Spotlight on health and safety in the wind sector


April 14, 2017

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Safety is in the spotlight. Last month, two people died at UK wind farms: on 15 March, a 37-year-old worker died after at the under-construction Kilgallioch project in Scotland; and, on 29 March, a worker fell from Whitelee wind farm, also in Scotland.

This can be a difficult topic for those in the industry to talk about openly, but we must. People should be able to wave off a family member to work at a wind farm in the morning confident that they will come home in the evening. As well as the devastating personal cost, such accidents can also be highly disruptive for companies; damage the image of the sector and thus make it harder to win backing for schemes; and damage appetite from investors.

So, in this Wind Watch, we want to quickly tackle a few questions.

First, how does the health and safety system work for wind projects in the UK? Second, do we know how many accidents or incidents actually happen in UK wind farms? And finally, what can firms do to address any gaps that there might be in the system?

On the first question, we asked industry association RenewableUK for its insights. It said contractors on UK wind farms must comply with relevant UK laws, including The Health & Safety at Work Act 1974 and Construction (Design & Management) Regulations 2015.

On top of that, RenewableUK provides its own guidelines to enable firms to avoid fatalities, injuries and work related ill-health.

However, it said these “are intended for information and general guidance only, do not constitute advice, are not exhaustive and do not indicate any specific course of action”. This means they are only advisory; are no substitute for professional advice; and it is completely up to the employer whether to follow them.

Second, the reporting of incidents on UK wind farms and associated infrastructure must comply with the standards in the Injuries, Diseases & Dangerous Occurrences Regulations 2013, while all statistics are collated by the relevant organisation, such as the Health & Safety Executive. But it is also impossible to find out how many accidents there are at UK wind farms because the statistics are not measured independently.

Indeed, looking at HSE statistics on fatal injuries in the workplace in Great Britain for 2016, there is only a general ‘construction’ category, which focuses specifically on fatal injuries and not accidents more widely. This means that it is difficult to find specific information on fatal injuries at UK wind farms. Media reports on individual accidents are unrepresentative.

And third, what can be done? We see three main points here.

First, we know that companies in the sector take these issues very seriously, and we can see the wisdom of having more commit to voluntary standards. These are likely to overlap with what most firms are doing already, but it makes sense for the industry to show it is united. Wind companies take the safety of their workers very seriously. Let’s make that clear.

Second, firms should be encouraged to submit data on accidents at wind farms, even if the specifics are kept private, because it would mean that we would get an accurate picture of worker safety at UK wind farms. If we can identify issues, we can address them.

And third, we think at this stage we need to avoid overreacting. These two stories have gained a great deal of publicity, but they have hit the headlines precisely because they are rare. UK wind is a safe sector to work in, and firms have been doing what they can to address issues.

Ultimately, all construction works are dangerous, but many of the aspects of siting, erecting, maintaining, servicing and dismantling wind turbines can create unique challenges for wind farms as working environments. Technology keeps changing, and so do working practices, which means that companies constantly need new skills to cope with the new hazards.

A willingness to talk openly about any challenges on this would be a good first step.

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