OHS Canada Magazine

Shifting Winds

October 21, 2015
By Kelly Putter
Environment/Climate Change Health & Safety energy Fall Protection occupational health and safety ontario Quebec wind power wind turbines

In an energy-hungry world, power derived from a renewable resource is a good thing. But a recent study by researchers from Quebec has highlighted a gap in both safety practices and awareness of the occupational risks associated with working at wind turbines, which is growing in Canada. How can we harness wind power without throwing caution to the wind?

Canada’s wind-energy sector, when compared to Europe’s, is an infant. But at just a few decades old, this nascent renewable energy resource is clearly becoming a force to be reckoned with. Wind turbines operate in every province, as well as the Northwest Territories and the Yukon. Wind energy accounts for nearly five per cent of domestic energy demand — enough power to meet the needs of more than three million homes each year.

Between 2010 and 2014, Canada’s wind power grew by a whopping average of 24 per cent year over year. With the commissioning of the K2 Wind Power Project in southwestern Ontario in June, Canada has become the seventh country in the world to surpass 10,000 megawatts of installed wind-energy capacity — a move that, supporters say, positions the country to continue its rapid growth as a mainstream contributor to the supply of electricity.

As wind turbines are relatively new on the Canadian power-generation scene, the work conditions in these installations have been, until recently, largely unexamined. But a team of researchers in Quebec, who conducted a review of the occupational health and safety risks associated with working in the wind-energy sector, has shed some light on the issue. Their 66-page report, Wind Energy Sector — Occupational Health and Safety Risks and Accident Prevention Strategies, was released in March by the Montreal-based Institut de recherche Robert-Sauvé en santé et en sécurité du travail (IRSST). This first study of Quebec’s wind-energy sector assesses the industry’s workplace-safety practices and the hazards to which its workers are exposed.

“Working in a wind turbine is not at all like working in a conventional factory,” says Jean-Louise Chaumel, Ph.D., professor at the Université du Québec à Rimouski and co-author of the IRSST report.

The exploratory study concludes that the main hazards of working at wind turbines are falls from heights, the remote locations of wind farms and contact with high-voltage electricity and moving parts in a cramped space. The unique conditions of working at wind turbines in Quebec, including weather and isolation, also increase job risks. But accident-prevention programs do not take these specific conditions sufficiently into account, because these plans are based on documentation produced by wind-turbine manufacturers — most of which are European.


Secondly, most wind-farm operators are international or North American companies that run farms in several countries. As a result, the accident-prevention methods they adopt are developed for use in the United States or Europe, where most of their farms are located. The difference in approach applies to lockout practices, which are set into place by foreign engineers whose concept of lockout differs significantly from those practised in Canada. The European approach to lockout is to cut power to certain parts of the turbine and rarely to the whole machine, except under extraordinary circumstances. The result is an already high and increasing risk of electrocution — an area that must be made a priority in terms of accident prevention, according to the report.

As well, the existing resources for evacuating seriously injured workers from isolated wind turbines are insufficient and have limited operational capability. Only the Sûreté du Québec — the provincial police force — has a helicopter airlift service, while local firefighters are not equipped or trained to rescue injured workers from wind turbines.

“Prevention programs are not very detailed and are a long way from meeting the requirements and good practices advocated by the CSST,” or the Commission de la santé et de la sécurité du travail, Quebec’s workplace-safety board, the report says.

The dangers of working at these installations that generate renewable energy cannot be understated. Paul Gipe, author of Wind Power: Renewable Energy for Home, Farm & Business, and a wind-energy advocate and industry analyst for the past 30 years, recounts a near-miss incident. “I have nearly fallen off wind turbines myself,” the California resident says. “I wrote an obituary for a person who was killed on his own wind turbine.”

A Rocky Start

The study’s findings provide a good starting point from which the relevant authorities and stakeholders can begin to address the safety concerns highlighted. But the data on which the findings are based did not come easily, due to the lack of oh&s information and statistics regarding on-the-job accidents, injuries and deaths in the wind-energy sector, which is relatively new in Quebec.

“The European manufacturers tend not to explain the risks involved, because they are in a commercial position in front of North American markets,” Dr. Chaumel says. “They are not inclined to explain or show the risks of the machines.”

While a large portion of wind turbines are made in Germany and Denmark, China is gaining ground. But when researchers sought workplace-safety data from the manufacturers, the response they received was less than satisfactory. “The German engineers and manufacturers would say we are the best wind turbines in the world,” Dr. Chaumel relates. “But in North America, we need to know what type of risk a Canadian worker could face on the job.”

The difficulty of compiling such information was compounded by the lack of an international authoritative organization that keeps track of such data. The closest agency that researchers found was RenewableUK, a British organization that monitors statistics on work-related injuries and fatalities in the wind sector, primarily in the United Kingdom. Nevertheless, the organization turned down the researchers’ request for access to its data. The IRSST report also paints a grim picture of oh&s reporting in Canada’s wind-energy sector.

“In Quebec and the rest of Canada, the almost total absence of wind-farm accident reports over the last 15 years suggests a lack of monitoring and accident reporting,” the report states, adding that Quebec’s wind-energy industry has not reported any serious accidents so far, which may, in part, explain its limited interest in accident prevention and rescue practices. “The fact that the industry is so new to Quebec and, more importantly, the lack of statistics on industrial accidents and occupational diseases have hampered the adoption of suitable accident-prevention measures and training methods.”

As a result, Dr. Chaumel and his research colleagues turned to online sources in an effort to identify and analyze job hazards and prevention methods. Their report looked at on-the-job accidents and deaths over the past 15 years and selected a variety of health and safety risks tied to working on wind farms, which include collisions, cardiac risks associated with climbing turbines and the large sizes of wind farms.

Blow by Blow

Dr. Chaumel estimates that there are approximately 5,000 wind-energy workers in Quebec; in addition to that is roughly 5,000 who work either directly or indirectly in the sector across the country. Of the world’s 150,000 wind turbines scattered across more than 90 countries, Canada is home to 5,622. There are currently 236 wind farms in the country; some wind projects or parks have only one turbine, while others have many. Ontario and Quebec have the most wind farms, followed by Alberta and British Columbia.

Wind energy’s cost competitiveness, coupled with the fact that it produces no greenhouse-gas emissions, means that it is well positioned to continue growing as a mainstream contributor to Canada’s electricity supply, its proponents say. According to the Canadian Wind Energy Association (CanWEA), a national, non-profit association that promotes the responsible and sustainable growth of wind energy on behalf of its members, wind energy is meeting Canada’s demand for new electricity in a clean, reliable and cost-competitive way. The association believes that as concerns about global climate change grow, wind energy needs to play a critical role in Canada’s transition to a more flexible and decentralized low-carbon electricity system.

“Lots of players in the wind industry are very sophisticated companies [that] have excellent health and safety records, and it is something the industry is very proud of,” says Ottawa-based Tom Levy, director of technical and utility affairs at CanWEA.

Working in a wind turbine, which converts wind into electrical energy, is often compared to working in a mini power plant. Most wind turbines in North America consist of a rotor with three large blades connected to an electrical generator through a shaft and gearbox, located inside a housing called a nacelle mounted on top of a tower and can be rotated about the axis of the tower to adjust the amount of wind capture.

“As soon as you open the door to a wind turbine, there is high-voltage equipment and the possibility for an arc flash,” cautions Ron Papp, a former wind-turbine technician and currently a lead instructor at Lethbridge College in Lethbridge, Alberta.

Dr. Chaumel agrees. “Most people are seeing wind turbines as a machine moving from the wind, but in fact, it is an electrical machinery.”

For Papp, the biggest threat stems from electricity. “More people are hurt by electrical [power] than anything else,” he says. “I have been shocked by it during the building of a wind turbine. If you have a wind farm with ten turbines, you have ten power plants.”

One of the reasons why electrical hazards rank high is because they are not visible. “You may have an electrical fault somewhere and you think you are safe,” Papp notes. “Most people working in this industry are hands-on learners, and sometimes, it is a little hard for them to see an abstract concept like electricity. “

Weather, such as static in the air or thunderstorms, is another major issue. Papp notes that big blades moving through the wind can build static charge.

When it comes to wintry weather conditions, Dr. Chaumel points out that wind-turbine technicians in Canada are exposed to a greater risk of extreme cold, slipping on ice and being hurt by ice falling off wind turbines than their counterparts in Europe are. “Some workers are working in conditions like freezers.”

In colder climates, build-up of ice chunks can be thrown off turbine blades, posing a hazard for workers approaching or leaving the tower. But the risk of being struck by falling objects is not limited to ice chunks from blades; wielding tools at heights presents another hazard. Consider dropping a wrench from 100 metres above ground.

“Lots of people are hurt by falling objects,” notes Papp, who points to a rule called “two hands, one object”. “If you have one wrench out, you have to have two hands on it. You can’t be holding yourself in a position.”

The fact that turbines are often erected in remote, wooded areas makes it more difficult for rescue vehicles to locate them visually, which could hamper incident-response times. As many access roads to turbines are only partially cleared of winter snow, they are off limits to regular vehicles and can only be accessed by snowmobiles or other special vehicles capable of traversing on snow and ice. As a result, injured workers must also be transported on these vehicles. Finally, variances in temperatures can range from very cold outside the turbine to very warm inside the nacelle, each of which influences the comfort and safety of workers.

Play It Safe

As in other industries, the responsibility of ensuring the safety of those who work in wind turbines generally falls on employers, who are required to comply with all applicable sections of their provincial Occupational Health and Safety Act. In Alberta, an employer must perform a thorough hazard assessment to identify all applicable hazards and implement measures to eliminate or control those hazards. The oh&s code identifies 12 common danger zones of working in wind turbines that include cranes and hoisting, machinery and equipment, noise, ventilation, lighting, personal protective equipment and working alone, among others.

“Wind turbines are very dangerous by nature,” says Jeff Cameron, an instructor with the wind-turbine-technician program at Holland College in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island. “You have people working at heights with rotating machines, there is hydraulic pressure and it is very hazardous working in remote locations at 280 feet in [the] air, so there is a lot to consider.”

As such, Holland College’s program stresses the importance of workplace safety in every course. But in the wind-turbine industry, it is common for workers to travel across provincial boundaries. While oh&s regulations differ between provinces, the function of the legislation is to maintain a safe workplace. For this to happen, Cameron says, it is important that a worker knows his or her responsibilities and that of the employer, and that they have not only the opportunity, but a moral obligation to refuse unsafe work conditions.

“Lost-time injuries are very detrimental to our industry and our employers’ bottom line, so it is important that the worker buy into the fact that following oh&s regulations is to everyone’s benefit,” he says. “We also stress the importance of reporting near-misses. Some entry-level employees have the belief that if there is an incident where no one gets injured, then it is best to move on and not report it — for fear of being reprimanded. But in reality, discussing a near-miss is a sure sign of a strong safety culture,” he argues. “It allows you to learn from an incident, improve the procedure and mitigate risk before someone gets hurt.”

Mitigating the risks of harnessing wind power

Falls from heights are a real concern, as the tower or nacelle of a wind turbine is situated approximately 80 metres above ground. While prevention is key, preparation and readiness in responding to falls from heights is vital.

A recent report, Wind Energy Sector — Occupational Health and Safety Risks and Accident Prevention Strategies, from the Montreal-based Institut de recherche Robert-Sauvé en santé et en sécurité du travail (IRSST), outlines the following steps to rescue a worker:

— Move the worker down to the base of the tower, which requires special training and equipment;
— Provide speedy ambulance response, which necessitates good communication, navigation and transportation equipment;
— Make roads passable in winter or use a special means of transportation over the snow; and
— Provide access to helicopter airlift if the worker is incapable of descending the tower or being transported over land.

The report also makes the following recommendations:

— Wind-farm operators should create, in French, accident-prevention plans, including emergency-response plans, tailored to address Quebec’s working conditions;
— Provide workers with more detailed lockout protocols written in French;
— Work with Quebec’s provincial police when designing rescue procedures for seriously injured workers, who need the help of a specially trained rescue team or airlifting by a helicopter; and
— Continue to collect data on work accidents at wind farms.

Craig Bierl, a loss-control engineer for Chubb Insurance in Chicago, Illinois, believes that wind-turbine employers need to change their approach to job safety by looking at prevention methods and practices from all aspects. “Preventing any types of fire or electrical hazard and controlling those hazards, so you don’t have an event, is key,” he says.

And that includes taking into consideration an employee’s physical fitness, nutrition, coordination and balance and general health and wellness. Bierl recommends that employers institute stretching and fitness routines for employees, as well as fitness evaluations, before allowing them to engage in physically strenuous duties, like climbing a tower.

On the whole, Papp thinks that the wind-energy sector is a safe one in which to work. What he would like to see is a comprehensive set of safety rules that would standardize industry practices across the country and leave less room for error.

On the Horizon

The wind-energy sector has come a long way in terms of safety since its early days, Gipe notes. “I have been writing about people killed or injured since 1981, and I keep track as best I can of the number of men and women working on wind turbines worldwide,” he claims. “Today, it is pretty rare to hear about work-related deaths. In 2014, I have no record of any deaths. But in the early years, we had multiple deaths per year.”

A summary of fatalities in the global wind-energy sector, compiled by Gipe from 1980 to 2014, pegs the number of deaths at 82. Slightly more than half (55 per cent) of these fatalities occurred during the construction of turbines, 24 per cent took place during the operations and maintenance phase, and nine per cent involved members of the public who did not work in the wind-energy sector. Of the 82 deaths, only five took place in Canada, while the United States has the highest rate of wind-energy fatalities at 28, followed by China and Germany at 12 and 10 respectively.

Gipe explains that negative sentiment against wind energy is largely driven by right-wing voters opposing the current government in Ontario, where there is a need for a lot of windmills and to develop renewable energy further. “It will have to go much further than where it is at now, because you are going to have to turn off the nuclear reactors, and that will be a huge political fight in Ontario.”

Gipe says Canadians, like much of the rest of North America, are spoiled because for years, they do not have to think about where their energy is sourced as long as it is cheap and plentiful. Ontario has been running a risky policy for years, he suggests, and one that may come home to roost.

“Eventually, Ontario will take the path to renewable energy, because it doesn’t have much choice.”

Kelly Putter is a writer in Beamsville, Ontario.


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