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Health Matters

9.1. Observations

Health

Much has been and continues to be written and researched on the topic of wind farms and health effects. Debate continues around the world as to whether a wind farm causes physiological harm to residents living within its vicinity.

In 2016, the NHMRC announced the funding of two research studies into wind farms and health. One study is focused on the effects of audible wind farm noise on sleep and is led by Professor Peter Catcheside at Flinders University. The other study is focused on measuring the effects of infrasound impacts on humans and is led by Professor Guy Marks at the University of New South Wales.

In addition, in late 2015, the Australian Government established the Independent Scientific Committee on Wind Turbines to provide advice on a range of matters including wind farm noise levels and the relationship to health effects.

A number of complaints about wind farms received by the Office included references to health impacts as a result of wind farm operations. Health conditions cited in complaints include sleep disturbance, headaches, ear-aches, ‘pounding’ in the ears, tinnitus, tachycardia, high blood pressure, sight impairment, diabetes, chest-tightening, nausea and general fatigue. The complainants generally state that such conditions are caused by audible noise and low frequency noise, including infrasound, along with vibration sensations allegedly attributable to the operation of nearby turbines. In some cases, complainants have stated that some health conditions are persisting even when the turbines are not operating.

Numerous invitations have been extended to complainants to provide evidence of their medical conditions. Complaints regarding health concerns received by the Office have, in the main, provided only anecdotal evidence regarding stated health issues and perceived causality. It has therefore been difficult to form an opinion on whether or not the stated health conditions reported by complainants are valid and, if valid, whether or not the health conditions are possibly a result of the wind farm’s operations or from some other known cause.

The Office will continue to handle complaints, with supporting evidence, from community members regarding potential health effects from operating wind farms. Since the Office has commenced, 78 complaints about operating wind farms have been received. These complaints relate to 18 operating wind farms out of a total of more than 100 operating wind farms across Australia. Of these 78 complaints, approximately half of the complainants cited concerns about health impacts from the operating wind farms. Of these, a very small number of complainants agreed to work with the Office and provide evidence of the stated health issues. In all of these cases, the root cause of the stated health issue was not attributable to the wind farm.

Further, in 2020, only eight complaints about operating wind farms were received whilst the clear majority of complaints received have been about proposed wind farms. On the basis that a wind farm has to be built and operating before it could possibly cause a physiological health effect, the potential cohort of potential physiological health complaints is very small.

It should also be noted that, for the last three years, the Office has not received any complaints regarding allegations of vibration sensations being caused by a wind turbine’s operation. The Office’s findings could not confirm any actual evidence of vibrations at a residence with causality from a turbine, findings which are consistent with advice received on this topic from Flinders University. The Office’s complaint data further substantiates these findings.

It is possible that stated health conditions that exist may be as a result of other known causes not related to the wind farm’s operations. Of material concern is the potential situation whereby a resident may fail to seek and obtain appropriate medical advice and treatment for a treatable health condition, due to the possibly incorrect assumption that an operating wind farm is the perceived cause of the condition. For example, if a resident is experiencing sleep difficulties, they may be advised by their general practitioner (GP) to consult a sleep specialist for a proper diagnosis of the root cause and advice on treatment to remedy the condition. If the GP’s advice is not followed, the cause of the condition may persist unnecessarily.

Health conditions may also arise as a result of stress, annoyance or anxiety related to the presence of an operating wind farm or concerns about the potential effects of a proposed wind farm. Further, uncertainties in relation to whether a proposed wind farm will actually proceed (a period which may extend for several years) may also contribute to stress and anxiety. Again, affected residents may need to seek appropriate medical treatment for these ancillary health conditions as well as seek ways to resolve their concerns.

In November 2019, the South Australia Supreme Court handed down its decision in relation to the proposed Palmer Wind Farm. The Court concluded that claims that the turbines would cause sickness and health issues for residents were unsubstantiated. Of note, the objectors did not provide sufficient evidence of causality from any expert medical witness. The Court’s finding has been consistent with the Commissioner’s observations and recommendations based on actual complaint experience.

The Office will continue to monitor relevant decisions that explore evidence about wind farms and health in consultation with the Independent Scientific Committee on Wind Turbines, such as the guidelines issued by the World Health Organization in 2018, as well as hearing outcomes, such as the Palmer Wind Farm decision and the Administrative Appeals Tribunal decision in Waubra Foundation v Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission. The Office will also monitor and continue engagement regarding any results of the NHMRC funded studies (which are expected to publish in late 2021 or 2022) and the work of the Independent Scientific Committee on Wind Turbines. We will continue to assess any further evidence gathered through complaint handling activities.

The Office has also observed the need for clearer, streamlined legislation that provides a balance of protecting the community while also providing a degree of certainty for the proponent. In Victoria, complaints made under the Public Health and Wellbeing Act 2008 (Victoria) have utilised the nuisance provisions under the Act to allege that wind farms are creating a ‘noise nuisance’, even when a wind farm has been deemed compliant with its permit conditions. Councils should have in place clear procedures for investigating and determining whether or not a wind farm is causing a noise nuisance under the Act.

Safety

There have been an increasing number of safety related incidents occurring in relation to large-scale renewable projects. 

Some of these incidents have resulted in serious injuries to project workers, while others had the potential to inflict severe impacts on personnel and asset safety. A number, but not all incidents have been reported to the relevant workplace safety regulator. 

Further, while some incidents remain under investigation to determine the root cause analysis, other incidents may have not been subject to the same rigour of process.

Examples of recent incidents that the Office is aware of include:

  • Turbine blades falling to the ground during operations (three incidents in Victoria, one in NSW and one in WA)
  • A construction worker’s hand being severed while cleaning a concrete pump at a wind farm site (NSW)
  • Roll-over of blade transportation vehicles on public roads (Tasmania and Victoria)
  • Blade transportation vehicles colliding with power lines or other infrastructure (Victoria)
  • Blade transportation vehicles colliding with other moving vehicles (NSW)
  • Roll-over of on-site cranes (three incidents in Victoria)
  • Workers falling from significant heights inside wind turbine towers (NSW and Tasmania)
  • Inability for emergency responders to quickly locate injured worker on site (Tasmania)
  • Workers involved in vehicle accidents to or from the project site (Tasmania)
  • Fires allegedly caused by connecting transmission lines (NSW)
  • Inappropriate or illegal use of firearms causing damage to transmission lines and turbines (Victoria).

Given the seriousness of these incidents and the potential increase in new incidents as the industry grows, along with the growth in scale and size of equipment, the industry and the broader community would benefit greatly from an industry convention and forum that encourages:

  • Full transparency of material safety incidents to the industry body as soon as they occur
  • Reporting of the incident to the relevant workplace safety regulator (even if no injuries occur)
  • Ensuring that a proper investigation is conducted that determines the actual root causes of the incident
  • Sharing the results of investigations so that other industry participants and regulators can learn from the experience and assess their own exposures and risks to a similar incident
  • In the event of systemic or mechanical or operational failure, ensuring that other affected operators are aware and can take specific corrective actions on their fleet
  • More broadly, implement corrective actions as necessary across industry that arise from recommendations as a result of incident investigations
  • Facilitate a culture of continuous improvement and zero harm across the industry through transparency and proactive actions.

These important matters have been raised and discussed with the leaders of the industry and our Office looks forward to improvements in both transparency of incident information along with an improved safety record for the industry as a result.

Finally, large-scale renewable projects do not currently require a building permit as the structures do not correlate to the existing National Construction Code. Therefore, the regular checks and balances provided for by a building permit, that are in place when building say a 50-storey building, are currently not present when constructing a fleet of 280 metre tip height wind turbines. The rationale for excluding large-scale renewable power stations from needing a building permit needs to be re-assessed to determine whether a revision is appropriate.

9.2 Recommendations

9.2.1 Federal and state governments should continue to assess the outcomes of research into wind farms and health, including outcomes of the two NHMRC funded wind farm health studies and findings of the Independent Scientific Committee on Wind Turbines. Environmental standards, such as noise standards, should be monitored and reviewed in line with any recommendations arising from these programs.

9.2.2 Residents living in the vicinity of an operating or proposed wind farm that are experiencing health conditions should be encouraged to seek appropriate medical advice to properly diagnose and treat any health‑related conditions accordingly. GP’s receiving patients from wind farm locations should maintain an awareness of wind farm and health matters through bodies such as the Australian Medical Association and assist patients in understanding the need for appropriate testing, diagnosis and remedies for the presented health conditions or concerns.

9.2.3 Medical practitioners who identify potential causational links between a patient’s health condition and their proximity to the operation of a wind farm should report such incidences in an appropriate way to the relevant professional body, association and/or government agency.

9.2.4 Residents who are experiencing unacceptable noise levels from a wind farm should be encouraged to report such incidents to the wind farm operator, the compliance authority and/or the appropriate regulator to initiate the appropriate investigation and resolution of the noise incidents.

9.2.5 Residents lodging health-related complaints with the Office should assist with providing and sharing any evidence regarding their stated health conditions and any medical assessments that identify possible causality of the wind farm as a contributor to the health conditions.

9.2.6 State governments may need to identify and address potential overlapping regulations and/or legislation with regard to noise emissions from a wind farm and ensure clear procedures are in place to handle, investigate and resolve such complaints raised under the various avenues.

9.2.7 The large-scale wind and solar industry commit to being a leader in workplace safety and will share and be fully transparent about safety incidents, incident root causes and corrective actions. The CEC can play a major role in ensuring and facilitating such information sharing with industry participants and safety regulators.

9.2.8 In light of the risks involved in constructing and maintaining large-scale renewable infrastructure, state and federal governments should give due consideration to introduce a requirement for such projects to obtain a building permit.

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