To climb a vertical ladder takes more physical effort than using a treadmill or a rowing machine. It uses the whole body. Some in the industry suggest that a wind technician should not be expected to undertake more than three or four climbs to 80 metres a day, but the number of climbs and the accumulated height could still present a real challenge to the industry.
Musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) are one of the most prevalent occupational health issues across the globe, according to the International Labour Organisation, affecting the muscles, tendons, ligaments, nerves and joints, typically in the upper or lower limbs and the back.
With the pool of skilled labour decreasing, the wind industry should be working to avoid risk of MSDs.
In Europe, there are fewer young people entering the job market to meet the future demands for skilled labour in this area, so competition between employers will increase. The EU, through its 2020 strategy, recognises that to offset the challenges presented by an ageing demographic, lower birth rates and a lower skills base, employers must look at retaining employees for longer.
MSDs can pose a threat to all ages. While the effects can be more severe for older staff, they tend to work more within their physical limits. Their younger colleagues may push themselves to their limits or beyond.
Climbers also need to maintain a healthy weight and deal with psychological and environmental stressors from working in extreme temperatures and weather conditions. There can be perceived poor supervisory support — particularly relevant for peripatetic workers - high workload demands, and low job control. Other physical difficulties can come from the design of ladders and hatches and from working within a confined space.
There should be a more holistic approach to workplace adjustments in order to address the issue of MSDs experienced by wind technicians. Research needs to be carried out specifically for the wind industry.
RenewableUK recently commissioned Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen to review the available literature on the potential effects of vertical ladder-climbing on the musculoskeletal system. Not surprisingly, they found very little published evidence relating to the occupational health of wind technicians. However, they did suggest potential areas for further research, which will help the industry to identify appropriate workplace designs and solutions for wind technicians.
In the meantime, to retain your current wind technicians, consider the advice for employers from other industries that require ladder climbing:
- Keep up to date with research into risk factors and how to reduce them, and feed this through to regular reviews of procedures, access methods and equipment
- Ensure wind technicians remain a healthy weight and minimise the loads carried. Carry out regular occupational health checks
- Carry out a workplace survey to identify the prevalence of musculoskeletal disorders
- Ensure wind technicians understand how to use their body correctly during climbing
- Ensure wind technicians always have access to water to remain hydrated
- Wind technicians should work as a team and structure the work to allow each the best opportunity to recover after each descent.
Jennifer Webster is a chartered psychologist working for the Health and Safety Laboratory's Human Science Unit (HSL), an agency of the UK government's Health and Safety Executive (HSE).
This article is the opinion of the author and its contents do not necessarily reflect policy or views of either the HSL or the HSE.