High fliers

Scaling skyscrapers using nothing but a safety line and two anchor points is certainly no job for the faint-hearted. But what does it really take to be a rope access technician?

The thought of spending 9am to 5pm dangling from a rope, hundreds of feet off the ground, might seem like a bizarre concept to someone with an office-based job. However, as a key part of the role for rope access technicians, it’s needless to say that this is not an occupation for everyone.

Technicians can be employed to carry out complex tasks at great heights – with site locations ranging from factory interiors to dizzyingly high rollercoasters, and every imaginable structure type in between.

But aside from a head for heights, what qualities are required to forge a career as a rope access technician?

No two days are the same for a rope access technician

Pre-existing practical skills

While clearly demanding in terms of physical exertion and mental focus, rope access isn’t an occupation in itself. Indeed, although mastering abseiling techniques and committedly complying to health and safety regulations are vital, it is rather the practical skills possessed by technicians that make this a respected profession.

A whole array of varying skill-sets are present within the rope access arena, with most workers having entered the occupation from a previous trade – such as joinery, building and engineering, to list just some examples. These are the specific skills that are put to use by technicians from day to day, with the ropes simply acting as a way to get them to work. So while the average morning commute may consist of traffic-congested roads or a busy train, that’s not the case for rope access technicians – to get to their ‘office’, they rely on a safety line, two anchor points and strong communication with each other.

Training and accreditation

The most widely recognised industry accreditation for rope access technicians is awarded by the Industrial Rope Access Trade Association (IRATA). With three levels to this certification, trainees are required to log a minimum number of hours and overall experience per stage in order to progress to the next.

Level 1 is the foundation, entailing a week-long training course covering how to abseil to a point. In order to reach Level 2, more than one year’s experience and over 1,000 logged hours on the ropes are needed, while Level 3 requires an additional 12 months and more than 2,000 recorded hours overall.

At Level 3, a technician becomes a certified rope access supervisor. A qualified supervisor is required on every assignment to oversee other workers, taking responsibility for the safety and management of the rest of the team on site.

Communication and collaboration

For rope access technicians, working effectively as part of a team is vital. Communication is ultimately what keeps people safe at height and alongside the ability to follow instructions, open-mindedness and on-the-spot problem-solving are crucial qualities to have.

While extensive surveys are usually carried out in advance for installation and maintenance assignments, sometimes it’s not until technicians are on the ropes that the real extent of the work required can be assessed. Therefore, workers often need to think and act fast in order to devise complete on-the-spot solutions.

On a more social note, good team relationships and rapport are central to the job. Technicians are required to work together incredibly closely for up to five hours at a time, so getting along well with others on the assignment definitely makes it more enjoyable for everyone.

Versatility and flexibility

No two days are the same for a rope access technician, which is one of the most attractive aspects of the job for many people. For instance, one day might be spent on a building site and the next at the top of a skyscraper. But this variation is also one of the profession’s main challenges. A great deal of travel is involved, which may sound appealing, but in practice means long days and a lot of time spent away from home.

That said, every day is an adventure and there are many rewarding elements too. From working at truly unique locations to seizing incredible photo opportunities, not every occupation delivers such an exciting perspective on things. It is a definite lifestyle choice though, which isn’t for everyone. And those who enter the profession purely for monetary gain rarely last very long.

More info on rope access & International code of practice here

Richard Knight is technical project manager at Access North Structures