In recent decades, we have come to realise that we need to use more renewable energy sources instead of relying heavily on fossil fuels like oil and gas. This shift towards cleaner alternatives has led to the development of significant projects, and it's evident that the pressing issues of climate change and rising global temperatures are pushing us to prioritise the creation of alternative energy options.
Of all renewable energy forms, onshore and offshore wind farms hold about 50-70% of the current market and future investment, which is said to be more than one trillion US dollars over the next decade.
More and more “wind farms” and “turbines” have been constructed and installed in numerous onshore and offshore locations across the world. Today, wind energy meets approximately 10% of Europe’s electricity demand with countries such as Denmark fulfilling as much as 40% of their electricity needs from this “green” source. While on a global scale wind energy currently accounts for only about 3% of total energy production, the rate of its use is nonetheless rapidly growing.
Offshore Wind Farms
The United Kingdom and Denmark currently dominate the European offshore sector of wind energy, having constructed between them the largest offshore wind farms internationally with the greatest capacities. Other countries, including the Netherlands, Norway, Belgium and Sweden also generate a substantial amount of their energy from offshore wind-powered installations. Beyond Europe (and to some degree because of European initiatives), wind-energy developments have begun to be pursued more earnestly in China, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, albeit more slowly in Canada and the United States. Other major markets, including India and Brazil, are now in the early stages of planning.
The life cycle of an offshore wind farm project is long and complex. The average timeframe for the initial planning, financing, installation and construction phase is seven to ten years. Full-scale operations can last twenty years or more.
Wind energy turbines and offshore platforms vary greatly in design and size. Crew size also varies, and the number of employees working at a time often determines the presence or absence of medical facilities, including trained nurses, examination areas and sick beds.
The working and living conditions on the offshore platforms are typically strenuous and often challenging in terms of health considerations. Employees must be able to perform heavy manual labour, including windlass work and frequent climbing of ladders and stairs. Part of the work must be performed at great heights and under often rapidly changing weather conditions. Exposure to multiple physical stressors, including extreme temperatures, high humidity, continuous noise and vibrations, and potentially dangerous chemicals is generally unavoidable.
Wind masts operate continuously, on a workforce basis of 12-hour alternating shifts. Working tours typically last two to three weeks, with travel to and from the platforms by helicopter or boat. This form of shift work often results in interrupted sleep time, long absences from home, and restricted privacy in the often cramped, shared living quarters. In combination, these conditions are conducive to a variety of potentially high-risk situations, the consequences of which can be grave. For these reasons, it is important to develop a standard set of guidelines to ensure that platform workers have the best possible health qualifications to perform the duties required.
Industry Standards, Risks and Incidents
Being a relatively new industry, little in terms of industry standards, protocols and procedures are in place. Although there is not yet a firm agreed industry body, the Wind Farm Health and Safety community has organised itself under the auspices of the “G+” (G+ Health and Safety Organisation). G+ brings together lead operators and owners of offshore wind farms and Wind Turbine Generator (WTG) Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) to pursue shared goals and outcomes. It is run in partnership with the Energy Institute, which provides the Secretariat and supports its work.
Drawing on G+ incident data from 2022, we can see the following risks and type of incidents that occurred during the year:
868 reported incidents and injuries:
- 325 Incidents occurred on a vessel
- 298 Incidents occurred in a turbine
- 185 Incidents occurred onshore
- 0 fatalities
- 46 total lost work-day injuries
- 19 incidents resulting in emergency response and medical evacuation
- 36 restricted workday injuries
- 44 medical treatment injuries
Top three work processes associated with incidents:
- During lifting operations (119)
- During manual handling (67)
- During access/egress (58)
Medically-led Support Models for Offshore Wind Farms
Given the risks, we recommend operators and subcontractors consider the following:
- Review your global health programme: ensure it is medically led and designed for global consistency and with compliance with national and international regulations in mind. Develop policies, procedures, fitness criteria, oversight for complex cases.
- Ensure localised support per asset: onsite healthcare professionals with acute medicine and trauma capabilities (fall from height, head injuries, suspension traumas etc), clinical supervision (topside support), medical evacuation and transportation plans, remote advisory for managers, telemedicine capabilities, medical supply chain, onshore support.
- Put in place risk management strategies: includes health risk assessments, occupational health checks, return to work management, first aid training for first responders, health toolkits, travel assistance programmes. Support with digital tools and data.
- Leverage new digital technology designed for remote and hazardous offshore environments: state of the art mobile telemedicine solutions that can support remote medics by streaming images to specialized healthcare professionals in real-time. Simple set up and low bandwidth connectivity.
- Maintain qualifications, certification and training for medical professionals working in offshore environments and ensure medical fitness levels.
International SOS, with more than 35 years’ experience in offshore medicine and global occupational health is establishing itself as the preferred provider in comprehensive medical support to the offshore wind sector. International SOS is well positioned for this role, working on more than 350 offshore projects at any given time, delivering comprehensive services such as specifically trained medics, clinical supervision (topside support), medical and operational oversight, clinical governance, telemedicine and a global supply chain.
In conclusion, the wind energy sector, both onshore and offshore, stands out as the most significant contributor to the future of renewable energy and its impact on the energy market. Companies like BP, Equinor, Orsted, and many other subcontractors must take into account their medical and operational systems and seek guidance from a well-established and experienced global health provider to reduce their people risks.