A rope access job might look dangerous, but it is in actual fact a very safe way of working. Laura King outlines some steps to check that contractors are competent and undertaking work properly.
Rope access solutions — whereby workers (often called technicians) use ropes to access difficult locations — is a quick, inconspicuous and often cost-effective way of working at height when compared to other solutions such as cradle or truck-mounted access or scaffolding. Jobs that might use rope access technicians are varied, but might include window cleaning, maintenance of tensile roof structures, bird proofing and painting.
As a technical profession, it can be hard for a layperson to know what is good practice. And for someone who does not fancy dangling from a rope as part of their nine-to-five, what might look like an incredibly dangerous situation can actually be quite safe.
Despite what you might think, rope access is a very safe industry and has a low occurrence of accidents of jobs of its nature. In 2017, three fatalities were reported by the Industrial Rope Access Trade Association’s (IRATA) members. Although tragic, this is nonetheless a relatively small number when compared to the UK’s 35 fatalities caused by falls from height (often caused by falls from ladders and through fragile surfaces) in 2017/18.
Working at height
By using ropes to access difficult locations above or below the ground, rope access solutions fall under working at height regulations — specifically the Work at Height Regulations 2005 (the regulations).
These regulations place a duty on employees and those that manage a building (such as facilities managers) to ensure that the activities are safe. This duty extends to those that contract-out rope access work.
The regulations require that:
work at height is properly organised
those involved are trained and competent
a risk assessment has been completed and the right equipment is selected
equipment is properly inspected to ensure that it is safe to use
any risks of working on or near fragile surfaces are managed.
How do you know that work is properly planned?
Any contractor undertaking work on site should provide a site-specific risk assessment and method statement for how they plan to undertake the work. These documents should include information such as:
the rope access systems that will be used for the proposed work
members of the team, their duties and level of competency
equipment that will be used — this should include both rope access equipment and personal protective equipment (PPE)
provisions for ensuring the anchor location for the ropes is secure
any public safety provisions, for example exclusion zones underneath the area of work
an accident response plan and procedure for rescue should this be required
a risk assessment that outlines hazards that could be anticipated and mitigating actions to remove, reduce and control risk.
This is on top of any responsibilities for managing contractors on site or in a workplace. For more information on managing contractors, see Croner-i topic Contractors and Suppliers.
How to tell if a worker is competent?
The regulations do not specify what comprises competence, but the HSE suggests that for more complex tasks, “existing training and certification schemes drawn up by trade associations and industry is one way to help demonstrate competence”.
Here, it is useful to introduce the various organisations that help steward rope access operations across the world.
IRATA is perhaps the most well-known. It was established in the UK in the 1980s to help solve maintenance challenges in the offshore oil and gas industry. It has since grown, with over 400 member companies conducting work across multiple industries and has 100,000 certified rope access technicians worldwide.
Technicians are trained to levels one, two or three, with one being an operator who mostly uses rigging that has already been set up. A level two operative is able to set up rigging and also rescue others in more complex situations or environments. A level three can take overall responsibility for other personnel and jobs. An operative’s certification last for three years, after which time the technician should be recertified. For technicians that want to progress to a higher level, candidates have to pass the relevant assessment as well as amass of at least 1000 hours on the ropes.
All technicians are required to abide by the IRATA Code of Conduct which specifies how work should be conducted and also states that there should be proper supervision of the workplace. This means that there needs to be at least two competent and trained workers on site, with at least one team member acting as a supervisor — which in the case of IRATA is a level three technician.
Certified IRATA technicians will be supplied with a unique IRATA number and issued a card which should be carried on site, as well as a certificate which should be available on request.
SPRAT and SOFT
There are also other organisations, such as the Society of Professional Rope Access Technicians (SPRAT) and SOFT. SPRAT is more widely known in America and also certifies its members to three levels: Technician Level I, II and III. A Level I technician should always be supervised by a Level II or III. SOFT is predominantly used in Scandinavia for the oil and gas industry.
The ISO standard that covers rope access work is ISO 22846: Personal Equipment for Protection Against Falls — Rope Access Systems (Parts 1 and 2). The guidance was initially based on British Standard BS 7965, which in itself was originally based on much of the IRATA Guidelines.
Technicians can also be trained under this standard, although this route for qualification tends to be used where an organisation wants to add in-house capability for very specific environments. Generally, contractors would be expected to hold certification that allows them to tackle multiple situations, such as the IRATA qualification.
How to make sure equipment is safe
Under the Lifting Operations and Lifting Equipment Regulations 1998 (LOLER), all equipment used for lifting persons (such as the ropes and harnesses used by rope access technicians) need to be examined every six months. This has to be done by a competent person and a “thorough inspection” report should be provided. In addition, the Certificate of Conformity (this is supplied with the product when it is first purchased) should be kept while the equipment is in use.
Contractors should state that their equipment conforms with these regulations, and both the thorough inspection report and certificate should be readily available if required.
LOLER is not the only piece of legislation covering work equipment. Other regulations which also require that equipment is both inspected and in good repair include the Work at Height Regulations 2005, Personal Protective Equipment at Work Regulations 1992 and Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 (MHSWR).
Rope access work falls under the Work at Height Regulations 2005 and as such should be planned, properly supervised and conducted by competent persons.
A site-specific method statement and risk assessment should be provided before any work commences.
Certification schemes such as IRATA are a good way to check the competency of contractors undertaking work on site. For any job, there should be a minimum of two technicians and one of these should be a supervisor who, in most cases, has the highest level of qualification.
Work equipment is covered under LOLER. Thorough inspection reports should be available on request.
Last reviewed 12 February 2019