30 September 2021
Rope access and the importance of safety

Earlier this month, a former rope access specialist received a payout of £900,000 after falling eight metres from a site in Canary Wharf in 2017. He suffered a fractured spine and multiple breaks when the specialist equipment he was attached to slid off a gap in a steel beam, leaving him hanging by his hands before he eventually was forced to let go. The fall left Kyle Hunt in serious pain due to nerve damage, and he was bed-bound and reliant on his parents to feed and clothe him as he recovered.

The company Kyle worked for, Over The Edge Rope Access and Safety Netting Ltd, was judged to have failed in their responsibility to keep him safe.

In another incident six years before Kyle’s fall, a rope access worker plummeted 23 metres into the North Sea and was killed after his safety rope was severed by a sharp edge.

What is rope access?

Rope access is a technique used by highly skilled professionals to conduct specific tasks at height without using scaffolding. They use ropes and other safety equipment to perform work in otherwise inaccessible places, and where the use of scaffolding is prohibited or would be inappropriate.  

Why are falls from height still so prevalent?

Falls from height were responsible for 25% of workplace deaths across all industries during 2019/20, according to HSE, making them the most common type of workplace fatality. But, in fact, their occurrence is not as commonplace as the statistics might suggest. Of the 693,000 workers who sustained non-fatal injuries at work in 2019-20, just 8% of these were the result of a fall from height. Therefore, it is not that falls from height are particularly commonplace; rather, the height involved means they are, unfortunately, far more likely to be fatal.

According to rope access specialist MCL UK, however, rope access is actually a very safe method of working, with a better track record for safety than any other type of work at height in the industry. However, a recent report from HSE stated that said safety is entirely dependent on the “intelligence, as well as the strength” of the worker, with “rigorous training, practice and assessment” required before rope access equipment can be used safely and successfully.

Playing by the rules

There are a number of regulations and codes of practice governing work at height in general, and rope access in particular. Firstly, the Work at Height Regulations 2005 stipulate that employers responsible for work at height activity must ensure that adequate risk assessments are carried out, and that all work is supervised and carried out by competent people.

Secondly, the International Rope Access Trade Association (IRATA) has worked with regional, national, and international health and safety organisations to formulate its own International Code of Practice, with which over 570 IRATA member companies worldwide are obliged to comply. IRATA’s Work and Safety Analysis (WASA) Report for 2020 revealed an excellent safety track record, with just one fatality and an overall injury rate of just 5-15% of selected latest internationally available work injury statistics.

The importance of training

According to the 2020 WASA report, the average rope access employee spent 40 hours (a full working week) in training during 2019 – and no wonder. There are three main levels in the IRATA rope access training and certification scheme, which each require intensive training courses and examinations, followed by at least 12 months’ experience and at least 1,000 ‘rope hours’ logged between each grade. With the potential consequences of an accident while working out height so catastrophic, it is reassuring to know that such intensive training is required to work in this field, with at least three years’ experience needed to become a Level 3 rope access supervisor.

Learning lessons

Despite the regulations and best practice governing the rope access industry, and in spite of the stringent training available, accidents are still happening with devastating consequences for workers. It is absolutely vital that employers working within this sector abide by industry safety protocols at all times, that all employees are adequately trained for the task at hand, and that sufficient insurance is in place to cover the risk of accidents.