NMCC ensures wind power students are fit

Posted July 16, 2010, at 2:09 a.m.
Last modified Jan. 29, 2011, at 11:54 a.m.

PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — Wind turbines are still relatively new to Aroostook County, and so is the work of those who are trained to maintain and repair them. While maintenance and repair sometimes can be done by working on the control box inside the turbine, in many instances crews actually have to climb the massive tower to do their work.

In 2008, Northern Maine Community College launched a first-of-its-kind program in New England geared toward training wind power technicians to operate, maintain and repair wind turbine generators. Now, it has partnered with a local physical therapy clinic to make sure that students enrolled in the program are fit for duty.

Working side-by-side with County Physical Therapy, campus officials have instituted a program to ensure wind power technology students are prepared for and capable of undertaking the rigorous work that is necessary for their future profession. Climbing a 250-foot wind turbine is an essential part of the curriculum for students in the program, so NMCC officials turned to CPT to develop and conduct assessments on students in the program to determine whether they can meet the requirements necessary to do the job safely and efficiently.

“These students are going into a field where they will be required to climb a turbine that is hundreds of feet up in the air,” Paul Marquis, vice president of clinical operations and a physical therapist at CPT, explained earlier this week. “They also will have to carry equipment and things up with them to maintain and repair that turbine, and they will be working very high up. They will need to be strong enough and they also will need to be able to work at that height without passing out or having some other medical or related problem. They have to be very fit.”

Marquis said that he worked with Adam Simoes, director of industrial rehabilitation and an occupational therapist at CPT, to help develop a series of tests to gauge the physical abilities of the students in the program. The CPT officials received help from Dr. William Egeler, NMCC dean of students.

Last year, Egeler began to research what other wind power technology programs in the country were doing to ensure students were physically able to take part in their selected field. He discovered that others were leaving the screening of the physical ability of the student to prospective employers as a pre-employment requirement after they had graduated. Egeler then turned to standards set by the U.S. Department of Labor for wind power technicians. It was at that point that CPT was brought into the fold as a partner to develop and conduct the actual assessment on the students to determine whether they could meet the requirements.

Egeler said that NMCC wanted to ensure that current and future students in the program wouldn’t hurt themselves or endanger fellow students because they were not as fit as they should be.

Marquis said that CPT was very receptive to working with NMCC when first approached by college officials.

“NMCC approached us about this, and they have really pioneered this program,” Marquis said. “I don’t think there is any program around with this preventative piece in it. It is really unique.”

As part of the 30- to 40-minute evaluation, Marquis said, CPT workers monitor each student’s heart rate as they perform a 50-step climbing test on a machine that simulates a ladder climb. They also undergo a 55-pound two-hand carry and a 33-inch step-up exercise.

The final test is a vertebral artery test, which determines whether the student suffers from vertigo.

Most of the tasks are performed while the student is in a harness and while wearing gloves to simulate the actual work environment.

To make sure that the evaluation was as appropriate and thorough as possible, Marquis and Simoes actually climbed the turbine at the University of Maine at Presque Isle with several NMCC wind power technology students to get a feel of it, taking measurements and photographs along the way.

“We noticed right then that three or four students who were climbing with us were not fit or strong enough,” he said.

In addition to creating and conducting the assessments, CPT has also signed on to develop four-week training programs for any prospective NMCC wind power technology students who don’t pass the initial screening. The customized programs will be designed to help the individual student in areas where they need assistance, with the goal of helping them pass the assessment on the second attempt.

Marquis said CPT started offering the physical assessment last month, with more than five students tested so far. The college is preparing to welcome its second entering class of students into the program this fall, and Marquis said that CPT expects to see 20 or 25 students come in to take the assessment by September.

Jared LeBlond, 18, of New Sharon is one of the students who will start the program in the fall. He recently completed his physical assessment.

LeBlond said he thought it was a good idea to determine if he was fit enough to handle what he will need to do in the program and in his future career.

He also thought it was a good introduction to the type of work that will be required of him during turbine climbs.

“The more experience we have as students the better,” said LeBlond.

Marquis said CPT has received “excellent feedback” from students who have undergone the evaluation.

“Everyone has said that it has given them a good sense of what to expect in the field,” he said. “This is really a win-win situation for everyone involved.”