In the transition to cleaner, sustainable energy, wind farms are only expected to proliferate, meaning more and larger wind farms. While this is expected to bring economic and energy benefits, the increase of workers in this industry means more workers facing certain occupational hazards, and increased risks for workers already in the field as they become responsible for more wind turbines.
According to OSHA, workers in this green energy sector face a range of catastrophic and even fatal safety risks, including everything from falls to burn and crush injuries. In this article, we’ll look at some different jobs in this growing industry as well as the industry-specific risks many of these workers face every day in order to provide power for homes and businesses across this nation.
Occupations Involved in Wind Energy
Whether we’re talking about onshore or offshore wind farms, the beginning stage of work involves project development and manufacturing the components of the wind turbines. From designing the turbine to picking a site with the right conditions, this stage involves a wide range of scientists and engineers, including aerospace, civil, computer electrical, environmental, health and safety, industrial, and mechanical engineers. Some of the main job risks these workers face occur through lab accidents and testing the blades and other components. For civil engineers and others who are then involved in the construction of wind turbines, there are increased occupational hazards.
This is because building a wind farm involves one of the dangerous workplaces possible—a construction site. Construction workers have the complex job of building the foundation and erecting the turbine, but on land, they also have to create access roads to the remote areas where wind farms are created. This involves the dangerous work of clearing trees and operating heavy machinery like bulldozers to break up the ground, then creating roads and turbine foundations. Cranes are used for the precise, complex job of setting up and assembling the tower and placing the hub, blades, and nacelle. Electricians are also involved, connecting the turbines to the power grid, which requires using power tools and hand tools. When wind farms have to be built offshore, the difficulty level and risks factors increase, not least of which because these workers are in even more far flung locations, far away from advanced medical care if things go wrong.
Finally, once a wind farm is up and running, it takes wind technicians to keep the wind turbines operational with inspections, maintenance work, and prompt repairs. Even when everything goes smoothly, this is physically demanding work, climbing up and down hundreds of feet for each turbine requires fitness and still wears down on workers, even with the harnesses involved. On average, a wind farm will consist of 50 turbines, but there can be far more, as the largest farm in the U.S. (it’s in central California) has 586 turbines. This means wind techs can be responsible for dozens and dozens of wind turbines at once.
Job Risks of Constructing Wind Farms
Wind turbines weigh 1,000 tons or more and require a concrete and steel foundation before workers assemble the tower, hub, blades, and nacelle by crane. All this involves electrical work as well to ensure the turbine functions and is connected to an electricity distribution system.
These mean that both on land and offshore, those involved in wind farm construction are at risk of:
- Crane accidents
- Struck-by-object accidents
- Caught in-between accidents
- Crushing injuries
If a wind farm is built on land, it will often be in a remote location, which means that workers incur transportation risks as well as the heightened dangers of being further away from hospitals and emergency medical care if it's needed. This distance from help is even more pronounced when working offshore, and the transportation itself, whether by boat or helicopter, is one of the greatest hazards that offshore workers face.
Dangers That Wind Techs Face on the Job
In addition to the dangers of transportation and working on remote site, wind techs regularly face the hazards associated with working at great heights, dealing with electrical systems, and furthermore having to often do this work in high winds or other harsh weather. What’s more, wind techs are often working 10 to 12 hour shifts, six days a week, for months at a time. Whether this requires them to regularly travel long distances, or live remotely for a significant amount of time, wind techs are dealing with long, grueling workdays for weeks on end.
Hazardous Work in Tough Conditions
From initial construction and routine maintenance to jumping onto urgent repairs, wind turbine services are often intricate work, especially when it comes to nacelle, which is the turbine’s brain. This section of the turbine juts out from behind the hub to which the blades are attached, and it contains the generator, gearbox, brake assembly and more. To work on these nacelles often requires wind techs to climb up 280 feet or more. From this precarious height, wind techs are at risk of arc flash injuries, fires, electrocution, and explosions, even if it’s relatively simple calibration work, and not a more dangerous repair work around malfunctioning equipment and live circuits. Lockout-tagout procedures are crucial for ensuring that machinery is turned off and electrical shocks won’t occur.
Furthermore, wind farms tend to thrive in conditions that are hostile to humans. Whether it’s working on offshore wind turbines built to withstand hurricanes or working in a barren desert, wind techs often find themselves in severe climates with rough weather patterns. Without adequate weather forecasting and communication to wind techs about fast-developing conditions, these workers can be exposed to undue risks from high winds, storms, lightning strikes, and more.
These conditions simply aggravate the risky work involved. Even in calmer weather, a wind tech is using hand tools in tight spaces within the turbine tower or outside by the nacelle, using harnesses for safety and having to move deliberately to stay safe. They are working with or near heavy lifting machinery in both extremely wet and hot or freezing weather while hundreds of feet up in the air. This makes the constant climbing up and down is itself risky.
Working from Dangerous Heights
Wind techs have to have the stomach for working from tremendous heights. At such altitudes, something as simple as constantly ascending and descending a ladder is fraught with risks, especially due the fatiguing nature of such work. Climb-assist devices, harnesses, and cables can protect workers from falls and mitigate fatigue, but in order to perform their jobs high up, workers often have to take equipment or replacement parts with them as well. Lift equipment for tools can help wind techs with a safe ascent, and lanyards can help workers carry hand tools up.
Workers not only risk falling when working on the exterior of a wind turbine, but also when working on the inside. The wind turbine tower has barely enough space in its interior to accommodate a ladder and a worker, which is still just enough space to allow someone to fall to their death, as the ladder on the inside also goes hundreds of feet up. Within this cramped space, workers have to climb up and down, and then work with electricity, exposed machinery, and extreme temperatures.
Workers can provide themselves with a measure of protection when things go awry with personal protective equipment (PPE) such as helmets, safety glasses, gloves, and steel-toed boots, but there is little these measures can accomplish if someone falls from dozens or hundreds of feet up. In addition to dependable and regularly inspected cables and other climb-assist measures, workers need radios to communicate with ground personnel and get their support in order to adequately monitor and respond to weather changes in order to reduce their risks of falling.
Constant Noise Exposure
Noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) is a very real danger in wind energy, and there are already studies suggesting that 30 to 50% of wind techs are dealing with a level of hearing loss.
According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), over the course of an eight-hour workday, employees should not be exposed to more than 85 dBA (that’s A-weighted decibels). For reference, 80 dBA is about the sound of a freight train that’s 100 feet away, while 90 dBA is the noise level of a boiler room. You wouldn’t feel pain though until the ambient noise reaches 140 dBA, which is a large reason why hearing loss is a common hazard in the U.S. workplace. Hearing loss is often something that happens painlessly over the course of time, resulting in hearing impairment, tinnitus, and even total hearing loss.
Construction sites typically have a sound level of 100 dBA, and wind turbines can emit 90 to 105 dBA, which means that wind energy workers are working around a hazardous amount of noise exposure for up to 12 hours a day, well beyond the established safe limit. Without PPE such as adequate earplugs or earmuffs, workers can be left with irreversible damage to their hearing.
Offshore & Onshore Accidents on Wind Farms
Wind energy has been around for decades but has only recently gained more ground. Despite this, workers in this industry still face preventable dangers, just as in any industry where companies can cut corners and downplay accidents in order to boost their profitability.
Below are a few recent, real-life examples of the hazards of working in wind energy:
- In November of 2005, workers had to replace a bolt in the nacelle, which required them to be about 200 feet off the ground. As they used an oxygen-acetylene torch on the bolt, a fire ignited. As the two workers quickly made their way down the ladder, one worker fell almost the full 200 feet, landed on an electrical transformer box, and died.
- May of 2009, a worker was checking electrical connections in the bottom power cabinet when an arc flash burst out and severely injured the man, sending him to the hospital. He would succumb to his injuries a few weeks later.
- In June of 2018, a wind turbine installer working in the North Sea was inspecting part of the machinery when his arm got caught and sliced off by a turbine blade. The company he worked for was faulted for failing to depower the turbine as well as failing to notify others about this or put up the appropriate warning signs.
- December of 2020, a worker fell more than 100 feet inside a wind turbine tower in Desert Hot Springs, CA and was dead before EMTs were able to arrive.
- In January of 2020, workers were working on pipes in a 15-foot trench at a wind farm when one worker was trapped in a trench collapse. Another worker jumped into the trench but was then buried by another collapse. By the time additional help arrived, the second worker had died, and the first worker had to be hospitalized with severe injuries. The company was blamed for having had anyone working in such a deep trench to begin with, as there were no safety measures like a trench box, and recent rains had made conditions unstable. Washington’s State Department fined the companies involved the maximum amount possible, calling the safety violations “flagrant”.
Wind Energy Workers Deserve Safer Worksites
When wind energy companies fail to provide adequate and ongoing training, well-maintained equipment, and comprehensive PPE, they place their employees at serious risk of catastrophic and even fatal injury. Unfortunately, improvements in safety measures and regulation compliance tend to happen after the fact, after a worker has already been harmed. In such cases, if wind techs or other personnel are injured working offshore, they may be able to hold companies accountable and find legal protections and benefits through the Jones Act and other maritime laws. If their injuries occurred on an inland wind farm, then a range of workers’ compensation, personal injury lawsuits, and other legal options might be available to them.
Whatever the case, these are often complex cases that unfortunately are necessary in order to get injured wind energy workers or their bereaved families the compensation they’re owed, and in order to make sure that safety standards are made more rigorous and upheld.