The Health and Safety Implications of Offshore Wind Energy Development: More to it than Meets the Eye

This blog post is by Eddy Wifa a third year doctoral researcher at the University of Aberdeen. His research focusses on the health and safety implications of offshore wind energy development and the significant role both private and public regulation could play in ensuring an appropriate balance between offshore wind energy maximisation and the safety of the workers and other users of the marine space.

This post is about a fundamental problem for offshore wind energy. A critical evaluation of offshore wind energy development through its life cycle reveals that there are significant health and safety risks to both workers and other users of the marine space, as shall be explained below. Therefore the offshore wind energy industry can be categorised as a high-risk industry with the potential for a major hazard. It is my intention that this blog post raises the much-needed awareness of some of the health and safety risks and challenges of the offshore wind energy industry so that necessary regulatory interventions may be considered. This is because although wind energy is considered green and good for the environment, it does not necessarily mean it will be good for the health and safety of workers. Therefore we must resist the temptation of denying that these risks exist, else the situation might just go from bad to worse.

Some examples of hazards  encountered  during the development of an offshore wind farm include:

  • falls from heights,
  • mechanical hazards such as contact with moving parts,
  • blade failures,
  • ice throws,
  • ship collision or men overboard which may occur during marine operations and transportation,
  • electrical hazards, and
  • fire or explosion of turbine or vessel.

Others might include issues relating to manual handling, ergonomics, risk from working with dangerous substances, working in confined spaces, and exposure to noise and vibrations.

While these risks are not exactly new, the fact that they occur in a remote and unpredictable offshore environment makes it more challenging, especially during emergency evacuations.

The UK offshore wind energy industry is developing at an enviable pace with more than 1465 installed turbines, but, unfortunately, we have been experiencing significant increase in accidents in the UK and globally. For instance, the Caithness Wind farm Information Forum (CWIF) reports that there were 1951 wind energy accidents with 165 fatalities since 1970. It is important to add that most of these accidents occurred within the last 8 years when the wind energy industry began to expand. To demonstrate the increase in wind energy accidents, the CWIF states that “as more turbines are built, more accidents occur. Numbers of recorded accidents reflect this, with an average of 21 accidents per year from 1996-2000 inclusive; 57 accidents per year from 2001-2005 inclusive; 118 accidents per year from 2006-10 inclusive, and 164 accidents per year from 2011-15 inclusive”. Despite this increase, CWIF states that these figures represents only ten percent of accidents which implies that they are far from comprehensive. For example, CWIF only has a record of 142 UK accidents, meanwhile the RenewableUK in 2011 reported that  “around 1,500 accidents and other incidents had taken place on wind farms between 2007 and 2011” and this included “four deaths and a further 300 injuries to workers”. This in itself demonstrates a fundamental problem with the availaibility and incomprehensibility of safety data that should assist the industry in drawing lessons. Although efforts have been made to resolve this through the industry’s G+ Annual Health and Safety incident data report, this only started in 2013 and is restricted to member data.

During the early years of my research, my biggest challenge was convincing my audience that offshore wind energy operations are hazardous and could be considered a high-risk industry. I realised that there was an erroneous assumption that since wind is a renewable energy source and as such it is seen as environmental friendly and safe, such a level of safety would apply to its development. I would strongly submit that although wind as a renewable energy source is considered a more environmentally sustainable option when compared to fossil fuels, such considerations have little or no connection with the health and safety implications of designing, constructing, operating, maintaining and even decommissioning of such high-risk installations, particularly in an unpredictable, hazardous offshore environment. It is important to emphasise this because this is the foundational cause of the health and safety challenges of the increase in offshore wind-related accidents. The benignity of the industry does mask the problems and people should be made aware of this. The fundamental reason for this benignty is the absence of volatile oil and gas in offshore wind energy. While this may appear as a valid argument, people quite easily forget that there are several offshore energy related accidents that have nothing to do with oil and gas explosions and spill. An example would be the Alexander Kielland accident where 123 men died after an accommodation platform collapsed owing to structural failures. Furthermore, a detailed functional comparative analysis between offshore wind energy and offshore oil and gas clearly reveals they are both nothing short of two offshore energy industries that share  similarities and synergies.

One reason for the increase in offshore wind related accidents is analysed by Peter Finn, the EHS Manager for GE Energy. He suggests that as larger turbines are installed further offshore, more challenges will arise especially regarding onsite accommodation, the need for better emergency response and the logistics of spare parts delivery. He adds that “this will result in more turbines, more technicians, more transfers and thus an increased risk of incidents”. Another salient cause of these accidents is that the industry currently suffers from a significant gap in the availability of skilled workers. It therefore implies that with inexperienced workers being involved in the processes of constructing and operating offshore wind farms, the likelihood of accidents will increase. This issue is identified in the area of vessel transfer and transportation in general. Steven Clinch, the Chief Inspector of Marine Accident, in a detailed report into the twin accident involving offshore wind transportation vessels stated that owing to the skills gap, the crews that man offshore wind farm transportation vessels are recruited from the fishing or leisure industry, without recognising that skills required for both industries differ. He adds (PDF):

the skills gap is likely to grow as the renewable energy industry moves even further offshore in the future. As such, there is a clear potential for rise in the number and severity of accidents unless action is taken to ensure that vessels’ crews have the necessary competencies needed to operate their crafts safely.

Some industry stakeholders have expressed concerns over the increase in offshore wind energy related accidents. The Environmental Health and Safety Manager for Statoil opines that ‘the number of serious incidents and accidents in the offshore wind industry are too high when compared with offshore oil and gas’. For this reason, she adds that there are significant lessons to be drawn from the oil and gas industry. Despite the prevailing challenges in the offshore wind energy industry, the situation appears to be worsened by the safety culture and attitude of some companies regarding safety. In the words of Andrew Linington, a spokesman for Nautilus:

Operators who apply high safety standards are losing out to companies that cut corners… The situation is frighteningly similar to the boom in North Sea oil in the 1970s. Back then people were warning of poorly enforced standards, but it wasn’t until 167 men died in the Piper Alpha disaster that anything was done to clean up the industry.

I have continuously advocated for the development of offshore wind energy, and this blog post should not be taken to mean otherwise. I understand and appreciate the significant benefits of this energy resource both economically, socially and regarding energy security. I also understand its role is combating climate change and meeting set renewable energy targets. Be that as it may, it is important for stakeholders and the general public to be aware of its health and safety implications as this will guide policy makers and regulators in making an informed decision in solving the challenge of increases in accidents that have been worsened by skills gaps and sparse safety data and information. To resolve these challenges, we must start by acknowledging them.  Unfortunately, some industry stakeholders think the problems are exaggerated. Despite this, I am confident that regulation can play a significant role in this regard and although there is existing regulation regarding offshore wind safety, the ultimate question is whether we have the right type of regulation. That is a question that deserves further study and as such it forms the overall focus of my PhD thesis.

 

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