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Fact check: Los Angeles Times misleads on safety in wind industry

Fact check: Los Angeles Times misleads on safety in wind industry

Following last weekend’s articles citing local anti-wind activists and groups with very little balance, the Los Angeles Times published another article Wednesday with a variety of misleading allegations about allegedly unsafe practices in the wind power industry.

This latest article, like the ones before it, relied on uninformed speculation by people who oppose wind farms, rather than knowledgeable experts. The biased results show a lack of understanding of how federal and state officials regulate workplace safety, and the strict standards already in place. Nor were all the proactive safety efforts at wind projects recognized.

The wind power industry takes safety extremely seriously. AWEA's Safety Committee has been working diligently to establish training programs to enhance those already in place at individual companies; collaborate with the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA); and write best practices for safely building and operating wind farms. As with most industries, workers in wind energy face hazards. These can be alleviated through training, education, and instilling a culture of safety — all of which the wind industry is pursuing today, as we make unprecedented amounts of clean, affordable, homegrown electricity for America. Our members are dedicated to ensuring the safety of their workers, as they are our greatest resource and foundation of the industry.

Focusing on some specific items mentioned in the article:

Rhetoric: Accidents involving wind turbines have increased in the last decade, and “watchdog groups fear incidents could skyrocket further — placing more workers and even bystanders in harm's way … “

Facts: AWEA is not aware of any member of the American public having been harmed by a wind turbine. Training and education are paramount in the wind industry. Workers at all levels within the industry are required to complete rigorous training programs to ensure a culture of worker safety and health. The courses include emergency response and rescue, electrical safety (high voltage, low voltage, arc flash, etc.), fall protection, and working at heights to name just a few. AWEA and its members pride themselves on continuous improvement in the realm of worker safety and health. As the article notes, reported on-the-job accidents involving workers peaked in 2008.

Rhetoric: "One of these days, a turbine's going to fall on someone,” says a spokesperson for a national anti-wind group.

Facts: There are more than 50,000 operating wind turbines in the U.S., and some have been in place for nearly 30 years. None has ever fallen on anyone, and the odds of it happening are minuscule, because one of the factors in siting a wind turbine is setbacks for public safety.

Rhetoric: Turbine technicians operate in small spaces “the size of a closet.”

Facts: Wind turbine designs take into consideration that people must work within, around and on them. The inside of a modern wind turbine nacelle (the housing at the top of the tower that contains the generator and other equipment) is typically the size of a small school bus. While turbine makes and models are designed differently, most can accommodate a minimum of four to 12 workers at a time.

Existing OSHA safety regulations cover work on the electrical equipment in wind turbines. These include §1910.269 (for operations and maintenance) and Subpart V (for construction) standards, and LockOut/TagOut (LOTO) procedures—standard in the electrical industry–are required.

Regarding the exterior inspection and repair of turbine blades, proper safety assessments are performed prior to the beginning of any work. If rope access systems are utilized, wind companies typically require that workers be SPRAT (Society of Professional Rope Access Technicians) or IRATA (International Rope Access Trade Association) certified or trained.

Rhetoric: Technicians have fallen hundreds of feet or died in other accidents; three workers were burned by electrical explosions.

Facts: OSHA requires that during construction, workers be tied off with personal fall arrest systems at 6 feet, and during operations and maintenance and manufacturing, they must be tied off at 4 feet. OSHA also has additional specific standards and requirements to ensure that workers are appropriately guarded against fall hazards with anchor points and fall arrest systems. In the event that a worker does fall, each of our members and employers has detailed emergency response programs. Coordination is planned with local rescue teams and emergency response agencies.

Electrical accidents occur in any industry where electrical equipment is being installed, maintained and repaired; there is nothing unusual about wind. Electrical worker safety procedures are specified by national standards.

Rhetoric: Workers could asphyxiate inside turbine enclosures or inhale harmful gases and vapors when buffing and resurfacing blades, the Department of Labor cautions.

Facts: Caution in the use of potentially harmful chemicals is always a good idea. That is why OSHA has existing regulations covering Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). Respirators with the proper levels of protection are required. All employers must have material data sheets, which are required to be used during chemical procedures must make readily available and provide. These sheets outline the hazards a worker will face and the levels of protection required to ensure safe and proper handling.

Rhetoric: Wind turbine accidents have increased over the past decade.

Facts: It’s certainly possible that overall accidents have increased in number, but that fact alone does not equal a poor safety record—the industry has been growing rapidly, and the total amount of wind generating capacity operating in the U.S. today is roughly 15 times what it was at the end of the year 2000.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics categorizes accident data by industry using NAICS (North American Industry Classification System) codes, and does not currently have a code for wind, so authoritative tracking of accident data is unavailable. The wind industry has pursued a code for a number of years, and recently received word that one will be established in federal data to be released in 2016.

AWEA recently began a program of its own to collect its incident data, and that program is in its first year. The source relied on in the story is a collection of newspaper clippings which may or may not be either representative or comprehensive, and which in some cases include incidents unrelated to the wind turbine itself, such as a driving accident in which a vehicle hits a truck that is transporting a component piece.

Rhetoric: “Watchdog groups” say a hodgepodge of state and federal renewable energy safety standards haven't kept up with the growth of the industry.
 
Facts: The “watchdog groups” named in the article are actually anti-wind groups that have attacked wind power on many other issues. It should be clearly understood that their purpose is not to promote worker or public safety, but to stop wind power projects, both locally and nationally.

OSHA regulates every industry (with the exception of work on the Outer Continental Shelf and mining, which are regulated by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement (BOEMRE) and the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), respectively).

OSHA regulations are hazard-specific, which means, for example, that if there is a fall hazard, there are regulations and requirements that all workers must comply with regardless of the work that they are doing. The hazards that are present in the wind industry are no different than those in other industries, such as building construction, involving similar work.

Construction activities are covered by OSHA §1926 standards, which cover everything from proper operation and maintenance of cranes to personal protective equipment (PPE) that must be used. Construction activities on a wind farm can be even less hazardous than commercial or highway construction. There are specific requirements for fall protection, electrical hazards, cranes, steel erection, trenching, concrete work, road and highway work, and health hazards that might be present.

The same is true of manufacturing of wind turbine components. Wind turbine blades, for example, are made by a process similar to that for boat hulls, although the shape is different. The appropriate safety and health precautions are already known and utilized. OSHA regulates the manufacturing process through its general industry standards – §1910. There are precautions and requirements for working with fiberglass and other harmful gases and vapors. Respiratory equipment and proper PPE requirements are in place for workers to ensure their safety.

Utility or electrical work is also a known industry. The hazards associated with working around electrical and transmission hazards are addressed by OSHA’s §1910.269 and §1926 Subpart V – which are applicable to the operations and maintenance of wind turbines. There are also numerous consensus standards in place for electrical work – NFPA (National Fire Protection Association) 70E (Arc Flash), NEC (National Electric Code, NESC (National Electrical Safety Code), IEC (International Electrotechnical Commission), IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers), and other electrical codes are also used in the wind industry to ensure the proper protections are in place for the workers and the public.

Rhetoric: AWEA has advisories warning of safety hazards.

Facts: This statement is true, but doesn’t go far enough. Our safety fact sheets were created based on OSHA regulations for fall safety and safe crane operation—which underlines the fact that the types of tasks performed in the wind power industry are not new, and are covered by an array of existing requirements issued by OSHA and other agencies.

 

The moral is simple: Anti-wind groups are not a reliable source of objective information, and repeating what they say without some serious fact-checking is not going to lead to credible journalism.
 

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