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Large Wind Turbines

May 1, 2013
Paul Gipe

A Summary of Fatal Accidents in Wind Energy


Note that the article below is out of date. See the most current database for the number of fatal accidents in the wind industry. Below is a summary table from the spreadsheet. Note that there are four other tabs not reproduced here.--Paul Gipe



Adapted from the book Wind Power: Renewable Energy for Home, Farm, and Business. The information below is presented here so that everyone who works with wind energy, or who contemplates working with wind energy, will carefully weigh their actions. The consequences of error or of ignoring safe work practices can be grave. No portion of any of my books has been as controversial as the recounting of these accidents (And I began doing so in my 1995 book Wind Energy). However, no portion of my books has received more heartfelt appreciation than the brief mention made of those killed working with wind energy. Surviving family members have expressed the hope that if by describing the accident of their brother or their father, someone else would be shared the grief they suffered, then the pain would be somewhat diminished.

"We obey the law to stay in business, but we obey the laws of physics to stay alive." Anonymous windsmith.

The capture and concentration of energy--in any form--is inherently dangerous. Wind energy exposes those who work with it to hazards similar to those in other industries. Of course, there are the hazards which, taken together, are unique to wind energy: high winds, heights, rotating machinery and the large spinning mass of the wind turbine rotor. Wind energy's hazards, like its appearance on the landscape, are readily apparent. Wind energy hides no latent killers; no black lung, for example. When wind kills, it does so directly, and with gruesome effect.

In this chapter, we'll first examine the record and glean what we can from fatal accidents with wind energy. Then we'll turn to the tools and practices necessary for working safely with the technology. Unpleasant as the accounts described may be, they emphasize the need to work safely--because your life quite literally depends upon it.

Death in the maw of a wind machine is nothing new. H.C. Harrison recounts in The Story of Sprowston Mill how his great-grandfather, Robert Robertson, was killed in 1842 after becoming entangled in the sack hoist on his English windmill. There are historical accounts of similar deadly accidents in France, and no doubt like tales can be found in other countries where wind energy has been used.

Since its rebirth in the 1970s, wind energy has directly or indirectly killed 20 people worldwide. The first was Tim McCartney, who fell to his death near Depuyer, Montana in 1980 while trying to salvage a 1930s-era windcharger. There are few details on McCartney's death. He was with a co-worker and died two hours later at the hospital in Conrad, Montana. McCartney was followed a few years later by Terry Mehrkam, a pioneering Pennsylvania designer and manufacturer of wind turbines. Mehrkam was killed in late 1981 near Boulevard, California. Unfortunately, Mehrkam was not the last.

A short while later there was a spate of electrocutions. Pat Acker was killed while constructing the foundation for a wind turbine near Bushland, Texas and Jens Erik Madsen was electrocuted while servicing a wind turbine in Denmark. In 1983 Canadian Eric Wright rode an experimental Darrieus wind turbine to his death when it fell over during installation near Palm Springs, California.

1984 was a deadly year. Ugene Stallhut was driving a tractor as a tow vehicle when it flipped over and crushed him on a farm in Iowa. Then Art Gomez was killed while servicing a crane in California's San Gorgonio Pass. The same year J.A. Doucette was crushed to death while unloading a container of tubular towers in the Altamont Pass.

The simple medical description of John Donnelly's death found in the files of his company's insurer fails to describe the horror of his fate. Death by "multiple amputations" sanitizes a truly grisly accident in 1989, a nightmare witnessed by his coworker, who watched helplessly as Donnelley was drawn inexorably into the nacelle's slowly spinning machinery. What made Donnelley's accident even more terrifying for windsmiths everywhere was its cause: Donnelly's lanyard, a device designed to prevent falls, became entangled on the revolving main shaft and dragged him to his death.

Not long after Donnelly's accident near Palm Springs, Dutch homeowner Dirk Hozeman was killed in a like manner. Against professional advice, he climbed to the nacelle of his Polenko turbine in a vain attempt to stop the runaway rotor from destroying itself in a violent winter storm. Tragically, the turbine had been inoperative for two years and had just recently been returned to service. After squeezing into the small nacelle, Hozeman, like Donnelly, became snagged on a turning shaft. Rescue crews retrieved his body the next day, after the wind subsided.

Also in 1989 two men were killed in a single accident on the Danish island of Lolland. Three men were suspended from a crane in a basket when the rotor they were servicing unexpectedly began to move. Two, Leif Thomsen and Kai Vadstrup, were thrown to the ground. The third man dangled from his lanyard 30 meters (100 feet) above ground until rescued. Then in 1991, Thomas Swan, a crane operator, was electrocuted near Tehachapi when the boom on his crane snared a 66,000-volt power line.

Richard Zawlocki fell to his death in 1992 while descending a tower near Palm Springs.

Robert Skarski died in 1993 while installing a small wind turbine at his Illinois home. He was killed when the tower he was on buckled and fell to the ground.

Mark (Eddie) Ketterling was nearly cut in half by a chunk of ice knocked off the interior of a tubular tower in Minnesota in 1994.

Then the series of deadly accidents continued in 1997. Crane operator Randy Crumrine was crushed when his crane collapsed in Sibley, Iowa. Ivan Srrensen fell to his death near Lemvig on Denmark's Jutland peninsula while removing a wind turbine from its tower. And Bernhard Saxen was crushed inside the nacelle of a wind turbine when it flew off the top of its tower at the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Koog test center in Germany.

In a bizarre year 2000 accident, a young parachutist crashed into a wind turbine on the German island of Fehrmarn.

Falling from the tower is the single most apparent occupational hazard of working with wind energy. Industry practice and what some would argue to be common sense suggest that McCartney, Mehrkam, and Zawlocki all made the same fatal mistake: they did not use any form of fall protection. . . (For more on this topic see Wind Power: Renewable Energy for Home, Farm, and Business.)

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