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February 1, 2012

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Utilities and offshore – Wind of change

The offshore wind industry is set to become a major UK manufacturing activity, bringing significant new inward investment, businesses and jobs.1 However, the relative youth and rapid pace of growth of the industry have led to a lack of international consistency in health and safety practices. James Lawson provides an overview of what is being done to address this important issue.

In the burgeoning offshore wind sector, developing any guidelines and practices outside individual projects or businesses is very much up to the industry itself, with manufacturers, developers and operators having to tailor their approach to each country or project.

Europe, and the UK in particular, are leading offshore wind development, but a number of deaths and other incidents in the wind-energy sector as a whole in the last two years have put the spotlight on its health and safety regime.2 Working at height, heavy lifting, falling objects, and maritime operations are just some of the challenges and, with the move to far offshore, the environment is becoming even more hazardous, thanks to taller turbines, worsening weather and slower emergency response.

European turbine manufacturers, developers, operators, trade associations and other interested parties are now developing a more unified approach to better meet the health and safety challenge. This includes sharing incident data, responding to government proposals for changes in legislation and, crucially, agreeing on consistent European standards for safety training.

Currently, the most important legislative development is the latest version of EN 50308, rev 1 – wind turbines: safety requirements for design, operation and maintenance, due to be published this year. The revised standard takes proper account of offshore wind for the first time, and aims to build in safety from the start of the turbine lifecycle.

Better designs make for more efficient operation, perhaps employing remote diagnostics to reduce service and maintenance frequency. Minimising the need to visit turbines decreases the number of operational maintenance hours offshore, and so the overall risk to personnel. An example might be a turbine gearbox that is designed, like a ship’s, to be sealed for life. Better reliability here in exchange for some cost or weight penalty would definitely increase safety. Similarly, better corrosion protection would help equipment survive for the whole life of the turbine.

But when a visit is unavoidable, the design should allow technicians to deal with any issues safely and quickly.
Still in its final stages of development, the new standard covers everything from turbine erection, access-hatch sizes and machinery guards to emergency escape and lighting. For example, the need to perform risk assessments becomes explicit, while a standard stop button controls how every type of turbine shuts down.

“There are many wind turbine-specific safety measures that have been made clear, or included for the first time,” says Chris Streatfeild, director of health and safety at RenewableUK (the trade and professional body for the UK wind and marine renewables industries3), who sits on the CEN technical committee. “It will benchmark current thinking and will have substantial impact on both turbine manufacture and use.”

Specifying turbines to fit the laws of each country as well as the specific demands of each operator can be a long, drawn-out process. The updated standard will help greatly but, CE mark or not, each operator’s specifications are always going to differ from a manufacturer’s interpretation of the legislation.

“This standard is more structured than what we have currently but is still only a starting point,” says Chris Black, head of health, safety and quality at Scottish Power Renewables. “The hardest message to get across to suppliers is, just because the standard doesn’t specify it, it doesn’t mean you can ignore it.” According to Black, constant high-level communication over a number of years is the only way to help manufacturers interpret the regulations correctly for specific projects and modify their turbines to suit clients’ needs.

Developing any guidelines and practices outside individual projects or businesses is very much up to the industry itself. But despite the vast amount of wind-related experience in northern Europe, there has been little or nothing in the way of published health and safety guidelines or standards from individual countries’ trade bodies or, indeed, from the European Wind Energy Association (EWEA) to date.

RenewableUK has set the pace in Europe with a roster of published guidelines and two accredited training courses, which, it says, have become de-facto standards in the UK. The body has also worked with City and Guilds to develop vocational qualifications for technicians, while its guidelines range from jackup selection and switchgear safety to lifts and medical fitness. It is currently developing standalone offshore health and safety guidelines to augment its existing standards.

Says Streatfeild: “These will offer more detail on the maritime environment and the relevant technology. We’re also developing vessel selection guidance in conjunction with DNV and The Crown Estate.”
In terms of trade bodies, the Industrial Rope Access Trade Association (IRATA) recently published guidance on the use of rope access in the construction and maintenance of wind turbines.4

Training

As the offshore wind industry continues to grow rapidly, staff training is critical in maintaining and improving safety standards. Considerable investment has gone into wind-specific training in Europe: dummy turbine masts are springing up, where inexperienced staff can practise their techniques. But supplying training courses is made more difficult by the inconsistent requirements of manufacturers and operators. For example, at the moment operators and sub-contractors might have to send their technicians on a different safety course for each type of turbine on which they work. Someone might go on a five-day course to work for one company and then have to take a virtually identical course to work for another.

“There is no consistency and no European standards,” says Lisa Dodds, business development manager for renewable energy at offshore training provider, Falck Nutec. “This makes things very difficult for training providers. RenewableUK has done a good job but that’s it. Any change will very much be down to the operators.”

At the moment, training providers run courses specific to certain manufacturers and operators, as well as RenewableUK-accredited working at height and marine safety courses. Then there are the many other courses from the more established oil and gas sector that are used by the wind industry, which themselves vary across borders.

“Some OEMs want various extra bits added on, others don’t, and none of the courses is a legal requirement,” explains Dodds. “The biggest issue is actually first aid at work. We have many people coming to us to do the HSE first aid course in order to work in UK waters.”

Making health and safety training independent of turbine models and harmonising other basic certification, such as offshore transfer and medicals across Europe, would cut out this wasted time and reduce training costs markedly. Common standards would also massively increase the mobility of the burgeoning European wind workforce, predicted to increase by hundreds of thousands in the next few years.5

A more integrated European approach to health and safety in the sector arrived with the formation of the Global Wind Organisation (GWO) in late 2009. Made up of manufacturers like Vestas and Siemens, along with operators such as SSE Renewables and Vattenfall, it concentrates on a single issue: setting common standards for safety training across Europe. After a year of testing and consultation, the GWO training standard is being finalised for imminent release and will cover basics such as marine safety, survival, fire-fighting and manual handling.

So far, standards appear to have evolved in parallel rather than in concert but, encouragingly, there have been detailed discussions between RenewableUK and the GWO over future harmonisation of their current courses. Chris Streatfeild says future standards will be developed in conjunction with partner industry bodies as far as possible. He adds: “We need recognition of core common areas across various countries and can then add on elements, as required. Pan-European standards are unlikely in the short term.”

Outside the EU, the US market is also considering its health and safety approach to wind energy, with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) forming an agreement to seek a best-practice approach to safety in August last year. The US market has shown a keen interest in adapting the GWO standard.

Far, far away

As well as harmonising current courses, the upcoming challenge is in formulating new training and certification to cover the needs of far offshore. This includes more sophisticated medical standards that identify underlying conditions, plus covering the various emerging turbine transfer technologies.

In the latter case, the 13-strong shortlist for the Carbon Trust’s Offshore Accelerator Access competition6 shows a commitment to reducing risk but also demonstrates how hard it is for standards to keep up with such a fast-moving industry. Some sort of standard method for turbine transfer would be convenient but the reality is that all sorts of different vessels employing various transfer methods will be used offshore.

Using helicopters will add to the complexity. Some operators already employ courses developed in oil and gas, such as BOSIET (Basic Offshore Safety Induction and Emergency Training), which incorporate PST (Personal Survival Training) and HUET (Helicopter Underwater Escape Training), but there is no helicopter course tailored to wind needs as yet.

“The helicopter will be a big part of farshore work,” says Scottish Power Renewables’ Chris Black. “There may be a two-tier training system for nearshore and farshore, and it needs to be developed in conjunction with Europe. It will take around two years to sort it out.”

Share and share alike

Learning about and managing key risks by sharing incident reports and alerting others to potentially dangerous issues is key to preventing recurrences. This has been the case for many years in potentially hazardous industries such as liquid natural gas transport, aviation and, of course, the oil industry. Though HSE information is certainly shared in the wind industry at conferences and other meeting points, the approach is piecemeal.

“We need people prepared to work together,” says Dr Keith Harsham, SHEQ manager at Mainstream Renewable Power, who notes that sharing incident information “can almost be cloak and dagger. We don’t have a protocol for sharing without fear, as they do in oil and gas.”

Sharing both qualitative and quantitative information is most desirable, and is second nature in European oil and gas. One model for wind might be Oil and Gas UK’s Step Change in Safety initiative, to which all operators in UK waters belong. It has a simple remit: to sustain an industry-wide dialogue about safety and to feed back learnings into industry standards and guidelines.

Statoil uses its oil and gas health and safety operating model in wind, and is actively canvassing for a scheme where safety challenges can be shared and discussed under conditions of anonymity, or the ‘Chatham House Rule’. Quantitative information on safety-related incidents would ideally be shared via a central system open to all interested parties, and oil and gas offers an example here, too: the OREDA database, which holds reliability data on exploration and production equipment used on offshore installations worldwide.

Harsham notes that “lawyers are often the ones representing operators and developers”. A fear that openness might equate to preparing one’s own prosecution case might explain some reluctance to share information.
RenewableUK has taken a lead here with its Lessons Learned database, and the Crown Estate, with Round 3 well underway,7 is also taking a more active role to ensure that the demands of far offshore safety are addressed. Hence, initiatives like Safe by Design, vessel and training guides, and forums in which it can share aggregated and safety data with its main Round 3 partners.

“I’m not entirely convinced that all the suppliers have truly recognised the different characteristics of Round 3 projects,” says Paul Bryant, health and safety manager at the Crown Estate. “It’s still early days, but our forum has the potential to provide a mechanism to gather information and share operational hazards.” He also notes that “a significant proportion of the incidents in the last 24 months have been in areas like trenching and lifting that we, as an industry, have been working in for decades. Without a robust ‘lessons learned’ approach, we will inevitably repeat them.”

A slightly more esoteric debate revolves around whether offshore wind should adopt a more prescriptive safety case approach, as is mandatory for offshore oil and gas installations in the UK. A written safety case demonstrates how major accident risks are, or will be, controlled to ensure compliance with the relevant statutory provisions.

This UK-specific debate has advocates on both sides, with those with an oil background far more disposed to some form of safety-case regime modified for the needs of offshore wind. Many others see it as potentially too onerous and stringent.

Using a permit-to-work system to govern offshore turbine access could be one example where oil and gas practice would be beneficial, as would establishing an exclusion zone around turbines, as is the case for oil platforms. “The industry does need a good agreed code of practice for offshore installations, though there’s no need to call it a safety case,” says Harsham. “You could call it the ‘Wind Farm Safety Assessment’.”

Conclusion

HSE chair Judith Hackitt summed up the challenges facing the offshore wind sector in her address to the Executive’s Ports and Logistics Conference in Liverpool in January last year. She said: “Legislation has to change to keep pace, and this new industry must look to others for established good practice, and ensure that risks are properly identified and assessed.

“There have been serious and fatal accidents on offshore wind farms and in ports where wind turbines are manufactured and assembled, during transport of turbines or their components by road and sea, and where there has been increased demand for new equipment and support staff and vessels.

“Training and skills must not just keep pace with these developments but move to a position where the next foreseeable risk is anticipated and the means to address it is put in place before it can actually occur.”

So, the way ahead is to: learn from mistakes, share solutions, and develop consistent guidelines and training, while taking the best from oil and gas. Wind is a young industry and far offshore is the biggest challenge it has yet faced in health and safety terms, as in many other ways. With all concerned committed to developing and policing the most effective possible health and safety regime, keeping a sensible and constructive discussion going is the key to achieving that goal.

References
1    This is according to the Crown Estate, which, as manager of the seabed out to the 12nm limit, plays a major role in the development of the UK’s offshore wind industry – www.thecrownestate.co.uk/energy/ offshore-wind-energy/
2    According to HSE statistics for the wind-energy sector in 2010/2011, there was one fatality (onshore), 11 major injuries and seven over-three-day injuries. Note: There is no SIC code available to capture these details by industry type. Therefore any search of RIDDOR data relating to ‘wind farms’ is reliant on the wording used to describe the incidents at the time they were notified to the HSE.
3    www.bwea.com
4    IRATA (2011): The application of rope access methods in the construction, inspection, repair and maintenance of wind turbines – www.irata.org
5    Kenrick, V (2011): ‘Earth, wind and hire’, in SHP June 2011, Vol.29 No.6 – www.shponline.co.uk/ features-content/full/career-development-earth-wind-and-hirewww.shponline.co.uk/ features-content/full/career-development-earth-wind-and-hire
6    www.carbontrust.co.uk/emerging-technologies/current-focus-areas/ offshore-wind/pages/offshore-wind-access-shortlisted.aspx
7    In January 2010, the Crown Estate announced the successful bidders for each of the nine Round 3 offshore wind zones within UK waters. Round 3 offshore wind energy generation aims to deliver a quarter of the UK’s total electricity needs by 2020

James Lawson is a business journalist specialising in renewable energy.

A version of this article was first published in Renewable Energy World magazine – www.renewableenergyworld.com/rea/magazine

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