Environmental Protection

MDs Say Solar and Wind Power Not as Risky to Workers

Expansion of renewable energies should appreciably improve the health status of the 700,000 U.S. workers employed in the energy sector, according to a commentary by Medical College of Wisconsin researchers, in Milwaukee. Their review is published in the Aug. 19 issue of JAMA, the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Steven Sumner, M.D., who completed the work while a medical student, along with Peter Layde, M.D., professor of population health and co-director of the Injury Research Center at the Medical College, compared occupational health risks to workers in renewable energy industries with those in fossil fuel industries. Risk of workplace injury and death among energy workers is a hidden cost of energy production, known as an externality of energy. Externalities of energy production include a whole host of problems from damage to the general environment to adverse effects on human health caused by pollution to injury and death among workers in the energy sector.

Sumner, currently an internal medicine resident at Duke University, and Layde examined the human health risks associated with traditional fossil fuels, such as coal, oil, and natural gas, relative to renewable energy sources such as wind, solar, and biomass. Wind and solar energy appeared to offer less risk of workplace injury and death than traditional fossil fuel industries, as the dangerous energy extraction phase is minimized or eliminated in wind or solar energy production. Biomass (comprised of biofuels, organic waste, and wood derived fuels) currently accounts for more than half of U.S. energy renewable consumption and does not appear to offer a significant safety benefit to U.S. workers relative to fossil fuels.

"The energy sector remains one of the most dangerous industries for U.S. workers. A transition to renewable energy generation utilizing sources such as wind and solar could potentially eliminate 1,300 worker deaths over the coming decade," says Dr. Sumner.

According to Dr. Layde, "Previous research on the health effects of a transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy has focused on the environmental benefits of renewable energy on air quality and global warming. The benefits of reduced workplace injury and fatality have not been sufficiently emphasized in the debate to move to renewable energies. This will be an added benefit to U.S. energy workers with the passage of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009."

The researchers reviewed the occupational cost of energy production in the traditional and new energies and noted that while fossil fuel energies have historically been priced lower than renewable energies, the additional hidden costs, or externalities of energy, especially adverse effects on human health have often not been taken into account.

The dangers to energy workers were examined at various stages of energy production: extraction, generation and distribution. The entire fuel life cycle includes fuel extraction, other raw materials extraction, structure construction, equipment manufacturing, material transport, energy generation, power distribution and by product disposal.

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