The growth of the wind energy sector should come as no surprise, given that it represents a low-carbon and relatively low-cost means of producing power. The drive to harness the power of the wind is leading to the construction of ever-larger turbines, with the result that potential hazards are growing and safety is firmly at the top of the agenda.

A typical GE 1.5MW model now has 166ft blades at the top of a 212ft base. At this height and scale, it can be dangerous work to maintain and repair a turbine. The size of turbines has risen in parallel with the number of workplace accidents and deaths reported by the industry, though these statistics are far from complete given the variance in methods of data collection in different countries. Before 2011, when a turbine fire took the lives of two mechanics in the Netherlands, accidents involving turbines were rarely discussed. Since then, the spotlight has turned to the risks that could lead to similar incidents.

One organisation that has compiled data on workplace accidents in the industry is the Caithness Windfarm Information Forum, based in the UK, and it has found that as more turbines are installed, the number of incidents climbs. During 1998–2002, for example, the annual average was 33 accidents. During 2003–07, the figure rose to 81, and in 2008–12, it increased to 144 – and then to 168 a year for the following five-year period.

Recognition of the hazards has led to legislation in some countries, in recognition that wind turbines can pose a public health and safety risk. Back in 2014, Finland called for turbines to be situated at least 2km from houses. Two years later, Poland brought in similar rules. While these tackle public health issues, they do little to address the hazards faced by maintenance crews working directly on the turbines.

Stop the shock

In the US, the construction of new wind energy capacity is reaching record levels, leading the country’s industry bodies to focus heavily on safety standards and best practices. At the close of Q2 this year, the US had surpassed 90GW of installed capacity, and a record amount of new capacity is under construction thanks in no small part to strong demand from major corporations.

The American Wind Energy Association (AWEA)’s Q2 market report for 2018 showed that 5,322MW of capacity began construction during the previous three months, bringing total construction activity to 18,987MW. Looking ahead, another 3,901MW of new capacity is in the advanced development stage, meaning that they are likely to begin construction in the short term. Overall, the near-term US wind farm development pipeline grew 13% compared with Q1.

Recognising the likelihood that the industry will continue to expand rapidly, AWEA has chosen to look at the topic of workplace safety very closely, leading it to come up with a campaign to alert the industry to the risks. Its guidance reaches out to environment, health and safety (EHS) experts – and others in the industry who have to confront and manage the risks – to ensure that best practice becomes standard practice.

The AWEA safety campaign launched in October is called ‘Stop the Shock: Stay Current and Avoid the Current’. It has emerged from the recognition that there are a record number of workers in the industry and a record amount of wind power capacity under construction in the US, and it focuses on raising electrical safety awareness, and educating workers in how to work safely and efficiently.

According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the most frequent causes of electrical injuries in the workplace are contact with power lines, lack of ground-fault protection, a missing or discontinuous path to ground, equipment not being used in the manner prescribed, and improper use of extension and flexible cords. Through Stop the Shock, the AWEA is highlighting such risks, and highlighting changes in the 2018 NFPA 70E standard that are relevant to the wind industry.

Robert Milligan, EHS specialist at Pattern Energy Group, was a speaker in the AWEA safety webinar in early October, where he discussed different electrical hazards on project sites, the use of correct personal protective equipment, differences between wind turbine models, electrical qualifications and more. He believes that information is the most important factor in improving safety at work, and that it is important to communicate not only best practices, but also the risks as they evolve over time. The fundamental message is that safety is a collective responsibility.

“Knowledge is always important,” remarks Milligan. “The most up-to-date and current information needs to be shared from time to time to keep everyone up to speed with changes. For new employees, it is especially important that they understand the hazards of working around electricity and how to properly protect themselves and their co-workers.”

The NFPA 70E standard, which is titled the ‘Standard for Electrical Safety in the Workplace’, is set by the National Fire Protection Association. It is regularly reassessed to keep pace with advances in technology and the changing profile of electrical risks that result.

“NFPA 70E is updated every three years and takes into account hazards, risks, incidents and injuries from previous years,” says Milligan.

“They look to update information based on trends they see, as well as keep up with the changes and advancements in technology.”

While this standard is the benchmark, the Stop the Shock campaign brings further clarity for the wind energy industry, in which working conditions can differ greatly from one turbine to another. Its materials include ten questions for electrical safety, which provide an easy reference tool to ensure that all of the necessary factors are taken into consideration in the face of the potential hazards associated with wind turbines.

“I think the topic is effective and not only draws attention to electrical safety on a basic level, but also provides a guide on how to safely move forward,” Milligan remarks. “The effectiveness relies on what each company takes and implements from the information shared. The ten questions on electrical safety are thorough. They walk you through, from start to finish, all the questions you should be asking before you put your hands on equipment for any reason – troubleshooting, testing or repair.”

Milligan believes that Pattern Energy has already seen a positive impact from the Stop the Shock campaign.

“Pattern has benefitted from the information that went into the campaign, as well as the discussions, the planning and the knowledge of those who hear the information,” he says. “Pattern has put its spin on the materials and shared them across its fleet. We continue to talk about electrical safety and strive to educate not only our own personnel, but contractors and vendors who work alongside of us.”

Workplace safety in wind has definitely increased. We are constantly learning from other industries, and we regularly talk about life before wind and the principles we can integrate into wind energy.

Winds of change

This latest campaign by the AWEA is part of a trend across the industry that has seen knowledge of workplace safety issues increase in line with the industry growth, though more can always be done to improve best practices.

“I think workplace safety in wind has definitely increased. We are constantly learning from other industries, we regularly talk about life before wind and the principles we can integrate into wind energy. Wind is a rapidly growing industry, with professionals from varied industries, and that collection of knowledge is invaluable, and as long as we continue to adopt, learn, grow and share, I think wind is headed for continued success,” Milligan says.

“To me, educating personnel is the most important aspect of keeping workers safe. Staying up-to-date with changes and advancements is paramount to maintaining a safe work place. Pattern Energy is committed to regular training and education for the hazards we face every day, and we are always looking to get better.