Extreme Heat Hits Clean Energy Workers Hard–How Can the Industry Keep Them Safe?

August 27, 2021 | 9:35 am
Shows worker at solar farm.Ken Oltmann, CoServ/U.S. Dept. of Energy
Adenike Adeyeye
Former Contributor

Climate change-induced heat waves have been brutal across the country this summer, and perhaps paradoxically, the workers who are helping us avoid the worst of climate change are particularly at risk in this heat. Clean energy workers who are installing solar panels work outdoors and face high risk of heat stress when temperatures climb. At the same time, many of these workers are not a part of any union and do not have bargaining power to make sure they receive the workplace protections they deserve by law. Let’s take a look at how greater workplace protections, like unionization, would help these workers stay safe in extreme heat.

Outdoor solar workers make up the majority of a growing industry

The solar industry is growing across the board, given solar energy is one of the key tools in our race to blunt the effects of climate change. In 2020, 231,474 people were employed in the solar industry, and just 10% of those workers were part of a union. (This is similar to the economy-wide union rate: in 2019, 10.3% of all workers were union members.) The industry is projected to employ 400,000 workers by 2030. The Biden administration has prioritized clean energy jobs to revitalize a sluggish economy while mitigating the effects of climate change, and the Solar Foundation has estimated that reaching the goals of the Biden Administration’s clean energy standard would require 900,000 solar workers by 2035.

To narrow our focus down to outdoor workers, let’s look at the stats for workers in installation or construction related jobs in the solar industry. They make up 67% of all workers in the industry, or an estimated 154,610 jobs in 2020, and 11.7% of them were members of a union. If the industry grows to 900,000 workers by 2035 as the Solar Foundation estimates, that means more than 600,000 people in the solar industry will be working outdoors. If the proportion of unionized workers stays the same, approximately 70,500 outdoor workers will be unionized and over 530,000 outdoor workers will not be unionized.

While this blog assumes that installation and construction jobs are outdoors, they are not the only jobs that might take place outside. Some solar marketing jobs require workers to go door to door to sell homeowners on installing rooftop solar. There were 25,663 sales and distribution workers in 2020, but it is unclear what proportion of those people worked outdoors. Those door-to-door workers would also benefit from heat safety protections. Similarly, outdoor workers in other clean energy industries would also benefit from stronger workplace protections.

What outdoor heat protections do solar workers need?

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA, lists extreme heat as one of the green job hazards that solar workers experience. As summer weather gets more and more extreme in the West and across the country, employers need to provide outdoor workers with schedule changes, personal protective equipment, hydration, and breaks necessary to keep them healthy. And shockingly, there are no federal laws requiring employers to offer these protections to workers. OSHA recommends, but does not require, limiting sun exposure during the most intense periods for UV radiation – from 10 am to 4pm – as well as working in the shade, taking frequent short breaks, and staying hydrated by drinking water frequently. Public health and workplace safety officials also recommend employers to give workers time to adjust to rising temperatures. This process is called acclimatization and it allows workers to work shorter or less intense shifts while their bodies get used to the heat. 

Following the OSHA guidelines could be easier said than done for some outdoor solar workers, depending on their employers. To comply with these guidelines, employers will need to allow their employees to take breaks often. They will need to shift the workday to minimize the amount of work happening at the hottest times of day. They may need additional labor while workers acclimatize – the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health states that new workers should have no more than 20% exposure to heat (relative to a normal workday) on their first day at work, and the exposure can increase no more than 20% per day after that.

Employers’ responsibilities to keep the work environment safe grow as the heat index rises. When the heat index ranges from 103 to 115 degrees, OSHA categorizes the risk level as high and calls for employers to provide water, encourage employees to drink water frequently, have medical personnel on site or available within 3-4 minutes, and actively enforce frequent breaks to prevent heat stress. When the heat index is above 115 degrees, the OSHA risk level rises to “very high to extreme” and employers are supposed to reschedule any nonessential work to a cooler day. These precautions are necessary to protect workers’ health but also come at a cost to the employer and are not federally mandated. Safeguards are needed to make sure employers comply with their duty to protect workers, particularly when temperatures rise. There is a bill before Congress now, the Asunción Valdivia Heat Illness and Prevention Act, that would require OSHA to adopt true, enforceable heat protection standards — passage of this bill would go a long way toward protecting outdoor workers.

Adequate protection for solar workers is no small matter: heat stress is a dangerous, even deadly, job hazard for outdoor workers. There are dozens of fatalities every year due to heat stress or heat stroke from working in extreme heat, according to OSHA. Construction workers, like those who work to install solar panels, account for a significant portion of heat-related fatalities, as the infographic below shows.

Unionization and prevailing wage standards create safer workplaces

One way to protect workers across the board is unionization. Unions advocate on behalf of workers to ensure safe workplaces as well as fair compensation and benefits. Almost 90% of solar workers, however, are not unionized, as described above. Making unionization more widespread would require new approaches, such as incentives for project developers or policy changes like the PRO Act which was passed in the US House of Representatives in March.

Increased unionization in the solar industry could improve the quality of solar industry jobs in a variety of ways. Unionizing provides workers with bargaining power. That often translates to more accountability for employers, which can lead to safer workplaces. Say, for example, it’s a blisteringly hot day and the heat index is 105 degrees. According to OSHA, the supervisor at a job site installing solar panels should be actively encouraging workers to take frequent breaks when the heat index is that high. But these breaks are only mandated by law in a handful of states. And people aren’t perfect: even in states where breaks are required, the supervisor on that day may not be telling workers to take frequent breaks. Who is more likely to speak up and ask for the break they are legally entitled to? A worker who has the protection of a union or a worker who feels as if they could be replaced or let go?

In addition to unionization, there are other policies that can be used to improve job quality and safety for outdoor clean energy workers. A UC Berkeley report found that smaller scale, residential solar projects offer lower wages and fewer paths for career advancement than large-scale solar projects. The difference between the smaller scale and larger scale projects is that the larger scale projects are often required to use project labor agreements (PLAs). State law can direct or require PLAs for large-scale clean energy projects. PLAs are negotiated to provide livable wages, benefits, and safer workspaces. Like PLAs, community workforce agreements (CWAs) can help ensure that workers receive high quality, safe jobs and that employers prioritize local hiring and hiring from disadvantaged communities. Workers benefit when large scale solar projects use PLAs and CWAs, and smaller scale projects that typically are not held to PLAs and CWAs might be able to produce higher quality jobs by adopting similar standards for livable wages and benefits.

Lastly, prevailing wage standards also help empower workers and create higher quality jobs. Prevailing wage “establishes a wage floor for each occupation that all contractors on a project must pay at or above – typically set to reflect the average or market average for a given type of work in a given area.” Prevailing wage standards may also “require contributions to workers’ benefits such as healthcare, paid time off, retirement funds, and apprenticeship training.” Research from the UC Berkeley Labor Center has found that prevailing wage has minimal impacts on project cost while offering significant benefits via improved worksite productivity. While higher pay and better benefits is not directly tied to workplace safety, research suggests that states with prevailing wage laws report fewer construction injuries than those without prevailing wage laws. PLAs, CWAs, and prevailing wage agreements have helped make jobs safer and more lucrative for workers.

The solar industry is a critical sector in transitioning our economy from its reliance on fossil fuels to clean energy. The industry should serve as a model in how it protects its workers, especially as its ranks continue to grow and our summers get hotter and hotter. Policies designed to give outdoor workers the job protections they deserve should become the norm, rather than the exception, in the solar industry.