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Tough scrutiny of construction safety -- Federal standards on the way

The American wind industry's record shattering growth rate has attracted newfound attention from the federal government's Occupational Safety Health Administration (OSHA), the regulatory and inspection agency for workplace safety in America. "We're on OSHA's radar screen," says Gary LeMoine of PPM Energy, vice chair of the safety committee at the American Wind Energy Association. "They are going to start assigning people to wind sites, they're going to start looking at wind in general, and this is not going to be a light touch."

Speaking at an industry workshop organised by AWEA last month, LeMoine began his presentation with a photograph of the remains of a Siemens wind turbine at PPM Energy's Klondike III wind plant in Oregon which collapsed in August. Human error during commissioning led to an over-speed incident, causing the blades to hit the tower, bringing the structure to the ground. A Siemens employee lost his life in the accident (Windpower Monthly, September 2007).

LeMoine stresses wind work is high risk, especially during construction. OSHA is expected to finalise guidelines for wind energy this year, but the end package is an unknown. To add to the uncertainty, OSHA has over 2100 employees in more than 200 offices in the US who may interpret the document differently.

There are bound to be "jurisdictional battles" in how offices and states chose to implement top down guidelines, says LeMoine. For starters, inspection regimes for elevators differ from state to state. OSHA regulations in a given state could hold wind turbine tower elevators up to the same standards as those found in hotels.

Tough one

How it pans out is an unknown, says LeMoine, but "it's bound to be a tough one." While some are prepared for rigorous inspection and standards, others are not, he adds. He suggests all wind companies in the US scrutinise their safety procedures. "This is a train barrelling down the track. Some companies are going to get caught with their pants down," commented one workshop participant.

But fear of an OSHA crackdown on lax safety standards is not what concerns companies most. As a group of employees from an operations and maintenance company attending the AWEA event graphically demonstrated, the construction risks are all too real.

They informally shared with colleagues an amateur video shot at a construction site in which the coupling holding a tower section by crane is seen to snap in midair, sending the entire section swinging wildly and almost hitting a nearby worker who stepped out of the way just in time to avoid being hit by hundreds of tons of steel.

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