Wind turbines get a mixed press, but they are here to stay and they have to be looked after. These unusual constructions are best maintained by an increasingly popular procedure – industrial rope access.

Something of a gasp went up when, in his last budget, the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced such a substantial investment in wind power and renewables. It was not that parliamentarians and observers were unaware of the potential for such ideas nor had missed the astute and substantial lobbying of that industry, it was more that in a speech that allocated little new money, a jaw-dropping £525 million over two years had been allocated to this new form of energy capture. And whilst wave, tidal and other natural sources of power were not to be ignored it was the wind turbine – loved and hated in equal measure – that was to benefit.

Anyone who travels around the UK, across Europe or the waters between us, and those who visit certain parts of America and the Middle East will have seen the simple, statuesque white towers rising from hill and sea, estuary and field and either rotating magically or standing still and silent depending on wind conditions. They are more noticeable than trees but it is increasingly likely that they will soon be appearing in vast ‘forests’ rather than occasional small ‘glades!’ There is not a government in the world that is unaware of the debate on the rights and wrongs of the wind turbine nor a multi-national in the power sector that is not already investing heavily or, at least, poised to do so.

First Build Your Turbine!

It sounds simple! Find your hillside or shallow coastal waters and then build, build, build. After all, the science exists, the machines have gone through a couple of decades and more of serious development, and the world wants cheaper sources of power. But the residents of Little Hating on Sea are objecting to 70ft masts atop their cliffs just like the Councillors in charge of the great moor above Muchfiddling are anxious about public attitudes to a white fabricated forest on their prized hills.

There are signs that these arguments are gradually being won by the planners, parliamentarians and the wind power industry. Though one can still see hand-painted posters and rough hewn signs of rebellion against the creation of wind farms in some places, the initial reticence about the actual appearance of the stark, gleaming turbine has perhaps given way to either a grudging acceptance that they are necessary or a fear that the alternative might be either uglier, more costly or more damaging to the planet. What is universally agreed is that these giant constructions must not be allowed to decay into rusty wrecks if, for any reason, they prove ineffective or surplus to requirements. Like most innovative designs for industrial purposes, the need to maintain the fabric, mechanism and appearance has been a problem put somewhat to one side. Those developing the turbines knew they had to stand high and be attached to the power grid…..their cleaning, inspection, repair and maintenance could be sorted later.

Second, access your turbine!

Consider where you have seen wind turbines in operation. Not near any buildings or fixed apparatus that might assist access, but in open fields, in shallow seas and high on mountain sides; in some cases even just one, or sometimes a handful then only occasionally – though increasingly – dozens and even hundreds in vast acres of emptiness. Now think of how these locations are best reached so that the work referred to above can be undertaken. The traditional means of access are all unsuitable; cranes, hoists and certainly scaffolding will never be the answer and neither will motorised towers or platforms. For some offshore turbines waterborne tenders will undertake some basic visual inspection work but access machinery positioned on these will not be safe for use in most conditions, though they can and will deliver those workmen who will undertake the work.

It is now that you can begin to consider how similar work at height is undertaken around the world. It is true the wind turbine is a very rare beast in terms of design and usually in respect of its location but there are similarities with some industrial sites where smoke stacks, chimneys and towers are found, the inside of a large power station can provide equivalent problems and the offshore oil rig can certainly boast a tangled deck of all types of shapes and features and can present similar challenges.

It is worth observing here that, in many respects, the wind turbine certainly is the modern equivalent to the delightful and picturesque wooden windmill of the past, though those constructions had a drive mechanism that could be maintained by the owner and sails that could be, if required, climbed as if they were a ladder. The wind turbine of tomorrow has complex, hi-tech mechanics and blades that must be regularly cleaned to perform at maximum efficiency. And you never saw one hundred windmills on a high moor or in the sea….they invariably stood in glorious isolation.

The access system that has solved so many access problems in the last twenty years is industrial rope access. The sole global trade association in this work at height sector, IRATA International – the Industrial Rope Access Trade Association – worked in excess of four million hours on ropes last year and most of these were completed in situations such as those encountered with wind turbines….indeed, IRATA member companies already carry out much wind turbine inspection and maintenance in the UK, Europe, North America and elsewhere. The flexibility and simplicity of the established IRATA procedure is ideally suited to the work and the high-grade training and closely controlled operational work of its member companies ensures such tasks are completed safely.

One man and some ropes – job done!

The suitably trained rope access worker can, in a team of two or three, access the modern turbine from inside the spindle and, emerging at the nacelle, can use fall arrest equipment to gain access to the nacelle itself and then the blades. Then using his ropes in the same manner that he might deploy them to work on Big Ben, the Forth Rail Bridge or an offshore oil or gas platform, the rope access technician can begin his cleaning work. Having secured his ropes to anchor points and locked the blade into the vertical position, the rope access worker will move up, down and around the blade using routine tools and water to complete the cleaning task before using the ropes to regain a position at the top of the tower from where he can rotate the next blade to a working position. If this all sounds somewhat precarious then bear in mind what it must be like undertaking similar work on the London Eye, or the crazy high buildings of Dubai, or below the platform of an oil rig in the North Sea, between the deck and the ocean below; all these sites are routinely dealt with by IRATA rope access. For the well-trained rope access worker – and over 30000 working with the 220+ member companies of that Association hold IRATA accreditation – the wind turbine holds no terrors and the more there are in any one place the more efficient his performance can be for he came remove himself from one turbine and prepare for work on another in a shorter time than it would take to tackle such moves by other means of access.

Communication between rope access workers is part of their training as are the access skills they deploy. From day one of their extensive training the IRATA technicians are imbued with the need to work safely and strictly employ the operational Guidelines that direct their work procedures – it is this wise combination that delivers a safe working record that is without match in the work-at-height sector. The annual Work and Safety Analysis published by IRATA every year and compiled for them by an independent former HSE senior, is one further example of the self-regulation that their members employ over and above the relevant local and national legislation that they are required to adhere to.

Going the extra mile for safety

The British Wind Energy Association has shown admirable leadership to this rapidly advancing industry sector and has been rewarded with the respect of international companies operating in the field. IRATA is amongst those and is pleased that BWEA has recognised its high standards of training and operational excellence and the value of global accreditation and the resulting worldwide consistency. Every new industry, especially one that has experienced the difficult start-up that wind power has suffered, relishes the opportunity to link with like minds and move without pause to recognition of those who share their standards.

The levels of investment required to build wind farms on a scale that will make a difference required steady minds and a belief in the objective. Those who built the first windmills did so to solve a problem at very local level and no giant rank of such mills ever drove the mass manufacture of bread in the way that acres of turbines will generate power without pollutants.

There is a similarity with rope access, though it is almost a reverse of the example above. Men have used ropes for a multitude of tasks through the centuries – the first ropes were coarse and man-made – but in pre-mechanical days they were as essential as means of power and invention as they were for so much onshore and offshore work. The modern fibres in the ropes used for industrial access have few other connections with industry but they can enable IRATA people to reach both the highest and most inaccessible of work locations.

Wind Power – we will like what it delivers

The word is ‘renewables’ and it is what might make the future life on this fragile planet more bearable. Men will not have to bury deep in the ground for wind energy, nor will they have to experiment with temperamental high-science with its vast initial costs, though they may still have to argue with those who must live with a spectacular view lost or a seascape changed for ever. We can only repay those who feel the wind turbine is an enemy of the environment by making the project work, and operate it safely. The science – that will evolve alongside the development of the wind power infrastructure – is promising, and the more distant future may find a method of harnessing the power of the wind without the need for high turbines placed in strategic locations. Until that day the gleaming white turbines must remain clean and operating at their full potential and men on rope are destined to play a small but significant part in this.

Just as IRATA rope access technicians clean, maintain and paint that most dramatic of modern British iconic buildings – the gleaming Spinnaker Tower on the Portsmouth waterfront, for example – so they will carry out such work on the ranks of wind turbines that will sprout on the shallow seas and high hills of every forward-thinking country, and they will do so in the knowledge that their skilled personnel working to established and clear operational procedures will ensure they complete that work safely and efficiently.

Published: 10th Nov 2009 in Health and Safety International