Out-Law / Your Daily Need-To-Know

Out-Law Analysis 2 min. read

Australian solar energy sites face increased scrutiny over workers' health and safety

A recent media report addressing major safety concerns for workers on large scale solar farms in Australia has highlighted the need for the renewable energy industry to be proactive about its work health and safety (WHS) responsibilities.

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s article, ‘Electricians and backpackers sound alarm about unsafe conditions on solar farms’, outlines some of the dangerous conditions that workers often face on solar farms and the alleged ‘cutting of corners’ when it comes to employing appropriately qualified workers.

Alongside the physical safety component, workers have also reported risks that have the capacity to negatively impact their psychological health.

Health and safety in the solar industry is somewhat unchartered territory and, looking more broadly, the wider Australian renewable energy sector is yet to see major WHS action taken against it. As the renewable energy sector continues its rapid growth, and as solar energy continues to contribute a greater share of generation to the Australian electricity network, safety regulators are likely to increase their focus on the solar industry.  

Both physical and psychosocial safety considerations are inherent in the establishment and operation of solar farms and there are steps that the industry can take now to minimise risks.

Increased scrutiny by safety regulators

As safety regulators turn their attention to solar farms, the industry may see an increase in regulators’ visits to sites and head offices, and requests for information.

Safety regulators can issue notices compelling organisations to produce their policies and procedures and provide detailed information regarding how they are complying with the relevant codes of practice and WHS legislation.

Regulators can also issue improvement notices compelling specific action to improve safety systems or, in some situations, shut down sites where they consider there to be a real risk of harm to workers or others.

In addition, regulators can commence prosecutions against any organisation, their officers and workers for failing to fulfil their WHS duties. Regulatory prosecutions often carry significant penalties.

Proactive steps for organisations within the industry

Key to managing the increased scrutiny of clean energy sites by safety regulators, is for organisations within the industry to ensure they are proactive about their workers’ safety. Organisations should take immediate steps to mitigate risk by conducting:

  • Risk assessments – organisations should identify and assess possible risks, and implement appropriate control measures. They should also review these from time to time to ensure the control measures are working.
  • Worker qualification checks – organisations should question whether their workers, contractors and volunteers are appropriately qualified, have the necessary skills to perform the work they have been tasked with, and have appropriate supervision.
  • Remote work checks – organisations should check what policies and procedures they have in place to either eliminate or manage the risks associated with the remote nature of solar farm work.

Having seen greater regulatory focus in industries including mining, construction, agriculture and manufacturing take the form of site visits – which have resulted in on-the-spot fines, and improvement or prohibition notices – it is essential that the renewable energy industry is proactive about fulfilling its WHS responsibilities. 

Crucially, organisations should note that there does not need to be an incident resulting in an injury onsite for the regulator to prosecute. Safety regulators can prosecute organisations on the risk of harm alone.


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