Health & Safety: dealing with a history of natural born risk takers

The best technicians possess confidence and mobility— attributes that can also contribute to risk. Mike Kelley of Upwind Solutions, chats about this psychological mismatch, while Charles Lister of Texas State Technical College, explains how his wind...

There is a bit of a mismatch between the kinds of applicants the wind industry is seeing, and the industry’s focus on “zero harm” safety policies.

Inherent risk takers

“Most technicians doing the day to day work on the turbine - somehow in their life - they are inherent risk takers,” says Upwind’s Mike Kelley, who directs its safety program after a varied background that includes construction, the oil industry, and a stint at the US Department of Energy.

“These guys race stock cars, they ride motorcycles or rodeo. There’s something else in their life that’s also risky, it’s not just the job they do. That might be rock climbing, mountain climbing, riding ATV vehicles.”

And not only do their off work interests indicate that they are more likely to be risk-takers, he says, but in many cases their work history has reinforced it.

“A lot of the guys we employ are out of Texas. These guys have been rangers, rodeo cowboys, they’ve worked in the oil fields.”

Coming out of oil and gas and the big energy business, he says, “the attitude of some of their employers in the past was that production is more important than safety - so if you’ve got to take a shortcut, or if you don’t have the part you need, that’s OK.”

A new mindset

That background, he says, “drives a different mindset. They’ll tell you “yeah, safety, its important, but when you come right down to it, they feel like, production is more important.”

“So based on their experience in the past, they have been influenced by “you can a take a shortcut, if you don’t have the proper tool, its OK.” For these ex oil company employees, shortcuts are a norm.” 

“We have to get rid of that 'I can leave any time' attitude. They have to come to work and leave that risk taking attitude at home.”

From his own - very similar - background, Kelley was struck by the fact that in the wind industry, safety really is the number one priority. 

To instill this new emphasis, a new kind of training programme for wind installers at Texas State Technical College (TSTC) is influenced by the wind industry itself, which advises the committee for curriculum development. 

“We are not your typical community college,” says George Lister, Program Chair of Wind Energy Technology at one of TSTC’s four campuses, Ingleside. “Our mission is workforce development. It’s our job to train technicians who will be attractive to industry. We are almost a staffing agency for them.”

TSTC is not looking for risk takers. Lister is on the lookout for critical thinking skills. “They must be able to think on their feet. They have to be able to troubleshoot, and determine the root cause on the problems they encounter.” 

Lister agrees with Kelley on the level of emphasis on safety in the wind industry, even boasting that OSHA leaves them alone as a result. 

For example, he says, with their safety training requiring fall protection systems, “you’re not going to fall further than you’re tied off to. Any time we are 6 feet off the ground, we will be tied off - be secured. We have a saying, “100 per cent tied off 100 per cent of the time.” There is never a time we are not tied off to something.”

Falling not an option

But, while “falling’s not an option,” he says, other dangers remain. “Electrical is huge. We are operating with high voltages, high currents, so that’s very big. We work with high pressure hydraulic systems and rather large mechanical systems. We operate around cranes and rigging, so they learn how to safely lift objects and operate around cranes. We don’t train crane operators, but you will be working around cranes so we train for crane safety as well.”

So which types of applicants does Lister think have the inherent qualities that make for safe wind technicians?

“Veterans have already demonstrated a lot of the qualities employers are looking for,” says Lister. “It’s all those boy scout qualities: reliability, punctuality, maturity... team work.”

And it’s natural to want to honour vets, he explains, so they tend to get priority in the hiring process. “It’s not official. But they are a known quantity. The cream rises to the top.”

Of course, he cautions, they have to “know our systems, electrical, mechanical, hydraulic, so they do have to be pretty knowledgable. They have to have a certain level of professionalism, integrity, skill.”

Their students are in high demand, as what he describes as a “proven product.”

“Placement is very high,” Lister concludes. “Employers will come to my school to interview students - we had issues with them hiring our students away from school before they completed their certificate!”