Minimizing Worker Safety Risks in the Wind Energy Industry

Like all energy sectors, the wind energy industry is one filled with risks. From testing and production of wind turbine components through to transport, installation and lifetime servicing of turbines, occupational safety and health (OSH) risks abound at every step of the process.

That the number of people working in the wind industry is rapidly growing – surpassing one million in 2014 and projected to surpass two million by 2030 – adds further cause for attention to be paid to safety.

wind energy

Image: A worker stands atop a Vestas turbine to perform service. Credit: Vestas.

Today, OSH is at the forefront of the wind industry supply chain, and efforts to foster safer working environments are materializing in several ways.

Chris Streatfeild, RenewableUK’s Director of Health & Safety, said that the energy industry is familiar with OSH risks.

“Good experience in managing working height, working in confined spaces, electrical mechanical safety etc., all of these are hazards we’re very familiar with; we’ve got a long history at managing them well. The wind turbine isn’t particularly complex or unique in respect to safety.”

On the other hand, he said that working in remote areas such as offshore wind farms and onshore wind turbines far from population centers “bring additional challenges.”

An important aspect to improving safety includes documenting accidents – work that serves to highlight the most risk-prone operations, and provide foundations for a knowledge-sharing culture within the industry.

wind energy

Image: UAV technology allows operators to obtain aerial views of turbines without having to climb the tower. Credit: Shutterstock.

The annual summary of accidents in the UK wind sector provided by RenewableUK shows around 1,500 accidents and other incidents occurred between 2007 and 2011, including four deaths and some 300 injuries to workers. For the time being there is not one single group cataloging accidents for the global wind industry.

“It’s an area that every industry finds challenging,” said Streatfeild. “There remains a lot of opportunity for development. But there are already existing forums and mechanisms by which lessons learnt are being shared.”

For its part, RenewableUK is hosting the Renewable Industry Safety Exchange (RISE), which seeks to facilitate the collection and dissemination of safety incidents, and examples of best practices throughout the global wind industry.

One example offering at least partial data from a pan-national level is the G9 Offshore Wind Health and Safety Association – a collection of some of the largest offshore OEMs working to improving safety in the wind industry. G9’s Annual Incident Report indicates that in 2014, among the 944 reported offshore incidents, 95 required first aid, and 89 were “medical treatment injuries.”

Collective industry awareness of accident incidence rate is taken as central to advancing safety by the authors of the Occupational safety and health in the wind energy sector (EU-OSHA, 2013) report, because at the very least it provides motivation for continual improvement.

However, the effort to improve safety is driven by a variety of others sources, too. As Jakob Holst, Secretary General of the Global Wind Organization (GWO) explained:

“[The whole industry is] working to improve safety. It’s not just a sentimental issue – poor safety can increase downtime of technicians, lengthen time needed for servicing of turbines, and in turn reduce a wind farm’s productivity. Good safety is good business.”

That’s why it is important to embed safety into the working environment, or as Streatfeild referred to it, “safe by design.” The focus of which is on evaluating risks of operations (installation, O&M or otherwise), site circumstances, and projecting these through the life-cycle of a wind turbine. By incorporating better safety features across the whole spectrum “you design in such a way that the exposure to risk is marginalized.”

Improvements in the reliability of technology therefore has a direct impact on safety. Fewer breakdowns mean fewer repairs. Equally, improved diagnostics through smart use of data, can further reduce breakdowns, limit the severity of faults when they do occur and reduce servicing.

Altogether, improvements are leading to “operations becoming much more efficient and therefore reducing the need for workers to be out in a [risky] environment; and it means when they are out, they’re involved in multiple activities, reducing their risk exposure in terms of both time and severity,” said Streatfeild.

wind energy

Image: Installation of Siemens’ 6-MW wind turbine in Germany. The nacelle design offers an improved working environment with safe and easy access to all key components. Credit: Siemens.

When technicians are required to climb turbines, they’re increasing aided by state-of-the-art technologies – including safety devices, access tools, and inspection equipment – which make work safer. These have a valuable role to play said Streatfeild: “UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles, aka, drones] are a very good example – when inspecting a turbine, you can eliminate the need for a lot of climbing. It’s quicker, it’s safer, and it’s more cost-effective.”

The bottom line is that better safety equipment and procedures are invariably highly cost-effective. As Streatfeild explained: “Almost all health and safety improvements are either cost-neutral, or in most cases, will reduce costs. There are very large, immediate returns on investments made in health and safety.”

Of course embedded safety will only take the industry so far. Presently, there remains a distinct human factor in the loop: “Once you’ve reduced those risks as much as possible, it’s then that we look at how best to ensure worker safety. It’s here where training comes in, alongside procedures, auditing and risk assessment.”

A Standard Training Protocol

A critical element to ensuring a safe working environment is training – the aim of which is assurance that workers are competent, well supported and safe.

Here, the wind industry has leap-frogged its nascent status by borrowing safety standards for training from existing industries: “Effectively, the approach of the wind industry has been to reference other industry standards [e.g. oil and gas, construction] as a source material, but then adapt this in view of the particular risks of the wind sector,” said Streatfeild.

Most companies ensure technicians complete training programs, and some countries have unified programs for safety and equipment training. Still, what is called for by the likes of GWO and EU-OSHA is a consistent set of industry-wide training standards, appropriate for workers involved in projects for any company across the globe. Such a unified landscape of standards is not easy to achieve, but it would be immensely valuable.

“There was the realization that all wind farm owners have similar requirements in training technicians, but there was no mutual recognition of training between companies – this is a problem when multiple companies are working on large projects,” said GWO’s Holst.

“For instance, if all NRG is supplying workforce for Siemens wind power when installing turbines of a DONG project. Prior to standardized training, the worker would have to attend three almost identical courses within each of the three involved companies.”

wind energy

Image: Drones such as this one can be used for aerial wind turbine inspection and monitoring. Credit: Aibotix.

Part of the solution from GWO is Basic Safety Training (BST) – a safety standard covering five modules (First Aid, Manual Handling, Fire Awareness, Working at Heights and Sea Survival) – which ensures training from certified providers meets a common, high level of proficiency, that is recognized across the industry, thereby reducing the need for repeated training.

Holst explained: “With the BST, the three companies would recognize training and worker competences, and thus save both time and money.”

In the future, GWO has plans to roll out a standard for Basic Maintenance Training.

Streatfeild acknowledged the role of mutually recognized courses and certifications.

“The principle of portability of training standards, such that one isn’t excessively repeating training with no added value, is very important. It’s an important element of reducing costs, and risk within the wind sector.”

Further, it isn’t just money that may be saved through standardization, but potentially lives. “Too much training, or repeated training, can become counter-productive. When you are asked to attend almost identical training that is arguably not necessary, the average worker will not be motivated. Paradoxically, too much training can be a safety risk,” said Holst.

A Looming Skills Gap

There is a final aspect to safety in the wind industry worth noting. Reporting on the European wind landscape in 2013, the EU’s Wind Energy Technology Platform (TPWind) claimed that there’s currently a shortage of around 5,500 appropriately qualified staff per year that could reach 18,000 by 2030. Of note, over half of the coming shortfall will exist within the O&M division – the area that carries the highest risk and number of accidents.

With those circumstances, the wind industry would be remiss not to establish effective safety measures wherever possible. Almost certainly, standardized training has a roll to play, but as Streatfeild remarked, “while training is very important; it is only one small part of a jigsaw of making the wind sector safe.”

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