Originally published by the Union of Concerned Scientists, The Equation.
By Adenike Adeyeye
Heat waves caused by climate change 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 install solar panels work outdoors and are at high risk of heat stress as temperatures rise. At the same time, many of these workers are not unionized and have no bargaining power to ensure they get the job protection they legally deserve. Let's take a look at how better job protection, like union formation, would help these workers stay safe in extreme heat.
Outdoor solar workers make up the bulk of a growing industry
The solar industry is growing across the board as solar energy is one of the most important tools in our race to mitigate the effects of climate change. In 2020, 231,474 people were employed in the solar industry, of which only 10% were unionized. (This is comparable to the aggregate union quota: in 2019, 10.3% of all workers were union members.) By 2030, the industry is expected to employ 400,000 workers to mitigate the effects of climate change, and the Solar Foundation estimates that meeting the standard's targets will be a goal Biden's Clean Energy Administration would require 900,000 solar workers by 2035.
To narrow our focus to outdoor workers, let's look at the statistics for workers in installation or construction jobs in the solar industry. They represent 67% of the total workforce in the industry, or an estimated 154,610 jobs in 2020, and 11.7% of them were union members. If the Solar Foundation estimates the industry grows to 900,000 workers by 2035, it means that more than 600,000 people in the solar industry will work outdoors. If the percentage of unionized workers remains the same, approximately 70,500 outdoor workers will be unionized and over 530,000 outdoor workers will be non-unionized.
While this blog assumes that installation and construction work will take place outdoors, it is not the only work that may take place outdoors. Some jobs in solar marketing require workers to go door to door to sell to homeowners installing solar panels on the roof. There were 25,663 sales and distribution employees in 2020, but it is unclear what proportion of these people worked outdoors. These door-to-door workers would also benefit from heat protection measures. Likewise, outdoor workers in other clean energy industries would benefit from greater job protection.
What kind of heat protection outdoors do solar workers need?
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) lists extreme heat as one of the green workplace hazards solar workers face. As summer weather becomes more extreme in the west and across the country, employers must provide outdoor workers with roster changes, personal protective equipment, hydration, and breaks necessary for their health. And shockingly, there are no federal laws requiring employers to offer workers this protection. OSHA recommends, but does not require, limiting sun exposure during the most intense periods of UV radiation – 10 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. – working in the shade, taking frequent short breaks, and staying hydrated by drinking water frequently. Public health and safety officials also recommend employers to give workers time to adjust to rising temperatures. This process is called acclimatization and allows workers to work shorter or less intense shifts while their bodies get used to the heat.
Following OSHA guidelines might be easier said than done for some outdoor solar workers, depending on the employer. In order to comply with these guidelines, employers must give their employees frequent breaks. You need to postpone the work day to minimize the workload during the hottest times of the day. They may need extra work while workers acclimatise – the National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety states that new workers should not be exposed to more than 20% of the heat (based on a normal working day) on their first day of work, and exposure can then increase not more than 20% per day.
The responsibility of employers to keep the working environment safe increases as the heat index rises. If the heat index ranges from 103 to 115 degrees, OSHA rates the risk level as high and calls on employers to provide water, encourage employees to drink water frequently, and have medical personnel available on site or within 3-4 minutes to have and actively enforce breaks to avoid heat stress. If the heat index is above 115 degrees, the OSHA risk level rises to “very high to extreme” and employers should postpone all non-essential work to a cooler day. These precautions are necessary to protect the health of employees, but are also at the employer's expense and are not required by the federal government. Precautions are needed to ensure that employers comply with their duty to protect workers, especially as temperatures rise. A bill now before Congress, the Asunción Valdivia Heat Illness and Prevention Act, would require OSHA to adopt real, enforceable heat protection standards – passing this bill would go a long way toward protecting outdoor workers.
Adequate protection for solar workers cannot be taken for granted: heat stress is a dangerous, even fatal, work hazard for outdoor workers. According to OSHA, there are dozens of deaths each year from heat stress or heat stroke while working in extreme heat. Construction workers, like those who work on installing solar panels, make up a significant portion of heat-related deaths, as the following infographic shows.
Unions and prevailing wage standards create safer jobs
One way to protect workers across the board is through organizing. Trade unions work on behalf of employees to ensure secure jobs and fair remuneration and social benefits. However, almost 90% of solar workers are not unionized as described above. Broader unionization would require new approaches, such as incentives for project developers or policy changes such as 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 jobs in the solar industry in a number of ways. Union formation gives workers bargaining power. This often leads to greater accountability to employers, which can lead to safer jobs. For example, let's say it's a scorching hot day and the heat index is 105 degrees. According to OSHA, the supervisor of a construction site that installs solar panels should actively encourage workers to take frequent breaks when the heat index is this high. But these interruptions are only required by law in a handful of states. And people aren't perfect: even in states that require breaks, the supervisor may not instruct workers to take frequent breaks that day. Who is more likely to speak up and ask for the break they are legally entitled to? An employee who enjoys union protection or an employee who feels like they are being replaced or fired?
In addition to organizing, there are other guidelines that can be used to improve job quality and safety for clean energy outdoor workers. A report by UC Berkeley found that smaller residential solar projects offer lower wages and fewer career opportunities than large solar projects. The difference between smaller and larger projects is that project work contracts (PLAs) often have to be used for larger projects. State laws can mandate or mandate PLAs for large clean energy projects. PLAs are negotiated to provide livable wages, benefits and safer jobs. Like PLAs, Community Workforce Agreements (CWAs) can help ensure that workers receive quality, safe jobs and that employers prioritize local attitudes and attitudes from disadvantaged communities. Workers benefit when large solar projects use PLAs and CWAs, and smaller projects that are typically not tied to PLAs and CWAs might be able to create higher quality jobs by establishing similar standards for liveable wages and benefits.
Finally, the prevailing wage standards also help to strengthen workers and create higher quality jobs. The prevailing wage “sets a minimum wage for each occupation that all contractors on a project must pay from or to – usually in such a way that it reflects the average or the market average for a particular type of work in a particular area”. Dominant wage standards may also require “contributions to employee benefits such as health care, paid time off, retirement funds and apprenticeships”. Research by the UC Berkeley Labor Center has found that prevailing wages have minimal impact on project costs while providing significant benefits through improved workplace productivity. Although higher wages and better performance are not directly linked to safety at work, research suggests that states with applicable wage laws report fewer construction accidents than those without applicable wage laws. PLAs, CWAs and applicable collective agreements have helped make jobs safer and more lucrative for workers.
The solar industry is a critical sector in the transition of our economy from dependence on fossil fuels to clean energy. Industry should serve as a role model in protecting its workers, especially as its ranks continue to grow and our summers keep getting hotter. Policies that give outdoor workers the job protection they deserve should become the norm rather than the exception in the solar industry.
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