Wind turns the corner on risk management

WORLDWIDE: Working in the wind industry can be dangerous, and accidents serious. In October 2010, a wind power worker died after being crushed while loading tower sections at a US manufacturing facility in Colorado.

Step change. Ladders are being replaced by lifts to reduce staff fatigue and consequent mistakes
Step change. Ladders are being replaced by lifts to reduce staff fatigue and consequent mistakes

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Three months earlier, a diver asphyxiated when his oxygen supply failed on the transformer platform of the German-developed Bard offshore wind plant in the North Sea. In May 2010, a crane dropped a blade at the UK's Greater Gabbard offshore wind plant, killing one person and seriously injuring another. And in 2006, an employee lost his leg on Scotland's two-turbine Beatrice offshore project after he was crushed during installation. Fortunately, as this relatively young industry grows in size and experience, proportionately fewer are losing their lives (see table, below, right).

The conditions inherent to the global wind industry bring plenty of risk: extreme and changeable weather and sea conditions, remote locations, working at height, heavy lifting, confined spaces and proximity to electricity. With just 25 to 30 years of commercial experience, and with the technology still evolving, best-practice standards for health and safety are by necessity a work in progress, notes Jon Cowlan, senior manager of health and safety at law firm Pinsent Masons.

"Our priority is to continually improve worker health and safety," says Michele Myers Mihelic, health and safety manager of the American Wind Energy Association, which is in the process of developing training programmes. "You can never become complacent even in a year when there are no accidents."

Hazard or risk

Taf Powell, director of emerging energy technologies at the UK government's pioneering Health and Safety Executive (HSE), says that the wind industry is "high hazard" rather than "major hazard" like the oil and gas or chemical sectors. But Julian Hubbard, health and safety manager at RES Group of the UK, a major international wind project development and construction company, rejects this characterisation. He prefers the term "managed risk", saying that the risk in the industry is on a par with construction or other electricity-generating industries. His company has installed 5GW worldwide over the years without a single employee death.

It is thanks to the attention of the HSE and the proactive stance of industry body RenewableUK that the UK is recognised as a global leader in wind industry health and safety, despite four wind industry-related deaths since 2007. RenewableUK is in fact the first wind industry body to deal openly with the issue of health and safety, says industry analyst Paul Gipe.

A basic guage of health and safety is the number of fatalities measured against productivity. The rate of death and serious accidents in the wind industry is higher than many employed in the sector seem to be aware (see table below). A single source of global wind industry accident statistics does not exist but from available information, it would appear that since 1980 there have been 45 occupational deaths in the industry in Europe and North America. Not included are any fatalities that might have occurred in countries such as China or India, where data is almost impossible to collect or verify, and where local culture and economics can lead to a more lax health and safety environment.

Injury rate steady despite sector growth

Even in the Western world, data on serious accidents is hard to come by, if only because the authorities seldom separate out data for wind. However, the HSE reported 70 incidents in the UK wind sector between March 2005 and March 2010 in its preliminary, unvalidated data, says Powell. Those incidents include three fatalities, lost limbs, incidents that kept people off work for three or more days and near misses such as a load being dropped that almost caused serious injury. But the injury rate is fairly steady year on year, he says, despite the growing size of the UK industry.

Chris Streatfeild, director of health and safety at RenewableUK, stresses that the wind sector is complex in terms of health and safety. "We have had serious issues," he says. "We need to learn to scale up in terms of volume and size."

To put the death and injury rates in context, he points out that there are now more than 100,000 large wind turbines installed globally. Indeed, compared with the cowboy days of the early 1980s in the US, the modern industry has reduced the number of serious job-related accidents and deaths per gigawatt installed from more than seven to less than one (see graph, below).

There are certain basic mantras common to an effective health and safety culture, says RES's Hubbard, such as: if you do not have to work at height, then don't. Lifts are not standard or a mandated in the UK, but the country's regulations on work at height require a risk assessment to demonstrate a safe system — making it difficult to argue against taking one if offered by a turbine supplier. As a consequence, lifts are becoming more common in newly installed larger turbines in the UK. They are so helpful that RES is considering retrofitting turbines to include them. Their use reduces wear and tear on joints from climbing up ladders, as well as fatigue, so mistakes are less likely.

Yet technological advances, such as an increased use of lifts, may have implications for further maintenance even if reliability is improved. Also, accessing certain parts of the turbines still requires climbing, which makes fall-arrest lanyards essential.

The UK's leadership and industry collaboration have sparked an improvement in lanyards, with the introduction of a "fall back test", required for certification of fall-arrest equipment. Previously, it was not fully recognised that a fall from a ladder might entail the victim turning over backwards and, in one UK incident, the older type of lanyard did not deploy and the construction worker fell to his death. The new test has not, however, been adopted across the EU because of disputes between countries.

Product reliability

RES also works closely with turbine manufacturers, such as Vestas. "We put our engineers together with their turbine teams to increase reliability," Hubbard says. If equipment is reliable or if faults can be predicted, maintenance can be reduced or scheduled for good weather or to coincide with availability of equipment.

Training is vital for improving health and safety standards. At RES, workers or visitors are now trained on working at height and must undergo a medical exam, including a treadmill test for the heart. Their working practices are then monitored. First aid training is given, as accidents may occur in remote areas, offshore or at the top of a turbine.

Only authorised people at RES can enter electrical areas. They will have completed training by third-party professionals and must be approved by a special panel. "The rules are similar to those used by the National Grid," says Hubbard. Similarly, people are trained before being authorised to participate in lifting heavy objects. A "lifting plan" must be produced that takes full account of the weight and balance of the equipment being moved.

Still, as the accident data make clear, there are failings among some wind companies despite the efforts of the industry and government. One example is a macho attitude that real managers don't need a safety culture, says Jeremy Carnell, of consultancy PMSS.

Other faults include companies passing the buck to contractors, health and safety being perceived as a drain on time and money, and training being inadequate or boring. Are the health and safety rules realistic? "Don't wait until you are looking into the eyes of someone's loved one to think how you could have done things differently," Carnell says.

HSE's Powell does not single out the wind industry as being bad. He is pretty content with the attitude of the sector, although problems remain, as is evident from the four recent UK deaths. HSE is co-developing a pilot health and safety programme for four key emerging energy technologies, including wind, to establish an appropriate level of regulation. "We have to find the right compromise," Powell says. "In 2011, we are having a very close look at wind."

Injuries cut by 48% in one year Improvements are achievable

Dramatic cuts in injury rates are possible but the health and safety of employees must be integrated into a project throughout its lifetime, with clear standards and expectations communicated from the top down.

Risks must be eliminated at the design stage and the work, environment and equipment must be scrutinised with health and safety in mind, says Jeremy Carnell, of UK consultancy PMSS.

Health and safety has to be embedded early in working contracts, he says. All rules must be effective, achievable and not compromised by an over-tight project timeline.

Shifts must also be considered. "Tired people make more mistakes,"Carnell says, adding that training sessions must be engaging.

Strategic priority

Turbine manufacturer Vestas, made health and safety a strategic priority at the end of 2005, says Jakob Larsen, senior vice-president for sustainability. In 2009, the company's incidence of industrial injuries per million working hours was 8.1, down 48% from 2008 and down 76% from 2005. In 2010, the target figure is 7. As of November, Vestas was on track to better that goal.

"[Safety] is not yet at the level we want it to be," Larsen says. "We're still seeing too many injuries." The company has set a target of 3.0 injuries per million working hours by 2012.

Safety principles

Vestas offers five safety principles: all injuries can be prevented; every hazard can be managed; management is accountable for safety; people are the most critical element in safety; and working safety is a condition of employment. Onshore and offshore health and safety are managed separately because some of the issues differ. Safety goals are part of the company bonus scheme and all managers must do "safety walks" and visit work sites so they truly understand the issues.

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