In the workshop’s third session, Stephen Reynolds, director of the High Plains Intermountain Center for Agricultural Health and Safety and a professor of industrial hygiene at Colorado State University, provided an overview of the occupational health issues that are related to the use of biofuels. As session moderator Henry Anderson of the Wisconsin Health Department noted in his opening remarks, these issues do not typically get included in the economic analyses done concerning biofuels, so one goal of the session was to provide some additional factors that economists might take into account in their models of biofuels production.
Reynolds began by noting that his presentation built on a white paper that came out of a 2011 conference on energy (Mulloy et al., 2013). “What we’ve done is try to do an updated review of what is available in the peer-reviewed literature in terms of programs that we can find in the United States that specifically address occupational health and safety related to biofuels,” he said. Thus, the goal of the presentation would be to discuss what is known on the topic, to identify some of the gaps in knowledge, and to offer some recommendations for needs going forward.
During the past decade, Reynolds said, there has been a substantial increase in biofuels production in the United States as well as an increase in the workforce that is employed in this industry. It is estimated that the biofuels industry could employ up to 94,000 people by 2016 (Bio Economic Research Associates, 2009).
The limited data that are currently available suggest that workers in the renewable energy industry may experience reduced rates of occupational
injury, illness, and fatality than do traditional fossil fuel energy extraction industries (Sumner and Layde, 2009). However, Reynolds said, although there has been a great deal of research carried out on life-cycle and economic assessments for biofuels production, there is very little published information concerning research or programs that address occupational health and safety in biofuels in the United States. As an example, he showed a slide listing the components and agencies participating in the U.S. National Biomass Program. Workforce creation was listed as a component of both the economic and social aspects of the program, but there was nothing listed that explicitly dealt with the health and sustainability of that workforce. In particular, the two major agencies responsible for occupational health in the United States—the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)—do not appear to be considered part of the program.
Although no systematic surveillance or evaluation of fatalities, injuries, and illnesses associated with biofuels production has been conducted, a number of serious accidents and fatalities have been associated with biofuels production, both in the United States and abroad. In the United States, for example, two employees were burned by ethanol vapors escaping an adsorption column, and one employee was killed while welding in a storage tank when residual glycerin and ethanol vapors were ignited. In Europe, at least nine people have been killed by carbon monoxide poisoning after they entered wood pellet storage areas.
The production of biofuels has matured to include a variety of different production systems using various feedstocks, including corn, municipal wastes, cellulosic biomass, and algae and other microcrops. Much is already known about the hazards associated with the production of various agriculture inputs as well as with the distribution and end use of biofuels products, Reynolds noted, and this knowledge can be applied proactively to manage risk in this industry. However, the risks of familiar hazards in new production situations and of novel hazards, such as genetically modified organisms or the use of nanotechnology, have not been addressed well in this industry.
A wide variety of potential hazards have been identified in the biofuels industry, including biological, chemical, and physical hazards. The potential exposures to these hazards are quite variable and depend on the specific technology, the stage of development, and the size of the operation.
Reynolds mentioned in particular the use of engineered nanomaterials in biofuels production. Research in this area has developed rapidly during the past decade, and the potential occupational health risks involved in manufacturing and using these materials have not been characterized. Researchers have explored nanomaterials and nanosize catalysts, especially in trans-esterification reactions for both biodiesel and bioethanol, but there are little data on the possible adverse health effects from the use of these engineered nanomaterials. Thus, before these materials are used in biofuels production (or in any other industry), their risks to health should be carefully assessed.
A number of types of occupational diseases are known to be associated with exposure to the organic materials that are used as biofuels feedstocks. The most fully explored links are between organic dust and respiratory disorders, but there are also studies that have linked contact dermatitis, infectious diseases, and other problems to such exposures. In the 1990s, for example, research found that gastrointestinal diseases were more common among workers in refuse-derived fuel plants (Mahar et al., 1999).
Knowledge of such exposure–disease relationships and experience with developing effective controls can be used to develop best practices and to reduce the risk of disease in evolving biofuels industries, Reynolds said. To that end, he offered three specific examples of recent research in the area.
Case Study 1: Wood Pellet Plant
Sweden is the world’s second-largest producer of compressed wood pellets, which are being used as a renewable replacement for fossil fuels. Hagstrom and colleagues (2008) found that workers at pellet production plants were exposed to excessive concentrations of wood dust and resin acids, indicating potential for a significant respiratory health risk. Although they did not collect health data, this is an example where occupational exposure guidelines have been established that can be used to develop control systems in the biofuels industry.
Case Study 2: Biodiesel Refinery
As part of a NIOSH initiative focusing on biofuels, a 2011 study of a biodiesel refinery by Law and colleagues (2011) focused on the alcohol that is most commonly used in the trans-esterification step to produce
biofuels from agricultural feedstocks (e.g., methanol). The hazards of this process included the methanol itself as well as caustic chemicals used for catalysts and a number of physical hazards.
In this particular case, NIOSH followed up on the study with recommendations focused on some very basic health and safety issues, including recommendations for properly storing and labeling bulk chemicals. One of the problems in this facility is that incompatible acids, bases, and flammables were being stored together with no containment. One of the major recommendations that came out of this study was simply to implement and adhere to the process safety management or chemical safety management standards that already exist and that are effective in other industries.
Case Study 3: Biofuels Energy Plants
A 2011 study in Denmark evaluated exposure and health outcomes among workers at a woodchip biofuel plant and a straw biofuel plant versus workers at conventional heating and power plants. It found that exposure to dusts, endotoxins, and fungi was higher at the biofuels plants. It also found that higher endotoxin exposure was associated with an increase in respiratory symptoms—a finding that is consistent with the literature on organic dust exposures in agriculture and other industries (Schlünssen et al., 2011). Again, lessons learned from other industries can be applied to anticipate and reduce exposure in the biofuels industry.
Although there is relatively little research on health risks in biofuels production specifically, there are already a number of government activities and programs in the United States and abroad aimed at improving occupational health and safety in this industry.
National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health
NIOSH has an initiative addressing exposures, primarily chemical and physical exposures, as part of the National Occupational Research Agenda (NORA) within the manufacturing sector. Much of the current research in this area focuses on the end use of biodiesel, Reynolds said,
and, in particular, there is a great deal of work studying the effects of biodiesel in underground mining.
NIOSH was also an important partner and sponsor for the 2011 Energy Summit Workshop held in Denver, Colorado, which addressed a broad range of renewable energy strategies. Furthermore, there has been discussion in NIOSH about including biofuels as a more prominent part of the NORA activities, especially as related to the agriculture, forestry, and fishing sector. It is not clear, however, how big a role NIOSH has played in the larger U.S. renewable energy initiatives operated by the U.S. Department of Energy and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
Occupational Safety and Health Administration
By contrast, OSHA has been active in the biofuels industry, both from a regulatory standpoint and from a consultation standpoint. The primary focus has been on high-profile and fatal incidents typical of chemical processing and grain handling and storage. Typical regulatory violations include failure to use proper electrical equipment, deficiencies in hazard analysis and operating procedures, catastrophic chemical releases, training of workers, and respiratory protection programs. Some of these issues can be catastrophic and immediately fatal, Reynolds said.
A large proportion of biofuels businesses are small and therefore are eligible for consultation services from OSHA. One example is the Colorado OSHA consultation program, which Reynolds works with. “We’re doing some work with a small company that is developing and implementing mobile biofuel energy systems that are being deployed around the globe,” he said. “It is a company that is on the cutting edge in terms of development, and that is an issue that a lot of these operations are dealing with—that they are pushing the boundaries.”
It would be useful, Reynolds suggested, if OSHA would develop a more systematic approach to the biofuels industry.
Other U.S. Initiatives
Beyond NIOSH and OSHA, there appears to be very little activity specifically aimed at occupational health and safety in the biofuels industry, Reynolds said, but the number of efforts is beginning to pick up.
For example, the USDA’s Cooperative Extension and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory have developed a number of practice guidelines that have been disseminated to the industry. A big step
forward occurred in 2010 when the USDA issued a call for proposals for the development of biofuels that was related to the department’s agriculture and food research initiative; for that program, the USDA required that proposals include a component dealing with occupational health and safety from the originating concept all the way up to the pilot scale implementation of the programs.
The Virginia Cooperative Extension included hazard information on methane and confined spaces in its guidelines on biomethane technologies on U.S. livestock farms, and it also provides education on OSHA compliance. The Colorado State University extension service published safety guidelines for small-scale biodiesel production. A book published by Biodiesel Basics, Building a Successful Biodiesel Business, includes a chapter with a short overview of laboratory safety, workplace safety, and OSHA.
In short, Reynolds said, there are a number of initiatives, but relative to the amount of research and growth of the industry, it is still a fairly small effort.
There are a number of significant initiatives outside the United States that can help share lessons learned and offer opportunities for collaboration, Reynolds said. For example, the UK Health and Safety Executive has developed a fairly robust program that includes research and outreach to industry. The World Health Organization and the European Union’s European Agency for Safety and Health at Work have both tackled policy and equity associated with green jobs. And the Stockholm Environment Institute in Sweden has evaluated potential sustainable developments of a wide array of bioenergy projects, specifically asking whether the project contributes to improving the health and safety of workers.
Summing up, Reynolds said that biofuels operations are diverse and range from large, industrial bioethanol plants to small fermentation devices on family farms. They include a number of technologies that are at different stages of development and implementation. Unlike solar and wind power, the use of biomass requires production of “fuel,” generally through production agriculture or forestry, which present significant occupational health challenges. To date, the U.S. health and safety initiatives in this area can be considered ad hoc, and the potential resources, including NIOSH and OSHA, have not been systematically
engaged. Still, there are lessons learned, particularly from agriculture and chemical process safety, that can be applied at this time, especially to the major U.S. producers.
In light of the situation, Reynolds offered a number of specific recommendations:
• The occupational health and safety community, specifically including NIOSH and OSHA, should be engaged in U.S. programs such as the U.S. Biomass Program. From a risk management standpoint, a systematic national industry approach needs to address worker health and safety as an integral component of production, quality, environment, and security.
• The NIOSH agriculture, forestry, and fishing health and safety centers and the NIOSH education research centers are an important national resource that can be tapped for their technical experience and practical connections to industries throughout the United States.
• There are a number of significant initiatives outside the United States that can share lessons learned and offer opportunities for collaboration.
• Basic research is needed on emerging biomass hazards, including bioaerosols, nanotechnology, genetically modified micro-organisms, and other agents used in the rapidly evolving biomass technologies.
• The basic research should be complemented by prospective cohort studies of workers in the field, including monitoring of exposure levels and long-term follow-up of workers.
• Systematic surveillance or evaluation of fatalities, injuries, and illnesses is essential to setting priorities and evaluating the success of prevention and intervention efforts.
• Industry participation is essential in identifying occupational health and safety risk priorities and in developing relevant cost-effective solutions and best practices is essential.
There are lessons and solutions from agriculture and chemical process safety that can be directly applied to prevent injuries and fatalities. Because so little is known about novel hazards such as bioaerosols and nanotechnology, prudent strategies for exposure control are needed.
In conclusion, Reynolds said, “There are indeed significant occupational hazards associated with the biofuels industry, including recognized hazards in new environments and new hazards with novel agents. To make informed decisions concerning energy policy as a society, we need to understand the true costs of energy production, including the cost of occupational risks. And, again, a successful management strategy needs to systematically address worker health and safety as a component of production, quality, environment, and security.”
The first question in the discussion came from an audience member who asked how occupational health standards in the biomass production industry compare with those of other industries.
Reynolds answered that his perception is that the petrochemical processing industry is very advanced in terms of its risk hazard assessment and risk management, while the biofuels processing industry in not nearly so far along. “There are a number of fairly small operations out there that have not—at least the ones that I’ve been involved with—had the same ability to think about the risks and the hazards … nor have they had the resources or the expertise to address that.” It is an evolving, growing area, and many of the companies involved in it are small, entrepreneurial operations. Similarly, the storage and transportation of biofuels are areas in which risk assessment and management need further attention. And, agriculture, although it is not a new industry, “in general is one of the more hazardous occupations in this country,” he said. In general, he said, although there have been some significant developments and advancement in the past couple of decades, the area of handling risk remains a very significant problem in the entire biofuels industry.
An audience member offered a follow-up comment, noting that although occupational safety standards may be high in petrochemical production, the job of getting oil from the ground remains one of the more dangerous occupations. Those risks should be included in any discussion of the risks associated with producing gasoline or petrochemicals.
Reynolds agreed. “We do need to be careful about including all of the costs and thinking about those upstream costs as well to be comprehensive,” he said.
An audience member observed that ethanol production facilities tend to be in rural areas that have little medical infrastructure. So, is anything being done, he asked, to increase medical capacity in these areas?
“It remains a significant problem,” Reynolds replied, but there are things being done to address it. “There are 10 agriculture centers around the country right now and 20 education and research centers. Some of the initiatives that we have been taking as a group have been focused on the training of physicians, nurses, and physician assistants specifically on rural hazards.” So, one strategy is to provide the health care community with the skills needed to understand and deal with—and ultimately prevent—the health problems that may arise in relation to biofuels production. “We have begun working with a number of state organizations in our region to try to bring together resources to make them more readily available to the communities that are out there,” he said, and one initiative has been working with biofuels producers to help them develop their own capacity to deal internally with some of those issues. “We’ve got a long way to go,” he concluded.
Bio Economic Research Associates. 2009. U.S. economic impact of advanced biofuels production: Perspectives to 2030. Washington, DC: Biotechnology Industry Organization.
Hagström, K., S. Axelsson, H. Arvidsson, I. L. Bryngelsson, C. Lundholm, and K. Eriksson. 2008. Exposure to wood dust, resin acids, and volatile organic compounds during production of wood pellets. Journal of Occupational Environmental Hygiene 5(5):296–304.
Law, B. F., T. Pearce, and P. D. Siegel. 2011. Safety and chemical exposure evaluation at a small biodiesel production facility. Journal of Occupational and Environmental Hygiene 8(7):D68–D72.
Mahar, S., S. J. Reynolds, and P. S. Thorne. 1999. Worker exposures to particulates, endotoxins, and bioaerosols in two refuse-derived fuel plants. American Industrial Hygiene Association Journal 60:679–683.
Mulloy, K. B., S. A. Sumner, C. Rose, G. A. Conway, S. J. Reynolds, M. E. Davidson, D. S. Heidel, and P. M. Layde. 2013. Renewable energy and occupational health and safety research directions: A white paper from the Energy Summit, Denver, Colorado, April 11–13, 2011. American Journal of Industrial Medicine 56(11):1359–1370.
Schlünssen, V., A. M. Madsen, S. Skov, and T. Sigsgaard. 2011. Does the use of biofuels affect respiratory health among male Danish energy plant workers? Occupational Environmental Medicine 68:467–473.