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Ian Page considers how the growth in the specification of solar panels demnds that HA's pay close attention to safe working practices during installation.

Still in its relative infancy, the solar energy industry is one of the fastest growing industries in the UK, with solar panels accounting for the majority of all total renewable energy installations. For contractors tasked with installing solar panels, one of the fundamental safety issues relates to working at height. After all, in 2011, the HSE (Health & Safety Executive) revealed that falls from heights accounted for 16% of all deaths in the workplace. 

The key piece of legislation here is the Working at Height (2005) regulations which was introduced to ensure the physical safety and legal protection of employees, employers as well as other building professionals contracting others on their behalf. For the HA, it is essential that all work at height is properly planned and carried out by competent members of staff to ensure that minimal accidents occur. It is also the HA’s responsibility to train those who work at height to ensure that they understand and work within the regulations, with adequate measures taken to ensure the welfare of users.

Since the solar installation market is relatively young, investment in training so that contractors fully understand safe working at height practice is critical to build expertise and underpin their experience. Solar panels have a set of unique and challenging characteristics. The dimensions and weight of the panels to be lifted and fitted into place make them awkward to handle, particularly in confined spaces. If mishandled, they can be easily scratched and damaged which will affect performance, and yet replacement will be a significant additional cost.  The roof itself is a fragile environment which can also be damaged if proper care is not taken with the panels.

The right choice of access equipment is significant in helping to minimise these risks and create a safe and versatile environment for working at height. 

The Scaffolding Dilemma

Traditional scaffolding, combined with platforms, toe-boards and ladders may be the first option to consider. So long as the structure is assembled in line with best practice guidelines for standard tube and fitting scaffolds (BS5973), amended to adopt the tie patterns and facade bracing as detailed in TG20:05a then it can provide a safe solution. However, if needed for a number of properties on a scheme, scaffolding is time-consuming to assemble, take down and re-assemble elsewhere, it is aesthetically unattractive and can be expensive.

A much better solution is provided by dedicated access systems on the market which have been developed specifically with the solar industry in mind. This type of system typically incorporates an access platform with an integral lifting mechanism for solar panel installations. It can be combined with standard platform and walkway components to create an 8m long safe working platform complete with edge protection, allowing installation of solar arrays up to 8m wide.

After assembly and erection of the platform, the solar panel can be attached to the lifting frame with the straps provided and hoisted up to platform level by pulling on a rope. The self locking pulley with this kind of system is capable of lifting up to 75kg. A hinged floor section can then be closed after the solar panel passes through it to maintain platform integrity.

Not only is this a thought-through solution for the solar installer, but this type of tower option also complies fully with the relevant legislation. This includes HS Guidance note GS42 Tower Scaffolds, is tested in accordance with BS1139 part 3 HD 1004 Specification for pre-fabricated mobile towers complete with handrails and toeboards and the Working at Height regulations.

The Benefits

Manufactured from lightweight aluminium, this type of platform is also quick and easy to set up, take down,  move to another location, and then re-assemble, so making it perfect for large scale retrofit schemes. 

Once on the roof, it is essential that contractors can work safely and securely access to install the solar panels. Standard roof ladders leave little room between the physical ladder and the roof to allow for easy panel installation. Again, the best advice is to work with equipment tailored to the particular needs of the solar installer. For example, a bridging ladder will maximise safety, minimise the risk of panel or roof damage and make installation much quicker and easier.

Unlike normal roof ladders, this specialist piece of equipment provides a 23cm clearance from the roof to the underside of the stile and up to 4.6m free span over the roof. The ladder is simply rolled up on its soft rubber wheels and then flipped 90° into position over the ridge. A roof hook can be fixed to any rung, enabling the ladder to fit any roof with the excess length flying the ridge. Another advantage is that this type of ladder can be traversed along the ridge in either direction without having to be taken down, making it much easier to reposition, and the work programme much faster, than an ordinary roof ladder.

With the number of solar panel installations increasing, HA’s are obliged to provide a safe environment for their workforce, effectively managing and minimising the risks involved. But with the specialist equipment now available for access and roof-mounted solar installation, they can also help provide a smart working environment. This is one which fully complies with safety regulations, and allows contractors to work faster and more cost-effectively than using standard scaffolding and ladders.

This article was originally published in Housing Association Building & Maitenance Magazine in March 2012

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