Consultant Joynes Pike Associates has teamed up with skilled industrial rope access specialist Total Access to provide rope access-trained engineers and technicians to a fast growing industry sector. The collaboration came about after the engineering firm was exploring how to expand its business a few years ago and met up with the access company on a difficult job in Grimsby.
The job involved surveying an awkward water tower, most of whose bulk was up in the air. Joynes Pike, a general consultancy based in the Midlands, was aware of the potential benefits to its business of abseiling: one of its engineers was a keen recreational rockclimber keen to exploit his knowledge professionally.
On the Grimsby job, the firm met up with Total Access which had been brought in by the client to offer advice. Total Access was already developing a reputation for training would-be exponents of rope access techniques as well as supplying bespoke tailored rope access systems.
The penny dropped that each could be useful to the other, at Grimsby and on subsequent work. They knew how to get people to difficult places, safely and economically; and we knew what those people had to do when they were there, says Joynes Pikes Don Brown.
Working together was a good idea, to everyones benefit, not least that of clients who could get a first class job done rapidly and with comparatively little cost.
The two companies have now collaborated for the best part of five years on a number of different projects, so successfully in fact that a formal joint venture is on the cards. We feel the way forward for the two companies is to get closer together, so the skills from each can be knitted together in the most effective way, Brown says.
Joynes Pike has learnt a great deal not just about rope access but about the kind of techniques which have to be developed to exploit the process to the maximum.
Rope access readily lends itself to a number of applications, such as bridge inspections, confined access investigation and for brickwork repair. In one example, a 1930s building in central London was in need of strengthening after many decades of atmospheric pollution caused substantial erosion to the brickwork.
A total of 3,000 individual bricks which showed signs of structural cracking were repaired with brick effect render after handheld power tools were used to scabble away deformed bricks. To strengthen the brickwork, remedial wall ties were inserted following the structural survey. For this job, it was considered a far cheaper and quicker option than erecting a large scaffolding gantry, with the added benefit that it saved the pedestrian walkway below from being obstructed.
Rope access techniques are not restricted to vertical descents. In the case of a bridge crossing a river, the soffits of the arches can be accessed with catenary wires fed along the crown of the arch, held in place with load-tested resin anchor bolts.
Surveys using this system require quite literally a hands-on approach as engineers clip to the wires with Cowstail clips and places their hands on the roof to move backwards and forwards. Alternative methods of access might be scaffolding founded on the river bed or barge mounted platforms, either one being a great deal more costly than rope access. Once installed, the access wires remain in place for subsequent periodic inspections.
Total Access provides formal training for the staff of Joynes Pike and others at a purpose built centre in Staffordshire. On the courses, trainees become intimately familiar with a 31m high pylon and a 9m high scaffold tower. Rope technicians are trained at three grades of skills by fully qualified professionals who have been through the tough training scheme themselves.
Novices embarking on the level one programme undertake a five day regime conducted by a level three supervisor, the course combining classroom explanations with practical training, as do level two and three although at much higher standards.
All the courses major on safety, in particular the fixing of ropes and the use of ropes in tandem for security, and include rescuing techniques, the functions of all the equipment, demonstrations of rigging techniques and rope manoeuvres such as transferring between lines and angled ascents.
Training director of Total Access, Graham Burnett says: We want trained, qualified people to be able to go to a site and use their skills safely. Our courses probably amount to the most onerous and comprehensive rope access training in the world.
The combination of ascending and descending using a rope coupled with engineering expertise is perhaps not as difficult as one might think, Burnett says.
With the help of a comfort chair to aid posture not to be confused with a Bosuns chair which is strapped directly to working wires and a tool harness around the waist, engineers and technicians can go about their work as effectively as on a scaffold.
Equipment does not have to be heavy to be effective. Ultrasonic thickness gauges for assessing the level of corrosion that has occurred within reinforced concrete these days are lightweight and portable, says Joynes Pikes Don Brown.
Other pieces of equipment such as laser distance meters used in bridge dimensional surveys and battery powered hand-held drills for obtaining core samples from concrete do not require their rope hung operators to be either highly muscled or learn new skills.
All that said, the majority of work carried out by Joynes Pike is strictly visual in nature. The person we put into place has to have the right engineering knowledge. It is easier to train an engineer in abseiling than it is to educate an abseiler about engineering, jokes Brown.
To use rope access safely, rope engineers lower themselves by feeding a working rope through a Petzl stop, an automatic locking devise attached to the sit harness which grips the rope securely when the safety lever is released; while also attached to a safety rope. Each rope tested to a strength of 2,200kg, the operative is safe in the knowledge the system will not fail, as a shunt clamp on the safety rope will lock up in the unlikely event of the working rope failing.
The rope engineers two ropes each divide near their tops in a Y-hang configuration, thereby allowing each rope to be secured from the top of the building at two separate points, giving a total of four points of contact with the structure.
Fixings are provided by load-tested eye bolts fixed into the top of the structure. To survey a larger area, a series of ropes are hung at regular intervals from the top of a building to inspect and carry out concrete repairs, for instance, with the rope engineer able to traverse horizontally between the sets of ropes using two Cowstail clips to lock them in place securely.
Industrial rope access has been around for nearly 10 years, but the practice initially failed to gain widespread approval.
In 1988, the government took a hand, announcing through the Department of Energy (industrial abseiling cut its teeth on production platforms) that rope access could be the way forward if training and the certification of equipment were brought into line with the requirements of other forms of access.
As a direct response, the Industrial Rope Access Trade Association (IRATA) was established to regulate rope access with specific emphasis on assessing the training of its members, such as Total Accesss course. Five auditors from the newly formed body collaborated with the Health & Safety Executive in producing guidelines outlining how roped access works should be carried out.
Author of the technical audit and managing director of Total Access Mick Smith says that regulation for the industry is paramount in importance. IRATA is all about control, it has to be that way. Every planned instance of rope access involves a site visit and a risk assessment to ascertain the possibility of using the technique.
This article has been produced for NCE by Barrett, Byrd Associates.