Currently approximately 1000 MW offshore wind capacity is either in operation or under construction in the Netherlands. With the designation of three wind farm zones where new wind farms can be developed, the Dutch government aims for a further increase of offshore wind power towards 4,450 MW in 2023. Despite the increasing importance of wind energy, the legal position of the employees working at offshore wind farms is not yet regulated. In particular there are no specific rules regulating working time at offshore wind farms.
Dutch working time legislation
In the Netherlands regulations on working time have been laid down in the Working Hours Act and Working Hours Decree. This legislation is based on the European Working Time Directive and implements its provisions. The Working Hours Act provides general regulations on working time.
The legislator has, however, recognised the need of certain sectors for alternative working times. The Working Hours Decree allows derogation from the general regulations in various sectors, e.g. offshore mining, permitting a maximum of 14 shifts in 28 days; the ‘two weeks on, two weeks off regime’. Even though the activities of the employees at offshore wind farms are similar to the activities in the offshore mining sector, the Working Hours Decree has not yet been extended to work at offshore wind farms. Nevertheless, the Dutch government allows offshore wind farms to use the working hour scheme of the offshore mining sector. The offshore wind sector has, however, indicated preference to a more far-reaching scheme than ‘the two weeks on, two weeks off regime’, which should allow employees to work on the basis of a ‘four weeks on, four weeks off regime’. In 2014/2015 a pilot was initiated to evaluate the desirability of extending the Working Hours Decree with regulations for offshore wind farms. A decision based on the outcome of the pilot scheme is expected later this year.
Solutions for offshore wind farms
In light of the aforementioned plans of the Dutch government to increase offshore wind capacity, and maintenance of the existing wind farms, there is a need for specific regulations on working times applying to offshore wind farms. Even though it is to be expected that the Working Hours Decree will be amended in respect of working hours applying at offshore wind farms following the above-mentioned pilot scheme, the legislative process may take several years.
Currently, without having specific legislation about the working hours applying at offshore wind farms, the most straightforward way organising maintenance and construction work at offshore wind farms sites would be to travel back and forth between the shore and the offshore site. This set up allows the employees to enjoy rest time onshore. However, pursuant to Dutch law the time spent travelling between the shore and the site is considered to be working time. Pursuant to this set up, working time spent on actual productive work is limited, and depends on the distance from the shore and the means of transportation. The downside of this approach is the cost of transportation which often takes place by helicopter and which may stress commuters and affect their productivity.
These factors play a smaller role in another currently used method: when the workers spend longer periods of time on a so-called service operation vessel. The daily and weekly rest can take place on board of a hotel boat or the vessel where the work is performed, for instance in a designated rest area. Because the Working Hours Act only provides that employees should enjoy rest of a certain duration, but does not specify where this rest should be enjoyed, such a vessel can be used in order to reduce the travelling time and increase the effective working time at offshore wind farms. Although not legislated, the Dutch government allows for a schedule of two weeks on board followed by two weeks onshore, as in the case of mining sector regulations. The daily as well as the weekly rest is enjoyed on board of the vessel. Until there are specific regulations regarding working time at offshore wind farms, these schedules will offer an alternative, help lower the cost of commuting and maximize efficiency.