The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is moving closer to releasing a letter of interpretation that – depending on the severity of the ruling – could have serious implications for wind farm owners and operators, as well as for manufacturers and component suppliers.
At issue is whether ladder clearances inside wind towers meet acceptable widths as defined by CFR Standard 1910.27, the OSHA standard that pertains to fixed ladders. Per the OSHA standard, fixed ladders require a clearance of 30 inches from the ladder to allow technicians to safely ascend and descend. OSHA defines minimum clearances from fixed ladders to the “nearest permanent object” on the climbing side of the ladder and states that there shall be no potential hazards within 24 inches. If there are permanent obstructions within the climbing space, OSHA requires that they be shielded.
And that’s where the issue begins to get complicated. Some are claiming that the clearance space inside wind towers is narrower than what OSHA requires, creating a potential hazard for technicians ascending and descending towers.
A typical wind tower is manufactured in three sections and is fastened together by a series of bolts and flanges. OSHA is studying the safety implications for wind technicians. Could the bolts – some of which protrude several inches into a technician’s safety space – cause bodily harm for technicians not wearing personal protection equipment? Could the bolts and flanges hinder assisted rescue attempts down the ladder shaft?
Although OSHA has been mulling over how the standard pertains to wind farms for about 18 months, the agency would only confirm to NAW that it is studying the issue.
“The agency is evaluating the specific circumstances related to fixed ladder clearances inside wind turbine towers to determine what action it should take, if any, to ensure the safety of workers,” OSHA spokesperson Richard De Angelis explains, adding that the agency’s evaluation will involve a review of safety standards, injury data involving fixed ladders, and input from OSHA’s regional staff members, compliance officers and the wind industry.
Wind turbine manufacturers vary in the way they design wind towers. Some original equipment manufacturers, such as Siemens and Vestas, design wind towers internally, while others, such as GE, farm out the job to third parties, which build them to specification.
Others, such as German manufacturer Nordex, parent company of Chicago-based provider Nordex USA, offer fixed ladders that require technicians to climb with their backs to the center of the tower, as opposed to having their backs to the wall of the structure.
“Towers and turbines may perform similar functions,” says Michele Myers Mihelic, the American Wind Energy Association’s (AWEA) manager for labor, health and safety policy. “But they have many different designs, which has to be taken into account.”
Mihelic says the OSHA standard dates back to the 1970s and applies to the use of fixed ladders at work sites generally, not to wind towers specifically. She is not aware of any safety incidents resulting from ladder clearances – although AWEA has only recently begun to record such safety statistics.
Mihelic says it is possible that OSHA will take no action, or the agency could require that wind towers cover up the protruding flanges and/or require tower components, such as fixed ladders, be moved to comply with the standard.
She credits AWEA’s two-day training seminar, which was attended by more than 40 workers from OSHA’s new Wind Response Team in September, with helping to illuminate the issues faced by wind technicians. The seminar gave OSHA employees hands-on, introductory safety training on the proper methods of climbing and working in wind turbines.
OSHA first learned of the ladder-clearance issue in mid-2011, when it was brought to the agency’s attention by Nick Nichols, a wind technician who requested from OSHA a letter of interpretation regarding ladder clearances.
Nichols contends that these hazards have become even more dangerous with the widespread installation and use of climb assists. He says that technicians now have the ability to travel up and down the ladder at a much quicker speed. Climb assists allow workers to rappel down the ladder at very high speeds, which poses a greater risk to the technician’s tailbone and back, Nichols claims.
“A slip by a worker just above one of these hazards could potentially lead to a career-ending injury if the worker were to contact the hazard before all of the slack in his or her fall-protection equipment was taken up,” he explains.
Concern or marketing ploy?
Some wind industry participants suggest that Nichols, a co-founder of Nevada-based service provider Pinnacle Wind, is more concerned about selling a product than looking out for the safety and well-being of his fellow technicians. He is the co-inventor of the Tower Transition Slide, a deflector plate that covers the protruding tower wall flanges and allows technicians to safely pass by bolts and flanges. He claims the deflection device allows the worker to simply slide over and around the bolt and flange.
Nichols, who has filed a patent with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, is working on a licensing agreement with an unnamed service provider to outfit 66 towers for a Nebraska wind farm.
“We did not create the hazards; we did not create the regulations,” says Nichols. “We just looked at the situation and took the initiative to develop a solution that protects the worker while providing OSHA compliance.” w
Marketplace: Safety Equipment
Do Clearances Inside Towers Comply With OSHA Standards?
By Mark Del Franco
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration is close to ruling on whether clearance widths inside wind towers meet its standards.
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