Wind energy workers rely heavily on fall protection systems to do their dangerous jobs safely
Kevin MacNeil is nearly 300 feet up in the air. He looks down at the forest beneath him — the trees look like pinecones from his vantage point. His clothing ripples in the wind and a flock of birds fly past him, undoubtedly confused by his presence.
He uses his impeccable balance — with the help of his personal fall arrest system — to walk along a guardrail for a few feet. He conducts his work with 14,000-pound blades all around him.
He then swings himself into a small hatch, climbs steadily down a long ladder and reaches the ground safely.
Then he does it all over again.
MacNeil is the EHS co-ordinator and maintenance manager for RMS Energy, which owns and operates wind farms in Nova Scotia. Its largest project is the Dalhousie Mountain Wind Farm in Pictou County, N.S., which became operational in 2009 and has 34 turbines.
“We’re doing basic electrical, mechanical maintenance to equipment but we’re doing it 262 feet in the air,” says MacNeil.
“It’s basically how the guys start every day: You come into the office and you go to work up tower,” says Reuben Burge, president of RMS Energy.
His workers — and most wind energy workers across the country — are getting busier every year. Many provinces have set targets for renewable energy and as a result, wind energy is growing rapidly all across Canada.
According to 2013 market statistics by the Global Wind Energy Council, Canada recorded exceptionally strong growth in 2013 with a record of close to 1,600 MW of new wind energy capacity installed. Canada ranks ninth in the world in total installed capacity with more than 7,800 MW of wind energy in operation — providing enough power to meet the annual needs of two million homes.
In 2014 Canada will set a new record for annual installations of wind energy as new projects are under construction across the country, according to the Canadian Wind Energy Association.
With the increase in the number of wind farms, there is increased scrutiny on the companies that are putting them up. Ensuring workers wear proper fall arrest systems and understand fall protection procedures on wind farms is a necessity.
“In most industries, when they’re relatively small, the risk of injury is low, so they gain less attention. As the industry grows… there is increased scrutiny on worker safety, there are more employees, and the higher the likelihood that an injury can take place,” says John Kirby, plant manager at Erie Shores Wind Farm, located about one hour south of London, Ont., which is owned and operated by Capstone Infrastructures.
Personal fall arrest system
Wind energy repair and maintenance workers need to have personal fall arrest systems. They wear a full-body harness with a back D-ring, side D-rings and at least one front D-ring.
They need double-Y lanyards (also known as a 100 per cent tie-off lanyards) with shock absorbers.
“As you’re moving one connection point off, you always have another one on, so at no time are you ever sitting in a position where you’re disconnected; you’re always connected at one point,” says Burge.
The front D-ring is used to hook workers to the rail or cable climbing system attached to the ladder in the tower.
“When you start to climb, it initiates the device and it feels the speed at which you’re climbing and sets the speed accordingly,” says John Fuke, Canadian technical services manager at Capital Safety in Mississauga, Ont. “Think of it as a self-propelled lawnmower: The more you push the handle down, the faster it goes; the faster you climb, the faster it goes.”
All the way up the ladder, there are resting decks for workers. When they get to the last deck, they can close the hatch on it and they climb about a seven-foot ladder into the nacelle (the rectangular, middle part of the turbine, which is about the size of a bus). At this point, there is no hole, so the fall potential is eliminated, and workers can remove the fall arrest unit from their harness — but they always leave their harness on, says MacNeil.
“This is where it gets into specific training and understanding the areas in the nacelle, so knowing where it’s safe to be without requiring a tie-off at that point,” he says.
About 80 per cent of the work is done in the nacelle as that’s where the generator and gearbox components are located, says Burge. Workers need to monitor the switches and censors, and troubleshoot if something goes wrong.
“There might be 20 nacelles on a site and (the control room is) monitoring all of those for temperature, wind, weather and all of a sudden there might be an alert go off on one of them and they shut it down. Well then that one is not making anyone any money and they need to figure it out from there,” says Thomas Dillon, market development manager, wind energy, North America, for Miller Fall Protection in Franklin, Pa. “That happens a lot. It could be anything and they need to take care of it.”
Sometimes the workers need to get into the hub (the part that looks like the nose of the fan) to access the motor and the blades’ pitching and moving components, which need regular maintenance.
Most turbine models require workers to walk across the nacelle roof to get to a hatch that allows them to climb inside the hub. To do this, they put their fall arrest system back on and use the engineered tie-off points on top of the nacelle and the engineered tie-off rails that provide safe access to the hub.
This activity can often pose difficulties in inclement weather.
“There have been times when we’ve gone up there to make a repair and the icing that was present on the roof was not conducive to that, at which point we make a decision to leave that machine down because it’s not worth trying to traverse that, basically, skating rink,” says Kirby. “It adds another level of danger, at which point we say ‘The machine will stay down, the sun will shine on that for a couple of hours and then we’ll be fine.’”
Throughout the wind turbine, tie-off points are clearly labelled and coloured yellow. The manufacturer deliberately works them into the turbine design.
“If we didn’t have that, you might make an assumption that you can tie-off to a ladder component and if you fall, there is no way to tell that ladder is rated for your own weight plus your falling weight,” says Burge. “It’s an important distinction that you can’t just make up somewhere to tie off to.”
As part of their maintenance work, workers need to make sure safety equipment is in order, such as ensuring tie-off points are not rusted and checking the torque on the bolts, says MacNeil.
When considering fall protection for wind energy workers, it’s important to choose items that are lightweight and functional, says Burge.
Fatigue is a major concern in any industry but it is extremely important in wind energy because a maintenance worker might climb the 300-foot tower five, six or seven times per day.
“If you can literally shave off ounces of the weight you’re carrying, you can reduce fatigue when all is said and done,” says Dillon. “If they go from a harness with carbon steel hardware on it to aluminum hardware, you can drop almost a whole pound, if not more in some cases, off that weight of that harness. That right there is a big difference.”
Workers are also equipped with a self-retracting lifeline (SRL) for work on top of the nacelle and rescue kits.
Fall protection training is required for wind energy workers.
“(This industry) puts a really hard training requirement on the owners,” says Burge.
His workers participate in a variety of training courses, including those offered from the turbine manufacturer.
Capital Safety offers a modified version of its competent person training specifically for the wind energy industry. It covers fall protection, climbing, inspection and specialty equipment. This training takes between two and three days to complete, says Fuke.
Miller offers a competent climber class as well as a four-hour competent inspector class. Before going to work up tower, workers should all take a moment to inspect their harness, lanyard, SRL and rescue device, and make sure they are in good working condition, says Dillon.
Equipment inspection is often something that gets glossed over by workers, he says.
“They might say ‘I wore it yesterday and it was fine.’ But did you look at it yesterday? ‘No.’ Well if you did that six days in a row and now you haven’t looked at it in six days… You need to take the time to go ‘If I were to fall today, would this save my life?’”
Strong safety culture
The wind industry puts a lot of importance on safety. A lot of it has to do with the fact that the industry is still relatively new, says Dillon.
The first commercial wind farms were erected in the mid-1970s in the United States; and Alberta built the first commercial wind farm in Canada in 1993.
“Because of that, they got to start with the concept of ‘We need to be safe first’… Where in the past, that wasn’t the case,” Dillon says. “Ever since the beginning they have better and more consistent documentation on everything they do.”
The fact that the work is very consistent across the industry also helps maintain a safety focus, says Fuke.
“You’re not mixing jobs. It’s not 25 per cent on the ground and 75 per cent in the air; once you get to the site you’re in the air all the time and I think that necessitates and helps build a culture of safety with respect to how you deploy your capabilities around the site,” he says.
Before MacNeil and his team at RMS Energy climb into the tower, they start every day with an industry-standard tailboard meeting to discuss the tasks at hand and what safety considerations are required. They also have a buddy system where each worker looks out for someone else and makes sure his equipment is on properly before he climbs up the tower.
“From my experience at this (wind) farm, the focus is completely on safety,” says MacNeil. “Everything we do, that’s the base point.”