Taking care of workers at far-shore sites

WORLDWIDE: Working at sea is utterly different from working on land. Offshore wind developers and operators have realised very quickly that deploying a workforce in a marine environment involves a lot more, both logistically and culturally, than simply taking previously land-based technicians and putting them aboard vessels.

Ensuring workers’ safety offshore for the duration of a project
Ensuring workers’ safety offshore for the duration of a project

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Now that offshore wind development is starting to embrace sites ever further from shore, perhaps the biggest single "people" issue to be addressed is that of distance from safe ports. Early offshore wind farms in Europe were situated very close to land and relatively easy to access by boat. At the first sign of bad weather, it has been possible to head back to a safe haven in a comparatively short period of time. Far-shore developments remove that option.

The working environment is moving closer to what is already familiar to workers in the offshore oil and gas industry. Offshore wind is now looking to deploy people at sea on a permanent basis. "Projects now getting underway in UK Round 3 and in the German Bight are too big and too far away for reliance on sailing back to port on a daily basis," says Stuart Brown, director at offshore consultancy Sgurr Energy. The options for developers as they head further out in the North Sea are to base people at the site on fixed platforms or mother ships, he adds.

Fixed platforms, as used by the oil and gas industry, are expensive and need permanent staff and vessel support. But they are comfortable and stable, even in storm conditions. Vessels such as mother ships - mobile accommodation and work vessels - hotel ships or converted ferries are compact, self-supporting and mobile. They can also be replaced or upgraded on a regular basis.

Brown suggests that offshore platforms are probably an over-engineered solution for offshore wind. As for the mother ship option, which originated in the whaling industry, this may have an attraction in terms of deployment of daughter vessels. "Large vessels with accommodation can have the type of wet docks that have been used in some naval assault ships such as HMS Fearless," he says. This is likely to make small vessel deployment easier than from a fixed rig.

Good forecasting

Around 20% of all necessary work carried out at wind-farm sites is for planned maintenance while unplanned problems account for the remaining 80%. With far-shore wind farms, explains James Cotter of RWE NPower Renewables, access is impossible some 40% of the time because of weather conditions or the availability of daylight. As a result, logistics are highly dependent on the manpower required to complete forecast work, he says.

"In reality, to get to a wind farm which is 25 kilometres out to sea it is going to take a minimum of 50 minutes, with at least five minutes recovery time when you get there before technicians can start work," he says. "When you move 60-70 kilometres offshore, that is when basing technicians offshore becomes justified."

Cotter suggests that offshore substations can be also used as operational hubs during the day. Accommodation platforms can be built to house people on a 14 days on and 14 days off shift basis. While fixed platforms mean people can be deployed on site in relative comfort, Cotter says there are drawbacks too. "Accommodating people out at sea is 30% more expensive than basing them onshore," he says. "Another drawback is that workforces based on fixed platforms often tend to fix turbines nearest to the hub first. In a large offshore wind farm it is still going to take an hour to get from a fixed hub to distant turbine sites."

Here a floating mother ship may have an advantage in that it can travel around a wind farm site to get nearer to an area scheduled for work before deploying daughter vessels.

The mother ship idea is no longer an abstract concept. In March, P&O Ferries completed the conversion of one of its former cross-channel vehicle freight ferries for use by Centrica at its 194MW Lynn and Inner Dowsing wind farm site in the North Sea.

Around 130 technicians and crew can be accommodated in cabins, while the former vehicle decks have been converted into workshop and component storage space.

Whether on a fixed platform, mother ship or converted ferry, it is clear that wind-energy technicians are going to find themselves turning into mariners. What will it be like living and working at sea? The offshore oil and gas industry provides plenty of lessons.

Offshore installations vary in size, but a typical one in the North Sea will house a core crew of 50-100 people living in compact but comfortable quarters, according to Oilcareers.com, an international organisation with decades of offshore experience.

Working hours at an offshore oil and gas installation are normally 12 hours on and 12 hours off continuously for two weeks, followed by a twoor three-week rest period onshore. This means employees' home life is disrupted. The minimum age for working offshore is 18, but in practice most workers are considerably older than that. The long working day, the harsh weather conditions, the remoteness and the reliance on helicopter travel do not suit everyone.

Oil and gas experience

Offshore installations operated by the oil and gas sector are packed with complex equipment and systems that need to be operated and maintained by highly skilled workers who can work together safely and effectively in integrated teams. People issues are important when workers are confined offshore, even for two weeks. People have to get on with their cabin mates if cabins are shared, and work disagreements need to be patched up quickly.

Offshore wind installations will differ from oil and gas rigs in that they are not handing combustible fossil fuels or undertaking drilling operations, but nevertheless they will share many of the characteristics of their oil and gas counterparts.

Managing people in a challenging and hostile environment like the North Sea means ensuring that safety is always a priority. Before working offshore in any discipline, including anything associated with wind energy in the water, employees require an offshore survival certificate and an offshore medical.

In the UK, the offshore survival ticket is the Basic Safety Offshore Induction and Emergency Training (BOSIET) certificate, which covers safety, fire prevention and fire fighting, first aid and hypothermia, helicopter safety and escape, and survival at sea. The certificate is valid for four years, after which a refresher is needed. Different countries across the world have different requirements, with some such as Norway's being more stringent than the BOSIET, and some more lax.

At present, most offshore personnel only venture into the marine environment for day operations. Soon, however, many will be emulating their oil and gas colleagues, spending periods of time not only working at sea but living there too. It will not be a job that just anyone can or is willing to do. Managing people in this environment will provide a challenging task for those managing offshore projects.

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