Labor of love: wind turbine tower maintenance
High above the clouds...It is 11 in the morning, in Neumarkt in der Oberpfalz, Bavaria, Germany. Michael Körner and Timo Holub are back at the headquarter offices of Max Bögl, one of Germany's the largest private construction companies. The two men are on their way back from Ursensollen, a city 30 km away, where they conducted maintenance on a wind turbine tower this morning. Today, they worked close to the office and so were able to take the time to talk to us about their profession: wind turbine tower maintenance. Most of the time, they spend their week traveling throughout Germany, scaling wind turbines up to 143 meters tall to ensure that they remain in proper working order.
February 25 2016
Energy and networks
Michael and Timo, what exactly does your job entail?
Michael: We intervene when there are small problems or wear and tear on a hybrid or steel tower. The "Max Bögl Hybrid Tower" is the latest design, where the lower part of the turbine is made of concrete and the upper part made of steel. Our work is quite varied. It ranges from handling the finishing touches on concrete to experimental installations; from inspection measurements to metallurgy. This morning, for example, instead of working up high, we were underground conducting maintenance on a wind turbine foundation.
Timo: We are also in charge of making adjustments after a hybrid tower is installed, fine tuning if necessary.
Does that mean that you are not directly involved in wind turbine construction??
Michael: No, we intervene right after construction. Before becoming maintenance technicians for wind turbine farms, we worked as wind turbine tower assemblers. We joined the company when Max Bögl entered the wind turbine market. I, for example, spent one and a half years assembling hybrid towers. Standing on a work platform inside a wind turbine, assemblers lay huge cylindrical units one on top of the other. Today, our work is much more varied: sometimes we work high up in the steel turbine tower, sometimes inside the hybrid tower, and other times we perform maintenance outside the tower.
What drove you to become wind turbine tower maintenance technicians?
Michael: This was a natural next step from our work as assemblers. We did our job well and knew the intricacies of the different types of towers since we’ve been around since practically the beginning. We were offered work as rope access professionals and now oversee maintenance and follow-up for the towers and their components.
Timo: We trained specifically for this new job. Through our own initiative, we took a rope access course (FISAT Level 1). Max Bögl has offered to put us through a FISAT Level 2 course next spring. This should qualify us to be able perform even more complex and demanding rope access work.
How many wind turbine tower maintenance technicians work for Max Bögl?
Timo: It’s hard to believe, but in a company with 6000 employees, there are only two of us. Just about 5 years ago, Max Bögl launched into the unknown world of wind turbine construction, and at the time our jobs were even less well-defined. In 2014, the company built approximately 300 hybrid towers, in 2015, approximately 400 towers, and in 2016, the number should increase. Max Bögl operates a small portion of these towers, which means that it also needs maintenance technicians. The company often contracts with external service providers to perform work at height.
What is your daily routine?
Michael: In general, we always work as a two-person team. We have a truck, a workshop on wheels if you will, which is equipped with everything we need. In our vehicle, we travel from wind farm to wind farm throughout the country four to five days per week. We rarely know more than a week in advance where we will be working the following week. The hours are extremely flexible and our schedule varies. This places a lot of responsibility on our shoulders, which requires a great deal of trust from management.
Have you ever been exposed to any truly dangerous situations?
Timo: No, not really. Following safety guidelines are a high priority, and we even received additional training in this area. On one job, we were surprised by an unexpected thunderstorm while still high up on a wind turbine tower. In this type of weather we shouldn’t be up there. In that particular case, we had someone on the ground whose role was not only to send us tools as needed but also to make sure that there were no thunderstorms on their way while we were inside the tower. We descended immediately.
Michael: Wind plays a significant role in our work. When you are 140 meters off the ground, a tower can swing over a meter back and forth in strong winds. We are also responsible for analyzing the possible risks and to stop working altogether in certain conditions.
Do you think you could continue to do this type of work throughout your entire career?
Michael: Yes, absolutely, this is the ideal job! Each contract is different and every day offers a new challenge.
Timo: To be honest, probably not. In terms of being physically fit for the job, it would be doable. However, the constant travel is not something I could do forever. We don’t spend much time at home with our families.
What was your most frustrating job to date?
Michael: A job is frustrating or tiring when, for example, the tower elevator doesn’t work. To reach the nacelle means climbing at least 100 to 150 meters up. In this case, the total vertical climbed for the day can range from 400 to 500 meters. In addition, if we leave something on the ground, the day turns into an unexpected session at the gym.
And the most enjoyable job to date?
Timo: Hmm, we’ve worked on a lot of great jobs. When there is a low fog not too far off the ground, it is truly amazing to exit the tower high up to work on the nacelle, in the sun, high above the layer of fog.
Michael: Another fun part of the job is rappelling down the outside of a tower to check if the aeration vents are properly mounted. Hanging in mid-air and working outside so high above the ground is a lot of fun.
Thank you for the interview!
Portrait: Michael Körner
Michael (27 years old) works as a wind turbine tower maintenance technician for Max Bögl. He started out training to be a tile layer. As an already avid rock climber, the idea of combining work and leisure appealed to him. He then started working – with Timo – as a wind turbine tower assembler for Max Bögl. He paid for a rope access training course (FISAT Level 1) out of his own pocket as a first step to working at height. After working as an assembler for one and a half years, his dream came true: Timo and Michael were the first to be promoted to the position of wind turbine tower maintenance technicians at Max Bögl.
Portrait: Timo Holub
Timo (26 years old) is, just like Michael, a wind turbine tower maintenance technician for Max Bögl. A mason by training, he started working as a professional aborist early on. He specialized in the cutting down and removal of dangerous trees. He joined Max Bögl approximately five years ago. He first worked for the company for or only a short time before spending a year and a half touring around the world. During the trip Timo discovered Africa for the first time and volunteered at an orphanage in Tanzania. Deeply moved by this experience, he created, once back in Germany, a non-profit organization called “Lachende Kinder Tansania e.V” (Children laughing in Tanzania e.V.) with which he collects donations for the orphanage. For the last two years, he has been back working for Max Bögl, forming a tight-knit team with Michael Körner.
Portrait: Michael Weichselgartner, safety engineer
Michael Weichselgartner (25 years old) is a safety engineer at Max Bögl who specializes in wind turbines. During his university studies, he took additional classes in workplace safety. Today, he is the head of safety for all Max Bögl wind farms, spending approximately 50% of his time working at construction sites throughout Germany, assisting the site project manager with safety-related questions and ensuring compliance with safety guidelines.
He belongs to a team of 16 engineers at Max Bögl whose role is to ensure that national-level regulations and relevant professional association recommendations are followed at work sites. To accomplish this, the safety engineers evaluate of the risks for each job position to implement the appropriate protection measures for the identified risks.
For example, to enter a wind farm, you need to wear safety shoes or boots, a helmet, and a safety vest. Other PPE such as ear protection, eye protection, and fall protection PPE must also be used depending on the operation.
Interview with Knut Foppe, Technical Representative at Petzl
Knut Foppe is a trainer and expert in rope rescue techniques and is a Technical Representative for Petzl Germany. He is the one who developed the safety model for Max Bögl’s hybrid wind turbine towers.
Knut, what does a "wind farm safety model" consist of?
First, I start by identifying and evaluating the risks for a given job position. Next, I work on the safety procedures, which consist of three components:
- Selecting the right equipment for tower assemblers – in this particular case fall protection equipment.
- Training assemblers in fall protection PPE use.
- Setting up an escape and rescue plan in the event of an accident.
Max Bögl was the first company to build hybrid wind turbine towers. This means that no specific safety procedures existed. I was in charge of developing both the training program for Max Bögl personnel working on hybrid towers and the dedicated rescue procedures. Today, Max Bögl employs 200 assemblers who are all trained in using fall protection PPE and in rescue procedures. Most of them have concrete or reinforced concrete construction background and education.
What do the specific escape and rescue procedures involve?
To build hybrid towers, gigantic concrete cylindrical units are laid one on top of the other using a crane. Assemblers inside the tower make sure that each unit is precisely aligned with the one below it. To do this, the assemblers stand on a work platform high up inside tower. This suspended platform hangs from the crane.
During certain phases of assembly, it is not possible to reach the ground by ladder. If the crane breaks down, rescuers and firefighters cannot reach the nacelle. For this reason, assemblers have to be able to handle rescue operations and ground evacuation themselves.
In addition, you need a plan and procedures to rescue colleagues who are unable to self-evacuate. If someone is hurt, or falls from the work platform and is hanging from their harness or is unconscious, their colleagues must be capable of rescuing and evacuating them safely to the ground. Every team is equipped with a rescue kit that includes Petzl’s JAG SYSTEM.
What type of training do wind turbine tower assemblers receive at Max Bögl?
In order to work on wind turbine tower assembly, they go through a two-day training program with me. They learn how to use fall protection PPE, to rappel, and how to rescue someone who is incapacitated and incapable of self-evacuating. Next, they are required to take a practical refresher course (one day) once every 12 months. In order to participate in the initial training program, they need to provide a medical certificate and be first-aid certified.
Are profitability and safety at this type of worksite compatible?
Yes, the two are not necessarily incompatible by design. If you make safety a priority, you can work in a cost-effective manner by factoring into the equation the cost of accidents. This especially applies to high-risk professions such as work-at-height.
What is important to understand is that safety for work-at-height projects should not be looked at as a problem. To ensure this, all solutions and gear should be functional, compact, and ergonomic. One should be able to use this gear, especially in a stressful situation, in an efficient and safe manner.