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What is Industrial Rope Access?

By Terrie Brockmann
Updated May 17, 2024
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Industrial rope access (IRA) is a safe and effective way to work in places that are difficult or dangerous to access, such as high-rise exteriors, mine shafts, or communication towers. A trained worker uses special gear as well as two ropes that are attached to two separate anchor points for safety purposes. One of the ropes is the working rope, and the other is the safety, or back-up, rope. Typically, rope access experts have a second expertise, such as painting, construction work, or welding.

Sometimes people refer to IRA as vertical access or high access. IRA has its origins in recreational rope work, such as caving and climbing. The first large-scale use of it was on the offshore oil platforms. Other companies adapted the techniques to their needs, and currently IRA is globally recognized as a safe method of working in difficult access areas. Rope access may be combined with other types of access, such as ladders and scaffolding, and adds another level of safety to the job.

Ropes and harnesses are some of the better-known pieces of equipment a climber needs. Other pieces of hardware include various shapes of carabiners, a type of clip; different types of descenders that control the speed of descents; and shunts. Many companies offer various styles of personal gear, such as knee and elbow pads, gloves, and helmets. Some equipment, like headlamps and quick-release tool pouches, is generally used for specific jobs. The main purpose of the gear is to protect the worker; safety and personnel protection is the whole premise behind industrial rope access.

Some experts divide IRA jobs into five main areas of work. The first is inspection, which includes inspecting man-made and natural structures. A second category is maintenance and repair of structures. Another category is surface preparation and painting. Like many of the categories, this includes bridges and other non-inhabitable structures. Building services and geotechnical jobs are the last two categories.

Building services may include window cleaning and repair, façade care, and general cleaning. Unexpected jobs for workers who have rope access certification may include pest control, banner and sign hanging, and wind turbine maintenance. A few types of man-made structures that may require IRA workers are mine shafts, tall masts, and even interior building areas, such as atriums and botanical domes. Some examples of geotechnical work are rock fall prevention work, rock anchorage, and cliff restoration. Special projects, such as the cleaning and restoration of the Mount Rushmore presidential sculptures in South Dakota, often require IRA-certified workers.

The scope of the rope access industry is growing. Many architects have incorporated rope access system support into their buildings. An emphasis in industrial safety has created a demand for workers who are IRA certified. Increased environmental awareness and concern has generated a stronger IRA geotechnical job demand.

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