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Learning the ropes

The growing use of rope access is down to cost, a solid and improving set of safety guidelines and the sector's current high profile. Mike Walter reports.

An increasing number of construction professionals are coming to the conclusion that rope access is a truly viable means of carrying out structural inspection and repair.

The number of contracts employing abseiling techniques continues to grow and consultants' staff are learning to abseil to allow them to see work in progress at first hand.

Statistics published by the Industrial Rope Access Trade Association (IRATA) show that its members spent over one million hours on the end of ropes in 1998. This is an increase of over 40% on the year before and new figures soon to be published should confirm the dramatic increase in use of abseil access in the UK.

Chesterfield-based rope access company CAN confirms that the perception of rope access among construction professionals has taken a turn for the better. Managing director Bill Wintrip says: 'In the last three years, rope access has become much more accepted in the construction industry. Seeing abseil personnel on such high profile contracts as the London Eye has helped make engineers realise that rope access is used not just for window cleaning.'

Abseil access provides a cost effective and time saving alternative to traditional methods such as scaffolding, according to Hampshire based company ABTEC. The firm is currently working to install cable ducts and lighting on a newly widened road bridge in south west England. Director Steve Barrie says:

'The inside of the bridge had recently been painted and using scaffolding would have run the risk of damaging the paintwork. Using rope access we installed brackets and slid the pipework in. Scaffolding would have taken three times as long and cost three times as much.'

Training centres around the country provide abseil access personnel with the skills needed to carry out safe and effective inspection and maintenance at height. They report that in the last few years there has been a substantial increase in the number of consulting engineers they train to a competent standard in abseil access.

Reach UK is a joint venture company combining training provider Total Access with consultant Joynes Pike Associates.

Reach UK associate Paul Jacklin says: 'We have recently trained a good number of consulting engineers to IRATA Level One standard in abseil access. They are using rope access as a means of getting to the worksite to give specialist advice and are accompanied by fully trained rope access technicians.'

IRATA has guidelines which detail the safe and practical methods of carrying out abseil access. These guidelines are seen by many individuals and companies in the sector as the industry standard to follow. In an attempt to improve standards even further and to give abseil access additional credibility, IRATA has set itself three goals.

First of all IRATA has submitted its guidelines to the British Standards Institution which it is hoped will produce a new code of practice for abseil access in the future. Secondly, IRATA is to publish international guidelines for the first time. Currently there are in excess of 6,000 individuals trained to IRATA standards all over the world and as many as 2,000 extra people are likely to be trained this year alone.The new international guidelines will take into account local regulations in different countries.

Finally it is hoped IRATA's guidelines will be used to form the basis of a best practice document which could be published by the International Standards Organisation in the next couple of years.

Many in the industry believe that abseil access employers as well as individuals should be registered with IRATA to ensure safe working practices are followed on a contract. Some rope access companies are alarmed by the practice of others. High Rise Services director Ed Westgate says: 'Some companies which are not members of IRATA are jumping on the bandwagon by using IRATA-trained technicians. It is important that companies are themselves members as it is up to them to control the supervision and management of contracts.'

Member companies are asked to submit an annual safety return to IRATA so that the sector record can be reviewed. Last year the reporting procedure was changed and now asks for a more detailed account of the frequency and type of incidents that occur. Members are also asked to log the number of hours technicians spend on a rope, details of the jobs they were involved in and the number of technicians on site.

IRATA executive committee member Graham Burnett says: 'We introduced the new procedure to identify any areas of abseil access work which seem to cause more incident or injury.

This way we can flag up certain areas where safety procedures may need to be reviewed.'

The most recent accident statistics point to 24 dangerous occurrences or notifiable accidents in one year, which translates to one such incident for every 42,000 hours on a rope. As an industry sector, abseil access has a very good safety record but incidents do happen from which lessons can be learned.

Last autumn one of a three strong team working on a gas turbine exhaust support framework slackened both his main and back-up ropes which then made contact with the surface of one of the turbine exhausts, causing the ropes partially to melt. IRATA published an account of the incident on its website to remind other abseil access companies and technicians of the potential dangers involved in using rope access in certain situations.

New equipment which aims to make the access technician's job safer and more comfortable are coming on to the market. Equipment manufacturer Petzl has launched a self-braking descender which features an 'antipanic' function. If the operator grabs too firmly on the handle of the I'D D20 descender, the device will lock the rope firmly.

The manufacturer has also produced a lightweight harness with a rigid seat which does away with shoulder straps and chest attachment points. The seat provides the abseil access technician a greater degree of comfort when working at height.

Lyon Equipment from Cumbria distributes Petzl equipment.

Chris Degazon from Lyon says: 'Most of the equipment used for abseil access has been adapted from gear used for caving and climbing but now there is a move towards equipment being designed for engineers for the job in hand.'

While workload for the sector increases so does the number of companies chasing work. Some smaller abseil access companies employ technicians on a part time basis only, while others have a small pool of full timers and bring in others when they are needed.

Edinburgh based Web Access Engineering says maintaining a large, full time pool of trained technicians gives them the skills base it needs when it wins major projects. Marketing manager Paddy Duncan says: 'We employ around 40 rope access technicians all year round. This gives our clients an advantage in that they get a complete solution without us having to subcontract labour.'

The company recently used rope access to dismantle a commentary box at Hibernian Football Club's ground and replace it with a new one. The box forms part of a main stand and is suspended above spectator's seats which would have made scaffolding the area difficult. A ground-based access solution may also have damaged the playing surface next to the stand.

The box was lowered in sections using a combination of rope access and rigging techniques and the new box, made up of lightweight composite materials, was fitted section by section by the rope access technicians.

Abseil access as a sector tends to be affected by a seasonal variation in workload. 'We tend to receive a flurry of enquiries towards the end of each financial year, ' says Reach UK's Paul Jacklin.

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