Working at height is not something new. From hunting woolly mammoths to installing mobile phone antennas it’s been in everyday life for centuries, yet it still has a poor reputation for accidents in the workplace with statistics to back it up.
The practice of working at height takes many reputable forms including Rope Access, but despite all of the available training and equipment that is on offer, companies are still willing to take shortcuts and the “easy” route to achieve an end goal, hence the damming statistics.
In truth, the historical reputation of working at height and the misconceptions around the safety of any project associated with it, gives the team at Orb a mountain to climb (excuse the pun) to convince companies that Rope Access is a safe and cost-effective way to work at height.
Definition of Working at Height:
“Any work on, below, or above ground level where there is risk of personal injury through falling and/or a potential risk to people below the work site being injured by falling objects”. This definition extends to obtaining access to or egress from any work at height, except by permanent staircase.
The 2-Metre Rule
Until fairly recently working at height was governed by the 2 metre rule which was based on a statutory risk assessment that safety equipment such as guard rails and toe boards be fitted where there is a fall distance in excess of 2 metres. It may not sound dangerous but in fact, 2 metres is quite high! To test this, should you feel inclined, you could grab a water melon and drop it 2 metres on to the floor, and no doubt you will find a few splits in it. Now try dropping it onto a nice soft toolbox, a drill or a chainsaw!
The 2 metre rule was abolished in recognition of the fact that the danger level is not restricted to anything above 2 metres; smaller falls can be just as dangerous. Gone are the days of having a packed lunch while swinging your legs hundreds of feet above New York or donning a flat cap and holding a flask of tea halfway up a chimney stack… or so you would think! Unfortunately, accidents do still happen, due to lack of training and knowledge.
Some different methods for working at height
Scaffolding has been around for a long time and has many forms. Steel and aluminum tubing are the go-to modern scaffolding materials capable of withstanding huge loads, which can be built in any shape, large or small. In Southeast Asia, however, bamboo is still the material of choice for some worksites due to its strength, flexibility and plentiful supply!
Scaffolding has its first recorded use in ancient Egypt where it was the method of choice for building many amazing buildings and monuments.
Mobile elevated working platforms (MEWPS)
MEWPS are a relatively new invention, and came about shortly after World War II, when Jay Eitel in California was having trouble reaching the highest levels while cherry picking, so decided to invent the first “Cherry Picker”.
A few years later, seeing the potential, Eitel founded the Telsta Corporation and immediately started to receive orders from telecoms companies, arborists and electrical companies. He is one the major contributors to today’s US communications network.
Rope Access is the new kid on the block and was used in various forms in the early 1900’s and earlier, but as you can imagine things were a little “ropey” back then and due to its high-risk nature, wasn’t for the faint of heart.
The advances in materials and equipment have put Rope Access at the forefront of modern height access. Our towns and cities are getting taller, and the need for working at height is increasing, thus Rope Access is becoming more popular. Unfortunately, Rope Access specialists such as ourselves at Orb are often overlooked as an option due to lack of knowledge, an “it must be dangerous” attitude or the traditionalist “this is how we’ve always done it” approach. Some even see Rope Access as some form of extreme sport.
Unfortunately for Rope Access we come under the working at height umbrella with all other traditional forms of access, so we are usually a last resort even though statistically we provide the safest way to work at height.
The reputation of Rope Access is also not helped by the increase in very dangerous practices by rogue companies claiming to be Rope Access experts, not just behind closed doors but in public for all to see. When challenged, the offenders often plead ignorance and then sometimes become aggressive. I have experienced this very recently myself.
When conducted correctly, Rope Access is a safe, versatile and quick solution to projects requiring working at height. The evolution of working at height may have seen turbulent times, but with safer practices it is an industry that could progress to the benefit of many company projects.