Working at height, heavy lifting and maritime operations are just some of the safety challenges the offshore wind industry faces. From turbine design through construction to subsequent operations, all must be backed by a rigorous health and safety (H&S) regime. With European nations now starting to develop offshore wind, what safety lessons can they learn from mature markets like the UK and Denmark?

“Basic risks affecting onshore wind will also be found offshore, however, the situation offshore can be more risky,” says Jacques de Parscau, project engineer at DNV GL Energy. “Offshore, sites are going to be more remote and it will be harder to move any casualty to hospital, so that will increase the risk severity of any incident.”

De Parscau points to the use of vessels offshore as having H&S implications, akin to the risks involved in driving to and from onshore wind sites. “Transferring staff to and from turbines from crew transfer vessels is a big risk factor,” he says.

Another factor is heavy lifting on and off vessels. In port, space is constrained at the dockside and on the ship. Offshore, staff must contend with heave, and the need to move extremely large and heavy components such as nacelles during construction.

Plenty of conventional industrial H&S legislation already applies to offshore wind. An example is EU Directive 92-57-EEC, which mandates minimum health and safety standards at temporary construction sites. The UK and Germany have translated this directive into local legislation and successfully implemented it in their offshore wind industries.

But national and EU legislation only takes you so far. Deep experience is needed to plan projects, design equipment or codify working practices that will promote individual safety.

Lessons learned

It’s here that France and other nations need to look to the hard-won lessons learned by countries such as the UK, Denmark and, to a lesser extent, Germany. The most vital information is contained in the mass of guidelines developed by the likes of DNV GL and RenewableUK (RUK). The UK’s national trade body, RUK has created an impressive roster of standards, procedures and accredited training courses that cover everything from safe turbine operation to offshore emergency response and marine coordination. Its forum is the main conduit between the UK’s H&S executive body and the industry.

“So far, we have relied on developing codes and guidelines for industry best practice, as coordinated and promoted by RUK,” says de Parscau. “The UK has a mature offshore oil and gas sector, and this experience has helped inform the rules for offshore wind. If you have nothing in place, learning from offshore oil and gas experience is a good place to start.”

The oil and gas industry’s basic offshore safety and emergency training course is a good example of how oil and gas can inform wind practice. The course was widely used until relatively recently, when RUK standards become the norm. The UK’s Safety Case Regulations, triggered by the Piper Alpha tragedy in which 167 people died, are another example of this. A written safety case demonstrates how major accident risks are, or will be, controlled to ensure compliance with the relevant statutory provisions.

Safety case systems, or establishing exclusion zones around turbines – as is the case for oil platforms – might also have application in offshore turbines. However, these are seen by many as too rigorous for offshore wind. “They are far more demanding,” agrees de Parscau. “But they make you consider H&S as early as possible during the design phase of a project and over the whole life cycle of the offshore turbine. It’s a lot to ask but it ensures everything is written down and specifies who is responsible for what and when.”

Keep it consistent

Avoiding inconsistencies between national H&S standards is another vital way to maximise safety. EU directives should be enacted unchanged within national legislation and new entrants to offshore wind shouldn’t be ashamed to copy successful guidelines wholesale.

“Inconsistent standards can be an issue for companies working across countries,” says de Parscau. “In France, you might leave the option open to the worker of how to perform a certain task, whereas, in the UK, you have to do it a particular, safer way.”

Harmonised international standards have extensive safety benefits and staff training is a case in point. This is an area that has seen great improvement over the past five years, largely down to work by RUK and the Global Wind Organisation (GWO). Formed in late 2009, GWO is made up of manufacturers such as Vestas and Siemens, and operators such as Vattenfall. It has concentrated successfully on a single issue – setting common standards for safety training in wind energy across Europe. GWO’s basic training standard has been widely adopted and has also been harmonised with RUK’s own accredited courses. Today, the full set of RUK/GWO basic offshore wind training modules include sea survival, marine safety transfer, fire awareness, first aid and working at height or rescue. “Harmonisation is obviously an excellent idea and should be encouraged,” says de Parscau. “The GWO standards are widely accepted, and recognised now in France and Germany as well as the UK. I’d like to see that harmonisation extended to other types of training and to other countries.”

He also highlights the need for quality training courses in emerging markets. Where no national industry bodies exist to oversee this task, other experienced training specialists are needed. “There should be help for the local training provider,” de Parscau states. “In Italy, for example, their providers may have never seen this kind of training before. GWO should step in to help them reach these standards.”

When it comes to Europe-wide formal legislation, as opposed to guidelines that codify best practice, de Parscau cites the recently agreed EU 2016-425 Regulation for Personal Protective Equipment as an example of promoting harmonisation. Coming into force in 2018, it covers the manufacture and marketing of everything from helmets and gloves to high-visibility clothing and safety harnesses.

Standardised safety

Probably the most important wind-specific legislative development was the release of the revised European EN-50308 wind turbine standard in 2013. Setting out safety standards for turbine design, operation and maintenance, EN-50308 covers everything from turbine design, such as access hatch sizes and machinery guards to emergency escape and lighting, as well as erection. It also mandates the stop-button design and location to standardise how every type of turbine shuts down.

“It helps to make sure that, whether someone is working on a Nordex or a Siemens or a Vestas turbine, they will have similar emergency procedures to follow,” says de Parscau. “It would be helpful to have a further revision of this standard in the next few years.”

Managing key risks by sharing incident reports is another vital learning for offshore wind newcomers. RUK again took an early lead here with its Renewable Industry Safety Exchange. Its members can store, review and analyse their own incidents using the confidential database. They can also compare their performance against peers and the wider industry.

“We at DNV GL are doing something similar, providing a platform to spread H&S information,” says de Parscau. “We also issue safety alerts if equipment isn’t working properly or is being misused.”

Sharing qualitative and quantitative information in this way is second nature in the oil industry. Oil and Gas UK’s Step Change in Safety initiative, and the OREDA database that holds reliability data for equipment used on offshore installations worldwide, are both great models. But in offshore wind, competition and confidentiality often still impede a free information exchange. “There’s always a confidential aspect with the information as manufacturers and developers want to protect their reputation,” de Parscau explains. “It’s rare that someone shares a full report freely. More likely it will be through RUK or through presenting results at a conference.”

Plan ahead

One beneficial corporate habit is to start planning for H&S as early as possible. Here again, France needs to learn from practice in Denmark and the UK. Any complacency can be fatal. In 2015, Siemens and RWE Innogy were fined a total of £152,000 ($193,714) after one of their workers was killed when his harness became entangled in a turbine’s inadequately guarded gearbox shaft coupling. Health and Safety Executive inspector Niall Miller said after the hearing: “This death was easily preventable and involved a risk that is well known and appreciated throughout all industries. It is disappointing that this risk wasn’t addressed.” In March 2017, a worker fell 146m to his death at Scotland’s Kilgallioch Wind Farm and another worker was killed days later at Whitelee. Nations venturing into offshore wind energy for the first time can learn from excellent H&S regulations and guidelines in the UK and elsewhere. But only constant effort to translate those standards into good practices will keep the workforce safe in the long term.