The government’s push into offshore wind power has created a boom in renegade ship operators that are exploiting workers and putting lives in danger, according to the UK’s largest marine workers’ union.
Nautilus has dubbed the sector that operates boats for the UK’s offshore windfarms the “wild west” of renewable energy. The union says basic safety rules are not being enforced, bullying and harassment are commonplace, crews lack training and are often forced to work in sea conditions beyond recommended limits.
Over the past decade as government subsidies have helped the UK become the world leader in offshore wind power, the number of boats needed to ferry technicians and equipment out to the UK’s offshore windfarms has increased rapidly.
Currently about 400 workboats service Europe’s offshore turbines and most of them operate in the UK where contracts with energy companies can be worth more than £10m.
Andrew Linington, a spokesman for Nautilus, says regulators have failed to keep up with the industry’s rapid growth and believes “there is potential for a major accident involving loss of life” if the sector’s problems aren’t taken seriously.
“The things we hear are shocking,” he said. “Workers are coerced into working way beyond official limits – both in terms of sea conditions and working hours.”
The warning from Nautilus comes after the government’s Marine Accident Investigation branch revealed it had recorded an increase in accidents involving windfarm service vessels crashing into “wind towers, quaysides and other vessels.”
In a report released in November it voiced concerns about training and recruitment standards, saying there is “clear potential for a rise in the number and severity of accidents unless action is taken.”
The report highlighted two accidents that both occurred on 21 November 2012. One involved a high speed catamaran that partially sank after crashing into a foam-filled steel raft used for target practice at the RAF Donna Nook offshore bombing range near Grimsby.
The incident occurred after the vessel’s captain accidentally changed the boat’s route while showing a trainee how to use navigational equipment. The report says the captain became distracted and notes that the “day-glo orange finish” of the metal raft along with its height and size should have made it “relatively easy to see.”
Later, investigators discovered that the captain did not hold the appropriate qualifications to operate the catamaran legally in UK waters and his employer, Windcat Workboats, had not formally assessed him to determine his suitability for the role.
The second incident mentioned in the report was a head-on collision with a turbine tower in the Sheringham Shoal windfarm off the coast of Norfolk. The crash injured all five of the vessel’s occupants causing head injuries and breaking one passenger’s arm.
Investigators said that in both cases adhering to basic safety guidelines would have prevented the accidents.
Responding to safety concerns in the sector shipping minister Stephen Hammond said he had been assured by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency that “in the busy summer months, thousands of personnel transfers at sea are safely carried out.”
The boat operators themselves have also responded, saying the sector’s safety problems are being exaggerated. Captain Mark Meade, managing director of Turbine Transfers, one of the UK’s biggest work boat operators, says the increase in accidents is a natural consequence of the increasing number of boats operating in challenging offshore environments, and not connected to poor safety standards.
“Unsafe companies are quickly weeded out,” he said. “Siemens, Dong Energy, Centrica and all the other large windfarm operators have made a big push on safety. There is no way around it.”
But critics of the sector aren’t satisfied. Linington says there is solid evidence of widespread malpractice and says Hammond’s comments “smack of complacency.”
“Operators who apply high safety standards are losing out to companies that cut corners,” he said. “The situation is frighteningly similar to the boom in North Sea oil in the 1970s. Back then people were warning of poorly enforced standards, but it wasn’t until 167 men died in the Piper Alpha disaster that anything was done to clean up the industry.”
Representing the wind industry, RenewableUK’s director of health and safety, Chris Streatfeild, said: “We don’t condone any behaviour which doesn’t comply with the rigorously high standards we demand. We recognise that the safe operation of work boats is of paramount importance to all of us working in the sector – best practice must be the norm at all times. As the offshore wind industry expands, there is a potential for an increase in incidents, but that doesn’t mean that we’re in any way complacent on safety issues – quite the opposite.
“RenewableUK took the lead in developing industry-wide guidance on safety in small boats and everyone involved in the sector is expected to work to this. What we are seeing increasingly is that all those involved in the industry are getting even better at reporting incidents – and that is to be welcomed in the interests of transparency so that we can learn from each other.”
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