Rope access is a form of work positioning, initially developed from techniques used in climbing and caving, which applies practical ropework to allow workers to access difficult-to-reach locations without the use of scaffolding, cradles or an aerial work platform. Rope access technicians descend, ascend, and traverse ropes for access and work while suspended by their harness. Sometimes a work seat may be used. The support of the rope is intended to eliminate the likelihood of a fall altogether, but a back-up fall arrest system is used in case of the unlikely failure of the primary means of support. This redundancy system is usually achieved by using two ropes - a working line and a safety line.
The most common applications for modern rope access include inspection, surveying, maintenance, and construction on bridges, dams, wind turbines, towers, buildings, and industrial plants. While inspection is the most common application, painting, welding, cutting and heavy material handling can be accomplished by rope access professionals using specialised procedures. The industry adheres to safety characteristics including:
- When working a rope access the technician always has at least 2 attachments, each having an independent anchorage point.
- When the worker is supported by ropes, each of the worker's ropes will have a fail-safe descent mechanism.
- All secondary tools and equipment (e.g. drills, sealant) are attached by lanyards to the worker's harness to avoid danger to people below.
- A minimum of two trained technicians are required for any job, each with the ability to rescue the other if needed.
- All technicians are independently assessed.
- All equipment is regularly inspected and maintained.
- Carefully refined codes of practice and working systems are used.
Trade associations such as IRATA and SPRAT have mandatory policies where member companies must submit all accident, incident and near miss occurrences to permit evaluation and comparison of information from an entire industry. This highlights any trends in incidents and assists in the evolution of equipment and procedures allowing continuing improvement to work practices. The above techniques along with the trade association’s organic approach has meant very few accidents since the beginning of this activity around the 1980s.