. OHS Training of Contractors/ Suppliers

  11. Training executive officers for leadership habits in Occupational Risk Prevention

  12. Medical treatment and immunisation

Lagging Indicators also known as outcome indicators (OECD 2003) measures final outcomes. Following an incident, injury statistics are recorded to identify the level of harm or potential for harm, and the immediate cause of the incident and the injury. These indicators are referred to as lagging indicators. The cause of the incident and its effects can be identified, but only after the incident and injury has occurred. According to the analysis made, few of the lagging indicators used by the global leaders in common are

  1. Incidence of total recordable injuries

  2. Incidence of lost time injuries

  3. Absence due to illness among hourly-paid employees

  4. Absence due to illness among salaried employees

  5. Fatality Rate

  6. Public Fatality Rate

  7. Incident severity rate

  8. Contractor Accident Rate (frequency rate)

  9. On route accidents

  10. On mission accidents

  11. Occupational Illness

Leading and lagging indicators should both have:

Definition: states what is being measured in terms that are meaningful to the intended audience (OECD 2008) and

Metric: define the unit of measurement or how the indicator is being measured. This should be precise enough to highlight trends over time and/or highlight deviations from expectations that require a response (OECD 2008).

By comparing the data of each indicator (both leading and lagging) of the 13 companies we can find the company with the maximum value and minimum value for each of the indicator. For certain indicators the lesser the parameter value the higher the OHS system efficiency such as Total Recordable injuries and Fatality rate.  For certain indicators the higher the value the higher is the OHS system efficiency such as total unsafe conditions/ hazards identified. When maximum unsafe conditions are identified maximum potential risks can be mitigated.

By comparing the maximum value and minimum value of an indicator we can arrive at an optimal range in which a parameter value should lie to have an efficient OHS system. Let us consider few of the comparisons made:

Lagging Indicator

Incidence of total recordable injuries

For Incidence of total recordable injuries, Acciona has the maximum value that is 19 (Per one million working hours) and First Solar has the minimum value that is 2.15 (Per one million working hours).

The maximum value of Acciona and the minimum value of First solar can be explained by considering other aspects of the companies.  First Solar is involved in manufacturing, installation and operation of solar energy whereas Acciona is involved in energy (Solar, wind, Biomass) and Infrastructure business. That total recordable injuries of Acciona includes the injuries in both Energy and Infrastructure business. Also, both the companies have a difference in the number of projects.

Thus, no two companies can be absolutely compared but an optimal range can be determined for an indicator. In this case, the optimal range can be determined depending upon a company’s capacity, the number of projects and businesses. But in general, the optimal range can be below 5 (Per one million working hours).

Fatality Rate

The company with the maximum fatality rate is General Electric that is 5 and the company with the minimal fatality rate is Vestas that is 0. For fatality rate, the recommended value is always zero.

Leading Indicator

Occupational Health and safety training:

The maximum hours of training in OHS is given by Vestas that is 1,795,276 hours and the minimum hours of training are given by EDP Renovaveis. The difference in the values can again be justified by comparing other aspects of the companies.

The optimal hours of training can be company specific. But in general, the optimal hours of training can be 180 hours per site.

Thus, as mentioned above no two companies can be absolutely compared. But the comparison can provide us with an optimal range and valuable knowledge in Occupational Health and Safety in the renewable energy sector. Renewable Energy specific indicators and standards may be laid down in the future but at present referring the path followed by global leaders proves effective to build an efficient OHS system.


The blog is prepared by Ms. N. Elakiya Priya, (student MBA in Sustainability Management specializing in Operations at Xavier University Bhubaneshwar) during her internship with RSM GC. Her profile

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