A technician dangles from a building

Rope access technology

Have you got a head for heights? Join us as we hoist ourselves into the diverse and sometimes dangerous world of rope-access technicians.

Neil Wibrew is a former marine. Clearly not excited enough by this career choice, for the last nine years he's been a rope-access technician. Already a competent climber before setting up his own business, he also tapped into his experience in plumbing, building, scaffolding, civil engineering and diamond drilling, making him the go-to technician for high-rise problems.

There are, Wibrew says, plenty of others who want to swap their current careers for scaling tall buildings. He mentions a banker and a man who spent over a decade in a trumpet factory. There are also "brickies, roofies, sparkies...who want to adapt their trade". There are the adrenalin-seekers too, of course, but if they think it's going to be a glamour job, they can think again. This job isn't necessarily about scaling Big Ben or flying out to the Middle East; there is plenty of scraping "pigeon poo out of gutters", admits the former army man.

Like Wibrew, Carrie Bishop is at the top of her profession, working as a Level 3 supervisor and trainer. She is one of "something like 10 or 15 female Level 3s... On big construction sites I'm often the only woman, other than the occasional engineer, architect or surveyor".

Having started climbing as a teenager and discovered that offshore rope-access work meant you were very well paid by student standards, Bishop trained up for a stop-gap job. Some 16 years later, she's still stop-gapping. These days, she even trains specialists in other fields: "For an inspection of the Royal Albert Bridge at Plymouth, I trained two structural engineers to Level 1 so that they could be part of the team."

Where rope access began

"Assuming they've even heard of rope access," says Bishop, "most people's idea of it is abseiling."

It all started a little over 20 years ago on North Sea oil rigs. In that hostile environment, offshore oil and gas platforms needed new expertise. Their platforms required a great deal of cleaning and maintenance, but the traditional scaffolding and cranes were proving cumbersome. Thus mountaineers, cavers and dry-rock-climbers, with their new lightweight, heavy-duty, rubberised, nylon-coated ropes, were approached by some oil companies for an industrial solution. Small companies started up to meet demand and the rest is history.

IRATA (Industrial Rope Access Trade Association) is a large umbrella organisation providing standard training, codes of practice and health and safety for its rope-access worker members. IRATA now has over 240 members, says Roderick Dymott, the association's CEO, some of whom have carried out Big Ben and London Eye inspections. As well as taking care of emergency evacuation from the Eye, they "have had to take down a couple of Fathers for Justice [activists]", adds Dymott.

IRATA members are not just in the UK. Rope-access workers have been trained under IRATA guidelines in every country from eastern Europe to Asia, including Bulgaria, Lithuania, Iran and Korea.

IRATA's CEO is enthused by the beauty and simplicity of it all, and it's also far cheaper and faster than mobilising mechanised equipment: "arrive 9am, 9.10am start working", says Rod, and it leaves a "minimal environmental footprint".

Just what does the job entail?

The sorts of jobs that require rope-access workers are quite literally up and down. What is the attraction? Variety is one reason, and this is shown by some of the weird and wonderful job descriptions:

When a fat-saturated extraction duct caught fire in a fast-food restaurant, legislation was introduced to enforce the cleaning of extraction ducts every four years. Wibrew and his team were called in to descend the depths of one restaurant duct that hadn't been cleaned in over a decade. Expecting "the hanging gardens of fat", they instead found it had been baked dry.

Then there are the instance of what Wibrew describes as "extreme gardening": he has cleansed bridges of vegetation and saplings; removed plant life from Dover Castle's moat, using brush-cutters and a team of rope-access arborists; he has also devised a system of mowing a Seedum roof lawn for a Wildlife Trust visitor centre.

It could just be that London's Olympics bid success was tipped by the banners that Wibrew erected on the O2 Dome, which involved putting up a steel framework in freezing temperatures.

The meat and potatoes of the job could be said to be building maintenance, such as encircling the 19th century Savoy hotel with a safety net to catch its crumbling cornice, or training local window cleaners how to safely de-sand Bahrain's World Trade Centre, which rises to 240m.

For herself, Bishop can reel off another list of working highlights: fitting fire protection to the interior of lift shafts at Heathrow's Terminal 5; installing eyebolts in the atria of Lord Foster's 'Gherkin' conducting safety system maintenance on the London Eye; repairing brick flues inside the main chimney of Grain Power Station (at about 250m high, the tallest structure Bishop has worked on); hanging lamps in the atrium of the Bank of China headquarters in Beijing; painting the cables of the QE2 bridge at Dartford; cleaning the inside of grain silos at the old Guinness brewery in Park Royal; putting the roof on the Snow Dome at Milton Keynes.

The list, you may have gathered, goes on.

Getting a foothold

From the age of 18, anyone without acrophobia can train to become a rope-access worker. IRATA-certified courses last five days (four days' training and one day of assessment) and span three levels.

Broadly, the levels are as follows: Level 1 qualifies you to work at height, completing such tasks as window cleaning or bridge inspection and basic rescue under supervision; at Level 2 you gain a more advanced knowledge of legislation and can perform more complicated rigging and rescue. At Level 3, you are qualified to supervise others, rig complex ropes and possess an advanced knowledge of rescue techniques. To increase your IRATA level, you need to have worked for at least one year and 1,000 hours on the ropes. Skill levels are re-assessed every three years.

A risky business

It's one thing to talk about the highs and lows of rope-access work, but what about the sheer hazard of hanging from a rope at 828m in the air, as you could be on the Burj Khalifa, the world's tallest building?

"Everyone seems to think it's dangerous," says Wibrew, but the few fatalities he knows of were as a result of human error. And, frankly, if you're using electrical equipment at height and are not fully qualified to do so, "you only get it wrong once".

Carrie Bishop can't see what all the fuss is about: "There is a big difference between danger and risk. A risk is a potential danger, but by taking appropriate precautions you avoid danger, which is why I don't consider my job to be dangerous. Consequently I feel much safer hanging on ropes 20 floors up than I do 10ft up a ladder."

However, hand and eye sprains and strains do happen. Bishop elaborates that there can be "eye injuries from drilling or grinding, or hacking lumps out of yourself with sharp tools, pretty much the same as in any other manual job".

Bishop also describes one unforeseen hazard: "You have to be aware of what's going on around you. I was once almost set alight by a crane driver who threw his cigarette butt out of the cab of his tower crane above me. It wafted on the wind straight down the back of my harness between my shoulder blades. I was about 14 floors up at the time and couldn't work out why I could smell burning, until I realised it was me."

Then there are the jokers in residential flats who lean out of their windows with large pairs of scissors...

The weather can present a challenge too. In Dubai, at 45°C, you could be dealing with heat exhaustion or sunstroke. At the opposite end of the spectrum, there is wind chill factor and speed. "It's part of the risk assessment for the job," says Bishop, "when I worked on the QE2 Bridge, we had to check the weather forecast every evening – we only worked at night to avoid lane closures – partly to assess the risk of lightning strikes. We weren't allowed to even start the shift if the probability was too high."

But, statistically speaking, she says, "the most dangerous part of my day is probably the journey to work". Safety guidelines aside, Wibrew says he and his fellow ex-marines are pretty hardy characters. "Not getting shot at is a bit of a bonus," he smiles.

In suspense

What then would they consider high-risk environments? "Railway infrastructures are nice and dangerous with trains behind you," says Wibrew. He also describes being suspended over the sluice gate of a lock as "potentially quite hairy".

Bishop, meanwhile, cites confined spaces. "If you're hanging underground in an unlit tunnel ventilation shaft and the only exit is a small hatchway above you, if you become incapacitated, getting out is not as straightforward as descending off the side of a building.

"There is also a higher risk of becoming incapacitated than in a normal outdoor environment because of potential gas build-up and limited vision."

Then there is Suspension Syncope, which can be fatal. "From what I gather, it is only likely to be a problem when someone is totally motionless – unconscious or severely injured – on a rope for a period of time," explains Bishop. Wibrew expands on the condition, explaining that it can occur as a result of a fall into a harness with leg loops then restricting the flow of blood to the groin.

Normally, when oxygenated blood is not reaching the brain, fainting will keel the person over, causing the blood to re-circulate, but in a harness this does not happen. Nausea and headache are warning signs, but if the brain is starved of oxygen for more than four minutes it can result in coma, Wibrew says. However, he knows of no fatalities. He shows me a work seat, which helps take the weight off the legs and prevent Suspension Syncope.

Wibrew's company, Absen, also offers training courses. The in-house training area looks like a PE hall, equipped with ropes and scaffolds. There is a man slumped in one corner. He's a rescue dummy. Wibrew is going to give me a quick demo. "There's nothing we can't access," he says. 

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