How to improve safety for wind farm workers

WORLDWIDE: Working on a wind farm is not without its hazards, yet the wind-energy industry does not have its own set of regulations to protect those in its employ.

Instead, it complies with guidelines and recommendations from relevant rules for industry at large. Businesses in different countries have to abide by different regulations, muddying the waters when global products are involved. Yet, while statistics are far from comprehensive and many countries do not have enough data to allow analysis, the figures that are available suggest that fatal accidents are reducing in proportion to gigawatts turning.

The growing maturity of the industry might encourage this trend but, as the sector continues to grow and offshore projects become more widespread, questions are being raised about the need for a specific set of regulations to further protect wind employees.

Discussions focus on the safety issues faced daily on wind projects: working at considerable heights, in confined spaces, near electricity and hazardous gases, and involving climbing and heavy lifting. And, of course, most wind farms, onshore and offshore, are by their very nature remote - a long way from rescue.

The majority of incidents at wind farms have been related to either falls or electrical aspects, reports the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration (Osha). But both these issues are comprehensively covered in general health-and-safety (H&S) guidelines, and the US government body does not believe a wind-specific standard is needed. Instead, it points to employers' lack of H&S programmes, as well as a failure to follow current guidelines, as contributing to these incidents.

Comments from some industry experts echo this view, recommending that good working practices instilled through the company from the outset and put into practice on site without fail would be more effective in keeping workers safe than simply adding more regulations that may be difficult to enforce on a national, let alone on a global basis.

But it is early days for the industry to make a final decision. Last year, focus groups were set up both in the US and in the UK to look at the safety needs of the wind industry. In the US, OSHA's Wind Energy Task Group is addressing inspection and compliance, and in the UK, the G9 Offshore Safety Forum is looking at issues of personnel safety and training standards.

It will be interesting to see if, given time, any different conclusions are reached.

Jacki Buist is associate editor of Windpower Monthly.

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