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Avoid gaps in health and safety over project lifelycle

WORLWIDE: Every phase of a wind project's lifecycle presents its own safety issues for the workers.

Construction phase: Heavy lifting and completing multiple tasks in quick succession present safety issues
Construction phase: Heavy lifting and completing multiple tasks in quick succession present safety issues

Yet the health and safety (H&S) processes are not always clear-cut, with the transition and handover between stages being particularly challenging.

The industry is now recognising that to operate as safely as possible, developers and project owners must clarify the processes according to the stages - development, construction, operations and maintenance (O&M) and retrofitting/repowering.

Heavy burden

Construction is seen as the most complicated and possibly the most dangerous stage for offshore wind because of the heavy lifting. Indeed, heavy lifting is the key concern of the G9 Offshore Wind Health and Safety Association, founded last year by nine European utilities involved in offshore wind. Construction can also involve many sub-contractors with different H&S cultures and languages and hundreds of vessels, according to Jon Cowlan, a senior health and safety manager at international law firm Pinsent Masons. Onshore, conditions are somewhat more predictable, simply because marine conditions are not a factor.

In contrast, maintenance tends to include more repetitive tasks, so technicians become more familiar with them, and personnel may change less frequently. "The (risks during) O&M are much more controllable," he adds. The key risks during O&M procedures are interacting with electricity and working in confined spaces, he notes. And the transition from one lifecycle stage to the next can be problematic because of communication needs and changing contractual arrangements, says Cowlan.

Some argue that construction is riskier than O&M because of the tight time frame. During construction, many activities are concertinaed into a short time, points out Claus Rose, head of health, safety and environment (HSE) at Siemens Wind Power and chairman of the Global Wind Organisation (GWO), founded in 2009 by manufacturers Vestas, Siemens, Suzlon and Repower, and offshore developer Dong to promote an injury-free workplace.

Small maintenance teams

Scheduled maintenance is less problematic than unplanned work, says Rose. "Unscheduled maintenance can involve a few people in a very remote location - you have to have the proper rescue set-up."

Peter Hodgetts, H&S champion at the Crown Estate, which manages the UK seabed, agrees that rescue all-important during O&M. Although the work tends to be scheduled, teams are smaller and supervision is less, he says. Project owners must ensure that each person is highly trained in medical response, as you do not know who might be injured, he adds. As well as electrical issues, O&M often involves work at heights, says Michele Myers Mihelic, manager of labour, health & safety policy at the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA).

The transition from construction to the O&M stage poses its own challenges, according to Anne Marit Hansen, HSE manager for wind at energy company Statoil. "The difference is the size - you're going from XXL to XS," she says. During the peak of construction, 500 people may have been working at Statoil's 317MW Sheringham Shoal UK offshore project, whereas there may be no more than 50 during maintenance.

Retrofitting challenges

Replacing major components and decommissioning carries similar risk as the construction phase, although taking apart components offshore is not usually as smooth a process as construction because of, for example, salt corrosion, says Robin Stowell, H&S consultant at Conversulting. Equipment seized up by corrosion is more difficult to take apart for repair, decommissioning or retrofit, he says.

"There are just different challenges during each phase," says Hodgetts. The offshore construction phase can be a two-edged sword, he says, with the more obvious dangers, but there will also be more people nearby to respond to an accident and large vessels with a small hospital and even a helipad.

Silo mentality

In the past, the offshore wind industry has been described as having a "silo mentality", seeing each lifecycle phase as separate, says Hodgett. But now the industry tends to look at a project throughout its lifecycle and collaborate more. With a focus on lifecycle, utility-owners are more inclined to appoint one head of offshore wind who oversees all phases and whose responsibilities include H&S. That also allows more learning to be passed from one phase to another, he says.

AWEA's Myers Mihelic sees each of the phases as such a "different ball game" that it is hard to compare them. But much of wind H&S is not particular to the industry - lifting during onshore construction is similar to lifting in other sorts of construction, she argues, even if the wind-farm site might be windier and the issue of public safety less pervasive than for a high-rise in a dense city.

Even so, the goal of implementing H&S procedures and awareness into all aspects of work for everyone is similar during the different phases, even if the dimension and complexity is not, says Hansen. Her advice for coping with the transition from construction to O&M is using the opportunity of having overlapping phases for training the new teams so there is no gap.

Decisions taken during one phase greatly influence other phases, stresses Chris Streatfeild, H&S director at trade body RenewableUK. Therefore designing of H&S into projects is most important, he says. The wind turbine manufacturing community is becoming more cognisant of "safety by design". He agrees that there is more collaboration between financers and developers nowadays so that costs and risks are shared. After all, such a safety by design point of view helped the UK Olympics construction projects maintain an exemplary record with few accidents and no fatalities, he says.

PHASE BY PHASE - KEY SAFETY ISSUES

  • Site construction Heavy lifting presents major risks onshore as well as added complexities at offshore sites
  • Operations and maintenance Working with electricity in confined spaces, work at height, unplanned maintenance in remote locations requires a rescue plan, small teams
  • Retrofitting Heavy lifting issues as in construction; relatively little experience in offshore sector so far
  • Overall Transition between phases risks poor communication between teams, gaps in overlapping processes and training and poor handover procedures.

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