Occupational wind fatalities have been decreasing in proportion to installed capacity as the industry matures, and with the growing experience of developers, contractors and equipment manufacturers, sound health and safety (H&S) systems and cultures are more common.
Yet the inherent hazards of wind sites cannot be denied and are amplified by wind itself, steep terrain, the remoteness of many sites, and maritime conditions. Offshore H&S is also fast becoming a pressing issue.
Risks and hazards
Because wind-energy work involves less exposure to toxic, flammable materials or explosions than some industries, H&S can be taken for granted, says Jim Spigener, senior vice-president at BST Solutions, a US-based global safety consultancy. This is a mistake, suggests Dr David Michaels, US assistant secretary of labour for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Speaking last year, Michaels said: "As part of the emerging green jobs industry, wind-energy jobs promise to be kinder to our environment and transform our economy. But these jobs are not necessarily safer for American workers."
One expert in renewable-energy risk assurance, who prefers to remain anonymous, points to a number of recent, serious accidents in the UK, notably offshore. In light of the UK government's policy of a rapid increase in offshore capacity, the expert warns that a "scaled up" accident rate will not be acceptable.
Because government regulations take so long to emerge, industry should focus on best practice, says Todd Karasek, Suzlon's vice-president of environment, health and safety in North America. "Wind is relatively new ... and it takes time for regulations to be honed," he adds.
The UK offers a good example of industry-led H&S initiatives. With little political appetite for wind-specific regulation, the UK industry is guided by the premise that whoever creates an H&S risk is responsible for managing it, and that industry-led best practice is ideal.
Chris Streatfeild, H&S director at trade association, RenewableUK, says that existing H&S regulations are more than adequate but offers a caveat, citing a "need for greater clarity on the application of existing regulations for projects as they go further offshore".
Two years ago the jurisdiction of UK government agency the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) was extended beyond the national territorial limit of 12 nautical miles (19 kilometres) into areas where the next round of offshore projects will be built. Yet the UK's construction design and management regulations, which apply to all projects on UK soil and its territorial waters, are unlikely to be extended for another year or two. The oil and gas industry, which deploys workers beyond the 12-mile zone, already has its own regulations.
The HSE, which recently assessed the growing offshore wind sector and concluded that no change is needed to regulations. Colin Connor, head of the executive's energy unit, characterises wind's hazards and risks as familiar. A 2010 HSE report lists only one major hazard that could cause mass deaths or injuries on offshore wind projects - the collapse of platforms during turbine/substation construction.
However, Connor cautions that as offshore projects move further out, even familiar challenges must be managed carefully and he acknowledges that risks may increase simply due to the industry's rapid growth.
Some argue that formal "safety cases" should be mandatory for UK offshore projects, as they are for the oil and gas industry. These specify how a project's risks will be managed and must be approved by the HSE. Use of safety cases would not only mean fewer accidents, but also lower insurance and capital finance costs, argues the anonymous risk-assurance expert.
In contrast, Julian Hubbard, health, safety, quality and environment manager for UK-based wind developer RES, believes compulsory safety cases are unnecessary because UK construction regulations are already based on best practice. Even outside UK territorial waters these regulations are almost always voluntarily adopted, he adds. HSE's Connor agrees wind projects do not need "the same level of oversight" as oil and gas.
In the US, H&S regulations and standards tend to be more prescriptive and detailed. There is no need for specific H&S standards for onshore wind, says Michele Mihelic, manager for labour, health and safety at the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA). However, she would like to see the sector considered more when broader H&S regulation is drafted. Turbine falls often differ from those on cellular towers, she points out, as they may occur within a confined space.
In response, US safety agency OSHA has proposed changes to existing standards, but it agrees that specific arrangements for onshore wind are not needed. "It is part of power generation and we already have standards in place," says Brian Sturtecky, area director of OSHA. Nevertheless, the agency has created a national wind task force to investigate accidents, educate the agency, and advise on regulatory compliance. The task force consists of more than ten trained inspectors who, for example, are trained to climb a wind turbine tower.
And, with offshore a likelihood in the US, OSHA points to early involvement in process and equipment designs to eliminate hazards to the workers who use them. "Employers should have a system in place where safety and health professionals work with design engineers in designing out hazards," says an OSHA spokesperson.
US offshore regulation is likely to be complicated by state and federal jurisdictional conflicts, and specific offshore H&S standards may be necessary, says Mihelic. A study from the National Research Council's Marine Board - a private, non-profit adviser to the US government on scientific matters - will complete a study in July that will identify gaps in regulation for offshore renewables projects in waters under US federal jurisdiction. AWEA is also developing a safety training package. Its section on operations and maintenance is due out this month, while a construction sub-section should be available in the spring.
Questions about China
Compared to Europe and North America, China has a poor reputation for wind-related H&S, reinforced by two accidents in 2011. The first was a turbine-installation rehearsal that left five dead, the second a turbine installation that killed three. Many wind-industry players are frustrated by a perceived lack of willingness on the part of Chinese manufacturers to be open and collaborative on H&S issues. Hubbard of RES notes that his company liaises closely on H&S issues with Vestas, Siemens and Nordex. "Will Chinese turbine manufacturers be as open?" he asks.
Others argue that China has recognised it must tackle H&S. "They are pushing hard to establish a safety-conscious reputation," says the unnamed expert in renewables risk assurance. "They have committed to high standards, but everything takes a while. I think they'll get there."
Chinese turbine manufacturers appear increasingly to understand that a demonstrable commitment to safety is crucial. Goldwind has "not experienced a single major injury" since its certified management safety system was established in 2010, says the company's US spokesperson Colin Mahoney. "We have invested over CNY 7 million ($1.1 million) in our safety programmes in China," he adds.
Regardless of national or regional regulations, the wind sector relies on an increasingly global supply chain, which presents challenges for inspectors seeking to verify the safety of wind equipment and components. "What regulations were these turbines built to? That's what we're finding challenging (in the US)," says OSHA's Sturtecky.
If government regulation remains minimal, what will reduce accident rates further? Experts agree that leadership is crucial, as is training. Encouragingly, voluntary collaboration on training has begun. Rival turbine makers Vestas, Siemens and Suzlon have teamed up with clients SSE Renewables, Vattenfall and RWE Innogy to standardise safety training for technicians working on members' turbines. A joint training scheme will launch in Europe early this year. It's a good start. As Jon Cowlan, H&S senior manager at UK law firm Pinsent Masons, points out: "You can have global standards, but not global regulations."
OCCUPATIONAL RISKS KEY HAZARDS FOR WIND PROJECT WORKERS
Falls Risks during installation and maintenance, and in high winds.
Confined spaces Dangers from motors, gears, low oxygen and hazardous gases.
Machinery/power sources The sudden start-up of machinery, or release of energy from stored equipment, can pose a danger.
Heavy lifting Misuse of lifting equipment, difficult terrain and extreme weather increase risk.
Electrical and fire Electric shocks, arc flashes and thermal burns can injure or kill. Fire hazards can arise from power and combustible insulation materials or from the nacelle housing or lubricants.
Remote locations Local emergency teams may lack experience of industrial accidents or be unfamiliar with wind sites in their area. Mobile phone signals may be limited.
Extreme weather High winds or extreme temperatures bring risk. Turbines may be hit by lightning and ice can accumulate on blades.
Slips, trips and ergonomics Workers can easily fall, and the way workers interact with equipment can be hampered by climbing, bending or small spaces.
Offshore work Brings a range of specfic hazards associated with rough seas and a highly corrosive environment. Rescue can be complicated and delayed.