He slipped coming down a ladder and fell. He was wearing his climbing harness and was tied in, but he went down ten feet and landed on the platform. It could have been far worse," says Jason Allen, senior vice-president at US electricity producer Duke Energy, recalling an accident at one of the ten wind farms the company owns and operates in the US.
"The site was a recent purchase of ours and, what we hadn't realised, is that the safety cable in the centre of the ladder at this site was eight millimetres. At all our other sites the cables were nine millimetres and the harnesses our staff wore then were designed for nine-millimetre cables. We had failed to notice the difference and our employee fell. It was a millimetre difference that could have had a life-or-death result."
The incident did not result in death or serious injury, but it prompted Duke Energy to order a "complete stand down" of staff at its wind sites. "We investigated, made changes and now it's not an issue - our harnesses can accommodate eightand nine-millimetre cables," explains Allen, who adds that stopping work at all sites to look into a health and safety (H&S) issue is essential, even if it affects revenue. "It is always possible to recover on the revenue side, but a safety incident is a different matter."
H&S is often dismissed as a dull topic, but ask anyone who works in wind and has been involved in, witnessed or heard about an accident, and H&S suddenly transforms into an issue that people can't afford to shrug their shoulders about. As Stuart Mackenzie, director of asset management at consultants Natural Power, puts it: "Over the years, I've heard stories that have made the hair stand up on the back of my neck."
There are two essential elements to maintaining an environment that is safe for workers: systems and culture. Those involved in H&S within the wind sector agree that well-designed systems are crucial but that these must be combined with a strong safety culture. One without the other is not sufficient.
Discussing Scottish Power Renewables' approach to H&S, Chris Black, the firm's head of health, safety & quality, confirms this two-pronged approach. "We have to have strong and clear H&S systems, but the cultural aspect is equally important," he says. Like other wind developers and owners, a key challenge for Scottish Power Renewables is ensuring that the standards it sets are fully accepted and implemented by contractors working on its sites. With only around 200 direct employees but about 3,000 workers working on its sites at any given time, Black's priority is for H&S systems to be communicated clearly and to be owned by the contractors.
The approach of developer E.on Climate & Renewables (ECR) includes an annual audit that sees the systems of each regional business verified by staff from other geographies. "For instance, ECR Iberia might be subject to a four-day audit by colleagues from ECR UK and ECR Nordic," explains Michael Sturm, ECR's senior manager of health, safety, security and environment. "This audit is not designed to go over every incident of the previous year but to ensure that the right systems are in place and that we learn from each other."
Creating and embedding a strong H&S culture is a day-in, day-out task. Jeff Cameron trains future windenergy technicians at Holland College on Prince Edward Island in Canada. He pinpoints the main challenge facing those charged with overseeing site safety: getting technicians and staff to buy into the safety programme as their own, and as being for their benefit.
In Europe, an additional challenge to establishing a strong safety culture on site can be cultural and linguistic differences. In many cases, those working on a site may come from several countries and have different mother tongues. This brings basic language issues to be overcome as well as the likelihood of workers having different understandings of occupational H&S.
Encouraging honest feedback
While it may be standard for wind-site owners and developers to set H&S procedures they expect to be met by contractors, Black emphasises how much he has learned from the latter. "Contractors have educated us," he says. "As an example, we changed our rules about working with hydraulic fluids as a result of information that was provided by a contractor."
Anyone involved on a site should feel able to communicate honestly about H&S regardless of who they work for, points out Holland College's Cameron. "Honest feedback - without reprimand - about which procedures are being followed and which may not be being followed to the letter is essential to improve safety culture, make an honest assessment of where a safety programme currently is and then agree on steps for improvement," he says.
Most companies active in the global wind sector have developed systems to record and circulate information about accidents, and in countries with more mature wind sectors the information is starting to be shared in an increasingly organised manner. For instance, trade body RenewableUK maintains a "lessons learned" database detailing accidents, incidents and near-events that have occurred since 2006 at all project phases. By collecting this information on a non-attributable basis and distributing it quarterly to participating companies, RenewableUK is seeking to improve industry-wide knowledge of recent experiences and trends.
While this database is a welcome development, Natural Power's Mackenzie is frustrated by the reluctance of many within the wind industry to discuss major accidents. "When someone twists their ankle, we get chapter and verse about the incident, but if someone dies on a site, we get no information. Nobody will say anything when something big happens but we need more information about these incidents," he says.
One of the biggest H&S issues facing the wind-energy sector is its relative youth, according to ECR's Sturm. "There are lots of start-ups, with keen staff who lack experience. People are learning on the job, and we don't yet have engineers with 30 years' experience in wind-energy H&S," he explains. While this is true, there are individuals in the wind sector who are passionately committed to H&S and their commitment is making a difference.
Scottish Power's Black witnessed an incident on the first day of his apprenticeship, at the start of his career. "A man was showing me how to use the planing machine and promptly sliced off his index finger. I also witnessed quite a few nasty falls, including one that left a man with all the fingers in his right hand smashed. He couldn't work again. "It was clear to me that, with a bit of investment and care from management, as well as engagement from the workers, that workplace could have been much safer," says Black.
While wind-specific H&S skills are developing rapidly at onshore sites, the emerging offshore wind sector brings with it new and greater challenges when it comes to protecting workers' lives and limbs. The offshore oil and gas sector experience will be valuable, of course, but the two industries are not identical.
The issue is on the agenda in some locations, and in the UK, nine of the largest offshore wind developers in the market have stated their intention to launch the G9 Offshore Safety Forum, looking at personnel safety, vessel transfer, heavy lifts and training standards. For the moment, however, the effectiveness of offshore H&S regimes are largely in uncharted waters.
EXPERT VIEWS THE FUNDAMENTALS OF HEALTH AND SAFETY
Plan, plan, plan
"Allow plenty of time for planning. Once you're involved in a project that has problems, whether it's the timeline or the design of the project, these will all have an impact on health and safety. So make sure that the project has been planned carefully."
Jerry Carnell, principal health and safety consultant, PMSS
"With all the newly designed safety programmes, it's easy for workers to think they're somehow being protected by the safety system. I always tell my students that despite our best efforts, the only person you can trust to look out for you is you."
Jeff Cameron, learning manager, Holland College, Canada
Get in at the start
"The first conversation between companies involved in a project should be about health and safety. That is our policy - the first conversation our employees have with any contractor."
Chris Black, head of health, safety & quality, Scottish Power Renewables
"We've discovered that technicians are safe when they're working on what they planned to work on. But if they're up a turbine and notice something else that needs to be done and they begin working on it without thinking it through, that's when accidents happen. If things change when you're up the turbine, stop and think it through."
Jason Allen, senior vice-president of operations, Duke Energy
Communicate and keep records
"It's important to maintain a record of everything that has been done and by whom. Technicians arriving at a site need to know what's changed recently - if there's anything different. We operate a 24-hour, 365-day control room, so that we can oversee the 82 sites in the UK and Ireland where we provide site management services."
Stuart Mackenzie, director of asset management, Natural Power
Acknowledge source of hazards
"It's essential to focus on root causes of incidents. In general, there is a tendency after an incident to blame the worker, when often there may have been an organisational issue, such as lack of training, supervision, equipment or planning."
Michael Sturm, senior HSSE manager, E.on Climate & Renewables