As countries strive to develop newer energy sources, “green” jobs have emerged. We hope you have read our articles on wind energy, solar power, green roofs, and biofuels. Two more fields that we will talk about are Hydrogen Fuel Cells and Geo-Thermal Energy. Working in either of these jobs present the same risks that we see in many other occupations.
Fuel Cells use hydrogen in producing electricity, and electricity is generated as long as this hydrogen fuel is supplied to it. A fuel cell is an electrochemical device that produces electricity without combustion. In 1839, Sir William Grove invented the first fuel cell. Knowing that water could be split into hydrogen and oxygen by sending an electric current through it (electrolysis), he theorized that by reversing that procedure electricity and water could be produced. His primitive fuel cell was called a gas voltaic battery. Fifty years later, scientists coined the term fuel cell while attempting to build a more practical model to produce electricity.
A fuel cell provides a DC (direct current) voltage that can be used to power motors, lights, and any number of electrical appliances. Fuel cells compete with many other energy conversion devices, including the gas turbine in a city’s power plant, gasoline engines in cars and batteries in laptops. Combustion engines like the turbine and gasoline engine burn fuels and use the pressure created by the expansion of the gases to do mechanical work. Batteries convert chemical energy back into electrical energy when needed. Fuel cells should do both of these tasks more efficiently.
Typical hazards that workers in the Hydrogen Fuel Cells industry are exposed to include:
- Fire and explosion – hydrogen is flammable gas and must be handled properly.
- Freeze burns – liquid hydrogen is very cold (-423°).
- Electrical – arc flash hazard or electrocution.
Geo-Thermal Energy is rapidly growing throughout the United States. We recover the heat as steam or hot water from within the earth’s core, and use it to heat or cool buildings or generate electricity. It is a renewable energy source because heat is continuously produced inside the Earth. Certain geothermal energy systems pump water underground through piping, allowing it to be heated by the earth, and then use the hot water to create electricity. Temperatures hotter than the surface of the sun are continuously produced inside the earth by the slow decay of radioactive particles, a process that happens in all rocks. Other methods of recovering the earth’s heat is by drilling directly into the Earth’s natural geothermal reservoirs, using the resulting steam and hot water to create electricity. Some systems use a brine or saltwater solution while others use glycol. These solutions may pose hazards of their own to workers.
Hazards associated with this growing industry include some very familiar safety issues that OSHA already has standards on:
- Trenching and excavations – soil for heat transfer may not be best for stable trenches.
- Silica – silica sand is a basic component of soil, sand and granite. It becomes airborne as workers chip, cut or grind objects that contain crystalline silica. Silica dust is a serious hazard.
- Electrical – Workers should use same safe practices as in other electrical fields.
- Welding and cutting – the same hazards that welders face in any pipe-fitting or welding projects – burns from hot metals, and exposure to ultraviolet light from arc welding.
- Fall protection – open trenches, excavations, and pits should have guardrails or barriers, safety nets, or personal fall arrest systems.
We understand that workers must have all the proper personal protective equipment needed to match the perils of each particular job. Personal protective equipment required for these jobs include gloves, safety glasses, hardhats, particulate respirators, and other products, (including the proper gear for welders), as determined by the contractors’ safety engineers.
While green jobs help to improve the environment and we are grateful for technology to develop other energy sources, some commonly known workplace hazards exist, while others are yet to be identified. As green jobs progress into excellent energy resources, safety still must be a priority for the workers performing their duties.
Sources: OSHA, Discovery