Mining is the second most dangerous occupation in the U.S., averaging roughly 27 deaths for every 100,000 workers per year. That's nearly nine times higher than the overall fatality rate for U.S. industry as a whole, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau (pdf).
So it stands to reason that energy derived from renewable resources such as the sun and wind might cause fewer workplace deaths than energy industries—coal, oil and natural gas—that rely on mining, drilling and otherwise extracting fossil fuels. And that's exactly what doctors from Medical College of Wisconsin and Duke University Medical Center found in an analysis published in JAMA The Journal of the American Medical Association on August 19.
"Current trends suggest that more than 1,300 worker deaths could be averted in the coming decade" through the shift to power produced from renewable resources rather than burning fossil fuels, Peter Layde and Steven Sumner write. "On average, extraction activities in the oil and gas industries account for more than 100 deaths annually and extraction activities in the coal industry account for more than 30 deaths annually."
The two doctors analyzed the full lifecycle of energy production—fuel extraction, raw materials extraction, construction, equipment manufacturing, transport, energy generation, power distribution and byproducts disposal—to come up with their figures, as well as drawing on a comparison of wind power versus coal and oil done as part of the European Union's ExternE project.
Of course, this does not mean renewables are without risk. Wind farms have been responsible for some fatalities in construction and accidents; photovoltaic manufacture has been associated with toxic pollution and can require the use of the dangerous gas silane, which explodes on contact with air; and biofuels, such as ethanol, offer no better risk than fossil fuels. That's in part because agriculture is the most dangerous U.S. occupation—nearly 29 deaths per 100,000 workers—and it also relies on petroleum-derived fertilizers and pesticides.
But in addition to the health benefits delivered by renewables in terms of reduced air pollution, energy independence and avoided catastrophic climate change, one can add improved worker health and safety for the estimated 700,000 Americans employed in the energy industry.
Image: Courtesy of Sandia National Laboratories