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Snakes on a Solar Farm
By Walter Jones
“Well, how many snakes have you come across so far?” I asked.
“About 15,” replied Tom Morano, Safety Director, Sletten Construction.
Mojave Green Rattlesnake
“Wow, that’s about one every two weeks,” I responded.
“Sounds about right.”
“That’s a real hazard!”
That’s what Morano and I discussed as he handed us the Sletten-required personal protective equipment (PPE) of snake gaiters and CamelBaks before our worksite visit. The Fund was asked to come out to Antelope Valley Solar Ranch and review safety practices during the construction of First Solar's 230 MW photovoltaic farm. Joining me for the site visit was Amber Novey, Pacific Southwest (PSW) Tri-Fund Field Coordinator; Bryan Matthews, PSW LECET; and Local 300 Business Agent Ramon Gomez.
Antelope Valley is located in northern Los Angeles County and the southeast portion of Kern County, California, and constitutes the western tip of the Mojave Desert. We were prepared to review Sletten’s safety and health planning to prevent and respond to the risk of heat-related illnesses but were surprised to find snakes such a big concern.
The temperature on the day of the visit was a beautifully cool 98 degrees. The temperatures had been over 120 degrees the preceding week. When temperatures reach that level, protecting workers from heat-related illness becomes paramount. Sletten supplies all workers with CamelBak hydration packs. During daily planning sessions, the company ensures that mobile canopies are stationed in work areas to provide shade. Workers are taught to recognize the symptoms of heat stress in themselves and others and are free to seek shade and water whenever they feel fatigue or heat stress symptoms. In the event of heat stroke, each shade station has high tech cooling vests.
As dangerous as working in the sun and high heat of the desert is, it still pales when compared to venomous snakes. Although snakes avoid human contact, most desert work activities create cool, dark and protected shelter areas that attract them – rubble, stored material, palettes, trenches and equipment. According to Morano, that makes housekeeping extremely important. Workers are taught to reduce the amount of rubbish and materials where a snake could shelter and to minimize food sources for snakes by removing anything that may attract rodents or lizards. In interviews with employees, they said that when they return to work areas at the beginning of the day or after breaks, they are taught to be aware of the increased risk of the presence of snakes. Increased awareness and alertness is the best protection, they say; the snake will not be looking for you, so watch for it.
With the heat stress and snake bite hazards so severe and with the solar farm in remote locations, Sletten requires all workers to have a sticker on their hard hat with the work area’s GPS coordinates and the phone number for the Flight of Life emergency response helicopter.
“Whenever we find a snake we shut the area down and call in the biologists from Animal Control,” said Morano. "Most of the time, we come across Diamondbacks, which are easy to capture and confine.” Laborers are not involved in snake capture.
“It’s the Mojave Greens that we hate to see," Morano continued "They are big, fat and nasty. Unlike the Diamondbacks, the Mojaves are aggressive towards people and hate to be confined.” The Mojave Green rattlesnake is the most dangerous in North America, responsible for several deaths a year in California. The venom of the Mojave rattler is composed of hemolytic and neurotoxic elements, which destroy red blood cells and cause blood clotting problems. Its venom affects the nervous system and can lead to paralysis.
The Fund provides many services, one of which is reviewing a contractor’s worksite to ensure compliance with Federal and State Standards and industry best practices. Sletten’s “find it and fix it” approach to controlling hazards on this worksite was very professional. It was also clear that Sletten, a construction company out of Nevada, is experienced with the hazards of desert work.
[Walter Jones is the LHSFNA's OSH Division's Associate Director.]