Building an offshore wind farm by its very nature involves a host of potential risks. During construction of the 576MW Gwynt y Mor offshore wind farm in North Wales, more than one million tonnes of equipment had to be lifted, the weather was often bad and more than 100 different contracting companies were involved in the project.
Ensuring the safety of all those involved was an important consideration for developer RWE Innogy. The utility worked closely with Trevor Johnson, the offshore specialist from the UK Health and Safety Executive's renewable energies team, right from the start.
With all 160 turbines now constructed at Gwynt y Mor, and most of them operational, RWE can look back proudly on an excellent health and safety record, with no fatalities or life-changing injuries - despite the potential dangers of the remote site. The 3.6MW turbines are more than 13 kilometres off the coast, in Liverpool Bay, in water depths of 12-28 metres, and the site covers a vast area of 80 square kilometres.
The project has amassed more than nine million man hours, including 4.5 million hours offshore without a lost-time incident. During the height of the construction period, 64 vessels were out in the field at one time - more than in many busy shipping lanes.
Offshore, the project's dedicated emergency response teams answered 36 incidents that required assessment from a medical specialist. The majority of the incidents were health-related and not a result of work activities.
The Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH) was invited to inspect the site. Simon Hatson, a committee member of the IOSH's offshore group with a particular experience of wind farms, and Lawrence Bamber, chair of the organisation's North Wales branch, visited RWE's facilities at the Port of Mostyn in North Wales, and the wind farm itself.
The IOSH members were impressed to hear how the potential dangers have been overcome. "This site has a fantastic health and safety record, which is great to hear. This should be used as a benchmark for other projects in the future," said Hatson. "They have had some very difficult challenges, which they have had to deal with. These include heavy lifts, diving operations, working in restricted spaces and working in an offshore environment where the usual onshore facilities aren't always available."
Lessons from Olympics
Planning for the health and safety aspect of the operation started well before offshore construction began. What quickly became apparent to RWE was that the project team had to pay at least as much attention to the health aspect as to safety.
In 2011, a team from the wind project visited the London Olympics facilities, ahead of the 2012 Games, to see how staff there were kept safe and healthy. The Olympic park had been commended for the way this was being achieved. Some of the Olympic construction team then visited Gwynt y Mor to make suggestions, which included a three-point strategy for occupational health. This strategy was centred on three "W"s.
First came the "worker" — covering medicals, health surveillance and access to health information. Second the "workplace" — checking facilities and work activities to ensure that health issues were identified and managed. And third "wellbeing" — the promotion of health, lifestyle and work/life balance.
From the Olympics visit, RWE identified that large construction projects often have a high risk of health-related and cardiac issues, with many employees being middle-aged men working long hours away from home.
An occupational health nurse came on site at least one day a week to provide personal, confidential consultations and give free healthcare advice. The project also ran specific campaigns, such as bowel cancer awareness, stress awareness and healthy hearts. "The focus on occupational health and their people, bearing in mind the age range, was fantastic," said Hatson. "Often in the planning phase there tends to be more focus on safety than health, but as the records from this project show, health, as RWE anticipated, was a bigger problem."
Another complicating factor was the number of different contractors working on the scheme. RWE appointed nearly 100 contracting firms, 26 of them principal contracting companies. Some of the early work was done overseas, including the manufacture of various components in factories across Europe. RWE sent staff out to those factories to ensure that health and safety was being appropriately considered and that working conditions were suitable.
RWE also had to ensure that contractors coming to work in North Wales from abroad were following UK health and safety standards. At the Port of Mostyn alone, up to 250 workers were on site each day, many of them different nationalities.
One of the approaches to raise awareness of health and safety among an international workforce was to set up an awards system for good practice.
"A lot of workers were not used to UK health and safety and how we do things, said Sye Channer, health, safety, environment and security adviser on the project. "People said that the safety was the best that they have encountered. We hope that the culture here will be transferred to other projects."
Darren Tape, health, safety, environment and security manager at Gwynt Y Mor, said RWE had been determined from the start to ensure they were blazing a trail for health and safety in wind-farm construction. "The visit to the Olympic site was inspirational. Its focus on occupational health was industry-leading and prompted us to review our own occupational health strategy," he said.
"For us the health and safety aspect was not just about being able to prevent and respond to incidents, it was about demonstrating that we care. What pleased me was the level of engagement from all of the contractors. We hope we have changed mind sets for contractors going elsewhere," Tape added.