Crisis management

WORLDWIDE: Knowing what to do in an emergency - and working to prevent it from happening in the first place - is a legal requirement for offshore wind staff and could save lives.

Storm survival at Maersk Training's centre near Newcasle
Storm survival at Maersk Training's centre near Newcasle

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In an industry focused on advancing technology and reducing costs, it is easy to forget about those working on the hypothetical coalface.

Even easier to forget is the danger these workers put themselves in while out working on an offshore turbine. This is somewhere very few people in the industry have actually been, but what would you do if you find yourself having to bail out of a blazing turbine or be thrown overboard in six-metre waves?

The Global Wind Organisation sea-survival training course is a two-day event teaching offshore-wind employees the basics of working safely at sea to avoid accidents and surviving if the worst does happen.

The course is mandatory for all those working at offshore projects, and must be refreshed every two years or so, depending on country-specific requirements.

Maersk Training is a certified provider for safety courses. I went to one of its centres near Newcastle, north-east England, to get a taste of the survival course and see first-hand what the workers might face out in the North or Baltic Seas

"The course has been prepared by professionals who have been exposed to such scenarios quite often, so we are being prepared for situations that could happen during the operations," said course-attendee Alejandro Jimenez, a project engineer for Iberdrola at the 350MW Wikinger offshore project currently under construction in the German Baltic Sea.

"The course is divided into different modules. Some of them would be applicable on a daily basis, for example the working-at-heights training; while some others are only applicable if something goes south. Obviously we never want to deal with an extreme situation where survival or first-aid skills need to be used, but this could make all the difference until help arrives," Jimenez said.

In the pool section of the course, workers are taught to use a Milan device, which can lower up to two people for a controlled descent into the water. Delegates are also taught to use a "Jason's cradle" man-overboard solution to pull bodies out of the water.

The course covers how to transfer from a vessel to a transition-piece ladder using both automatic and manual safety techniques. Workers are also taught safe water entry and survival skills in the water, for example how to stay warm as an individual using the heat-escape lessening position (HELP), and as a group by linking arms and treading water together.

Finally, the course covers the best way to right an upturned life raft and get in it, followed by exiting and being rescued from the water by a helicopter winch.

"During the course we are exposed to accident records and statistics, and you realise very soon that these situations, even if not likely, could happen during any offshore wind project," Jimenez said.

"I also believe this course provides enough knowledge to make professionals more aware of the risks and dangers, which could be translated into fewer accidents happening. The course is not just designed to face the problems, it also delivers information and skills to stop them happening, which is always a preferred situation."

"In an extreme situation (what is taught) will be the difference between a "near miss" or minor incident, and a major issue or even a fatality," said Jimenez.

Storm practice

One exciting feature of the course was the controlled storm simulation. The bright yellow dry suit, life jacket and hardhat rather restrict one's movement, and the clothing's tightness around the ankles, wrists and neck are enough to bring on mild claustrophobia.

But the warmth, buoyancy and safety they provide are very welcome once you enter the pool. Powerful fans are used to create strong and noisy winds, making the water distinctly choppy, while torrential "rain" falls from pipes in the ceiling.

While you cannot recreate a real North Sea storm in a small, relatively shallow pool - there was still more than enough going on to make it an uncomfortable environment. It certainly gives participants a realistic idea of what could happen, so it won't be a wholly new experience should they be faced with a scenario similar to this in real life.

We jumped in at one end of the pool and had to swim into the "wind" before hauling ourselves into the waiting life raft at the other end.

The life raft was designed to take 12 people, the instructors informed the 11-strong group. But even one short it felt rather crowded. The few centimetres of water sloshing around the raft's bottom warmed up very quickly, and the air became stale.

In the very unlikely event of a real emergency, up to 24 people could ultimately use the raft, according to the instructor. Yes, it would be stuffy and uncomfortable, with a very high likelihood of seasickness among at least some of the inhabitants, but still a great deal better than the cold water alternative.

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