Wind power continues to gain momentum throughout the United States, with turbines springing up from coast to coast and even offshore. Even as the opportunities working with wind turbines become more prevalent and more electricians involved, the goal is always to limit the injuries and deaths related to this hazardous line of work. Of course, this specialized work needs special safety training.
OSHA offers accounts of electrocutions and fires sparked by arcing equipment in tightly enclosed spaces, but perilous falls are the biggest concern for John Mehalek, LEED Green associate instructor at the IBEW-NECA Technical Institute just outside of Chicago.
“We always guard against electrocution, but in this setting, the biggest hazard is working at heights,” said Mehalek. “More than 90% of the work is done at high elevations. Much of it involves stringing and securing cables.”
The IBEW-NECA Institute, which is affiliated with IBEW 134, prepares apprentices and journeymen electricians for working on wind turbine throughout Illinois. Instruction entails hands-on training and discussion that starts with an industry overview.
Illinois promises plenty of work, noting the third greatest number of new turbines of any state in 2019, according to a recent report of the American Wind Energy Association. Around 30 wind projects are now under construction or proposed in Illinois.
Throughout the nation, state-level policies, called Renewable Portfolio Standards, are fueling wind power development by defining renewable energy goals ranging from 10% to 100% by varying dates. For Illinois, the goal is 25% renewable power by 2025.
“A lot’s happened in the last five years,” Mehalek said. “Turbines are going higher to catch stronger, more consistent winds.”
Land turbines reach 460-plus feet, and some offshore turbines top out at 220 meters, which is more than 700 feet. The higher the turbine, the greater the power generating capacity.
Regardless of height or capacity, there’s still one universal for electricians. Safety and productivity depend on acclimating to the work environment.
“The difference between climbing and working is that people have to learn to trust the fall protection equipment in order to have their hands free to work,” Mehalek said. “We start by getting them comfortable with working three to four feet off the ground.”
Understanding the structure of wind turbines is essential. Electricians must know the anatomy of a nacelle, the container at the top of the tower that houses a generator and gearbox. The gearbox transforms the slow turning of the blades to a faster rotor speed. Turbine blades attach to a rotor hub at one end of the nacelle.
Electricians also must regard fall protection systems as part of their anatomies. Systems include harnesses, cable grabs, dual lanyards, positioners, rescue devices and high- and low-speed descenders. Class participants must master slow and fast descension techniques.
“In many rural areas it would take too long for first responders to arrive,” Mehalek said. “So, still call 911, but you must work in pairs and be ready with a self-rescue plan just in case.”
Suspension trauma can be life threatening. The Institute constantly refers to OSHA’s 1926.502 fall protection systems criteria and practices for updates.
“Dangling from a harness, hundreds of feet up, cuts the circulation to major arteries,” Mehalek said. “It takes less than 10 minutes for damage to set in. The heart strains because the blood supply is cutoff.”
Beyond equipment and training, physical conditioning helps keep electricians safe. “We always stress safety, but for this work we want people to be prepared for the strain they’ll put on their bodies,” Mehalek said. Class participants must ascend a 65-foot training tower three times in 9 minutes. For the last climb, they carry 25 pounds.
The last class session covers CPR and first aid training for a two-year certification.
Due to sheer size—twice the height of the statue of liberty—many offshore wind turbines require significant electrical work to be completed on smaller sections before turbines are fully assembled and erected. The circumstance presents unique hazards.
America’s first offshore wind operation, Block Island Wind Farm, erected in 2016, required electricians affiliated with Aladdin Electric Company, Inc., Johnston, R.I., to perform electrical work on turbine sections. The work site was situated on an old landfill at Port of Providence. Testing revealed the presence of methane, which required erecting a vapor barrier to prevent possible explosions, according to Debi Kandzerski, vice president of Aladdin.
For terminating cables on the five, 590-foot turbines, E.W. Audet & Sons enrolled IBEW 99 electricians and staff members in rescue training, training for working at heights and maritime safety training.
“We needed to safely exit a boat to get to the turbines’ platforms in deep water,” said Jeff Audet, vice president of E.W. Audet, who served as project manager. “Safety is always a concern, but with our other construction projects, we constantly work with challenges of this scale. So, we know it’s important to invest time and effort in solid training. Knowledge of how to handle these kinds of risks keeps us safer.”