A recent commentary - ‘Expansion of Renewable Energy Industries and Implications for Occupational Health’ - on the human costs of various methods of energy production says ‘green energies’ are less likely to result in death at work than fossil fuels.
Writing in the Journal of the American Medical Association (login required), Sumner & Layde note that considerations over the implementation of various energy types rarely take into account workplace safety.
“Human health problems associated with high carbon dioxide emissions from energy production have largely been described as resulting from air pollution; spread of vector and waterborne infectious diseases; flood, drought, and malnutrition; and deaths due to terrorist attacks and military intervention. A reduction in these problems has been touted as an important benefit of a transition to renewable energy. However, benefits to US energy workers in the form of reduced workplace injury and fatality have been an underemphasized advantage of change in energy policy.”
The paper points out that while market costs of fossil fuels are lower generally than renewables, human costs in health terms are often ignored in this valuation. A key area the commentary reviews is worker fatalities, as work in the fossil fuel sector results in above-average (as compared to workers in all professions) workplace deaths for US mining workers.
“Fossil fuels often must be harvested from underground or underwater stores. Mining, which includes coal, gas, and oil extraction, is the second most dangerous major industry group in the United States, with 27.5 deaths per 100 000 workers. Only agriculture is more dangerous with 28.7 deaths per 100 000 workers. By comparison, the average annual fatality rate for all US industries is 3.4 deaths per 100 000 workers.”
The key for the authors is the extraction phase necessary in obtaining fossil fuels:
Fossil fuel workers risk unintended injury from extraction activities and also are exposed to hazardous particulate matter, gases, and radiation in the extraction environment. Extraction activities, such as those in offshore oil drilling, also isolate workers from prompt emergency care in the event of a life-threatening injury.
Beyond the extraction phase in fossil fuel use, converting the energy in fossil fuel itself requires combustion, which in addition to resulting in greenhouse gas emissions and pollutants, carries the risk of on-site explosions. This of particular concern in ‘developing’ nations where “fossil fuels are associated with more "accident-related" fatalities per unit of energy generated than either nuclear or hydroelectric power”. While some renewable energies, like biomass, carry this risk, the majority do not – wind, solar and hydroelectric power have less chance of the sorts of catastrophic incidents that have lead to worker death in fossil fuel sites. Interviewed in the New Scientist, Sumner notes that biomass, since it comes from agriculture, which has the highest rate of death at work for any sector in the US, is likely to have a higher risk attached than any of the other renewables.
Actual stats for risk in renewables are sparse, although a European Commission (EC) report attempted to address this. Their EC project took into account various forms of energy production, (coal, wind, oil, biomass etc) and quantified their ‘external costs’ (ie non-monetary) in terms of factors like global-warming impact, accidents at work, health concerns, energy security, and environmental impact (pollution etc). In the study, the renewables compared favourably and ‘cost’ much less than any of the fossil fuels.
The researchers note that not enough is known about deaths at work in energy generation, but since 130 workers die at work in the US energy sector annually, more research is required. With the growth in renewable energies, many workers could find themselves at considerably less risk at work.
Sumner, S.A. & Layde, P.M. (2009), Journal of the American Medical Association. 302(7):787-789