Improvement starts with leadership

WORLDWIDE: Little is more important or emotive than health and safety. Every industry must deal with the complex issue of minimising or eliminating workplace risk, and must start it as early as possible to embed it in a project for its lifetime. Leadership, training and workforce engagement --including consulting with employees -- are the mantras of health and safety gurus.

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But wind is a high-risk industry, even if it is less so than chemicals and hydrocarbons. Serious injuries, deaths and near misses do occur both onshore and offshore. It is also a relatively new industry, with little health and safety history to refer to and this, along with its fast-moving and entrepreneurial element, mean it is a mammoth task to keep up with best practice.

But there have been achievements. "If you look at wind relative to other industries that have grown rapidly, we’ve done an immense amount in a very short time," says Chris Streatfeild, director of health and safety at industry body RenewableUK. The UK is seen as being at the cutting edge of global wind health and safety. Individual companies, such as RES in the UK and Vestas of Denmark, have also taken safety seriously.

Yet there is much to learn, as Streatfeild himself acknowledges: "We’ve had a number of serious issues," he said in November 2010, "and we don’t really know what the common themes are." He points to one attitude that is surely not unique to wind: health and safety being seen as a barrier to development and technology.

Incomplete data

The record for health and safety in the wind industry is patchy, even in the Western world. Elsewhere, there is little data, even on fatalities or serious accidents, particularly for local subcontractors that are not directly supervised by major global wind companies.

But nothing can blemish the wind industry more than its 45-plus deaths since 1980 in Europe and North America (see table on page 7). And this may be a low count — there are unconfirmed reports in local German newspapers of two more deaths at the Bard project in the North Sea, in addition to the diver who asphyxiated and is counted in our fatalities data.

The long-term trend has been for fewer wind industry deaths and injuries over time compared with total megawatts installed. In the early days of the industry, safety planning, training or equipment were not always used. "If I think back 15 or 20 years, people might have climbed a turbine without a harness," recalls Jakob Larsen, senior vice-president for sustainability at Vestas. "I’m not proud of this but it is part of our history."

Yet there has also been a cluster of deaths and serious injuries since 2000 — 12 deaths between 2001 and 2005 and a shocking 15 deaths since 2006. In this past decade, more people have died in the wind industry than before.

Fast growth

The rise in deaths mirrors the industry’s exponential growth, when best practice was evolving rapidly and where timetables in some cases were too tight. The rise can also be ascribed to the relatively novel dangers of prospecting and developing wind offshore, where the marine environment, especially in the North Sea, is on a par with offshore Alaska — and where access to wind projects can be treacherous.

"Any of these deaths is a tragedy and it would be complacent to ignore them," says Streatfeild. "But it would be wrong to over-interpret them and assume they indicate a systemic problem in wind."

Whether systemic or not, the injuries and deaths, apart from the inherent human tragedy, have impacts that are hard to calculate. Jeremy Carnell of renewable energy consultancy PMSS lists these as: lives and health; damage to a company’s image; damage to the industry’s image; company morale; time lost; and financial costs.

Much is changing. RenewableUK now controls the protocol for standards and approvals for wind power health and safety training in the UK. In the US, the health and safety committee of the American Wind Energy Association is now four years old. It is formulating training courses that it hopes will be approved federally and ensure consistent application of safety compliance across the country.

Improvement can never be too dramatic. People have a basic human right to work in as safe an environment as possible. Streatfeild points to a number of priorities for health and safety, starting with leadership from trade groups, as well as from companies and their senior executives. In addition, training, commitment to health and safety and the honing of the necessary skills, the proper resourcing of health and safety, and workforce engagement are all of great importance to continued improvement in the industry. As PMSS’s Carnell says: "Safety leadership is not just touchy-feely. It is about making tough decisions."

Ros Davidson is a special correspondent for Windpower Monthly

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