Building the Future Navigating Safety Hazards in the Surge of EV Gigafactory Construction
With many big-name auto brands racing to manufacture electric vehicles, the construction industry is racing to keep pace with demand, but what does that mean for worker safety and PPE needs? There are four key stages of construction to examine.
- By Omar Vikin
- Sep 06, 2023
Electric vehicles (EVs) have experienced a remarkable surge in growth in the past few years. Sales of EVs are expected to grow by another 35 percent in 2023 alone. This boom welcomes new jobs in all areas of the EV manufacturing process. Since 2018, there has been a 29 percent increase in the number of people employed in this industry with no signs of slowing down.
With the number of new electric vehicle brands emerging and already established car brands creating their own electric vehicle lines, it’s no surprise that more factories are being built to accommodate this boom. In 2021, automakers announced $36 billion of investments to build facilities dedicated to manufacturing EVs and batteries.
If you haven’t heard of a Gigafactory yet, you soon will. Coined by Elon Musk in 2013, the term Gigafactory has been adopted by the broader EV industry to refer to their battery manufacturing plants. With electric vehicles taking the auto industry by storm, 13 additional U.S. plants have been announced and are expected to be operational by 2025.
These Gigafactories are expansive. For example, the latest U.S. Gigafactory that is currently under construction in Austin, Texas, has over 10 million square feet of factory floor — equivalent to 100 football fields. These factories have evolved from just producing batteries — they can now execute the entire manufacturing process of an EV in one building.
With this uptick in construction jobs for the EV industry, workers will face new hazards and safety protocols. Let’s talk about the four stages of EV facility construction. We’ll break down the four stages with groundwork, formwork, installation work, and interior work and touch on the main hazards and solutions in each stage. With construction being such a vast industry, protective gear can vary from job to job, and so can the hazards.
Stage 1. Groundwork
First, let’s discuss the groundwork stage. This is the first stage and base of any construction project. This includes all the initial work that goes toward creating a good foundation. There are several hazards in this stage.
Demolition, Excavation, Digging. This stage involves clearing the site to begin building and laying the foundation. When digging or excavating, the sides may collapse. This is a common hazard, but nonetheless, it can be avoided with support systems for the hole that is being dug. Since EV factories are so large, the amount of digging that takes place is more than your usual factory floor — creating greater opportunity for cave-ins and collapsing sides. Temporary support is a great tool to relieve the load from the walls of the excavation. One way to do this is with proper shoring to keep the sides sturdy and stop them from caving in.
Falling Objects. Another hazard when digging is falling objects. Don’t store anything too close to the sides of the dig, as it can cause a cave-in or injure a worker below. A hard hat should always be worn when on-site for optimal head protection.
Noise. In this stage, a significant amount of noise is created with all the heavy machinery. If exposed to anything over 85 decibels for too long, permanent hearing damage can occur. Hearing protection like earplugs or earmuffs can help block out any harmful noise.
Exposure to Dangerous Respiratory Hazards. With all the debris that groundwork jobs create, it’s important to take care of the respiratory system with a high-quality mask. This helps ensure that workers aren’t breathing in any toxic particles or chemical vapors. We’ll touch more on this in the interior work phase as well.
Stage 2. Formwork
Once the groundwork is complete, then formwork can begin. The formwork stage is where a temporary structure is built to shape wet concrete and keep its form until it has hardened. Concrete is a popular building material, but formwork doesn’t always involve concrete. Depending on the building, aluminum, timber, steel and even plastic can be used. A key risk is falls from height.
Falls From Height. In this stage, working from height is common. Falls are the number one cause of worker fatality in construction. Slips, trips, and falls can happen anywhere, anytime — that’s why being prepared is worth the extra steps. OSHA requires fall protection when construction workers are working at heights of 6 feet or greater above a lower level. This means that any type of work on scaffolding or roofing should have fall protection. Harnesses, self-retracting lifelines, and anchorage systems can all help to prevent falls and give workers peace of mind that they are protected on the job.
With all the moving parts in this stage of construction, proper hand, head, and respiratory protection should also be worn. You can never have too much personal protective equipment (PPE) when working alongside potential hazards.
Stage 3. Installation
After completing the formwork, installation work is ready to begin. This basically entails installing building items in their fixed locations, joining parts together, or cutting materials to size. This stage also includes installing electrical, heating, and gas pipes throughout the build. This job brings along a wide range of hazards that workers need to protect themselves against. Two key issues are electrocution and struck by hazards.
Electrocution. Since electrocution is such a common hazard in the construction industry, it is best to be prepared to work safely in these conditions. This might mean head-to-toe PPE for this stage. Choose PPE designed for electrical safety, such as rubber gloves, sleeves, and dielectric boots, to help prevent accidental electrocution.
Struck By Hazards. During installation work, falling objects may occur. Make sure that everything is securely anchored when installing machinery and other fixed objects. Being struck by an object is the second cause of worker fatality5 in the construction industry. A hard hat should be worn in every stage of construction so that the head is always protected.
Stage 4. Interior Work
The final stage of the four stages of construction is interior work. Even though we are nearing the end of the construction project, it can still be ripe with hazards, such as toxic chemical and particle inhalation and heavy machinery accidents.
Inhalation of Toxic Chemicals and Particles. Plastering, installing flooring and painting all sound like simple tasks but can have a huge impact on your respiratory system by being exposed to dangerous particles. Without proper ventilation or protection during plastering or painting, workers can inhale toxic vapors. By using proper respiratory protection that is rated for these kinds of jobs, workers can be protected against potentially toxic chemicals. For added safety, workers can be fit-tested for their masks so they can get a proper seal around their nose and mouth.
Heavy Machinery Accidents. While interior work has many respiratory hazards, the use of heavy machinery at this stage can pose even more risks. Using machinery to paint, seal, or move heavy items or even on-site vehicles can cause caught-in-between accidents. These can result in getting squeezed, caught, or crushed by the machinery. It’s best to make sure that there is proper training and demonstration when using this type of machinery. By providing the right education, workers can use the machinery in the safest and most knowledgeable way and help cut down on potential risks.
While the future seems bright for EVs, there is still so much more to come. With the creation of jobs not just in the production process but also in the construction of physical factories, having the right solutions to protect your workers is critical. There are so many hazards in the construction industry that it can be a difficult job to choose the right protection for your team.
No matter the stage of construction you’re in, it’s important to promote a culture of safety, so your team can feel safe performing the duties of their job. Training, choosing proper PPE, demonstrations and safety assessments are all simple measures you can take toward creating a culture of safety at your workplace.
This article originally appeared in the September 2023 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.