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Published: April, 2016; Vol 12, Num 11

Wind Farms Present Unique Challenges and Hazards

As sources of renewable energy grow in popularity, more construction laborers are likely to find themselves working on sites dedicated to building large groups of wind turbines, also known as wind farms.

Along with solar energy, wind energy is celebrated for its sustainability and lower environmental impact compared to fossil fuels. However, being good for the environment doesn’t automatically make these construction sites any safer for workers. In fact, the wind sector includes several unique risks that employers and workers need to be aware of during construction and maintenance operations.

Challenges in the Work Environment

Similar to pipeline work, wind farms are often located in remote areas that are far from hospitals and rescue services. Roads to and from these sites may be poorly maintained or difficult to access. This makes it even more important for employers to have plans in place for the rescue or evacuation of injured workers before an incident occurs.

Wind farms are located in areas with consistently windy conditions. This can increase the risk for falls when wind speeds rise to unsafe levels. This is particularly true when cranes are being used, as cranes can become unstable and tip over in high winds.

These risks are even more of an issue for offshore wind farms, which are usually located miles from land and are prone to extreme weather conditions that can change very quickly.

Risk for Falls and Falling Objects

With wind turbines being such tall structures, the risk for falls and struck-bys are an ever-present hazard on these sites. Throughout construction and maintenance efforts, workers may be required to climb ladders that place them hundreds of feet in the air. While most ladder falls in construction happen at a height of 10 feet or less, fixed ladders inside wind turbine towers extend far beyond the height of a standard ladder. When a fall does occur, workers may be more likely to suffer a serious injury or fatality. Contractors on wind turbine jobs must make fall prevention and protection a top priority and ensure they are protecting workers during all aspects of a fall.

Workers are also at risk for being struck by falling objects, loads and structures. Wind turbine construction involves using cranes and other lifting equipment to raise very heavy machinery hundreds of feet into the air. For example, the nacelle – the electrical gearbox at the top of the tower – can weigh about 90 tons.

Hazards When Handling Electrical Cable

Laborers on onshore wind farm sites are likely to be heavily involved in the laying of electrical cable in pits and trenches. In addition to the usual trench and confined space hazards present during these operations, workers are also at risk for manual handling injuries from moving cable drums and pulling the cabling itself.

Even when they are not energized, caution must be used when laying cables because they can be subject to induced voltages from other cables that run parallel or are in close proximity.

It’s critical to train all workers on electrical hazards, especially those who don’t normally work around electricity. The LHSFNA’s Electrical Safety for Non-Electricians Health Alert can help. Order it through the Fund’s Publications Catalogue.

A Growing Industry

Because wind energy is a relatively new sector compared to others in construction, there are fewer experienced workers on the ground. As the industry expands and the number of wind farm projects grows, there is real potential for a shortage of experienced workers. These skill gaps could lead to workers being involved in tasks without being fully aware of the hazards, raising their risk for injury.

LIUNA has been actively involved in all parts of the energy sector and has members working at wind, solar, nuclear and oil and gas sites across the U.S. and Canada. LIUNA, through the LIUNA Training & Education Fund, is working to meet the growing demand for skilled workers in the industry by training the next generation of construction laborers in the skills they’ll need to succeed.

The LHSFNA has been an active participant in the development of ANSI A10.21, Safe Construction and Demolition of Wind Generation/Turbine Facilities, a voluntary standard developed jointly by labor and industry partners. Fund staff have also assisted signatory contractors in the energy sector by performing site visits, including to several different wind farms throughout the Midwest. For more information on mitigating safety and health hazards in the wind energy sector, call the Fund’s OSH Division at 202-628-5465 or check out this guide from EU-OSHA.

[Nick Fox]