When you work with PV systems you often find yourself in the outdoors either on rooftops or possibly remote areas for vacation homes and other off-grid projects. Not only that but you will be working with power tools and hand tools on various materials such as metal and wood. On top of that you will be dealing with electricity and possibly even batteries. All these things bring into play safety hazards that range from cuts and bruises to electrocution and chemical burns.
The first set of hazards I will be talking about are the physical ones. This includes exposure, creatures, cuts, falls, sprains, burns of various types.
To start with let’s talk about exposure. You will often find yourself outdoors under the sun when installing or repairing PV systems. This poses its own set of hazards. Being in the direct sun can lead to heat stroke, sun burns and other heat related injuries. To prevent this you will want to remain hydrated by drinking plenty of fluids, preferably water. On top of this wear a hat and keep yourself covered best you can and if your skin is exposed make sure to wear plenty of sun block. If the temperature gets high take hourly breaks in a shaded area. Now the sun is not the only hazard it is just as dangerous in the cold. Make sure to stay warm and well hydrated. Just because it’s cold and you do not think you need much water does not mean you cannot become dehydrated. More people become dehydrated in the winter than the summer because they think they do not need to drink as much water.
Being outdoors and exposed to mother nature is not the only hazard. You have to keep an eye out for various creatures. Insects, snakes, spiders and other creatures all pose a danger when you’re working outside. Control panels and junction boxes are great hiding places for spiders and if the openings are big enough there is no telling what may try to make its home there. If you have mounting equipment staged for installation make sure to watch out for snakes and spiders here also. Check under roof ledges and work areas for wasp nests and other creatures. Ground arrays provide shade and snakes will use this area. If you have to route wiring or anything under decks or other structures check them and make sure they are clear, raccoons, possums and other creatures may be napping there.
Cuts, bumps, bruises, falls, sprains and strains. These are all common hazards of dealing with PV systems. Sharp edges on panels, control boxes, mounting racks all pose a hazard that can cause you serious cuts or bumps and bruises. To help prevent cuts wear gloves when working on the system to protect your hands from sharp edges, screws, nails and other dangerous edges. Sometimes systems are installed in remote locations like a hill side and you have the potential for a fall or sprains and strains from moving equipment up and down the hill or other location. Check the area you will be working in for potholes and other physical hazards such as branches and debris on the ground that could pose a trip hazard. When moving equipment make sure to lift properly and wear a back brace if necessary to help support your back when dealing with heavy equipment. PV modules like to pick up the wind also, make sure to be cautious of this when walking with panels and especially when bringing them up onto a roof via ladders and lifts.
Burns can occur not only from the sun but from materials left out in the sun. Be cautious when dealing with metals and other PV components that have sat out in the sun all day as they can be a source of serious burns. Wearing gloves helps prevent this along with many other hazards that you may not be thinking about.
Next up are electrical hazards. Electrical shock is no laughing matter and is quite painful. However it poses even more hazards when dealing with it on a PV system. If you get shocked it could lead to a fall that could be just off your feet and onto your bottom or it could be off a multiple story building. When you get shocked your muscles will contract and you will spasm and if you’re working around others with power tools or other electric equipment this can lead to multiple victim accidents if you are not careful to begin with.
Electrical shock can occur when wiring up systems, connecting modules together. When performing repair on PV modules be cautious as there are 2 sources of electricity. Not only do you have the system power that you need to shut down but the panels will continue to produce a charge as long as they are exposed to light. Cover the panels if they are in the direct sun so the system can be fully de-energized. If you do not this can lead to shock and arc flash. Arch flash can occur when disconnecting two panels that have a charge running through them creating an arch of electricity between the two connections as they are pulled apart.
Other hazards revolve around batteries in PV systems. Batteries pose the potential hazard not only electrical shock but chemical burns and hazards along with acid burns and hazards depending on the type of batteries being used. Sulfuric acid is the most common type of electrolyte in lead-acid batteries which are usually what is used in a system. This type of acid is very hazardous and can be spilled when dealing with the batteries or when it is being charged. This will cause chemical burns if it comes in contact with your skin and will burn holes in your clothing. This is why you need to have proper personal protective equipment when dealing with batteries. PPE for batteries includes a special apron, gloves and face protection. You do not want anything that is absorbent and should use only approved battery safety protective equipment because putting on your jacket and a pair of work gloves and safety goggles will not do as the acid can eat right through this and absorb into the material making the situation worse. You can pick up battery safety kits and spill kits online. Spill kits provide added components for cleaning up the hazard after it has occurred and usually include 1 or 2 sets of PPE for personnel.
Batteries can also be the culprit of explosions and fires. During the charging process hydrogen gas can be released and if brought into contact with a flame or spark could cause an explosion or fire. So make sure to be aware of your surrounding and not to take anything that can cause flames and sparks with you when working with batteries.