Featured image depicting Renewable energy: Learning from the safety lessons of other industries

Renewable energy: Learning from the safety lessons of other industries

Larry Pearlman, Managing Director – Americas Market Leader at JMJ, discusses renewable energy’s steep safety learning curve. What are the challenges the industry faces? What valuable lessons can it learn from other industries? What 10 steps can leaders take now to create the foundations for a safety culture?

By Larry Pearlman  |  May 18, 2022

This is the renewable energy sector’s moment. As investors, consumers and governments turn away from fossil fuels, all eyes are on ‘green’ energy to satisfy the world’s post-pandemic demands.

Of course, like most industries, the sector’s growth has its challenges: soaring commodity costs, logistics issues, a shortage of skilled labor and geopolitical unrest, to name but a few. Yet despite these hurdles, growth across the renewable energy sector has continued its acceleration, with 11 million people now employed in the industry. As a citizen of Earth, I’m excited about the shift and relieved that we’re committed to doing more for our planet. As a safety consultant of some 30 years, I’m troubled by the nagging thought of worker safety. This relatively new, rapidly evolving industry hasn’t had time to develop the desired culture.  A culture where the myriad of process and personal safety risks have been identified, mitigated, managed and weighed.

Increased growth = increased risk

Injuries in the petroleum industry have been driven to very low levels. Many firms achieve a total recordable injury rate of 0.2, meaning of 1000 workers, only two will be injured in a one-year period. Renewable energy doesn’t do so well. In fact, the variation of injury rates is wildly variable. According to an examination of OSHA 300 logs, injury rates for solar firms range from 0.2 all the way to 331. At worst, that means one in three workers are getting hurt every year!

The reality is that the hazards faced by green energy workers have been around for a while and have been controlled and mitigated well in other industries. These hazards include falls, fires, electrical currents and working in confined spaces. As the renewable energy industry grows exponentially, so too will the risk of serious injuries and fatalities. There are a number of reasons for this:

  • Pressure for financial performance can run in opposition to a focus on safety performance 
  • Rapid growth places pressure on construction schedules causing a loss of focus or short cutting procedures
  • Misalignment and miscommunication with contractors on safety regulations and expectations, which increases the risk of injury 
  • New equipment and technology is being introduced to inexperienced workers, leading to injuries 
  • Leadership’s focus on budget, production and schedules creates a culture where safety is not seen as either a priority or a value

What can renewable energy leaders do NOW to protect their people?

The risks to your people, and consequently to your productivity and performance are very real.  We should take our cue from the vast experience of other sectors with similar risk factors. Whether it’s other forms of energy generation or, in the case of offshore renewables, oil and gas, there are vital lessons to be learned:

  1. Establish a risk and safety committee at the board level
  2. Learn how to balance the pressure to “build” with the need to “build it safely”
  3. Establish clear safety metrics, a safety management system and a strong management review process
  4. Balance executive incentives to include safety performance along with other business metrics 
  5. Articulate a clear vision for a safety culture and help people get behind it
  6. Use common risk tools (risk matrix, risk register) to understand and mitigate risk with assigned executive ownership
  7. Have the right capabilities and capacity to support safety. If you don’t have them, recognize the gap and figure out how to bridge it
  8. Focus on the new green energy workers. Include safety as part of the critical hiring phase and especially through the first 90 days of employment (when the majority of incidents and injuries occur)
  9. Be visible and accessible as a leader so you can build relationships with employees and contractors
  10. Know what to do if an injury happens and drill it again and again

Getting started

It’s never too soon or too late to start a safety journey. As business leaders it’s your job to set the tone. That starts with a vision that everyone can get behind and a plan for how to achieve it.

If you need a helping hand, JMJ has 35-years’ experience helping organizations and projects like yours achieve breakthrough safety, sustainability and performance results. Contact us today.

1OSHA ITA data: https://www.osha.gov/injuryreporting/ita/

About JMJ

For over three decades, JMJ has been delivering impactful cultural change to help executives, leaders and front-line workers transform safety, sustainability, and business performance. We combine the deep experience of our people with our proprietary Transformation Cloud platform to deliver breakthrough results, making the impossible possible. www.jmj.com

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