Industrial Rope Access
Best Practices & Industry Standards
Employers in many fields are finding that industrial rope access can prove to be faster, less expensive, more versatile, and safer than traditional work access methods. The most common applications for modern rope access include inspection, surveying, maintenance, and construction on bridges, dams, wind turbines, towers, buildings, geologic slopes, and industrial plants. While inspection is the most common application, welding, cutting and heavy material handling can be accomplished by rope access professionals using specialized procedures.
Facility managers have found rope access to be exceptionally cost-effective compared to conventional methods of access like scaffolding. In many cases, the inspection can be done more thoroughly and effectively without the obstructions commonly presented by scaffolding. Furthermore, properly trained and certified rope access technicians uphold an exceptional safety record compared to nearly all other industrial occupations.
Savings of fifty percent or more are not uncommon when a facility chooses to employ technicians trained in rope access instead of using conventional methods of access. Cost savings are attributed to shorter facility shut downs, fewer personnel required for shorter duration, and lower equipment costs.
The following is a brief overview of what we have learned in over a decade of helping employers create programs that leverage the benefits of rope access, ensure jobsite safety, and minimize liability exposure.
ROPE ACCESS DEFINED
Rope Access is defined by the use of ropes and specialized hardware as the primary means of access and support for workers.
Rope access technicians descend, ascend, and traverse ropes for access and work while suspended by a harness or a work seat. The support of the rope should eliminate the likelihood of a fall altogether. Rope access workers use a back-up fall arrest system in the unlikely failure of their primary means of support. This redundant system is usually achieved by using two ropes - a working line and a safety line.
STANDARDS AND REGULATIONS
Rope access is relatively new in the regulatory environment in North America. While a few federal OSHA interpretation letters exist outlining some basic rope access parameters, most specific legislation has been adopted by California in the US and Alberta in Canada. New York City has recently drafted some similar requirements. Several states and provinces are following suit. All of these laws either directly or indirectly reference industry consensus standards.
In North America, the Society of Professional Rope Access Technicians (SPRAT), based in Philadelphia has created industry-consensus standards called Safe Practices for Rope Access Work and Certification Requirements for Rope Access Work. The Industrial Rope Access Trade Association (IRATA), based in the United Kingdom publishes similar documents. The goals of these organizations are to create industry standards for rope access and serve as a resource for those engaged in rope access work. Skala is an active member of both organizations and trains technicians to both standards.
THE ROPE ACCESS PROGRAM
A rope access program must be built as an integrated system. The safety and efficiency of industrial rope access operations depend on an organization's commitment to successfully integrate four key components:
- management systems
- training systems
- equipment management systems
- qualified supervision
An appropriate written operating procedure outlining the management system for training, equipping, and supervising rope access operations is the first component. Safe Practices for Rope Access Work, published by SPRAT and International Guidelines on the Use of Rope Access Methods for Industrial Purposes, published by IRATA is a good place to start. These are general guidelines. A company's written procedure should take into account the unique operating environment, client requirements, and local legislation. Many companies hire a consultant that has experience writing rope access procedures. A company using rope access should designate a Rope Access Program Manager to implement and maintain the rope access management systems.
Industry standards give performance and training criteria for employees performing rope access work. The certification system is divided into three levels. A specified amount of rope access experience is required to progress to the next level, and candidates generally receive about 32-40 hours of training to meet the performance criteria prior to their evaluation at each level. Following this training candidates are evaluated through a written exam and a field practical.
Level I Technicians (Authorized Workers) are qualified to work under appropriate supervision and must be able to inspect their equipment and safety systems.
Level II Technicians (Lead Technicians) have documented work experience and are qualified to rig more complicated systems and trained to perform a wider range of rescue techniques.
Level III Technicians (Safety Supervisors) have more documented experience and training and are responsible for the safety management of the job.
EQUIPMENT MANAGEMENT SYSTEM
An Equipment Manager is usually designated to maintain the equipment management system.Each piece of safety equipment is given a unique identifier and inspected before being placed into service. This unique identifier allows the equipment to be traced back to its date in service and inspection record. While each technician inspects his or her own equipment on a daily basis, periodic inspections (usually twice annually) are conducted and documented by the Equipment Manager.
Each piece of equipment must be compatible with the other components of the system. Without specific testing, compatibility isn't always obvious, especially when gear is used outside of the manufacturer's original intended purpose. Testing conducted by Ropeworks and its partners has shown that some equipment is especially sensitive to variations in rope structure and diameter, for example. The best way to make sure that your equipment is compatible is to test it yourself, get advice from a knowledgeable dealer, and/or seek independent testing data.
ROPE ACCESS SUPERVISION
Proper supervision is essential to the rope access safety management system. A certified Rope Access Supervisor (level III) is actually required on every rope access project site in order to maintain compliance with the SPRAT and IRATA systems. Ultimately, a properly qualified and certified Rope Access Supervisor, with the support of company management, should be able to identify and correct any gaps in the management systems, staff training, and equipment protocols to insure safe operations.
Once the rope access system is in place, every job requires a specific safety plan or job hazard analysis (JHA) and rescue plan that should be prepared before beginning the job. A thorough plan includes:
- Details and contacts related to the work site
- Staff training and emergency contact information
- Communication methods
- Description of the work to be done, steps and tools needed, and the associated hazards
- Environmental hazards and methods to mitigate those hazards
- Detailed rescue plan, rescue equipment, and emergency services contact information.
The details of the safety and rescue plans are fine-tuned by the Rope Access Supervisor at the job-site. The Supervisors must conduct a safety meeting with all members of the team prior to beginning every job and usually on a daily basis thereafter. New employees are given a site safety orientation prior to beginning work. All members of the team must sign that they have been briefed on the safety plan. Because rope access technicians work in difficult access locations, certified rope access professionals are trained to rescue their work-mates and get them to an area where definitive medical attention can be administered.
In summary with strong management, training, equipment, and supervision systems, employers will find that industrial rope access delivers results unattainable by conventional means. Clients benefits with increased productivity, less facility downtime, fewer lost time incidents, and, in many cases, access to previously inaccessible areas.
1. Holan, Jan & Steven Beason, "Rope Access Equipment Testing", Proceedings of the International Technical Rescue Symposium, 2002 available at www.ropeworks.com
2. Safe Practices for Rope Access Work and Certification Requirements for Rope Access Work, .Society of Professional Rope Access Technicians (SPRAT), Philadelphia, USA 2007
3. International Guidelines on the Use of Rope Access Methods for Industrial Purposes, Industrial Rope Access Trade Association, United Kingdom, 2005 4. "Subchapter 7. Group 1. General Physical Conditions and Structures Article 4. Access, Work Space, and Work Areas §3270.1. Use of Rope Access Equipment." General Industry Safety Orders, California Department of Industrial Relations.
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