Wind power continues to gain momentum throughout the United States. As opportunities for electricians to work with wind turbines grow, the goal is to limit the injuries and deaths related to this hazardous line of work. Of course, this specialized work needs specialized safety training.
While OSHA also warns of electrocutions and fires sparked by arcing equipment in tightly enclosed spaces, perilous falls are the top 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,” he said. “More than 90% of the work is done at high elevations. Much of it involves stringing and securing cables.”
The IBEW-NECA Institute, affiliated with IBEW 134, prepares apprentices and journeymen electricians for working on wind turbines throughout Illinois, which promises plenty of work.
State-level policies—Renewable Portfolio Standards—fuel wind-power development throughout the nation, and Illinois has been at the forefront. The state had the third most new turbines of any state in 2019, according to a report from the American Wind Energy Association. Around 30 wind projects are now under construction or proposed in the state.
Land turbines reach 460-plus feet (about 140 meters), and some offshore turbines top out at more than 700 feet (220 m). The higher the turbine, the greater the power-generating capacity.
“Turbines are going higher to catch stronger, more consistent winds,” Mehalek said.
Regardless of height or capacity, there’s a universal truth 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 3–4 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.
“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.
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 circumstances present unique hazards.
Aladdin Electric Co. Inc., Johnston, R.I., worked on turbine sections at Block Island Wind Farm, America’s first offshore operation erected in 2016. 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 Electric.
For terminating cables on the five, 590-foot turbines, E.W. Audet & Sons, Providence, R.I., enrolled 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.”