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The future of working at height?

Rope access is a method of working at height without the need for scaffolding or cranes. Jason Dennis, director, Tekra (UK) Ltd, recently launched the concept in the Middle East and talks to Rupert Cornford about the challenges that lie ahead.

Dennis believes that with the increasing level of health and safety awareness on site, and a proven track record, rope access solutions will be popula
Dennis believes that with the increasing level of health and safety awareness on site, and a proven track record, rope access solutions will be popula

What is rope access and how did it develop?

The main method of application is for 'work positioning', which has been developed from the techniques of climbing and caving. The worker is suspended in a 'sit' harness, which is suspended by a working rope and, on a separate rope, a fall arrest system acts as a back-up safety rope.

It was developed in the 1980s in the UK. Scaffolding costs were soaring and vast towers of scaffold were being constructed in order to carry out mundane tasks. So someone just said: "I could throw my rope over that pipe, get up there and do the job." So the manager said: "You write me a risk assessment for that, tell me how you're going to do it, and I might let you do it." So that's what he did.

In the beginning, a couple of companies started to offer rope access as a service, and then they all clubbed together to form the governing body, IRATA, which stands for the Industrial Rope Access Trade Association. They publish a set of guidelines. And since then, the British Standards have been brought out in conjunction with the Health and Safety Executive; this is the 'bible'. It sets out a minimum standard of what we should do and then each company writes their own working procedure. The standards stipulate the necessary standard of PPE [personal protective equipment], from lifting standards, loading standards to what type your helmet needs to be. Every piece of equipment needs to be a certain standard. A normal 11mm rope, for example, will take between 2,700-3,000kg to break; and we use two of them. That reinforces how safe we work.

What are the advantages of rope access over more traditional methods of working at height?

Rope access is faster; it can be deployed quicker, a job can be accessed quicker and it can be dismantled quicker. Usually, on a big project, we are finished by the time the scaffold has been put up. So it's faster and also safer. We've got a proven track record of being the safest method of working at height - it is the only method of working at height where you can get the accident statistics from around the world. You can't get that for scaffold, for cradles, cherry pickers, ladders or anything else.

It's also cheaper; you've got cost savings on equipment, man hours, equipment rental. Usually when you're using scaffold you need a scaffolder and a technician/inspector; whereas we just use one person to do both jobs.

What are the typical applications of rope access for a building under construction?

On construction projects, we are generally taken on as a problem-solving solution, or we come in towards the end of the project when there has been cost overruns or unresolved issues. For example, if some air ducts weren't delivered on time, then we could come in and do that - the scaffold costs for such a job would be enormous.

But recently, some clients have said that they have had to build scaffold in a lift shaft, for example, and we can provide personnel to enter the lift shaft safely and carry out the works. If there is a requirement for the contractor's staff to also enter the lift shaft then we can provide what is called a 'tension netting system', which is a walk-on system. It can be used by anyone who is fall-arrest harness trained. It is a mobile platform that can be moved between levels; whereas scaffold has to be built from the ground up, the net can be inserted at any level you need.

What are the main challenges of bringing this to the local market?

It's not going to be easy. But we are very similar to all UK companies that come out here in that we try and bring a new standard of working. It's not just a case of coming out here, making a quick buck and then going home. It's about bringing the safety cause and safe methods of working at height. People often use traditional methods because they are unaware that there are others available. But when they realise that there is a safer method of working at height - they have to be clipped onto to a rope in order to work - then it will be adopted.

The hardest part will be finding the right personnel. The people we will need to recruit should already have a trade skill prior to us investing in their rope access training. This skill set can be one of a number of trades such as glaziers, welders or NDT technicians.

And with rope access, you have a supervisor on site at all times. In the first instance supervisory personnel will come from the UK; this is due to the length of time to attain this level of certification.

So are you planning to set up a dedicated training facility here?

We are looking at setting up a branch office in Jebel Ali Free Zone, where we will train local labour that fit our required skill sets. The rope access course is generally five days long.

I didn't fully grasp the potential of the market until I came here, but from what I've seen, it's going to have to happen really soon.

Atkins and Mott Macdonald were our initial targets here as we have done work with them in the UK, but what we've realised is that we should be aiming at the contractors or direct to the client in order for them to recommend this method of working at height to their contractors. We're trying to get it instigated at the top so it works its way down.

Do you think that enough investment is being made to improve on-site health and safety in the UAE?

I think contractors do invest. All the people you see working at height have harnesses on, but they are not always clipped on. I think the client has a social responsibility to provide PPE and I think generally speaking they do - but it is all about education. With rope access; it's not a case of 'shall I clip on', its 'I have to clip on', because if I don't, I can't go up and I can't go down.

I think in the UAE that legislation needs to come in; the companies are not being checked. I can see that they are trying to implement full health and safety here but it just needs more enforcement.

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