According to the International Energy Agency, in 2020, 29% of the world’s electricity was generated by renewable technology. And in the UK, 2020 saw clean power generate more electricity than fossil fuels for the first time, showing just how quickly the energy market is transitioning away from fossil fuels.
According to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), employment in the energy sector will increase from 58 million in 2017, to 100 million in 2050. As such, the creation of renewable energy jobs will significantly outweigh losses in the nuclear and fossil fuels sectors.
However, despite the rapid growth of the renewables sector, the issue of how health and safety (H&S) will be handled in the industry moving forward, remains. An increase in H&S incidents in the sector in recent years raises concerns of wellbeing for renewables engineers.
Let’s take a closer look at the role of health and safety in the energy transition:
What health and safety risks is the energy industry facing?
The risks associated with the fossil fuel sector are well documented. In the coal industry alone, the mortality rate per terawatt-hour is 1,230 times higher than solar. However, despite the renewable energy sector being considered safer than the traditional energy sector, in many respects, they share similar concerns. Engineers face the risk of electrocution, fall hazards are ever-present, and working in confined spaces poses risks from fire, noxious fumes, and reduced oxygen levels.
As the renewables sector continues to grow, so will its health and safety risks. Emerging technologies are likely to present previously unknown dangers and the rapid pace of innovation will increase the potential for accidents amidst skills shortages. Project developers who are new to the market may also lack an awareness of these risks and overlook the need for robust health and safety practices and management.
From solar panels, to geothermal pumps, the renewable energy industry uses unique equipment and tools that require extensive training. Inexperienced engineers can unknowingly misuse machinery and fall victim to toxic chemicals and thermal burns.
What’s more, the installation of solar panels and wind turbines requires working at extreme heights, which poses a different set of risks than are typically associated with the fossil fuel sector. For example, over the last decade, the height of wind turbines has increased, and many turbines are now around 250 feet tall. As such, the need for fall arrest systems and fall protection training are critical in the renewables sector.
A rise in health and safety incidents
In recent years, the renewables sector, and onshore wind in particular, has seen an increase in the number of reported safety incidents. According to SafetyOn’s 2020 Onshore Wind Health and Safety Incident Data Report, there was a total of 532 reported incidents in 2020 across nearly seven million hours worked. Most of the incidents (86%) took place on an operational wind farms, with the remainder taking place on construction sites (12%), development sites (2%), or while working from home (0.4%).
According to the trade union, Prospect, in 2020, the rate of lost time to injuries in offshore renewables was four times as high as in offshore oil and gas. Following several serious incidents, the Health and Safety Executive was forced to intervene by writing to the employers’ safety bodies calling for action.
Prospect’s recent report, Protecting workers’ health and safety in renewables, highlights the fact that the growth of renewable energy hasn’t always reflected robust health and safety practices. In order to deliver net zero in the UK by 2050, an additional 400,000 energy workers will be required, and as such, the renewables industry needs to ensure its health and safety practices are as robust as possible.
The need for health and safety engineers in the energy transition
Given the rapid pace of the energy transition, the renewables industry is in need of qualified health and safety engineers to ensure projects are delivered without incident. Health and safety leadership encourages risk-based thinking and a learning mindset, which in turn, ensures that safety is treated as a priority.
H&S engineers provide specialist advice and training that supports frontline staff in their daily activities. They carry out risk assessments, control verifications and implement safety management systems.
In monitoring health and safety performance, H&S engineers can identify trends and areas that need improvement. They can provide strategic planning, including the development of materials that support the implementation of renewable energy projects.
According to conservative figures from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the demand for health and safety engineers is set to increase by 6% between 2020 and 2030. With several high profile renewable energy projects currently underway across the globe and the UK, we’d expect to see the demand for H&S professionals increase at a steady rate.
According to Glassdoor, the average salary for a Health and Safety Engineer in the UK is £45,740. However, this salary can often be higher in the energy industry, where specialist expertise are required. In short, there has never been a better time to work as a Health and Safety Engineer in the energy industry.
Health and safety jobs in the energy industry
This year, we published the Energy Outlook Report 2021-22 and revealed that health and safety roles are one of the top 5 most difficult to fill, according to recruiters.
Similarly, the Global Wind Energy Council (GWEC) recently reported that the wind industry will need to train over 480,000 people in the next five years, to meet worldwide demand for power safety.
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