By Jenny Eagle
Most people can recall the image of a man cleaning a window 34 floors above the ground, without a harness, at the Jumeirah Beach Towers in Dubai this year. But, for those who work on high rise buildings, it is no joking matter when the safety of their employees is paramount.
Earlier this year, Swiss company Serbot AG launched a robotic cleaning system for windows and façades on high-rise buildings in Dubai. But, for professional rope technicians there will always be a demand for work because machines are susceptible to breakdowns.
‘I have not actually seen one of the robots in action yet,” said Billy Harkin managing director of Megarme an inspection, repair and maintenance provider that specialises in working at high or difficult accessible locations.
“I do think there is a market for such a product given the amount of glass facades in the region, as long as it was a versatile and reliable piece of kit. I don’t, however, see it as a threat to the industry but more as something that will compliment other such services.
“It has been our experience that equipment (BMU’s/access systems/machinery/technical equipment/etc.) is usually susceptible to breakdowns and malfunctions in this type of environment so there will always be a need for ever reliable people services.”
The real test for companies that specialise in high-rise building environments is to make sure staff are fully trained to a recognised standard of health and safety procedures to minimise any risk of accident or danger to themselves.
Companies follow a set of guidelines by IRATA (Industrial Rope Access Trade Association), which produce qualifications for trained rope access technicians and access specialists. It is a global qualification with a set of protocols to execute work projects safely including rescue operations.
“You need to be prepared for all possible outcomes in this industry especially working in this type of climate where people get dehydrated or tired quickly,” said Robin Gibbs, head of trading divisions for Al Serkal Group.
“You need to have a rescue plan in place whereby you get people down according to the IRATA code of practice. Once you have those guidelines in place, you can do anything involving work at height including maintenance, cladding, welding, cleaning, drilling, or painting and you can get in and out safely to do the job.”
The Al Serkal Group is a service provider to the FM industry, handling anything from mechanical engineering, to electrical, plumbing and solutions at height. It recently won a contract to clean high level areas of the glass and steelwork of the Meydan Grandstand which has a giant glass bubble building. Gibbs said the work is a time sensitive project because it has to be completed before the racing season kicks off on November 11 this year.
“At any one time, we have four or five projects on the go,” said Ed Buckley, a Level 3 operations manager for SKY Riders, which is part of the Al Serkal Group.
“Currently, it is the Meydan Grandstand, glazing and safety netting works at the Presidential Terminal at Abu Dhabi International Airport, a full building office clean at the John Buck International Al Mamoura buildings in Abu Dhabi, and on-going work at Dubai Mall, which includes a cleaning service for the food and beverage outlets, where one man will drop down into a 3ft wide vertical duct to clean it inside.”
Buckley said each job has to go through a risk assessment prior to each project to implement a tried and tested safe method of work.
“We are talking about projects that are 200m in the air. Each building has its own personality and each job requires its own specification, depending on the client,” he added.
“One of our jobs is to make the frame, attach the foliage and hang the lighting banner on the 90ft Christmas tree in Dubai Mall. It’s quite a detailed job but great fun. The most high profile work we have done is cleaning and painting the steelworks inside the seven star Burj Al Arab. It’s a nice sense of achievement to be able to go home and say ‘I did that’,” said Buckley.
Rope access training
SKY Riders currently employ 30 members of staff and each person works on industrial ropes with two points of attachment. It has an affiliation with a training school called Traks Pro which teaches workers how to set the ropes up and how to get each other out in case of an emergency.
Level 1 is the entry level for all rope access technicians, Level 2 are experienced technicians who have more training to do with health and safety, knowledge on how to put up the correct rigging and the skills to exercise more technical rescue plans. Level 3 is a senior team leader in-charge of a site and is able to inspect equipment and make site operational decisions.
It takes three years to become a supervisor but to start as a novice technician includes a six day intensive training course followed by a day’s assessment exam on site.
Megarme employs about 260 technicians, 33 of which are Level 3 operators. It has had a company in Dubai for 18 years and set up an office in Abu Dhabi in 2002 and Qatar in 2008.
Harkin said his firm is the only rope access company in the Middle East that not only has its own technicians but can also train them and third party agencies as well.
“We are an IRATA member company,” he said. ”We have to be audited by the governing body itself on our equipment, traceability of equipment and how we operate on a day to day basis.”
Megarme recently won the first of a set of awards by Dubai International Airports called the Health, Safety and Environment (HSE) Contractor’s Excellence Awards. It beat nine other companies to clinch The Safety Phoenix Award and received a certificate from HH Sheikh Ahmed Bin Saeed Al Maktoum chairman of Dubai Airports.
“It felt really good considering we are only a small privately owned company. We weren’t expecting to win at all. We have worked for Dubai Airports for more than five years now and this is in recognition of our cleaning work on the external façade of the airport concourses. It’s not an easy task as we have to work above the general public and we have to make sure the proper procedures are in place at all times,” said Harkin.
“We can’t cordon off an area because the building is in use at all times, so we plan around others and are quite meticulous according to the aiport’s schedule.
“We have been doing this for 18 years now. There is no room for any mistakes in our line of work.”
SKY Rider’s Buckley agrees, he said his company has to carry out a rescue exercise once a month to make sure everyone is fresh when it comes to an emergency drill. Each worker is independently assessed and it has a regular auditor who checks all the equipment. Each piece has a number so on it so experts know what job it has been on or if anything is damaged.
“You would hate for something to go wrong and we need the drill to be second nature to our guys.
“The rescue exercise is carried out at various locations on site because each building has its own personality with a different set of rescue procedures. We have never had an injury yet due to good on-site supervision,” he said.
According to Gibbs, rope access technicians are a more cost effective means of working on tall buildings. He said they are relatively new here but it saves on time and money by eliminating the need to hire scaffolding equipment, hiring a team of men to install it and then hire a separate team to paint, clean or carry out maintenance repairs to a building.
“We arrive on site and our men can set up their ropes within two hours which takes less time and is less obtrusive. There is no nuisance scaffolding and other people can get on with their work. Quite often we work at night, especially in the summer. We have to look after our guys in this type of hot country and in the morning you see the results of what they have done,” he said.
Gibbs said the major risks to avoid were any damage to a building, with its rope protection equipment, and staff falling off buildings. But, he said its employees were trained to such a level that they know how to stop themselves in the event of an accident and there is constant on the job training.
However, he did criticise firms such as Spider-Style Tower Cleaning (SSTC) for encouraging a worker to scale a building in a Spiderman suit.
He said PR stunts such as this are not a good image for the industry because it is dangerous to associate the work it does with a cartoon jumping character.
“I felt it sent the wrong message out to people as there are a lot of risks working at height and this glorified the trade as something fun without regard for the safety aspect of the job, it was not a true portrayal of what we do.
“It is a process of education.”
According to Nazir Habhab, managing partner of SSTC, he defended the stunt and said it was a one-off promotional project for a hotel it was working with at the time and had nothing to do with rope access cleaning.
“The hotel wanted to stage a publicity event and it had nothing to do with rope access cleaning and performing the job. It is a different line of the business for us. It had nothing to do with the actual physical job of an access technician which we take very seriously,” he added.
For now it seems, the number of jobs available for a rope access technician are on the rise and safe from the threat of mechanical robot cleaners and colourful men in cartoon type costumes jumping across skyscraper buildings.