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Offshore Health & Safety: A Spotlight on Industry Practice

Health and safety practices in the young but growing offshore wind industry have suffered from a lack of international consistency. Developing any guidelines and practices outside individual projects or businesses is very much up to the industry itself; manufacturers, developers and operators have to tailor their approach to each country or project.

Europe and the U.K. in particular are leading offshore wind development, but a number of deaths and other incidents in the last two years have put the spotlight on the industry's Health and Safety (H&S) regime. Working at heights, heavy lifts, dropped objects and maritime operations are just some of the challenges and, with the move to far offshore, the environment is becoming more hazardous: taller turbines, worse weather and slower emergency response.

Whether for a wind turbine or a machine shop, H&S legislation starts with EU directives which are then enacted by each Member State. The end result is a set of similar, but slightly different, regulatory regimes. Add in individual country-specific laws and how the rules are policed and enforced by the various regulators, and it's easy to see how manufacturers, developers and operators have to tailor their approach to each country or project. "There's more than enough regulation," says Dr Keith Harsham, SHEQ manager at Mainstream Renewable Power. "How it is applied along with guidance in a relatively new industry is what is important."

European turbine manufacturers, developers, operators, trade associations and other interested parties are now developing a more unified approach to better meet the H&S challenge. This includes sharing incident data, responding to government proposals for changes in HSE legislation and, crucially, agreeing on consistent European standards for safety training.

The most important legislative development today is the planned 2012 release of the latest version of the European 50308 wind turbine standard EN 50308, rev 1, wind turbines — safety requirements for design, operation and maintenance. This takes proper account of offshore wind for the first time, and aims build in safety from the start of the turbine life cycle.

Better designs make for more efficient operation, perhaps employing remote diagnostics to reduce service and maintenance frequency. Minimising the need to visit turbines decreases the number of operational maintenance hours offshore - and so the overall risk to personnel. An example might be a turbine gearbox that is designed, like a ship's, to be sealed for life. Better reliability here in exchange for some cost or weight penalty would definitely increase safety. Likewise better corrosion protection that helps equipment survive for the whole life of the turbine. But when a visit is unavoidable, the design should allow technicians to safely and quickly deal with any issues.

Still in its final stages of development, the new standard covers everything from turbine erection, access hatch sizes and machinery guards to emergency escape and lighting. For example, the need to perform risk assessments becomes explicit while a standard stop button controls how every type of turbine shuts down.

"There are many wind turbine-specific safety measures that have been made clear or included for the first time," says Chris Streatfeild, director of health and safety at RenewableUK, who sits on the CEN technical committee. "It will benchmark current thinking and will have substantial impact on both turbine manufacture and use," he adds.

Specifying turbines to fit the laws of each country along with the specific demands of each operator can be a long, drawn-out process. The updated standard will help greatly but, CE mark or not, each operator's specifications are always going to differ from a manufacturer's interpretation of the legislation.

"This standard is more structured than what we have currently but is still only a starting point," says Chris Black, head of health, safety and quality at Scottish Power Renewables. "The hardest message to get across to suppliers is, just because the standard doesn't specify it, it doesn't mean you can ignore it." According to Black, constant high-level communication over a number of years is the only way to help manufacturers interpret the regulations correctly for specific projects and modify their turbines to suit his company's needs.

Developing any guidelines and practices outside individual projects or businesses is very much up to the industry itself. But despite the vast amount of wind-related experience in Northern Europe, there has been little or nothing in the way of published H&S guidelines or standards from each country's trade bodies or indeed from the European Wind Energy Association (EWEA) to date. The RenewableUK (RUK) trade body has set the pace in Europe with an impressive roster of published guidelines and two accredited training courses which have become de facto standards in the UK. Its H&S forum is the main U.K. conduit between the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and the industry.

RUK has also worked with City and Guilds to develop vocational qualifications for technicians, while its guidelines range from jackup selection and switchgear safety to lifts and medical fitness. It is currently developing standalone offshore H&S guidelines to augment its existing standards. "These will offer more detail on the maritime environment and the relevant technology," explains Streatfeild. "We're also developing vessel selection guidance in conjunction with DNV and The Crown Estate."

As offshore wind continues to grow rapidly, staff training is critical in maintaining and improving safety standards. As the law requires, each operator and developer has adopted the policies and training standards that it sees as best suited to its operations in each country.

Considerable investment has gone into wind-specific training in Europe: dummy turbine masts are springing up where inexperienced staff can practice their techniques. But supplying training courses is made more difficult by the inconsistent requirements of manufacturers and operators. For example, at the moment operators and subcontractors might have to send their technicians on a different safety course for each type of turbine they work on. Someone might go on a five-day course to work for one company and then have to take a virtually identical course to work for another.

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"There is no consistency and no European standards," says Lisa Dodds, business development manager for renewable energy at Falck Nutec. "This makes things very difficult for training providers. RenewableUK has done a good job but that's it. Any change will very much be down to the operators."

At the moment, Falck and other training providers run courses specific to certain manufacturers and operators as well as RUK-accredited Working at Height and Marine Safety courses. Then there are the many other courses from the oil and gas sector that are used by the wind industry, which themselves vary across borders. "Some OEMs want various extra bits added on, others don't, and none of the courses are a legal requirement," explains Dodds. "The biggest issue is actually first aid at work. We have many people coming to us to do the HSE first aid course in order to work in UK waters."

Making H&S training independent of turbine models and seeking to harmonise other basic certification such as offshore transfer and medicals across Europe would cut out this wasted time and reduce training costs markedly. Common standards would also massively increase the mobility of the burgeoning European wind workforce, predicted to increase by hundreds of thousands in the next few years.

A more integrated European approach to H&S arrived with the formation of the Global Wind Organisation (GWO) in late 2009. Made up of manufacturers like Vestas and Siemens along with operators such as SSE Renewables and Vattenfall, it concentrates on a single issue: setting common standards for safety training across Europe. After a year of testing and consultation, the GWO training standard is being finalised for release in January 2012. It will cover basics such as marine safety, survival, fire fighting and manual handling.

"Through GWO, we have talked to OPITO to be the custodian of the GWO basic safety training standard and approval body for training providers," says Claus Rose, head of EHS at Siemens Service Renewables and GWO chair. "Other organisations have been approached, but the final decision has not been made yet."

There are other groups involved, such as the G9 group of U.K. operators, all of whom are also members of RUK and the GWO. Little has been heard from them as yet, though like the GWO, their focus is on health and safety via the G9 HSE Offshore Safety Forum. Their concerns are familiar: heavy lifts, vessel transfers, personal safety offshore and training standards.

So far, standards appear to have evolved in parallel rather than in concert but, encouragingly, there have been detailed discussions between RUK and the GWO over future harmonisation of their current courses. "We have done some gap analysis and are sitting down with the GWO in a few weeks' time," says Streatfeild, who states that future standards will be developed in conjunction with partner industry bodies as far as possible. "We need recognition of core common areas across various countries and can then add on elements as required. Pan-European standards are unlikely in the short term."

Outside the EU, the US market is also considering its health and safety approach to wind energy, with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) forming an agreement to seek a best-practice approach to safety this August. According to Rose, the U.S. market has shown a keen interest in adapting the GWO standard.

As well as harmonising current courses, the upcoming challenge is in formulating new training and certification to cover the needs of far offshore. This includes more sophisticated medical standards that identify underlying conditions plus covering the various emerging turbine transfer technologies.

In the latter case, the 13-strong shortlist for the Carbon Trust's Offshore Accelerator Access competition shows a commitment to reducing risk, but also demonstrates how hard it is for standards to keep up with such a fast-moving industry. Some sort of standard method for turbine transfer would be convenient but the reality is that all sorts of different vessels employing various transfer methods will be used offshore.

Using helicopters will add to the complexity. Some operators already employ courses developed in oil and gas such as BOSIET (Basic Offshore Safety Induction and Emergency Training) that incorporate PST (Personal Survival Training) and HUET (Helicopter Underwater Escape Training), but there is no helicopter course tailored to wind needs as yet.

"The helicopter will be a big part of farshore work," says Black. "There may be a two-tier training system for nearshore and farshore, and it needs to be developed in conjunction with Europe. It will take around two years to sort it out."

Learning about and managing key risks by sharing incident reports and alerting others to potentially dangerous issues is key to preventing recurrences. This has been the case for many years in potentially hazardous industries such as liquid natural gas transport, aviation and, of course, the oil industry. Though HSE information is certainly shared in the wind industry at conferences and other meeting points, there is a piecemeal approach. "We need people prepared to work together," says Harsham, noting that sharing incident information "can almost be cloak and dagger. We don't have a protocol for sharing without fear as they do in oil and gas."

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Sharing both qualitative and quantitative information is most desirable, and is second nature in European oil and gas. One model for wind might be Oil and Gas UK's Step Change in Safety initiative, to which all operators in UK waters belong. It has a simple remit: to sustain an industry-wide dialogue about safety and to feed back learnings into industry standards and guidelines.

Statoil uses its oil and gas H&S operating model in wind, and is actively canvassing for a scheme where safety challenges can be shared and discussed under conditions of anonymity or the "Chatham House Rule." Quantitative information on safety-related incidents would ideally be shared via a central system open to all interested parties, and oil and gas offers an example here too: the OREDA database which holds reliability data on exploration and production equipment used on offshore installations worldwide.

Harsham notes that "lawyers are often the ones representing operators and developers." A fear that openness might equate to preparing one's own prosecution case might explain some reluctance to share information.

RUK has taken a lead here with its Lessons Learned database and, with Round 3 planning underway in earnest, the Crown Estate is also taking a more active role to ensure that the demands of far offshore safety are addressed. Hence initiatives like Safe by Design, vessel and training guides, and forums in which it can share aggregated H&S data with its main Round 3 partners.

"I'm not entirely convinced that all the suppliers have truly recognised the different characteristics of Round 3 projects," says Paul Bryant, health and safety manager at the Crown Estate. "It's still early days, but our forum has the potential to provide a mechanism to gather information and share operational hazards." He also notes that "a significant proportion of the incidents in the last 24 months have been in areas like trenching and lifting that we as an industry have been working in for decades. Without a robust 'lessons learned' approach, we will inevitably repeat them."

A slightly more esoteric debate revolves around whether offshore wind should adopt a more prescriptive safety case approach as is mandatory for offshore oil and gas installations in the U.K. A written safety case is there to demonstrate how major accident risks are, or will be, controlled to ensure compliance with the relevant statutory provisions.

This U.K.-specific debate has advocates on both sides, with those with an oil background far more disposed to some form of safety case regime modified for the needs of offshore wind. Many others see it as potentially too onerous and stringent. It's also worth remembering that the statistics show that the oil and gas sector in the UK is in fact less safe than in many other countries.

Using a permit-to-work system to govern offshore turbine access could be one example where oil and gas practice would be beneficial. Likewise, establishing an exclusion zone around turbines as is the case for oil platforms. "The industry does need a good agreed code of practice for offshore installations, though there's no need to call it a safety case," says Harsham. "You could call it the 'Wind Farm Safety Assessment.'"

Learning from mistakes, sharing solutions, developing consistent guidelines and training, while taking the best from oil and gas: this has to be the way ahead. Wind is a young industry and far offshore is the biggest challenge it has yet faced in health and safety terms as in many other ways. With all concerned committed to developing and policing the most effective possible health and safety regime, keeping a sensible and constructive discussion going is the key to achieving that goal.

"Lack of international consistency and discussion is in itself unsafe," concludes Harsham. "The big thing is to communicate the risk so you can engineer it out or reduce it to acceptable levels."

James Lawson is a freelance journalist focusing on the energy sector.

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