Safe, Practical, Professional Rope Access

Sometimes perceived as a daredevil's field, it surpasses other access options when used as a system by trained personnel.

MAINTENANCE and inspection of the sloping, 600-foot face of Hoover Dam is not a task that can be accomplished in a great many ways. In fact, engineers from the Bureau of Reclamation perform this task using similar (albeit more modern!) equipment and techniques to those used during construction of the dam in the early 1900s: Rope access.

Rope access is among the oldest and most refined systems used by man to accomplish difficult tasks in hard-to-reach places. These techniques and equipment, developed over eons by explorers and adventurers who traveled from the high seas to the high peaks, and to the deepest, darkest recesses of the earth, have been refined to meet modern work environments. Today, professionals use rope-access techniques from a variety of platforms including natural features, industrial plants, manufacturing facilities, oil platforms, structures, buildings, and even aircraft.

Rope access in its most basic forms has been commonly used--and occasionally misapplied--in the U.S. marketplace for more than 50 years. When utilized by trained professionals, rope access techniques can increase safety, efficiency, and cost effectiveness of a job over more traditional methods such as scaffolding, cranes, and powered platforms. Rope access is sometimes perceived as a daredevil's field, a sort of last resort for accessing work. In fact, rope access, when used as a system by trained personnel, is safer than other access options. To date, the rope access trades have maintained an excellent safety record, with 7,500,000 man hours expended with zero lost-time accidents working on ropes.

Rope access should not be confused with the practice known in the United States as "Controlled Descent." Controlled descent is a term that has been occasionally applied to systems used by the scaffold industry, as well as in the (now defunct) ANSI A39 standard on window cleaning. The term also is used in the present ANSI I-14 window cleaning standard. This term refers simply to the act of descent on rope for the purpose of doing work.

As a practice, rope access differs from this common perception of controlled descent in that rope access is a complete system of work. Properly planned and executed, it incorporates a job safety analysis, an access permit, and specially trained and certified personnel.

Advantages of Rope Access

  • Rope access is safe. Certified, rope-access technicians hold an unparalleled safety record.
  • Rope access is versatile. Rope access is effective in virtually any environment, from urban to mountain, confined space to open-frame construction.
  • Rope access is efficient. Rope access systems are fast to install and de-rig, resulting in less exposure and less downtime.
  • Rope access is economical. Rope access allows for smaller work teams, less equipment, and faster completion, resulting in lower costs.

  • Job Safety Analysis
  • The Job Safety Analysis (JSA) is a common method used by both government and private industry to identify, analyze, and record job requirements, to identify safety and health hazards, and to determine ways to reduce or eliminate workplace hazards and risks.

    In the case of a job site where rope access is being considered as a means of work, the JSA takes into consideration the various rope access alternatives and their respective access advantages and hazards. In particular, attention is given to the compatibility of rope access to the type of work.

  • Access Permit
  • The aforementioned JSA is really part of a larger document known as an Access Permit. Because of the unique nature of rope access, the access permit is developed separately from the JSA. This permit, created by the employer, is quite similar to the confined space permitting process. The key safety objectives that an Access Permit takes into consideration include:
    1) the rope access methods used for the proposed work,
    2) members of the work team (listed by name) and their duties,
    3) rope access equipment used for the work,
    4) hazards associated with the work,
    5) use of appropriate personal protective equipment,
    6) provisions for providing security to the anchor,
    7) public safety provisions, and
    8) rescue considerations, including self-rescue, partner rescue, and means to summon third-party rescue if necessary.

    Special Training, Certified Personnel
    Modern rope access is a unique type of work. For maximum safety, personnel must be trained in appropriate equipment and techniques, as well as regulatory considerations specific to the U.S. regulatory environment.

    The Society of Professional Rope Access Technicians (SPRAT) is a trade association that facilitates standardization, safe practices, and certification of personnel in the United States. Within the SPRAT system, there are three different levels of certification, each requiring demonstration of skills, experience, and knowledge to varying degrees.

    Steven Beason, chairman of SPRAT?s Regulatory Committee, notes, "The regulatory environment in the USA is unlike any other. Learning to follow the rules and do the job safely requires special training."

    Is Rope Access Right for You?
    Rope access is not necessarily the answer for every job, but for many it offers a quick, economical, and safe solution to completing a task. Some companies, such as the Bureau of Reclamation, use rope access frequently enough that it is cost effective to maintain rope access capabilities in-house on a continuing basis. For others, contracting services from a third party is a better solution.

    Who Uses Rope Access?

  • Structural and civil engineers
  • Building inspectors
  • Construction workers
  • Maintenance personnel
  • Theatrical and stage riggers
  • Tower workers and linemen
  • Geologists and geotechnical engineers
  • When it comes to use of rope access methods for structural inspections and investigations, the benefits are readily apparent. Rope access methodology increases public safety by enabling personnel to quickly and efficiently carry out critical façade and structural inspections. This less-intrusive, lower-cost, more-effective solution means inspections can be done more frequently and effectively, resulting in fewer (and more quickly found) problems.

    Vertical Access, LLC, a rope access contract company headquartered in Ithaca, N.Y., provides specialized building inspections and condition reports for architects, engineers, and conservators. "Compared to the expense of conventional means of access, [rope access] can provide a low-cost solution to planning for building repairs and maintenance," Vertical Access founder Kent Diebolt emphasizes. "Due to the mobility and flexibility of its lightweight rigging, Vertical Access can also increase the sample size and frequency of observations compared to swing stage set-up and inspection time."

    Examples of the firm's recent work include the Philadelphia City Hall, inspection work on piers of the Castleton Bridge in Castleton, N.Y., inspection of the 7-story, stainless steel spire atop the 77-story Chrysler Building in Manhattan, and the Edison Monument in Edison, N.J.

    This article originally appeared in the July 2004 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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