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Wind Tower Safety: Incorporating Rescue into Fall Protection Plans

In the wind energy industry, preparation for fall protection and rescue plays a vital role in training workers. They risk their lives at extreme heights, with some of the tallest towers reaching several hundred feet.
Sep 9, 2014    By Jeff Wild
While fall protection planning may be routinely considered in the wind tower industry, what role does rescue play in these plans? Many times, it isn’t a fall that necessitates a rescue. Workers can slip, trip or be hit by falling objects. Electrical and mechanical issues can play a part in workers needing to be rescued, as can their fitness and weather conditions. All are potential hazards that can cause accidents when working in and around wind turbines.

Unfortunately, just calling 911 isn’t a solution for these rescues. Wind towers often are in isolated locations, and more time is needed for rescue crews to reach the scene. In addition, many emergency personnel lack the equipment and experience necessary to rescue a worker stranded at height. And, due to the height of wind towers, use of conventional rescue tactics from the ground nearly is impossible.

The longer the worker in need of rescue is suspended or trapped, the more life-threatening his injuries may become. Being well prepared and thinking through such scenarios in advance may make the difference between life and death.

While accidents can happen at any time, training has proved to substantially reduce injuries. This should make ongoing training a high priority for wind tower maintenance crews.

What Do the Standards Require?

Staying up-to-date with current practices and standards is vital to ensuring workers are well-prepared in the event of an emergency.

OSHA requires an emergency action plan in both the 1926 and 1910 code of federal regulations. In the United States, the use of a rescue plan also is required by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) code Z359. It is each employee’s responsibility to read and follow their company’s policies.

OSHA requires that employers provide for “prompt rescue in the event of a fall or assurance that employees are able to rescue themselves.” This should include identifying rescue procedures that address the potential for orthostatic intolerance and suspension trauma. Rescue procedures also should address how the rescued worker will be handled to avoid any post-rescue injuries.

In addition, ANSI Z359.2-2007 has guidance on the rescue requirements, procedures and training that employers need to implement in their safety programs. Effective rescue plans should be designed before you need them.

Designing effective rescue plans for each of these scenarios is critical to successful rescues. Rescue plans should include careful consideration of:

  • Time, casualty management and first responder/medical help.
  • Direction of EMS to site/casualty or a central pick-up point.
  • Having weather reports and site maps made available to all employees and contractors on site.
  • Supplying local EMS with map coordinates of towers.
  • Clear marking of towers.
  • Arrangements for workers to direct EMS to accident tower site.

Drills involving EMS and tower hazards awareness. For example: Helicopter paramedics guided to a ground landing zone using green flares so as to avoid confusion with red FAA lighting.

Basics of Rescue Response

Before going into specifics, there are some basic guidelines for responding to any rescue scenario. The first is, don’t put yourself in danger: If a worker rushes in to rescue someone else, he can put himself in danger, meaning there will be two rescues to perform.

Assess the situation: Even in an emergency, workers should take a moment to assess the best approach to a rescue. Before beginning a rescue, raise the alarm. Following any emergency procedures in place, notify the appropriate parties of the situation, then begin the rescue.

There are some common rescue scenarios that can occur while working on wind towers.

1) Rescue from the ladder inside the tower that provides climbing access to the nacelle – Although maintenance work usually is not performed on the ladders after the tower has been constructed, they provide workers with a means of access to the nacelle. This poses a potential threat to worker safety when they must climb to great heights, usually multiple times a day. Even though the climber can use the deck landings to rest, the climb still can be physically demanding, leading to cramping, fatigue, heat and cold stress, and more.

Other hazards in this scenario include slipping on an oily or muddy ladder, as well as the constant threat from items such as radios, cell phone and hardhats which can be dropped or fall, striking workers below.

Ladder rescues in this situation are challenging and must be planned from both the ground and from the nacelle. The size and portability of a complete rescue system is crucial, as it must be deployed and carried to the victim from the ground or down the ladder if it’s stored in the nacelle.

2) Rescue from the top of the nacelle roof – This scenario can occur if an emergency happens while working on top of the nacelle or if the worker slips while moving on the nacelle, possibly while trying to access the hub.

Non-entry fall protection rescue is reserved for injured workers who are suspended by fall protection, but are conscious, alert and can adequately protect themselves during a lowering operation. To perform such a rescue, the rescuer must have access to the victim’s anchor point, integrated lanyard rescue D-ring or harness D-ring.

It also is possible that the victim in such a situation may be injured or unconscious on top of the nacelle. In this case, it would be necessary to lower the victim over the edge of the nacelle. In cases where victims fall over the side, there may be a need to pick them up off of their fall protection equipment.

Challenges in this rescue scenario include deploying and carrying the entire rescue system to the top of the nacelle. Normally, the rescue equipment would be stored there, but there’s still a need to get all the equipment through the top hatch to the top of the nacelle.

3) Rescue from inside the nacelle – This scenario may occur at any time, as the worker likely is working inside the nacelle most of the time. Workers can encounter electrical hazards, sustain injuries from working on the heavy equipment or experience medical conditions that leave them incapacitated.

This rescue may be challenging because the employee may be working under or around equipment away from the escape hatch. Further, the employee likely will be working without a fall protection harness. There also may be a need to lift the technician up from where he’s working, which may be down below the equipment or on the opposite end of the nacelle from the escape hatch. Putting the victim’s harness onto him is imperative to complete the rescue.

The victim also must be transported from his location, over equipment, to the escape hatch. Cross-haul techniques are best used for this to allow a single person to perform the rescue. Multiple lifting systems make this process very simple and efficient. Pulley systems carefully should be monitored while in use. If increased resistance occurs during the process, operations should cease to check the victim for a trapped body part or equipment.

4) Rescue from inside the hub – When a worker is inside the hub, rescue may be challenging, particularly if the rescue system is stored in the nacelle as it must be deployed and carried to the victim. Anchoring to pick the victim up also may prove difficult, meaning cross-haul techniques must be used to move the victim’s body up and diagonally out of the hub. Multiple lifting systems make this process feasible.

The hub is a very dirty, greasy environment, so it’s important to ensure that the rescue system is not significantly affected by possible contamination.

5) Self escape in case of an emergency – Emergency scenarios can occur when a worker may need to escape the nacelle to ensure his own safety. The hazard from which a worker may need to escape affects the choice of the escape point. If there’s significant heat in the nacelle, the worker may be under major duress. In this case, ensure the rescue system operates with fire-resistant rope.

Putting it Into Action

Proper planning can make a real difference in successfully rescuing workers when an accident occurs. The ultimate test of any rescue plan is in the execution. Of course, repetitive training is the key to ensuring workers take the appropriate actions when a real emergency occurs.

Don’t leave rescue to chance. A well-developed plan, effective training and a step-by-step approach to executing a rescue increase the likelihood of positive outcomes when rescue emergencies occur.

Jeff Wild is the technical manager for DEUS Rescue, focusing on fall protection and rescue procedures from heights in industrial environments, such as wind towers, oil and gas rigs, communication towers, transmission structures and aerial lifts. Wild has been a member of the ANSI/ASSE Z359 Accredited Standards Committee for Fall Protection since 2005 while staying active with the rescue, descender and rope access subcommittees. He is authoring IEEE’s standard, 1307 Fall Protection for Utilities, and also has contributed to the future A10.48 standard (Communication Tower Erection), NFPA 1670 committee (Tower Rescue), the International Society of Fall Protection and the National Electric Safety Code.