Not a local issue
It has been both a pleasure and a challenge to work regularly with member companies from around the world. In our early years of growth it was down to British rope access experts to travel to various parts of the world and introduce the idea of using modern ropes to work on high and difficult-to-access creations of all shapes and sizes.
“it was down to British rope access experts to travel, introducing the idea”
Though this work often consisted of land-based work in the telecoms, fuel storage, and bridge work, early on it included work in the offshore oil and gas industry which, as it expanded globally, required the expertise to maintain the performance of the platforms. Rope access, having proven itself with the North Sea demands, simply travelled to where this sector was starting, and grew with each of these developments.
The offshore industry quickly appreciated that it had to adopt a dedicated safety culture, a belief that was accentuated with every incident, large or small. Rope access teams embraced this attitude, applying their skills to onshore refinery and storage work, and then to other work as it was demonstrated that industrial rope access was a wide ranging safe procedure – and a problem solver.
A culture of standards and safety
There is no doubt that a commitment to career-long training and strict rules of working produces excellent results. On occasion, some trainers and auditors ask the direct question “Is this really necessary?” Most, however, if not all, soon came to appreciate the benefits it brings, as acknowledged by their own governments, Health and Safety offices and, crucially, their clients.
Most workplaces present some level of danger every day, but most would accept that working at height carries with it extra demands. It should immediately be made clear that this should not be confused with bravado or misplaced confidence, but it does need an understanding of the ways and means of undertaking the task in front of you, and a respect for the place of work.
I shall make mention of training and work shortly, but I need to highlight the fact that there are examples of access work being considered the place for courage, bravado and perhaps even a ‘devil may care’ attitude in order to survive. Nothing could be further from the truth.
I would not expect any work-at-height activity to be carried out by someone with an attitude that he was taking risks with own his life, or of those he works with, though there is a similar problem when workers feign respect for the work they do but have not taken their training for the job seriously, or have allowed their general fitness to decline.
Whatever equipment is being used to gain access to the work site, from men on ropes to high technology, motorised machinery, there needs to be a commitment to safety and standards and a respect for the equipment being used. This is best created by thorough commitment to both the training for the work method being deployed, and the actual work procedures used.
In fact, industrial rope access has a very good work record, though the writer can only speak for his own companies and their workers, and quote from an annual independent Work and Safety Analysis, which is made available to all.
Like all industrial work taking place at height or in testing locations, rope workers must have degrees of competency that exceed the norm: theirs is not a workplace that can be treated in any way other than very seriously. This means that whatever the form of access used, workers should be thoroughly drilled in the means by which they reach their work position, and carry out the planned work safely when they get there.
One does, however, hear elsewhere of novice workers being sent onto sites – often at great heights – without instruction, unable to manage their own safety regime and even unaware of emergency instructions and safety drills. And, wretchedly, industry is regularly supplied with accident stats that carry tales of rank foolishness, bad practise or ignorance.
The rights and wrongs of Work at Height
Returning to my observations about global attitudes to keeping the workplace safe, we are all apparently very slow to remedy what we know to be a bad situation. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) statistics are laid before us each year, but are often only checked to see how our competitors have performed, whether our rivals have reported incidents we have already heard of, or to see if others have escaped being found out.
“it is all too often the employing company, or the lax rules of the country concerned, that drag standards back”
For sure, the company or individual that is taken to court and made to sacrifice his profit for a year because of his cavalier attitude to safe working and planning will have learned a lesson and, one would hope, not one he will easily forget.
Before we get to that wretched state of affairs we need to return to the young worker who is sent to the workplace ill-prepared, or even the older guy who is experienced in one element of work, but then sent to a site to work on a task he has never encountered before. There is very little that cannot be catered for by some form of rules and regulations, good management and supervision, along with a large dose of common sense and reasonableness, though a still greater and ongoing commitment to safe working is what we should be demanding.
An exemplary approach for rope access workers employed by IRATA International is to get them to undertake a full course of one week before being subjected to independent assessment which, if satisfactory, will enable them to start work. After this they should be required to retrain every three years and then again as and when they wish to move up the grades.
Is that overkill? Well, it has enabled the finest record of safe working at height to be written every year by an independent source, and made available to anyone who wants a copy.
Add to this the most comprehensive Code of Practice in the sector – in excess of 100 pages – written by experts and available to clients, Health and Safety personnel and anyone who wants to see such statistics, and you will find the commitment to safe work.
This brings us back to leadership, credibility and where you are likely to find evidence of such commitment.
Global high standards – up to the challenge?
IRATA International is able to quote from worldwide experience when stating that its work standards are of the highest grade in every continent, and is well aware that the UK is not always blameless when low standards are cited.
In general terms, most countries have worked hard to create some strong national standards, but perhaps have not appreciated the need to monitor and inspect on a regular basis – and so ensure that such work is honest and consistent. It can also be argued that some in the work-at-height/construction sector have not been seen at their best when managing the exportation of their training and work guidance.
"the following of proven guidelines should ensure that the whole team is aware of any problems encountered in the past on similar work"
What is beyond doubt is that most workers in these sectors, be they in countries with an established industrial sector or an emerging nation still building industrial practises, want to apply the safety ethic to their daily work, and the true tragedy is that it is all too often the employing company, or the lax rules of the country concerned, that drag standards down.
The safer man is the better man
A great deal is said on work sites about ‘buddy monitoring’, but this can have both good and very bad consequences, so we need to be able to identify that there is a difference.
There can be few better principles at a work site than the raw recruit being mentored by an experienced, senior fellow who takes his remit seriously, but we have all experienced, or suffered from, cases of the older man instilling all the wrong work practises – rushing to finish work, bypassing proper procedures, using sub-standard tools – with the result that the new lad becomes aware that poor and hurried work can be acceptable, or is told that it does not involve risk.
Against this, we must also accept that few site supervisors are going to complain about a job being finished early.
In any professionally run company – large or small – the plan will be to complete the work according to established work procedures, but even then, these are too often not actually written down, or are to be found in manuals left back in the office.
The following of proven guidelines should ensure that the whole team is aware of any problems encountered in the past on similar work, and can see they are avoided this time. If there are new techniques or procedures to be incorporated then they should be talked through before the start of work, and special attention paid to them.
It would be good news if the diligent and the thorough won through, that the guidance was clear, concise and given to all, that the commitment to training was well structured and delivered by those who were determined to instil high standards, and that those commissioning high work acknowledged that safe working was something that had to be paid for, that workplace accidents never brought commercial benefit, or earned long lasting appreciation.
If the safer man is a better man, the one who delivers high standards and does not cut corners becomes recognised as an asset, rather than a drawback. Work completed safely with the work team returning home safe and sound is the sign of a good work day – so let this be acknowledged and given precedence.
In other words, let health and safety be real – really worked for and treasured, and let us guard against those who would prefer the careless and carefree option, for whom sadness and worse is too often around the corner.
Published: 05th Jul 2012 in Health and Safety International