Clever technology is forever loosening humanity’s grip on mundane, repetitive, high-volume tasks. Immune to boredom, gadgets are ideally suited to this role, often providing insight that we simply can’t match with our five basic senses. But when it comes to understanding structural condition, there remain few better tools than the Mark I eyeball. There is, of course, a world of difference between looking and seeing so, to deliver real value, the eye has to be connected to a perceptive mind, stuffed with knowledge accrued through theoretical study and real-world experience.

Getting the eye to a useful viewpoint can bring with it all sorts of difficulties. Overcoming these might be relatively straightforward when it comes to track inspections – subject to protection being set up that safeguards the patrolman from trains – but what if the eye needs to check out something with a significant vertical component?

Scaffolding might remain the to-go solution for longer-term projects, lifting large workgroups to within touching distance of a structure; mobile platforms are becoming ever-more ingenious and far-reaching. There is, though, nothing to rival rope access from a cost, simplicity and time perspective when it comes to the basics: looking at something, hitting it with a hammer, removing vegetation or applying a lick of paint.

Formalised industrial rope access has not been around as long as you might think. Its emergence in the UK goes back only to the exploitation of North Sea gas and oil fields in the 70s and 80s.
To fulfil cleaning and maintenance needs on their platforms, companies turned to the potholing
and rock climbing fraternity which was benefiting from a new generation of durable, lightweight equipment. What we know today as rope access is an evolution of those recreational pastimes, with additional safety measures bolted on.

Get a grip

School friends Jon Lawton and Dave Hesleden, directors today of Span Engineering, have been part of that evolution from its early days. They’d started climbing in their teens and were looking for part-time work to sit alongside their engineering studies at Sheffield Poly in the late-80s. The traditional option was bar work, but rope access firms – of which there were only a few – were crying out for good people. “If you were a climber and you had any kind of nous about you, you just had to knock on the door and they said ‘Right, when can you start?’,” recalls Jon.

Initially, there was a huge amount of money sloshing around, reflecting the Eighties boom- time culture. A rope access team might do in a few days what previously had taken weeks with
a scaffold, saving infrastructure owners a small fortune when it came to routine inspections and maintenance. And they were happy to share the financial benefit. Then rates fell through the floor as ‘blokes with ropes’ offered their services to earn a bit of cash for their next climbing adventure. Fortunately, these opportunists came and went, but their presence underlined the industry’s need for a formalised structure to drive up competence and prevent reputational damage.

Enter IRATA (Industrial Rope Access Trade Association), the formation of which was driven by a handful of leading oil and gas companies in the late Eighties. It is now recognised as the global authority on industrial rope access, developing a code of practice and training regime that underpins a framework of techniques in use at the front line. In 2013, its membership of 277 companies employed 12,039 qualified rope access technicians, the split being broadly 50/50 between onshore and offshore. Over the years, around 73,000 people have been through its training programme.

IRATA’s intervention has turned the safety regulator’s perception of rope access through 180 degrees. The anxious furrowed brows of 30 years ago are gone; it now enjoys a preferred position in the risk hierarchy thanks to an unrivalled safety record. Worldwide, despite seven million man-hours being worked on ropes in 2013, the industry reported just 49 injuries, although there was a rare fatality in South Korea. The UK accident rate is about one-fifth that of comparable industries.

FarNorthLine [online]

Know the ropes

Beyond the obvious physical demands, rope access workers have to meet the challenge of a training and certification regime comprising three technical grades, the course for each lasting five days including a full day of assessment:

  • Level 1 qualifies you to work at height under close supervision.
  • Level 2 introduces deeper knowledge but a little more independence.
  • Level 3 brings with it the responsibility to plan and supervise work activities, have an extensive knowledge of advanced rigging and rescue techniques as well as holding current first aid certification.

Due to the obvious risks, every piece of equipment has to be secured to the technician or kept in sealed bags.

To step up a grade, technicians must have experience across a variety of situations over a period of at least one year, involving 1,000+ hours on the ropes. Competency is reassessed every three years. It’s a process that is necessarily gruelling and success is far from assured. “You’re putting someone in a potentially very dangerous position,” explains Dave. “And, if they’re not comfortable with that environment, they can put other people at risk. There is no room for error.”

Although rope has been around since prehistoric times, it underwent a transformation in the 1950s thanks to improvements in materials and manufacturing. There are two basic types:

  • Dynamic rope, compliant with mountaineering standard EN 892, can arrest a free fall whilst limiting shock load as a result of its ability to stretch. In other words, it is used to stop a climber from hitting the ground.
  • Semi-static rope, meeting EN 1891 Type A, is used for practically all industrial applications including rail. It is low-stretch, typically 10-11mm in diameter and comprises a kernmantle construction with a core of synthetic fibres – providing about 70% of the strength – and a braided outer sheath.

Beyond this, the kit of rope access parts is too extensive to describe but the key elements are a full-body harness, carabiners (lockable), ascending devices, auto-lock descenders, lanyards (for attaching work tools to the harness), edge protectors (reducing/preventing wear on the rope when it runs over an edge) and anchors (to attach ropes/wires to appropriate points on the structure). All of this has to be inspected and maintained in accordance with the HSE’s Lifting Operations and Lifting Equipment (LOLER) Regulations 1998.

The fundamental principle of rope access is that the technician must be clipped to two independent systems at all times, one taking their weight for work positioning (primary) and the other for fall arrest (back-up). If they ever find themselves attached only to one system, something has gone badly wrong.

In suspense

Rail’s association with rope access dates back to the early Nineties, although the workforce numbers involved since have been constrained by the industry’s relatively onerous certification requirements. Jon Lawton and Dave Hesleden’s first assignment came in 1991, up in the roof space of an extension to Liverpool Street Station, installing dozens of filigree panels which had been…let’s say overlooked by the contractor.

Their bread-and-butter work now is bridge examination. Here, the classic image of rope access – HV-clad adventurers suspended against a vertical face – represents only a small part of what is demanded. Whilst pier-ends and spandrels can generally be reached by straightforward abseiling, getting hands-on with all the other parts of a structure (as required for Detailed Examinations, usually every six years) often involves highly complex rigs, with ropes and steel wires wrapped right around a span. And there can be cluttered confined spaces to access – pier legs, bearing chambers and the like.

PageBG [online]

Establishing suitable anchor points comes with its own challenges. Take, for example, the examination of a long arch soffit over water. This might initially entail working from an inflatable boat, reaching up the pier face to drill a hole for a temporary anchor bolt, clipping in and then repeating the process to ‘aid climb’ up to and across the arch. Once at the crown, stainless steel studs would then be fixed in resin, allowing a system of tensioned steel wires to be installed which technicians could clip into and slide along. All those anchor points have to be subjected to axial pull-out tests. The track offers a reliable anchorage and is often used as such, but clearly it is only available during possessions.

Imaginative rigging, sequencing and methodology can lessen or eliminate any work impact on the passage of trains – a factor that significantly influences Jon and Dave’s approach to planning. Beyond the obvious benefit, this improves examination quality by facilitating daylight working as well as extending the hours available and reducing fatigue. Despite efforts to improve efficiency, possessions continue to time-squeeze activities perceived as less important, particularly in heavily trafficked areas.

Another driver is the experience of the people taking part. The tendency now is for consultancies to train some of their staff engineers to IRATA Level 1 grade, enabling them to work on the ropes under supervision. The insight to be gleaned can greatly assist their subsequent assessment of the structure’s condition but can change both the choice of equipment and the rescue plan which must be put in place to deal with anyone who becomes incapacitated.

Jon and Dave are unusual in having both attained STE4 qualifications – as required under Network Rail standard NR/SP/CTM/107 to examine structures – and IRATA Level 3. This happy consequence of their climbing interest and engineering background puts them in a group probably numbering less than 100 across the railway industry. It means that a consultancy firm with a work bank of structures to examine might choose to fulfil 99% in-house, but ask a specialist company to handle the remainder because of the exceptional difficulties posed. Jon and Dave’s experience tends to attract more demanding jobs on larger, unique structures.

Not for everyone

Human fallibility manifests itself in every industry from time to time; there is no way to disable it. Railway history is littered with tragedies caused by folk cocking up. But in this context your mind is brought into sharp focus by a photo of Jon and Dave inspecting the 52 metre high mast to which the aircraft warning lights are fixed above Hong Kong’s 72-storey Bank of China Tower. There can be no fallibility – absolutely none at all – when you’re 1,205 feet in the air, roped onto some steelwork the diameter of a post box with helicopters flying below you.

You might expect then that the health and safety regime would have become stiflingly prescriptive. Oddly, though, it hasn’t. Talk through the challenges that confront a rope access technician – especially those in supervisory roles – and it soon becomes clear how reliant the process is on things that can’t be quantified: experience and judgement calls, team dynamics, the willingness to check each other’s work. That’s not to say there aren’t procedures and paperwork, but accepted practice empowers those with proven skills to make decisions and adapt plans to meet emerging conditions. It’s what makes rope access work. If you think that runs counter to conventional wisdom, how do you explain those enviable accident statistics?

As yet, there isn’t a gadget that sees what humans can, hanging from ropes. In some respect that’s unfortunate, not least because circuit boards are dispensable and have no sense of fear. That’s a real issue. A few people go on rope access courses and find they can’t hack it; others pass the training but get too immersed in the equipment mechanics to do meaningful work.

Even Jon and Dave admit to occasional twitches when they peer over parapets from a ludicrous height. But that’s how it should be: if you’re intent on defying gravity, you’ve got to have a respect for it.

Photos courtesy of Span Engineering