Focus on safety

02 December 2021

There is an urgent need for focus on safety in renewable sector in 2022, says Paul Davidson

AS THE eyes of the world focused on COP26 in Glasgow last November, there was an inevitable elevation in the dialogue on the topic of decarbonisation and an increased focus on the role of renewable energy punctuating 2021. 

COP26 was attended by representatives of 194 countries and the summit secured a global commitment to the phasing down of coal as the transition to cleaner energy sources continues. Here in the UK, the last coal fuelled power station is scheduled to go offline in 2024, a step towards the UK becoming net zero, a legally binding commitment made by the UK Government, the first of the major economies to do so.

In the early part of 2021, it was announced that annual electricity generated from renewable sources outstripped fossil fuels for the first time in 2020, providing 42 per cent of the UK’s electricity (The Guardian, January 2021).

At the same time, work has begun to develop the largest offshore wind farm in Scotland which, once complete, will generate enough electricity to power a million homes, furthering the UK’s ambition to deliver 40GW of offshore wind by 2030. (Seagreen Wind Energy, June 2020).

These projects give an indication of the importance of renewables within the the energy mix of the future. However, the perception that clean, renewable energy and environmental initiatives, such as carbon capture, are green, clean, and therefore safe, belies the risks which are prominent in the industry. Indeed, the reality is that many of the risks are just as significant as those involved in traditional practices. 

It was therefore gratifying that independent research which was commissioned in 2021 indicated that within industry itself there is a growing recognition that safety standards in the UK’s clean and renewable energy sector need to keep pace with broader developments being seen in the sector.

Emerging risks

However, on the flip side, more than three in five (63 per cent) managers in the oil and gas industry who took part in the research indicated that there are concerns in their organisation about a major safety incident occurring in the next five years, and 83 per cent of managers across all sectors indicated concerns about emerging and evolving safety risks which they feel their business is still getting to grips with.

Clearly the oil and gas, renewables and utilities industries are at the forefront of the push to Net Zero and this goes some way to explain the importance of reminding employers and employees of the risks of major safety disasters in their industry. This was a sentiment expressed most strongly in the research by managers in the oil, gas, renewables and utilities industries (93 per cent compared to an average across all industries of 87 per cent), and why the same group also emphasised the importance of ensuring that safety knowledge is passed on to the next generation of workers, with 80 per cent of managers in oil, gas, renewables and utilities agreeing with this statement. Such issues are particularly front of mind in the industry currently, given the ongoing, significant maintenance backlog issues within offshore environments because of Covid-19 restrictions and spending cuts.1

It's important to consider that many hazards in the renewable sector are common for the energy sector in general, but clean power requires specialised operations and therefore different threats exist.

For example, significant elements of work within the wind energy sector take place in offshore environments. Workers are also exposed to risks from electrical motors and gears, and these hazards are compounded by the fact that some turbine designs present additional safety complications associated with confined spaces. In these situations, potential harmful gas builds up and therefore pre-entry gas detection checks are vital to ensure that oxygen levels are adequate and that any hazardous gases that may have gathered are identified.

The carbon capture and hydrogen industries also come with their own safety risks – the storage and transport of high volumes of gas for instance. Exposure to high levels of carbon dioxide can cause a variety of adverse health effects; headaches, dizziness, difficulty breathing and ultimately asphyxia, whereas high levels of hydrogen hold fire and explosion risks, as well as the danger of asphyxiation.

Furthermore, as we move ever closer to the more widespread use of greener fuels such as hydrogen, wider industry faces new challenges. Some of hydrogen’s properties require additional engineering controls to ensure its safe use. Specifically, hydrogen has a wide range of concentrations in the air at which it is flammable and also has lower minimum ignition energy than gasoline or natural gas. Together, these factors mean hydrogen can ignite more easily.

Underestimated danger

Add to this the fact that hydrogen is colourless, odourless, tasteless, non-toxic and burns with a flame that is almost invisible to the naked eye, and it’s easy to see how the dangers are often underestimated.

In order for safety to keep pace with developments with new and renewable energy, it is critical that adequate financial support is put in place – and quickly – to enable the necessary work to take place to develop appropriate guidelines and protocols.

It is critical that adequate training is provided, not only for workers but also for purchasing professionals and technical authorities, to ensure that the risks and dangers of working in the clean energy sector are fully understood. This also feeds into the right equipment being selected and used to ensure maximum protection.

Aside from the obvious vital lifesaving reasons that safety must catch up with broader progress in the UK’s renewables sector, there are other reasons for companies to pay attention to the concerns around the risk of a major incident. 

75 per cent of those involved in the research think that businesses should invest more in safety equipment and training to avert a major safety incident, with – on average – 54 per cent of the responsibility for employee safety seen to rest with the employer as opposed to employee. 

Furthermore, when it comes to staff retention, 90 per cent of those in the sector said that an employer’s safety record would impact any decision to stay with a company long term, while 75 per cent said it would affect their decision to accept a job in the first place. 

Safety is clearly, and understandably, a key concern – in the minds of both managers and the wider workforce – and is one which requires ongoing investment and focus, whether the industry is oil and gas, new and emerging industries such as clean energy and carbon capture, or wider industry getting to grips with changing risk factors. 

New and renewable energy is expected to surpass traditional energy production within a matter of decades, and consequently will employ an increasing proportion of the global population. Therefore, it’s essential to create a culture of safety so employers can stay safe and healthy.

By establishing safety protocols, training programs and maintenance checklists now, the renewable energy industry can prepare for a future which is healthier for people and the environment in which we live.


Paul Davidson is account manager at Dräger Marine and Offshore. For more information,