Don’t Blow Fall Protection for the Wind Energy Industry

Vertical systems, harnesses, lanyards and climbing systems must be developed for the variety of fall hazards associated with tower construction, maintenance and rescue.

The world is beginning to rely more on alternative energy, making wind power one of the largest sources of new electricity generation. As wind turbines begin to dot the landscape around the country, more workers will be required to install and service these structures. More workers on the job site means fall protection equipment designers and manufacturers must anticipate and address the unique challenges this growing industry demands.

Fall protection equipment must comply with a number of international industry standards, not only for the United States, but in other regions of the world where wind energy already is the most-common energy source. Wind turbine manufacturers and wind farm developers need fall protection products that can travel around the world and comply with all industry standards.

The “Wind Energy Outlook for North America” notes that the United States currently generates enough power from wind energy to power 10 million homes. It also notes that electricity generated from installed wind capacity is set to double over the next 6 years, from approximately 53,000 to 126,000 megawatts.

Wind turbine installation and maintenance call for tight safety measures. Crews performing work at extreme heights – the tallest towers reach several hundred feet – need to be aware of fall hazards and be provided with the most advanced fall protection equipment suited for the high-risk tasks specific to the industry. As with any industry that poses risks to workers, job-specific equipment and training can save lives in the event of a fall.

There are three situations that workers and managers in the wind turbine industry should be aware of that create fall hazards:

1 Assembly

The construction of wind turbines is highly physical and dangerous. Workers are suspended in the air for hours at a time, and they climb ladders and lift heavy materials. Certified anchor points and lanyards are needed for use during the installation of the turbine’s nacelle (the structure at the top of the tower) and blades. In the tower, the vertical fall arrest system spans the height of the ladder and can include a stainless or galvanized steel cable or aluminum or stainless steel rail. The workers must wear full-body harnesses connected to vertical fall arrest systems by shuttles or sleeves that follow them up and down the ladder. In the event a worker falls, a brake in the shuttle will engage to arrest the fall.

After the tower has been raised, the nacelle is installed. Workers install cabling in the tower that links the nacelle to the ground. During this stage of assembly, a full-body harness connected to a work-positioning lanyard should be used to allow a worker to use both hands to place cabling.

Following nacelle installation, the rotor is attached. This can be done using built-in anchorage points to connect self-retracting lifelines, shock-absorbing lanyards or compact twin-leg SRLs that can be used in place of shock-absorbing lanyards. One end of the lanyard or SRL should be attached to the anchorage point and the other to the dorsal D-ring of a fall protection harness. Twin-leg lanyards and SRLs offer a 100 percent tie-off, allowing one leg to be connected to the initial anchor point while the other is connected to the next anchor point for mobility. Self-contained vacuum anchors also are a safe option where no anchor point on the structure is available, and easily can be attached to many parts of the structure.

Typically, workers installing the tower will work all day in fall arrest equipment. Harnesses must be comfortable and lightweight and have multiple anchor points. In addition, equipment should incorporate tool-carrying features for productivity and be very durable to withstand harsh conditions. Crews also should consider hydration systems that clip onto harnesses to ease the burden of working at height.

2 Maintenance

Once a tower is up and running, there are many maintenance procedures that must occur over the life of the structure. Cleaning blades, replacing components and repairing electrical control units are common tasks. Workers must be cautious of dropped equipment and also be aware of shock and arc flash hazards when working with electrical systems within the nacelle.

Workers can use similar fall protection systems and equipment – such as vertical systems – to complete maintenance tasks as the ones they used for wind turbine installation. When it comes to cleaning the blades, more specialized access equipment and rope access techniques should be implemented. Specialty permanent systems, such as horizontal rail systems attached to the nacelle, also can be installed to provide fall protection during more frequent maintenance operations.

Offshore wind turbine maintenance presents its own unique challenges. Fall protection equipment for offshore workers is exposed to harsher elements and thus must be designed for extreme environmental conditions. SRLs should offer a high level of moisture ingress protection, with components completely sealed inside the housing to prevent saltwater corrosion. Harnesses also should be washed more often because of excessive exposure to saltwater.

3 Rescue

One of the most important areas of fall protection consideration in the wind energy industry is rescue. Wind turbines often are located in isolated locations, requiring more time for rescue crews to reach an accident scene. Some wind farms are located in the ocean, posing an even more risky rescue challenge. Workers should be properly trained and able to perform rescue operations quickly and effectively. The difference between a non-injury fall and one resulting in serious harm is related to how quickly a worker is rescued. The longer the fallen worker is suspended or trapped, the worse the injuries he/she may sustain. Rescue speed is dependent on how well the team is trained and on having the correct equipment available.

A rescue plan should be developed prior to tower work. The plan should outline the potential hazards during wind turbine construction and maintenance, such as fire. The turbine should be properly equipped with rescue and casualty evacuation equipment. Descent systems must be available for multiple users in the event of an emergency.

Wind tower workers should be trained on rescue and evacuation plans before work begins. The most effective training programs involve an equal amount of classroom and hands-on instruction. Training must address how to identify hazards, create fall protection programs and choose the proper equipment for every rescue situation. The training program should cover the fall protection and rescue system assessments, industry standards for compliance, hazard elimination methods and rescue and evacuation procedures.

Fall protection equipment manufacturers offer on-site training courses about the proper use of equipment and the implementation of effective rescue plans. Training experts offer specialty programs that address the unique complexities of working on a turbine. Such training is in high demand as the industry rapidly grows.

Wind turbine safety has become a top priority for managers, workers and fall protection equipment manufacturers. Training and products must continue to evolve and to provide innovative solutions so that all turbine workers can be successful – and safe – on the job.

Oliver Hirschfelder is global wind energy director with Capital Safety, a leading designer and manufacturer of fall protection and rescue products. For more information, visit http://www.capitalsafety.com or call 800-328-6146.

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