Wanzek death highlights wind crane dangers


Wind farm construction has hit an up-tick across the Midwest but with growth of capacity installation comes increased risk for crane operators working at remote sites that often combine rough terrain and high winds with limited and challenging access features, says Graham Brent, spokesman for the National Commission for the Certification of Crane Operators.

A crane operator, Thomas L. Bales, 40, of Denver was killed near Elgin, Neb., in late May while attempting to access the construction site of Prairie Breeze II, a wind energy farm being built by Wanzek Construction for Invenergy. In a statement emailed to ENR, Arnold Jelinek, vice president of Fargo, N.D.-based Wanzek, said Bales was killed when the crane rolled over into a ditch.

In a news release, Darwin Crag, OSHA’s acting Nebraska-area director, said the victim had worked for Wanzek Construction for only 10 days.“Even though temporary workers may only work on a jobsite a few days, weeks or months, employers still have a responsibility to train all employees, permanent and temporary, about the hazards to which they are exposed,” he said.

Construction fatalities usually call into the question the safety practices of contractors and the skill and training levels of the victims, especially in a relatively new sector like wind. “I don’t think there’s a shortage of training capacity on the union side,” said James Waugh, president of the Omaha and Southwest Iowa Building Trades Council, adding that unions have been recruiting more crane operators and taking more apprentices into their training programs.

Although Wanzek employed a staffing agency to fill its crane operator needs, Jelinek said the wind energy sector itself is not putting unusual pressure on operator capacity. “There is demand for crane operators throughout the industry, it’s not limited to or because of wind construction.”

Are there characteristics to wind farm jobs that make them inherently more dangerous for crane operators than more traditional building applications? ENR sources disagreed on the question. “I don’t see it being much different than working on a tall building,” said Toby Crow, president, Associated General Contractors, South Dakota, one of the U.S.’ windiest states.

“A lift is a lift,” Jelinek added.

Brent, however, said there has been acknowledgment of the increased risk for crane operators at wind farm sites by OEMs. “I know of at least two manufacturers that have developed attachments specifically for wind farm applications,” he says. “You cant eliminate risk, but you can mitigate it, so equipment evolution is very important.”

Wind lifts are very tall and wind readings are different at different heights, Brent says, which can cause mistakes among operators. “Also, wind farm construction usually occurs in remote areas that feature challenging terrain,” he says. “So operators should [study] actions that can be taken to mitigate site access and set up risks.”

NCCCO does not have any certifications specifically for wind farms, but that could change in the future. “We’re a very industry responsive organization,” Brent says. “If there was a demand for a certification in the future, we would certainly develop one.”

Tradesman International, a staffing agency OSHA says brokered Bales’ job with Wanzek, did not respond to ENR’s inquiry regarding the victim’s skill level and training background.

The Prairie Breeze II Wind Energy Center is under construction, and an earlier phase of the project began operations in May 2014.

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