Golden hour: the paramedics saving lives on offshore windfarms

13 August 2018 (Last Updated July 29th, 2020 21:47)

In the first of its kind, SSI Energy has secured two contracts to supply highly trained, life-saving, dual role technicians to work on the Greater Gabbard Offshore Wind Farm and to deploy paramedics during construction of the East Anglia One project in the UK North Sea. What are the risks paramedics face offshore and what it is really like to save lives in the ‘golden hour’?

Golden hour: the paramedics saving lives on offshore windfarms
There were 737 reported incidents on UK offshore windfarms in 2016; blades falling off, turbines tipping over, falls from height, vessels sinking in ice cold water, groundings, onboard fires, helicopter crashes make up just some of the reports. Credit: Courtesy of Anette Bjerg

“The environment where offshore work is carried out is, by its very nature, dangerous. The oceans have claimed lives for thousands of years, and they still do. But the overall objective is to bring everyone back safely from the excursion to the offshore site, and if a windfarm can be built during this excursion, it is an added benefit,” said Kurt E Thomsen in Offshore Wind: A Comprehensive Guide to Offshore Wind Farm Installation. Thomsen is an offshore wind architect, developer of the first ‘crane ship’ and founder of four manufacturing companies that together have installed more than 800 windfarms in Europe.

There were 737 reported incidents on UK offshore windfarms in 2016; blades falling off, turbines tipping over, falls from height, vessels sinking in ice-cold water, groundings, onboard fires, helicopter crashes make up just some of the reports. The most common accounts were of hand injuries, while fingers cut off, arms crushed, broken bones, fractures, lifting injuries and teeth knocked out also occur. Non-accidental medical emergencies include strokes, heart and asthma attacks, and anaphylactic shock.

Of all the incidents at UK offshore windfarms, the majority happened on operational sites: only two were recorded during windfarm development in 2016. Around 44% of offshore medical emergencies occurred in the turbine region, while just over one quarter were on vessels. The number of fall-related injuries was 110 or 15%, of which 95 (13%) were during heavy lifting operations.

All of these accidents and yet there have been zero recorded fatalities on UK offshore windfarms in the past five years, according to annual G9 UK offshore wind health and safety statistics reports. This is, in part, due to the extraordinary efforts of offshore paramedics, who set off to attend medical emergencies at a moment’s notice, making sure an accident doesn’t become something more serious. But with teams often based on land, how do paramedics handle the critical time pressures when responding to offshore accidents?

The paramedic-technician dual role

Paramedics undergo technician training so that lives can be saved offshore within the ‘golden hour’, the brief window when aid is critical. SSI Energy says having fully trained paramedics on standby provides a much higher level of service than that offered by technicians with first aid training.

“This can make significant cost-saving to operators as paramedics are far more capable of diagnosing correctly and have a significant protocol of drugs at their disposal as well as SSI doctor support to enable them to carry out treatment offshore without having to return a patient to the base unnecessarily,” said SSI Energy’s managing director Duncan Higham in a company press release.

“That said, when something serious does happen, they are much more likely to recognise the signs and symptoms early ensuring the ERP is swiftly enacted,” he added.

The company has deployed two paramedic-technicians working on shifts at Greater Gabbard Offshore Wind Farm (GGOWF). Meanwhile, one medic has started on East Anglia ONE, located 30 miles of the Suffolk coast, and another will join this summer.

Under existing practices, the only medical cover is provided by first aiders who are required to undergo a two-day Global Wind Organisation (GWO) first aid course, compared with the four years of training that paramedics receive.

“Even though the advanced GWO first aid course has put on an extra day it cannot solve the issue of the complexity of providing life-saving care in one day,” Higham said. “Most of our medics have more than 15 years’ experience.

“You can have ten first aiders but it isn’t as effective as having one paramedic. Our medics have dealt with a stroke and a cardiac arrest and other medical emergencies on onshore windfarms.”

Paramedics will work with renewable energy solution provider Turner Iceni, which recently won a contract to provide construction services for East Anglia ONE worth £4m.

“As offshore wind farms are being built further offshore it is increasingly important to have qualified medics during the installation and construction period,” said Turner Iceni director Richard Thurlow in the press release. “Having the capabilities and experience SSI team have onboard the Turner Iceni vessels will not only bring a level of comfort to technicians but to our vessel crews as well.”

“The health and safety of our highly trained technicians and contractors during operations and maintenance is our number one priority, so having a trained medic working within the team makes sense,” said GGOWF site manager Kenny Beardsell.

“The added value of these technicians is that they run health awareness sessions, discussing symptoms to illnesses, mental health and first aid during downtime in bad weather. Collaborative assistance and input is also given to our emergency response planning and regular emergency response exercises.”