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With more solar panels than ever before being installed on rooftops, it’s vital that installers are equipped to work safely. Read about the main hazards associated with solar panel installation and maintenance, and how to prevent them.
The world is rapidly moving towards increasing the use of sustainable, green power sources and, as a result, the solar panel industry has boomed over the past decade. As of May 2023, the United Kingdom registered there is a total of 15.1 GW of solar capacity across 1,334,453 installations. This is an increase of 6.4% (911 MW) since May 2022.
Experts predict that the solar energy industry in the UK will continue to grow over the next decade, with solar power becoming an increasingly important component of the country’s energy mix. By 2030, some projections suggest that solar energy could account for as much as 20% of the UK’s total electricity generation.
Figures from research by Solar Media Ltd show that 369MW of UK solar capacity in 2021 was rooftop solar. We all know that installing and maintaining solar units on roofs is not a danger-free task. Injuries resulting from poor handling of the panels, burns, falls, electrocution or falls from height are all real hazards that solar engineers face at work.
As leading safety experts, we emphasize planning and prevention when it comes to tackling any project, and solar safety is no different.
Here are the most common hazards that you can encounter when installing or maintaining PV panels:
Solar panels can generate up to 600 volts when exposed to sunlight, which makes them extremely hazardous to work around. There is a risk of electrocution if corroded cables are present, wiring is loose, or grounding has not been done properly.
Those most at risk are inexperienced technicians who are not aware of the intricacies of working with these systems.
Always thoroughly check the PV system and all its components before starting work; check the combiner box, PV source and output circuit conductors, as well as the equipment grounding conductor.
Always use the DC disconnect switch when working on a string of solar panels, as the panels will keep producing power even when the main breaker for the building is off. The modules should be packed in a box until the last minute before installation, with the face covered with opaque material to stop electrical production. Never touch the modules that are exposed to light.
Use a meter or circuit test device to ensure circuits are de-energized before working on them, and only use insulated tools. Avoid contact with nearby high-voltage power lines during installation.
Fires and explosions usually happen as a result of faulty wiring and careless installation near flammable gases or vapors. Installers can also get burns if they apply fluids to a hot solar panel, as the liquid will rapidly turn into steam.
Use the correct wire size and earth all electrical systems and tools properly. Carry out a site survey first to ensure that you check for hazardous gases or vapors in the area before beginning the installation process.
Handle the panels with gloves, and always allow enough cooling time before performing maintenance.
Without suitable fall protection systems such as guardrails, skylights, walkways and lifelines, technicians are all at risk of falls when installing PV panels. It only takes a moment of inattention for a slip, trip, or fall to occur, all of which can be lethal on rooftops.
There is a range of systems and solutions to help prevent falls from height, and key duty holders such as employers and building owners should always invest in these systems where possible.
Where the layout of the roof permits, guardrails are some of the most efficient systems you can put in place to keep workers safe. They require no user training and are extremely resistant to both weather and time when installed properly.
What’s more, a roof edge barrier can protect multiple users at the same time, as well as prevent materials and tools from falling off the roof and endangering the public. Most modern roof guardrails are quick to install, reliable, and can save on costs - and trouble - in the long run.
A large number of commercial buildings feature skylights; these panels are never safe to step on and should be protected by either a roof guardrail or fragile roof light covers.
These prevention measures will help technicians navigate the roof safely and avoid falls through the roof.
Depending on the angle and shape of the roof, guardrails may not always be suitable.
Alternatively, you can protect solar panel technicians performing work at height with a roof walkway system. Rooftop walkways enable workers to safely navigate the roof, allowing safe access to panels and preventing them from having to walk across the roof surface or get close to the roof edge.
Together with suitable PPE such as harnesses, roof walkways are a fantastic way to minimise the risk of falls from height.
When installing or maintaining solar panels, workers may need to move around the roof, which increases the risk of falling. By using a horizontal lifeline system, engineers can attach themselves to the lifeline and move along the roof safely, reducing the risk of falls and other accidents.
It is important that the system is designed, installed, and used under the supervision of a qualified person as part of a complete personal fall protection. It should also be regularly inspected and maintained to ensure their safety and effectiveness.
Choosing the correct ladder for accessing roofs is also important. Fixed ladders made of solid, resistant materials such as titanium and steel are ideal.
Extra protection in the form of cages, lanyards or roof access gates is recommended on a case-by-case basis. Never carry solar panels or any bulky or large equipment up a ladder; instead, try moving materials to rooftops using mobile elevated work platforms or cranes.
Here are a few aspects to take into consideration before starting any project that requires access to roofs:
A risk assessment is a document that will help you build a complete picture of the project, and identify and prevent potential hazards before workers are exposed. A few questions you should ask are:
All technicians installing or maintaining solar panels should be specifically trained to do so. They should also be aware of all the details of the project, including roof layout, the equipment or safety system they are using, and emergency procedures.
Key duty holders should ensure that only those who are trained and permitted to access the roof do so.
Sometimes, things can go wrong, and accidents can happen even with the best intentions.
When that happens, you need a rescue plan in place to mitigate the consequences. Always ensure that there is an emergency contact list and a rescue procedure in the unfortunate event that someone does get hurt.
Planning and prevention are key aspects when it comes to solar panel installation and maintenance. As fall protection experts, we can help you choose the best safety system for your solar panel project.
If you need any help or want to find out more about safety systems that help prevent falls from height, get in touch.