Atop remote mountain ridges or deep within vast plains and deserts, wind power technicians work in small teams to perform their duties at potentially perilous heights. Out there, and up there, self-reliance, accountability and old fashioned teamwork mean the difference between life and death.
"I'm always thinking about coming home in one piece, and how to bring my partner home in one piece, because it's a very important aspect of this job," shared a wind technician who works for AES Wind Generation, LLC. "It would be kind of hard to do this work with one hand."
Wind farms continue to sprout across the country and throughout the world, and more and more states are dabbling in wind power generation as an alternative, or complement, to traditional methods. As each crop of windmills rise, so too do safety challenges unique to this evolving industry.
"The main challenge impacting our workers is the height at which they're carrying out their daily duties," said Richard Stephen, Environmental Health and Safety Manager for AES Wind Generation, LLC. "Our work happens at 180-to-300 feet up in the air, where our turbines are."
Located far from hospitals or other medical treatment facilities, these isolated work sites call for vigilant adherence to safety procedures. The well-being of every worker, even the most scrupulous practitioner of safety guidelines, is dependent upon his or her organization's safety culture - the attitudes, accountabilities and beliefs about the importance of working safely.
This young industry is working diligently to define a safety culture specific to its unique set of circumstances and work environments. Caterpillar Safety Services recognized in that safety culture development process an opportunity to design a training program specially tailored to the industry's primary challenge: narrowing the gap in safety leadership skills due to characteristics of the workforce, age of the industry and the remote nature of wind farms.
"We're confident that this is the first step in creating a safety culture standard that will impact wind power organizations nationwide," said Tim Crane, Caterpillar Safety Services Manager. "It's a tremendous opportunity for Caterpillar to help the wind power generation industry grow by establishing sustainable safety practices."
Even where strong safety protocols are in place, performance can be elevated through culture change that demands accountability, rewards progress and engages all levels of an organization in the commitment to deliver each worker home safely every day.
Caterpillar Safety Services found that the wind power industry was ripe for a journey to zero-incident performance and its key players were particularly keen to lead the charge. Five industry leaders joined forces to work with Caterpillar to create a customized safety training program that will define safety culture for the wind industry.
"We've been a pretty safe industry and AES is a very safety-conscious company, and the cultural aspect of safety is something we've been focusing on," said Richard Stephen of AES Wind Generation, one of the five partners. "Caterpillar is helping us really take things to the next level, but also to be a leader in setting an industry-wide standard."
Also partnering with AES and Caterpillar is Broadwind Services, LLC; PacifiCorp; Vestas-American Wind Technology, Inc.; and Xcel Energy. The result of this powerhouse consortium is a customized safety training product produced on some of the partners' own worksites and featuring the comments and perspectives of their own employees.
"The success of this product is really due to Caterpillar's ability to get the key stakeholders in the room for very serious, sometimes very lengthy, discussions about what this industry needs in terms of safety," said Joe Conrad, Manager, Safety and Training, for Xcel Energy. "As the number one wind energy provider in the nation, we had not only an interest, but a responsibility to be part of this important initiative."
Presented in five sessions, each including a video module, PowerPoint deck and workbooks for both leaders and participants, the program leverages training methods proven successful by Caterpillar Safety Services and its hundreds of customers worldwide. With experience creating successful customized safety training products for industries such as electrical transmission and distribution, Caterpillar brought together transformative concepts and fundamentals from programs like "Speak Up!" and "Listen Up!" and applied them in scenarios unique to the wind industry.
"I've never seen a training program that successfully pulls together the fundamentals in a turnkey product that will allow anyone in the wind industry -really, anyone in any industry - to quickly shift their focus from strictly compliance-based procedures to a safety culture mindset," Conrad said. "That's pretty powerful."
Indeed the product is designed to allow anyone with a commitment to elevating safety to learn and effectively share the elements necessary for a positive, sustainable safety culture. A combination of mandatory and optional training exercises reveals current perceptions, guides the formation of solutions and drives home the importance of continuous engagement and open communication about safety issues.
Leadership within the partner organizations began sharing the world-class training tool with their respective safety management teams during the first quarter of 2012. Each organization will drive its own safety culture journey, engaging its entire workforce in the continuous improvement process and collaborating with Caterpillar Safety Services' consultants along the way.
AES unveiled the program to its leadership during a March meeting. "It was extremely well received," Stephen said. "The videos are very professional and there's great enthusiasm about starting this program, because at the end of this journey AES wants to be at a world-class safety management level. This will be a crucial and significant step in that direction."
Xcel Energy plans to have several of its employees complete the training by the end of the third quarter. A strategic plan to utilize the product throughout its wind operations will follow shortly thereafter. Conrad also projects the product will be used in other areas of Xcel's business, as the concepts translate well to any working environment.
"The beauty of this product is that it's specific to the wind industry, but it also transcends wind," Conrad said. "I could see using this in many of our other plants, and I believe many other organizations will have a tremendous resource in this product, as well."
The journey to a sustainable safety culture is personal for each organization and calls for individual engagement throughout the workforce, but the rewards of getting to zero are collective. In leading the development of safety culture standards, Caterpillar and its five partner organizations are setting an example the entire wind industry will be keen to follow.