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Building a Safer Future: What the Solar Industry Needs to Change

Katherine McCallum
May 13, 2024
5
min read
A construction worker placing a solar collacter on a roof in Australia

Solar power is one of the green energies of the future. However, the industry and its workers face multiple challenges affecting workplace safety and the risk of long-term health concerns. 

We’ll look at the current risks and news surrounding health and safety in the solar industry, as well as what rights workers in Queensland have working in these types of conditions. 

The Growth of Solar Energy in Australia

Solar energy has seen a massive surge in popularity and investment in Australia in recent years, with investment into the sector almost doubling in 2022 according to Government figures. To put things into perspective, Australia is projected to go from 41.64 gigawatts of solar-powered electricity in 2024, to 80.41 gigawatts in just 5 years in 2029. 

This green form of renewable energy makes good use of Australia’s naturally sunny climate, with an average of around 8 hours of bright sunshine each day across the country. As a result, it’s an integral part of the Government’s plan to be able to hit net zero carbon emissions, with around 90% of the country’s energy coming from solar and wind farms by 2050.

The Risks Surrounding Rapid Solar Farm Construction

To be able to perform such rapid transformations in Australia’s energy industry, large-scale construction of solar farms is taking place all over the country. However, with this mass construction comes a multitude of risks, with contractors scrambling to meet deadlines and fuel a growing need for labourers.

International Workers and Backpackers

To keep this massive project going, large numbers of workers are needed to construct the solar panels and create the farms. This has created countless jobs, as well as provided employment for those from abroad, such as backpackers who take jobs on solar farms to earn a working visa to support their travels. It’s estimated that since 2019, over 10,000 international travellers and workers have been employed by the industrial solar industry.

Understandably, a lot of these workers are not trained or have prior experience in the construction industry, which in and of itself could lead to accidents and increased risk. Not only that but a lot of them are not used to the climate in Australia, especially the stifling summer heat that can even prove dangerous to native workers, too. 

Some backpackers have reported working in over 40-degree heat with 60-kilometre-an-hour winds on top, conditions that would not be safe even for the most seasoned of employees. Despite this, they were still required to install solar panels weighing in at 25 kilos apiece. 

The Rushed Work and Dangerous Conditions

Due to increased demand and looming deadlines, often workers on solar panel farm construction sites are rushed into completing work as quickly as possible so that the companies that they work for can avoid fines for late delivery. 

Electrician’s union the ETU has also found evidence of backpackers and other labourers installing solar panels in the rain in knee-deep puddles, a surefire risk of electrocution. 

This and other shoddy work practices, in order to meet deadlines, can lead to the potential for dangerous accidents and near misses, especially when working 60-hour weeks in outdoor conditions. 

Electrical Safety

Solar farms are essentially power stations, but reports have been made that on several sites the qualifications of those asked to handle electrical components and wiring are lacking. Instead of utilising on-site electricians, other manual workers like the backpackers are often charged with tasks such as connecting wiring and organising cables. 

This is something that electricians working on the sites have called out, as it is not them delegating this potentially dangerous work to unskilled labourers. Often, these electricians felt like spare parts on solar farm construction projects as if they were only there just to meet the legal requirement of having them on site. 

Queensland’s Response and Regulations

This has not escaped the notice of the state of Queensland, as they launched a review into practices on solar farm construction sites after a spate of injuries, including electrocutions and burns. 

After finding out that unlicensed workers were undertaking electrical work including with 1500-volt cables, they issued a reminder to solar farm owners and contractors of the legal implications of the construction of solar farms. This included a reminder that:

  • They must have a current Queensland electrical contractor licence,
  • Only licensed electricians should be allowed to undertake electrical work, 
  • And that risk assessments and isolation procedures must be undertaken before any work gets underway. 

In addition, on the 5th of April 2024, Workplace Health and Safety Queensland updated its code of practice for the construction of solar farms, including a much heavier emphasis on worker qualifications and safety. 

What Needs to Happen

However, some feel that more needs to be done when it comes to protecting those working on solar power construction sites. We’ll run down some of the proposed solutions and guidance for improving workplace safety on solar farms. 

Mandatory Training

Often, labourers go to work at solar farms without prior training. The introduction of mandatory, legislated training for all solar farm workers would help them to be able to do their jobs efficiently and provide them with the proper awareness of potential hazards as well as the relevant health and safety protocols. 

More Frequent Inspections

Implementing more frequent government agency inspections of solar farm construction sites will keep companies on their toes to ensure they are promoting safe work practices. It will also make it harder for subpar practices to go under the radar, especially if unannounced visits are included in the inspection schedule. 

Better Whistleblower Channels

Setting up secure and confidential whistleblower channels can help workers, especially those who may not wish to speak out due to fear of losing their employment, to be able to voice concerns that they may have on the job. This is particularly necessary for international workers who may be worried about their visas being under threat. 

Incentives for Safer Workplaces

To promote safe work practices and positive worker experiences, some have even suggested offering incentives to companies that prioritise safety across their construction sites. 

Worker’s Rights on Solar Farms

All workers employed by businesses in Queensland, including those on working holiday visas, should be covered under a company’s WorkCover insurance. This means that the company is liable to provide compensation through this scheme should any of its workers suffer a workplace injury or incident. 

When it comes to workplace safety on solar farms, the PCBU is responsible for ensuring the Electrical Safety (ES) Act is complied with, including safeguarding employees against risks involving electricity. 

All workers in Queensland and Australia as a whole have exactly the same worker’s rights, no matter their visa or immigration status. The Fair Work Ombudsman has a duty of care to visa holders, and to protect their status in line with the Assurance Protocol should a workplace incident take place. 

If you want to know more about your rights in the workplace in regards to your safety, whether you work on a solar farm or elsewhere, the team at Smith’s Lawyers is always ready to lend a helping hand. Experts in workplace law, we can help you to understand your options and offer guidance on the road ahead. Get in touch with us today. 

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