The American Wind Energy Association reported that, in 2008, the U.S. surpassed Germany, the global leader in the wind energy industry, to become the number one wind power installer in the world. Information and predictions about the wind energy market change every day. Every time someone estimates the market to be on a certain growth path, it turns out to be even bigger. The fall protection industry in the wind energy segment is growing directly in line with the wind energy industry.
As a result of this rapid growth, product development has kept pace. Fall protection manufacturers are introducing harnesses, lanyards, climbing systems, vertical systems and rescue systems to meet global demands and requirements for fall protection equipment used during tower construction, maintenance and rescue situations.
Wind turbine construction and maintenance are not easy tasks; a turbine is a high-risk environment with a number of danger areas where workers are exposed to fall risk. Workers must be aware of the safety hazards and be supplied with appropriate fall protection equipment, as well as training in the proper use of that equipment.
Wind Tower Construction
During the tower erection stage, the main fall protection system is a ladder outfitted with a vertical fall arrest system that is installed in individual sections of the tower. Not all ladder systems have built-in vertical fall arrest systems. If that is the case, one can be specified and installed. Once the tower has been erected, the nacelle, the structure at the top of the tower that houses all electrical control units, will be installed. Cables that run the length of the tower must be installed either from a ladder or a service lift, requiring a minimum of a full body harness and lanyard.
Typically, workers installing the tower will work all day in fall arrest equipment. Thus, harnesses must be comfortable and lightweight to last through long days on the job and have multiple anchor points for climbing, positioning and fall arrest. Additionally, equipment should incorporate tool-carrying accessories to keep productivity high and be very durable to handle extended wear and repetitive movement such as ladder climbing. Crews should also consider hydration systems that clip on to harnesses, easing the burden of working at heights.
Some of the new fall protection solutions that are being developed aim to reduce fatigue in a number of ways, including climbing assistance that, in essence, reduces the weight of the worker; lightweight harnesses that are easy to move in; and lanyards that can withstand tremendous forces from a potential fall. This new fall protection equipment is used for both construction and maintenance work.
Wind Tower Maintenance
Once the tower is up and running, separate crews will need to maintain it and make sure that it is operating properly. Maintenance work might include cleaning turbine blades or replacing/repairing electrical control units in the nacelle. In order to complete these jobs and others, workers often have to climb the ladder inside the tower to reach the nacelle at the top of the tower. For this purpose, safety equipment will be the same as for tower erection.
Maintenance and repair of control mechanisms for the blades will involve accessing the hub of the blades from the outside of the nacelle. This dramatically increases the potential for a fall. One of the major fall protection issues that arises during maintenance is lack of an overhead anchor point. Thus, specialized fall protection equipment, such as a vacuum anchor that suctions to the surface without damaging it, will need to be used if a permanent anchor is not available.
When it comes to cleaning the blades, more specialized access equipment and rope access techniques will be used. This can be extremely hazardous and dangerous work, since wind towers can reach heights of 300 feet. Crews should not take any chances at such extreme heights, especially, as in the case of many turbines, when working at a remote location.
Wind Tower Rescue
One of the major differentiators of wind energy fall protection equipment is the rescue equipment that is required. Rescue crews will take longer to reach wind farms in remote locations, so on-site rescue teams should be properly trained and able to perform rescue operations quickly and effectively. In order to do that, they need rescue equipment that is quick to set up and easy to use.
The difference between a non-injury fall and one resulting in serious worker harm is often related to how quickly the fallen worker is rescued. The longer the fallen worker is suspended, the worse their injuries could be. Some harnesses incorporate trauma straps that a fallen worker can step into to reduce pressure and relieve fatigue as they await rescue.
Rescue and evacuation from the upper reaches of the tower can be almost impossible from the ground by conventional methods. That said, a rescue plan should be developed prior to beginning any work on a tower. The plan should outline the common hazards that could occur during wind turbine construction and maintenance, such as a fire or complete mechanical shutdown. Self rescue, personal evacuation and easy-to-use emergency evacuation equipment is a necessity for personnel working on wind turbines. The major component of any rescue or evacuation is speed.
Rapid descent, available for multiple users in the event of an emergency, is an absolute must. The tower should be properly equipped with self-rescue and emergency evacuation equipment at multiple locations within the tower, including the nacelle. All rescue and evacuation equipment should be quick and easy to use. If equipment is not permanently installed, it will need to be lightweight and quick to use in relatively confined areas.
Besides a proper rescue plan, another key to a successful rescue is proper training. The most effective training sessions have a good mixture of classroom and hands-on, practical training. In the life-and-death field of fall protection, equipment must work and it must meet and exceed even the most stringent standards. But even the best fall protection equipment must be used, stored and maintained properly for it to work and save a worker’s life.
In the high-risk industry of wind turbine construction and maintenance, safety considerations are one of the main priorities. This industry is unique in that fall protection compliance among workers is almost 100 percent. During wind tower construction and maintenance operations, not wearing fall protection is simply not an option. Rescue procedures must be precise, with proper planning and training prior to stepping onto the wind farm.
The wind energy industry will continue to grow throughout this year and years to come. With more than 70 countries building wind towers or developing products for this industry, we’ll likely be hearing a lot more about wind energy in the future.