The growth of the wind energy generation industry in the U.S. has been phenomenal. According to the American Wind Energy Association, at the end of 2016 there were over 52,000 utility-grade wind turbines operational in more than 40 states, with a total capacity of 83,000 megawatts. The Global Wind Energy Council’s latest report shows that the U.S. has the second-largest wind power capacity, after China, with 16.9 percent of the world total, and employs over 100,000 people directly or indirectly. As the number of wind turbine towers grows, so does the number of people involved in their maintenance and repair. In 2015, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projected that employment of wind turbine service technicians would grow 108 percent between 2014 and 2024. There were approximately 4,400 wind turbine service technician jobs as of 2014.
Wind turbine tower heights also are increasing, with the tallest tower currently in the U.S. measuring 379 feet hub height, and even taller towers have been installed elsewhere in the world. While some towers are outfitted with service lifts, in the majority of towers personnel must climb fixed ladders to perform both routine and unusual operations. The increasing numbers and heights of towers mean more workers climbing ever greater distances.
Research studies conducted at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (UWM) that have specifically investigated the renewable energy sector, including wind power generation, along with data from OSHA and the Bureau of Labor Statistics, have identified multiple risks to workers as a result of climbing fixed ladders. Strains and sprains, falls, overexertion and even fatalities were reported to be possible direct consequences of climbing and working at heights during both the construction and maintenance of wind turbines. Indirect risks also were identified, including potentially being electrocuted from contact with high-voltage cables and being struck by an object or caught between objects. Although power generation injury statistics are not separated by fuel source, 2015 Bureau of Labor Statistics’ data indicates that there were three fatal falls in the power generation industry, and 550 falls with nonfatal injuries. Data from the United Kingdom shows 163 total accidents in the wind power industry in 2016, including five fatal accidents. This data generally is assumed to vastly underreport the actual numbers, which may be 10 times higher.