One of the things that I’ve noticed is the use of ropes in our industry. Or more accurately the lack of. Many companies and carriers look at the use of ropes by construction crews as a last resort to accessing installations. I think one of the reasons for this is lack of familiarity.
Workers and companies will often look at every possible method of doing work at heights before ropes are considered. This year alone, there have been more than 190 fatalities on ladders. 48 related to aerial lifts. And consistently throughout the decades, there have been 0 fatalities on ropes.
Rope access in construction made its official debut in England in the mid to late 80’s. Before this, climbers were beginning to be hired to work on dam projects in France. They brought with them a knowledge of ropes and being at height. After increased concerns with worker safety on oil rigs in England, a group of construction companies got together and formed IRATA. The Industrial Rope Access Technicians Association.
These companies, with the supervision of England’s governing bodies, creating guidelines for accessing work at heights. The first true two-rope system for access was created. Workers went through rigorous training. The standards they created are still upheld today. IRATA workers can be found on towers, bridges, dams, oil rigs, and any other form of construction that requires either a technician be at heights or in confined spaces. Now, with an international workforce of over 140,000 that spans the globe, they still proudly hold a zero-fatality work record since their initial inception over 30 years ago.
While speaking to IRATA instructors, I realized that there is a lot we can borrow for our industry. In a typical IRATA work environment, ropes are the go-to. Only when there are situations where ropes cannot be used do they look at alternatives. Very much the opposite of our approach.
A great example is building and water tank installations where the sectors are mounted on the vertical faces. Typically, we will look at an aerial lift as our first option. In truth, many of these installations can easily be accessed by ropes from the rooftop. The advantage of using a rope is that the technician is 100% tied off before they even approach the edge.
The common use of ropes is not a fast transition. Part of the reason for the 0-fatality IRATA statistic is the amount of training each technician receives. The other factor is getting technicians comfortable on ropes. I think in this industry that would not be a huge hurdle. Everyone has been doing it the entire time without realizing it.
We regularly use a 6-foot safety lanyard and a positioner. A positioner is basically a small rope system: A rope with a small descender on it. A true two-rope system is just an extension of this. One rope with an ASAP acts as the safety lanyard. Another rope with a descender acts as the positioner.
The only difference is both the lanyard and the positioner would be tied off 100%. Some technicians are already easing into the concept without even realizing it. More and more requests for 5m positioner ropes are being made, and more people are becoming curious about using ascenders to climb their positioners.
I think as training expands and technicians begin to realize the advantage of rope systems, our industry will start to see less injuries and fatalities. But the harder transition will be for our industry as a whole to make sure that we stay current and continue to pursue our own advanced training so that we can better support our technicians.