How to Keep Utility Workers Safe When Working With Wind Power

by Tildy Bayar, contributing editor, Renewable Energy World

Safety procedures are becoming an integral part of original equipment manufacturers’ (OEMs’) commercial strategies and are increasingly business-critical, said Claus Rose, chairman of the Global Wind Organization (GWO) and environment, health and safety (EHS) officer for Siemens’ Wind Power Division.

As well as wanting to keep its workers safe, he said, the wind power industry is responding to increased regulatory scrutiny.

“Authorities in a number of countries are starting to ask how the industry can assure that it has a proper safety policy in place and how we materialize that,” Rose said. “These authorities want evidence that we have it under control.”

Rose said that although the wind industry is self-regulating with “very few” legal requirements around its business practices, safety procedures have evolved as the wind industry has grown, and organizations such as the GWO have worked to establish standards and promote their use.

Andy Holt, head of global projects and services at GE Renewable Energy, said the industry recognizes that safety is a collective concern. It is neutral ground where competitors work together to share best practices.

A tower at the Siemens wind service training center in Orlando, Fla. Courtesy Siemens.

“This raises the bar for the industry,” Holt said. “My counterparts–the people who run (environment, health and safety (EHS)) businesses for our competitors–feel the same way. I’ll share every one of our best practices tomorrow with anyone who wants them because they might help someone do their job more safely.”

A High-risk Job

Among the highest risk for wind farm workers is working with high- and low-voltage equipment, Rose said. Such incidents can result in explosions and serious injury.

“Then you have very simple things, which people don’t realize are problems,” he said.

Materials handling, where workers carry heavy items in cramped and closed conditions, is such an area. Manual handling training is part of the GWO’s standard for basic safety training.

During turbine installation, lifting is a concern, Rose said.

“This is where the industry is very different from oil and gas offshore, or other major construction onshore,” Rose said. “The number of lifts we do on a turbine site, whether during installation or O&M, is extremely high.”

Some people expect more risk when working at great heights, Rose said.

Wind service technicians check their safety equipment at the Panther Creek Wind Farm. Courtesy GE.

“Sometimes there is an assumption that just because it is very high up in the air it must, by default, be a major risk area,” he said. “It isn’t because we have a very good idea of how to control it, the safety systems involved are quite well-developed, and we have well-equipped turbines.”

Working at height is always a risk, but it is not the most significant concern, Rose said.

The safety areas GE is most focused on are working at height, lockout-tagout (LOTO) and driver safety, Holt said. LOTO allows workers to put a personal lock on any power source while working on it, tagging it during the work so only that worker can unlock it and return it to service when the work is finished.

Holt also mentioned soft-tissue injuries, where workers can injure their backs, strain their shoulders or twist ankles. He called these injuries “regrettable.”

“We struggle to eliminate them,” he said. “Everyone does.”

Of greater concern are driving accidents, Holt said.

“One of the most dangerous things people do every day is drive,” he said.

Workers often drive big trucks in remote areas on unprepared roads and even off road. Holt said all of GE’s drivers receive annual defensive driving training.

During installation, he said, there is a lot of crane work.

“The risk from suspended loads is huge,” Holt said. “You’ve got very large cranes’ lifting very tall tower sections and aligning them; then people bolting things together. So in addition to working at height, LOTO and heavy equipment handling, there are also suspended loads.”

Working under a suspended load is forbidden and workers constantly must make sure no one is under the load, he said.

Instilling a Safety Culture

Rose said safety on the job has a lot to do with mentality.

Siemens aims to instill in workers a safety mindset that goes beyond the work environment, he said.

Technicians at the Siemens wind service training center in Newcastle, U.K., learn about safety when performing wind O&M. Courtesy Siemens.

In general, Rose is against micro regulating aspects of the work environment such as housekeeping, the industry term for keeping work areas clean and free of obstructions.

“Mentality is more important than making rules,” he said. “Rules are the outcome of poor management.”

With good management and high worker awareness, you can have few rules, he said.

“If workers have good risk awareness, they’ve already done whatever it takes to move everything that can put them in harm’s way,” he said.

Workers’ personal and professional commitment to safety will reduce accidents more than management’s telling them to be safe, he said. Further, he stressed that good management includes explaining to workers why safety rules and procedures are important. If you say workers cannot do something without telling them why and they don’t understand the risks, the rules will be less effective, he said.

In the U.S., Siemens has developed a campaign for workers called I Am Safety that takes the campaign back into the home and asks whether workers would consider something safe to do at home.

GE has a dedicated EHS staff, Holt said, but they are limited in number.

“Instead, we rely on people who have extra EHS training to be part-time EHS people that are more highly trained than regular workers,” he said. “They’re there at the site, and there are more of them than the full-time EHS folks. And everyone has a certain level of awareness. Everyone’s an EHS person.”

GE’s workers also are trained to take responsibility for personal injury prevention. Climbing up and down wind towers is strenuous. Holt calls wind O&M “an athletic event” and GE’s workers “industrial athletes” who receive gym memberships, healthy eating, training and stretching programs to begin the workday.

Learning From Other Industries

Naturally, a young industry will look to older sectors for guidance.

“There’s a whole climbing industry out there, people who climb mountains, TV towers. There’s a lot of working at heights in the world,” Holt said. “We reach out to those industries because they’re often ahead of us.”

And GE’s safety policies have been informed by its experience in other sectors.

“We have a safety culture born of GE aircraft engines, gas turbines, the nuclear business, the railroad industry, the medical industry,” he said.

All of which have been applied to the younger wind business, Holt said.

“In the nuclear business, the last thing you want to do is drop tools; you don’t want to drop something metal into a nuclear reactor or any part of a nuclear system,” he said. “Our nuclear business has a variety of tethering technologies that help us tie up tools so if you drop them, they don’t fall, and we’ve applied that to working at heights. You don’t want to drop something down through a wind turbine tower, either.”

Rose said that talking to other industries is critical to moving wind safety forward. Experience from the offshore oil and gas industry, for example, could help set up requirements for the new types of service vessels that increasingly will be used as wind farms move farther offshore.

Future-proofing Safety

GE is constantly changing its procedures and products to be safer, Holt said.

“And we’re always watching the latest regulations, rules and codes to make sure our products are compliant,” he said.

The American Wind Energy Association and the European Wind Energy Association are particularly active in pushing legislation and procedures to improve safety, Holt said.

Safety standards and procedures will continue to be adapted in reaction to wind farm accidents, Rose said.

“On the other hand, we can help put rules in place where we see a need, not based on incident statistics but supported by a risk profile,” he said.

The industry wants to not just be reactive, he said, but to be proactive.

Among other issues, the GWO is looking into safety procedures for vessel-to-site crew transfers and working with the International Maritime Organization to establish standards. It also is looking at designing tests and standards for worker fitness, for example, to avoid seasickness and dizziness at height. Rose said that as wind sites move farther from population centers and land, there is a growing need for training requirements for advanced first-aid workers who can close the gap between emergency medical staff, who might take a while to arrive at the scene of an accident, and basic first aid.

On-site safety is a moving target, Rose said.

“We can anticipate events and try to work in that direction, but we may get surprised along the way and have to shift lanes,” he said. “You don’t know what’s going to hit you.”

Author

Tildy Bayar is a journalist who focuses on the energy sector. She is a former associate editor on RenewableEnergyWorld.com and Renewable Energy World magazine.

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