Energy price increases, growing environmental awareness and attractive subsidies have created a solar energy boom across Australia. In fact, the Australian PV institute states that as of 30 September 2022, over 3.27 million rooftop solar PV systems have been installed across Australia.
Solar is a booming industry, so it’s no surprise that the sector’s workforce is also on the rise. With the inherent dangers that typical rooftop solar installation and maintenance entails, it’s important that the industry, its companies, design consultants and contractors, continue to rise to meet safety demands and keep workers safe.
Anchor Safe continually look at the top height safety design considerations for solar installation and maintenance companies to promote best practices and understanding across the industry.
Understanding The Risks
Falls are a major cause of death and serious injury in Australian workplaces. Working at heights is often perceived as working at extreme heights, such as on top of wind turbines and on the edge of high-rise buildings. However, a significant number of the injuries and fatalities that occur from falls from heights are from less than 3m above the ground.
Working at height is simply defined as:
“where a worker has a risk of a fall from one level to another that is reasonably likely to cause injury to the worker or another person”
Whether installing or maintaining solar systems on a single-story dwelling or a large industrial or commercial building, it is critical that correct height safety systems and procedures are in place to keep workers safe.
Beyond the inherent risk of working at heights, solar installation and maintenance have other important risks factors that must be mitigated including:
- Working with electricity and battery storage systems including overhead powerlines
- Working in ceiling voids and confined spaces
- Manual Handling
- Exposure to asbestos and roof insulation fibres
- Environmental exposure
Understanding Your Obligations
As a Person Conducting a Business or Undertaking (PCBU), you have a legal obligation to ensure reasonable health and safety while working under the Work Health & Safety Act 2011. Businesses that sell, design, install and maintain solar systems have duties to provide and maintain a working environment that is safe and without risk to health and safety, so far as is reasonably practicable.
The unintended consequences of negligence can be extreme, both personally and professionally. Employers can face potential jail time and companies can be left with multi-million dollar fines for failing to meet their obligations to ensure the health and safety of workers at heights.
Conducting a Risk Assessment
A well-defined risk assessment is an important step when planning the installation or maintenance of rooftop solar systems. It is critical to perform a formal height safety risk assessment and deal with any identified risks according to the Hierarchy of Control.
Some important factors for consideration when installing and maintaining rooftop solar include:
- The roof type, material and condition
- The roof pitch or slope
- Existence of any damaged roofing, fragile or brittle roofing, or skylights.
- The method of access and egress for workers and materials
- Which fall prevention system is most suitable for the job in accordance with height safety standards and regulations?
- Which height safety equipment and PPE will be required to carry out the work safely?
- What training, instruction and supervision will be necessary?
Choosing a Fall Prevention or Fall Protection System
Choosing the right height safety system will be crucial in both keeping workers safe and meeting safety regulations. When deciding between Fall Arrest and Fall Restraint Systems it is important to again factor in the Hierarchy of Control.
Edge protection such as guardrails and scaffolding is the most recommended fall protection system in the hierarchy of control measures. A well-designed and compliant guardrail system is one of the safest ways to protect workers from accessing an edge or void, minimising the dangers of falling from heights.
Other permanent safety systems such as roof walkways and skylight protection are an important consideration for industrial and commercial operations looking to provide frequent access to their rooftop systems. Permanently installed safety systems provide the highest level of safety and compliance but are not typically suitable for residential uses.
Whether temporary or permanent edge protection is used, it is important to ensure that they are installed/erected in accordance with relevant Australian standards.
Fall restraint systems such as Static Lines that are able to physically prevent fall hazards from being reached may be suitable if it is not reasonably practicable to provide physical edge protection. These types of systems are more reliant on correct design and user behaviour to ensure their effectiveness, including in-depth inspections, length of the lanyard and whether the equipment is fit for purpose.
It is crucial that workers have the correct PPE including harnesses and lanyards, that all equipment has been adequately checked and deemed fit for purpose, and workers are sufficiently trained in the safe use of the systems.
Fall arrest systems must only be used where both edge protection and fall restraint systems are not reasonably practicable. A fall arrest system typically requires multiple anchor points to cover the working area and personal harnesses with lanyard shock absorbers or self-retracting lifelines.
An individual arrest system must only be used when circumstances do not permit a higher level of control. They heavily rely on workers to take safety into their own hands and require thorough checks and testing before each use.
When using a fall arrest system, you must develop an emergency plan including rescue procedures in relation to fall arrest. You must also provide adequate information, training and instruction to workers in relation to the systems use and its rescue procedures.
Again, It is crucial that workers have the correct PPE including harnesses and lanyards and that all equipment has been adequately checked and deemed fit for purpose.
Providing Safe Access
The safe access and egress of workers to the work area, as well as the safe transfer of materials and tools, are key safety issues when installing and maintaining rooftop solar. It is important to consider the space available, the number of workers requiring access, and the size, weight, and number of panels that will need to be lifted.
Access systems can include:
- Permanent Ladders, Stairways and Roof Access Hatches
- Elevated Work Platforms (EWP)
- Portable Ladders
Permanently installed access systems provide the highest level of safety and compliance but are typically more suited to commercial and industrial use cases.
For smaller works where temporary scaffolds or EWPs are not suitable, a mobile scaffold or portable ladder can be considered. When using a ladder, it can only be used for access/egress to the roof, not for transferring equipment or material such as panels and mounting equipment onto the roof. A portable ladder must be secured both at the top and the bottom, and the top of the ladder should extend no less than one metre above the edge of the roof. Check out our safe use of ladders fact sheet for more information.
Providing Training and Supervision
Businesses are obligated to provide adequate information, training and instruction to their employees regarding the work activities they are required to undertake. Any training, whether internal or external should be conducted by a competent person.
It is also important to consider adequate supervision, particularly when using controls that rely on human behaviour (fall restraint and fall arrest systems) and when inexperienced workers are involved.
Before commencing any work ensure that:
- All workers have received height safety training to the level appropriate to the tasks they are required to perform.
- All workers have been trained in the correct use of any fall restraint, fall arrest and access systems they may be required to use.
- All workers understand it is their duty and their right to stop work if it is determined to be unsafe and that they are obligated to speak up if height safety practices are not being maintained by others.
- All workers understand the specific nature of the job at hand including any risks associated with their tasks such as falls, electric shock or asbestos exposure.
- All workers are aware of the control measures implemented and the expectations for their proper use.
Important Further Reading
- Guide to safe solar panel installation – SafeWork NSW
- Working safely when installing photovoltaic (PV) systems – Energy Safe Victoria
- Installation of solar panels – WorkSafe ACT
- How to be compliant when installing solar panels in Queensland – Anchor Safe
- Managing risk of falls for solar panel installations – SafeWork SA
Comprehensive Height Safety Services
Anchor Safe offers comprehensive height safety services to building owners and managers, to ensure rooftops and other working at height situations are compliant with all relevant codes, standards, and regulations.
We take care of everything, starting with the design of a customised height safety solution using quality products. Our certified and highly trained team will install your systems to ensure they are fit for purpose and meet and exceed all relevant certification standards.
With ongoing compliance management and maintenance services, you can rest assured that your building or worksite is completely compliant and your workers at height are safe.