James Lawson, Contributor
November 14, 2011 | 2 Comments
Manchester, U.K. -- 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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