Wind Turbines: Don’t Blow Off Safety Planning
By Craig Clark and Robb Tinney, Safety Advisor
Safety Management Group, and Chad Shearer, Training Center Manager
You’re working fifty miles from the nearest city, atop a brand-new wind turbine standing 256 feet above a just-planted soybean field that’s been turned into soup by three days of rain. Fortunately, the sun is shining today, and the gentle breeze feels good.
You look down to see your partner getting his gear out of the truck. Then, as you look to the left, your weight shifts slightly. Instinct kicks in and sends a warning through your body. You desperately try to regain your balance as you slip off the work surface and fall a few feet. Your harness breaks the fall, and you catch your breath as you dangle 240 feet above the ground. As your partner and the rest of the crew race for the ladder, you realize that you left the rescue kit in the truck, because you didn’t expect to fall today. They can’t hear you yell.
Your partner has already called EMS. The local volunteer department is only 10 miles away, but their tallest aerial truck is an 85-footer. There’s a bigger truck in the city, but the mud will never support its weight. Worst of all, EMS isn’t sure which of the 115 turbines in this wind farm is yours and none of the response team is trained in wind turbine rescue.
By the time your co-workers scale the ladder, you feel tingling in your calves. As you hear the distant fire truck’s siren cut through the crew’s shouting, your legs are becoming numb. It’s only a matter of minutes before the blood flow becomes so restricted that your vision starts to weaken and you fade into unconsciousness. The rescue attempt hasn’t even begun.
Was that a scare story? Was it an attempt to exaggerate the dangers that face the crews working on the wind turbines that are sprouting all over the nation’s open spaces? Not at all. It’s a very realistic scenario that points to the critical need for specialized safety training and the ready availability of rescue equipment.
For example, wearing fall protection is important, but it alone isn’t enough to rescue a worker. Typically, someone suspended in a harness has just 20 to 30 minutes before his own weight, lack of mobility and gravity affect the flow of blood to his brain and other vital organs. This condition can be considered harness induced pathology. That makes a swift response important even in an urban area where first responders are nearby. Out in the remote locations where turbines are being erected, first responders may not be able to get to the scene for 20 or 30 minutes, even if they know exactly where they’re going – and many wind farms are located off unmarked roads.
Suppose the problem isn’t a suspended worker. What if a crew member suffers a stroke or cardiac arrest in the nacelle that houses the gearing? Remember that the nacelle is normally perched between 250 and 300 feet above the ground, and that the only access is an uncaged ladder. Or what if the machinery in the nacelle bursts into flames (which has happened at some sites)?
The only way to protect workers in wind turbines and similar high-level work situations such as cell towers and electric power transmission towers is through extensive planning, thorough training, and making sure the correct rescue equipment is close at hand. All of those things are particularly important when you consider that the injured or fallen worker is entirely dependent on his or her co-workers to perform the rescue. Whether you need to bring a worker suspended in a harness to safety, or to start CPR on an unconscious person, waiting until EMS arrives may prove to be a fatal decision.
Creating a plan
Safety plans for wind turbines and similar high-level equipment have to be thorough. More important, they have to be realistic. It’s easy for a company to say they’ll use a crane to send a Stokes basket up to an injured worker. But anyone who has worked on a wind turbine knows that a Stokes basket simply isn’t going to fit anywhere except on top of the nacelle.
Any safety plan has to consider both the types of rescue situations and the height involved. Essentially, you can divide rescues into one of five types:
– hub or blade extractions, which involve removing a worker from the nose cone, where the blades are attached;
– nacelle extractions, focused on the large housing that holds the machinery;
– over-the-side rescues, such as the scenario discussed at the beginning of this article; and
– ladder rescues, which require bringing the person down the ladder.
– Self rescue from the nacelle or the tower
Keep in mind that your plan must address every stage of the process, from initial construction through day-to-day operations. During the construction phase, workers will be close to large, heavy pieces of equipment. Each of the blades on a typical turbine weighs about 14,000 pounds, and the hub may weigh as much as 20,000 pounds. Nearly every lift becomes a critical lift from a safety and permitting standpoint.
Your rescue team
Given the nature of the work, with small, often self-directed crews, the people who are handling the actual work must double as the rescue team. They have the most skills and know-how, and they’ll have the greatest familiarity with the terrain and weather conditions at the site. Because it’s impossible for workers to rescue themselves, it’s important to train at least two workers in every crew – and three is even better.
Another consideration is whether the workers are actually fit for duty. Working in turbines and towers is intense physical work that can exhaust even an athlete. Workers must climb up and down more than 250 feet while carrying tools and other heavy equipment. It’s not unusual for a worker to carry 80 or 90 pounds of equipment, and under those conditions, it can take a young, relatively athletic worker nearly 30 minutes to travel up or down the ladder.
In a rescue situation, adrenalin may increase the climbing rate, but the rescuer is likely to be short of breath when arriving at the scene, and physical exhaustion doesn’t promote sound thinking.
That’s why it’s a good idea to have workers undergo a thorough physical that may even include a cardiac stress test, because it’s better to discover a heart problem in a doctor’s office than when a worker is 250 feet up.
The right equipment
To perform most work at height rescues, you need to have a specialized rescue kit. Some companies will assign a rescue kit to each team or each truck, while others will go to the added (but very worthwhile) cost of placing a rescue kit in each turbine. Some of these kits will only allow escape of the workers and are not designed for rescue scenarios.
Unfortunately, many rescue kits are heavy (35 to 65 pounds), and if you place them on the truck, you’re entirely dependent on the first worker to carry the kit up with him. If he fails to do so and becomes injured at the top, someone else will have to carry the kit up by hand, because nobody will be up there to operate the hoist if one exists.
One rescue kit — the PDQ (a personal escape and rescue system), designed by a company called SKALA with a long history of work at height — weighs less than eight pounds. That’s light enough that a worker can carry it comfortably anytime he or she is on the job.
Help EMS prepare
Finally, if you want to maximize the value of local EMS services, it’s a good idea to start working with them right away. Ensure that they are familiar with the design and the function of the turbines, access methods, and rescue equipment, as well as your safety and rescue plans. It may even make sense to have local EMS staff members participate in your own safety training, or to participate in a rescue drill to gauge their response time and knowledge.
You can also work with them to improve the identification of turbine and tower locations, so they’ll be able to respond more quickly when a call is received. They may be able to offer ideas for ensuring that the help you need is there when you need it.
Remember, a rescue team is only there to provide support to team members that are working in that particular tower. You cannot count on EMS to save your team.
The best rescue is the one that never happened. You owe it to your workers to be prepared!