Abseiling, or rope access, is not new. It has been used for maintenance on oil rigs for years, but its use in construction has been limited. Cautious about any previously unproven technique, contractors have been slow to acknowledge its advantages. However, in recent high-profile projects such as the Millennium Dome and the Eden Project, it proved highly effective.
Abseiling has several benefits. First, it can offer substantial savings. For hard-to-reach tasks of short duration, the time taken to erect and dismantle scaffolding can approach or exceed the duration of the actual work being carried out, whereas the set-up time for a team of access operatives is comparatively short.
Rope access firms also offer clients a single point of contact, providing access and contracting, which means that less manpower is needed, cutting the wage bill and the time needed to source manpower.
The cost of abseiling equipment is a fraction of that of scaffolding. Because it is much less bulky, transporting it is cheaper too. Finally, with little disruption at ground level, multiple tasks can, in theory, be carried out at different heights simultaneously.
As for safety, accident statistics involving falls from height on UK construction sites are sobering. Although risks cannot be eliminated, they can be minimised by using ropes instead of scaffolding where possible, as documented accident rates for rope access are lower.
The government's increasingly hard line over safety issues is more of a problem for scaffolders than abseilers.
The government’s increasingly hard line over safety issues is more a problem for scaffolders than abseilers
This is, in part, because most rope access companies belong to Industrial Rope Access Trade Association, whose unrivalled safety record is the result of strict codes of conduct. IRATA works closely with the Health and Safety Executive to formulate industry safety guidelines, and routinely monitors member companies. Technicians are trained and assessed to consistently high standards. Only then can they be registered to work, and even then their progress is constantly logged.
The guidelines dictate a rigid on-site hierarchy in which more qualified operatives closely supervise the rest of the workforce. Records are kept of the usage and service history of all items of personal protective equipment and each operative is required to have two independently anchored points of contact at all times.
Ropes are also safer for psychological reasons. Hanging free in space demands constant vigilance. Contrast this with the (statistically unjustified) feeling of complacency encouraged by being enclosed within a scaffolding structure. Although scaffolders may be provided with correct protective equipment, there is less chance that they will use it correctly, not least because to do so can be slow and cumbersome.
However, there are drawbacks. Most IRATA operatives have little experience in construction, and most construction workers do not abseil.
A contractor might well have to train workers with the relevant skills before work on a project could commence.
And the use of rope access is clearly limited, since abseilers are restricted to light tasks such as welding or coatings application. The widely publicised role of rope access technicians in roofing the Eden domes is impressive, but how many projects of that nature are built? In any case, abseilers couldn't have installed the roofing panels until the superstructure had been built using conventional access methods. This highlights a fundamental limitation: abseilers can only work on a structure; they can't actually build one.
Dan Bailey is a freelance rope access specialist.