Abseiling is a sport for thrill-seekers, and you see them abseiling down the sides of mountains and inside deep caves on ropes, but now also down the sides of tall buildings and other constructions. These are "commercial" abseilers – or industrial rope access technicians – who are being used more and more to access the outside of high-rise buildings for the purposes of investigating their condition up close and personal, cleaning windows, cleaning brickwork, painting, repairing stonework, brickwork, and concrete, and more. The difference between them and other tradesmen is not only that they have a wide range of skills, but they do it up to fifty or more storeys above the ground.
The trade association for industrial rope access technicians is IRATA, the Industrial Rope Access Trade Association, and it was created over 30 years ago in response to the specific need for inspection and maintenance of offshore oil platforms. IRATA has created operational solutions for the work-at-height and confined access sectors and has shown that its' procedures are more efficient and effective than many of the mechanised systems of access. After IRATA members had proved themselves offshore, it was quickly seen that there were many onshore applications as well. In the 21st century you now see IRATA members at work not only on iconic buildings but on high-rise constructions everywhere. Rope access is also used on natural formations such as rocks and cliffs.
Some of the famous constructions on which IRATA members have worked include Big Ben, Tower Bridge, The London Eye, Eiffel Tower, Hoover Dam, Canterbury Cathedral, Clifton Suspension Bridge, Forth Rail Bridge, and Sydney Opera House, to name just a few.
The work solutions that IRATA provided to the offshore oil industry proved to be so adaptable that the tasks that its members now carry out offshore are far more varied and substantial than the basic maintenance that was carried out twenty years ago. Such are the advantages that rope access offers that it can tackle jobs that other methods cannot.
Some of the modern buildings are of such a shape that they cannot be accessed by some other methods, and rope access is also much quicker than, say, scaffolding. It costs a lot less too. Many of the offshore companies around the world will now only employ IRATA member companies because of their unrivalled record of safety using the IRATA two rope fail-to-safe access method. Not only that, industrial rope access is environmentally friendly as it uses no invasive access equipment. The IRATA system has solved so many access problems around the world that it is now specified by major companies, administrations, and governments and that in turn has raised the profile of IRATA member companies and the work that they do.
Indeed, IRATA now has member companies on every continent and in 2017 recorded no less that 22 million working hours spent on ropes by rope access technicians working for IRATA member companies.
One of the main advantages of rope access is the safety and speed with which technicians can gain access to the places needed and into difficult positions to carry out the required tasks, usually with minimal impact on any other operations. A further major benefit is the huge reduction in man hours compared with, say, erecting and dismantling scaffolding. Not only that, the scaffolding itself can get in the way and prevent access to certain parts of the building if an inspection or other work is being carried out. There is also a reduction in the perceived level of risk when compared with other forms of access.
The major objective when carrying out rope access work is to work effectively with minimal incidents, accidents, or other dangerous occurrences. In order to ensure that this is the case and that a safe working system is in place at all times, every job has to have careful planning and a documented risk assessment.
The IRATA system of safe and responsible working requires adherence to a strict code of conduct, robust membership entry criteria, and regular audit of member companies. The tens of thousands of rope access technicians who have been trained are required to undergo re-training every three years. There must be an unrivalled level of site supervision and there are mandatory work procedures for every IRATA team.