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O&M safety at the wind farm

Jack Wallace Jr.

Safety, hazard management, risk management: it’s all the same. Whether we act as component manufacturers, general managers, meteorological tower installers or wind turbine technicians, it is our responsibility to make ‘safe’ decisions each and every day. Jack Wallace Jr. provides a very personal technician’s perspective on safety awareness, techniques, and innovations that he would like to see in wind farm O&M.

When it comes to wind energy operations and maintenance (O&M), nearly everything is potentially hazardous. From working with machine tools, cranes, electricity, performing heavy mechanical repairs, or working at heights, it is all potentially dangerous.

People in the wind O&M industry will perform tasks that regularly include all aspects of the above in the same hour of the day, all day long, and think nothing of it. Safety is an ever present component of the job. True, working on wind turbines is still inherently risky, but as the number of people entering the industry increases, safety procedures and practices are improving.

Increasing awareness and preventing incidents

Together, all aspects of the wind industry have worked to improve awareness of safety on the job. Most wind companies now have daily tailgate meetings at the start of work. Job safety analyses are preformed. Critical lift reports are assessed. And these practices should give the opportunity for every member of a company to focus and anticipate the potential for unsafe events. Tailgate meetings can therefore be essential to bring attention to simple details that can prevent an accident.

"... there are dfinitely easier ways to make a living than by climbing these wind turbines."
Jack Wallace Jr.

One example of this during my time was a problem with a “quick link” (which must obviously be screwed shut all the way before applying a load). In one specific case, a new worker tightened the nut by hand on a used quick link. However, since it had been subjected to loads before, hand pressure was not enough to tighten the nut fully onto the threaded portion of the link, and it failed. Inspection after the failure showed that only a thread or two was caught, and the load straightened the link out. Miraculously, this failure did not cause an injury. However, a good safety review prior to starting the job could have prevented this failure.

As well as planning, there have also been improvements in personal protective equipment. One example of this is fall protection, and the equipment continues to evolve. The wind O&M industry has gone from non-shock absorbing lanyards and non-load rated gates, to lanyards that can absorb loads from a 12 foot fall (yes, they are available) and hooks with gates that can take the load. And where previously only waist belts existed, full body harnesses are now commonplace.

So how can companies working in the wind O&M field continue to make a dangerous job safer?

Basic tips for the wind turbine technician

Crane work

When working with a crane, speak with the operator to go over the hand signals and the specifics of the job-at-hand. Review with him the expectations for the schedule of tasks, now that he is on-site ready to begin the project. It is always better to over communicate than to not communicate enough.

"Secondary escape routes need to be made available, one insider route, one outside route."

For example, the crane operator may not know the specific tasks required up the tower to get the job done. Let him know what needs to be done. In addition, walk around the crane to inspect it, its set up, and its cribbing. Make sure the crane operator sees this happen. He will be impressed at your attention to his work. If you have questions, ask them. If you don’t like something, let your supervisor know, and let the crane operator know. More than once I have had to adjust the set up of a crane to one of a safer lift. Remember that cranes can fall over, so don’t let it happen to you.

Climbing gear

Climbing gear is the most common and underappreciated piece of safety gear used. It is bulky and cumbersome, and never seems to actually be used (i.e. put it to the life saving test for which it is designed). Yet the day you do need it, you will be glad you have it on.

Whatever brand, whatever style of climbing gear, the single most important aspect of climbing gear is making sure the gear is used correctly. If you are tied off incorrectly, you may be injured as badly as if you were not wearing it at all. Take your time. Tie off correctly to approved, tie off points that can handle the load. Never hook two hooks together. Insist on hooks with gates that are rated as load bearing capable. Get in the habit of checking the tie offs of your fellow technicians.

The thing to remember is that having your gear on is just not enough – it must be used correctly if it is going to work properly and prevent injury.

Electrical systems

Working with electricity on metal structures such as wind turbines is not a trivial matter. If you are not trained to work with electrical systems, you should stay clear until you are properly trained.

If you are trained, make sure your tools are properly rated. Make sure your volt-ohm-meter leads are rated higher than the voltage you are working with. For most wind turbines today, for example, volt-ohm-meter leads with 600 V insulation rating should be avoided. They may be used on higher voltages by accident, and may place you in danger. Purchase 1000 V insulation leads instead.

Wind conditions

Most technicians now work inside tube towers and enclosed nacelles, but if you work outside or on lattice towers, you know the difference between outside climbs and inside climbs. Climbing outside should be limited to wind conditions under about 40 mph, as working in this wind is extremely difficult. Reschedule work for better weather, if the weather is adding to the danger level of the work.

Eye protection

There is too much debris in the air in windy areas not to wear protection. If you’re not sure why you should wear eye protection, just close your eyes for an hour and try to work. It’s just as if you were blind, which could happen if you don’t wear the protection.

Work in teams

Always work in pairs or in larger groups. I don’t recommend working alone, as the entire job in the field is potentially dangerous. Get into the habit of looking for what could go wrong. Know what you would do if something goes wrong. By thinking ahead, before actually doing the work, you will prevent accidents and injuries to both yourself and your partners. Wind turbine work is never just a job.

What safety improvements still need to be made?

We still have improvements to make. We are innovators, and as wind farms multiply, and ever larger wind turbines are manufactured – this innovation is equally as important in the O&M safety arena.

Looking ahead, these are just some of my personal thoughts on areas of improvement. For example to me it doesn’t make much sense to have an electrical connection in a turbine that cannot be shut off without accessing a switch located inside a pad mount transformer nearby with a hot stick. This is a design that can be improved on.

In today’s wind industry, I think the most over-stressed portion of wind turbine safety has been “tower rescue”. I know of only one tower rescue in my 24 years in the industry, and it did not require specialised equipment.

I believe the most under-stressed element of wind turbine danger that we currently face as technicians is the flammability of the nacelle and rotor, and the single point of access (entry/exit) to the nacelle area. There have been more turbine nacelle fires in just the past few years than there have been tower rescues for the past 20 years.

So another area of obvious and necessary improvement is to manufacture nacelles that cannot catch fire and burn. If Siemens can make a nacelle cover that will not burn easily (steel), then I am sure all others can at least make them flame retardant.

Finally, I believe that secondary escape routes need to be made available, one inside route, one outside route.

There are many innovations like these that will come as the wind O&M industry grows. In the meantime, thankfully, an ever increasing portion of our training time today relates back to how to safely perform procedures and how to ensure safe work conditions. We train our people to work safely, and to strive for no accidents.

About the authors:

Jack Wallace Jr., Wind Turbine Technical Advisor, Frontier Pro Services, +1 951 849 3194,

With support from Mark Dawson, Wind Turbine Engineer, Frontier Pro Services, +1 951 849 3194,

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Boris001 said

23 December 2009
Very interesting and thorough report!

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