New review considers health effects of wind turbines in working environments

The aim of a new review was to survey and outline the body of evidence around the health effects of wind turbines in working environments in order to identify research gaps and to highlight the need for further research[i].  Twenty articles of varying quality were included.  The review addressed health effects on workers in the wind industry itself (the authors note that results concerning the living environment will be published in a separate article).  The wind industry is a new and growing industry, with 1.2 million jobs globally in 2017[ii].

Of the 20 articles included in the review: 6 reported on the influence of substances used in rotor blade manufacturer companies on workers’ health; 4 on the influence of noise from onshore wind turbines on workers’ health; 2 on medical incidents on offshore wind farms; 2 on musculoskeletal disorders among onshore wind technicians, and 1 on workers’ health in coal-fired plants and wind power plants.  Five studies also reported on accidents, but these will not be considered here.

The review presents a discussion ordered by the stages of the lifecycle of wind turbines.  There are paragraphs reporting on studies that have considered: the manufacturing phase (manufacturing of the rotor blades); the transport phase (loading process of a wind tower); and construction and operational/maintenance phase.

According to the European Wind Energy Association (2009), 59 % of wind energy workers are employed by manufacturers of wind turbines and components[iii].  Among workers in the manufacturing phase, substances used in rotor blade manufacture (epoxy resin and styrene) cause skin disorders, respiratory ailments and eye complaints. 

Studies of health and safety incidents in the transport phase reported accidents only.

In construction, operation and maintenance of offshore wind turbines, diseases that were documented the most were respiratory complaints, various pain syndromes, digestive complaints, general physical and mental well-being, cardiovascular diseases, rashes and sleep disorders.  Wind turbine noise had a significant influence on developing noise annoyance, daytime sleepiness and general health complaints among workers.  The reviewers searched for studies investigating the effect of activities on onshore wind turbines such as climbing ladders and working in confined spaces on musculoskeletal disorders.  No relevant studies (that investigated particular tasks) were identified, but research from other industries with similar working conditions shows weak evidence for an association between ladder climbing and musculoskeletal disorders, and between working in confined spaces and low back pain.  One study reported high prevalence of low back pain among operational and maintenance personnel of onshore wind farms.

Among those who do not work in the wind industry but live close to onshore turbines, exposure to turbine noise leads to annoyance, sleep disorders and lowered general health.

The reviewers found the need for further research, particularly in studying the effect of wind turbine work on psychological and musculoskeletal disorders.

 

[i] Freiberg, A., Schefter, C., Girbig, M., Murta, V. C. & Seidler, A. Health effects of wind turbines in working environments – a scoping review. Scandinavian Journal of Work, Environment & Health doi:10.5271/sjweh.3711 http://www.sjweh.fi/show_abstract.php?abstract_id=3711 (Accessed 25 January 2018)

[ii] Renewable Energy and Jobs Annual Review 2017.   International Renewable Energy Agency. https://www.irena.org/DocumentDownloads/Publications/IRENA_RE_Jobs_Annual_Review_2017.pdf (Accessed 25 January 2018)

[iii] Wind at work.  Wind energy and job creation in the EU. European Wind Energy Association, January 2009. http://www.ewea.org/fileadmin/files/library/publications/reports/Wind_at_work.pdf (Accessed 25 January 2018)