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Sat 14 Nov 2009 04:00 AM

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Head for heights

The Gulf's skylines are filled with hard to reach places that require clever solutions to keep them clean and in good order.

Head for heights
Because we don’t live in a design utopia. Sometimes cleaning solutions have to be devised after the fact.
Head for heights
Human error is inherent in high rise rope access but Megarme tries to limit it by applying very strigent standards used in offshore facilities.
Head for heights
Megarme’s team worked feverishly in the lead up to the grand opening of the Dubai Metro.
Head for heights
Visa rules in the Gulf often make it easier to keep track of the current skills and qualifications of rope access technicians.

The Gulf's skylines are filled with hard to reach places that require clever solutions to keep them clean and in good order.

Depending on who you talk to, it is either the genius of architects or the ingenuity of engineers that has gifted the Gulf's skylines with an array of towering icons.

These structures have reached new heights, redefined typologies, taken forms that appear to defy gravity and, in the mean time,  created some of the most difficult to reach dust traps on the planet. While they usually inspire awe at their openings, someone still has to clean and maintain them.

Making this happen is the job of the FM manager and safe access is at the heart of the issue. The earlier the issue of access is considered, the better the opportunities to make it easy are. But we don't live in a design utopia, so sometimes solutions have to be devised well after the problem has been created. Regardless of when it's thought about, or indeed, whether the problem is one of height, tricky spaces, or just urgency, understanding your access options may make life easier.


"Cleaning at great heights is predominantly carried out in the classical way with cradles and climbers, though our focus is increasingly on high-tech cleaning solutions," said Thomas Moslener, CEO of ABS Group, an FM company.

"Our main issue is safety for clients and workers.... Both are provided by our...façade cleaning robot, which is not dependent on any humans to operate or maintain, and it delivers a consistent cleaning standard."

ABS expects growth primarily in the area of maintenance, as the lifecycle costs arguments for predictive and preventative maintenance grow stronger.

"This of course means more and more industrial climbers inside and outside the construction," said Moslener. "We do not rely on standard concepts, but design specific solutions for our customers and their problems."

This kind of bespoke solution is in part a result of the variety of design we see in the Gulf. It's a variety that has also led to a growth in another kind of bespoke solution - rope access.

...versus man

In the recent past rope access has been used as the last choice, when other options, for whatever reasons, were simply impossible. But a well-trained team of rope access technicians can turn up on site with a bag full of gear, deploy it, and be ready to do the job in about the same time a scaffolding outfit could unload their trucks. That's if scaffolding is even an option given the site conditions.

"Rope access has tended to be a last resort," said Billy Harkin managing director of Megarme, a rope access company. "But I'm pleased to say it's becoming a first choice and architects are designing systems into buildings.

"We get involved, not just with execution, but in the design of the buildings to make sure they have anchor points and rails, which is crucial."

While cleaning is an obvious application of rope access skills and provides the bread and butter contracts, it has other maintenance and installation uses. Take the prominent project of the Yas Hotel. There, Megarme has had a team of about 90 involved since January, installing the panels that displayed the post-race light show.

Jobs such as this require more than just rope skills, technical ability and knowledge with plumbing, electrical installation and welding all part of the mix, it's just that much of the work is done at the end of a rope.

"It [the hotel] is such a tough structure because it has so many dimensions, with the electrical component, plus the panels with the lights projecting back," said Harking. "We've been operating 17 years here now and that's probably been one of the most challenging jobs we've had, because of all the components related to the project and the sophisticated lighting system."

Between Yas Hotel and the Metro, Megarme has been involved in some high-profile jobs of late. The Metro saw the company make the front pages of several papers in the run up to the opening and every eye in Dubai probably spent a minute or two watching the team dust down stations, to make them shiny, as well as new. However, staying out of the public eye is a more common situation.Being less noticeable than some high access alternatives is one of the advantages of using a rope team. As mentioned, cleaning provides the most regular work, and much of this comes from the hospitality industry. Tall hotel atriums are a good example of spaces that can't have scaffolding, or cordoned off areas, but still need to be cleaned and maintained.

"As an access specialist we undertake anything where conventional access systems are either impractical, too cumbersome, or not cost-effective," said Harkin. "It's quite a niche market where a building maintenance unit won't work and where a crane is not practical. Rope access is the only system where you can get in and out quite quickly, which is why we are used in hotel atriums.

"While on a building site, you would have a certain amount of freedom to protect directly below the drop zone. In a hotel you are not allowed to do that."

With a company background that started out doing access jobs for the off shore oil industry, the training is intensive. In civil engineering applications Harkin describes the level of skill as using a sledgehammer to crack a nut.

"There is always room for human error, but we try to limit it by even applying the offshore standards, regulations and safety to onshore projects."

"We've always done bottom up training on the rope access side, as we tend to bring people in with skills, such as trades inspectors, welders, electricians or plumbers. We always do an awful lot of technical training, through a third party trainer."

Calling a rope access team is often an event-based experience for FMs, such as when there was an urgent need to repair the fire-damaged Atlantis Hotel, just prior to its official opening.

"The designers had felt no need for any kind of access system, so when the fire happened it was panic and we were called in that day," said Harkin. "We needed to access the structure, so in the end we had to come up with some quite ingenious solutions."

"Working on the Atlantis hotel has been our biggest accomplishment," said Daniel Gill, business development manager for Megarme. "The need to get it finished and its high profile meant it was one of those jobs where they didn't ask how long it would take, they told us."


Both Moslener and Harkin place a great deal of emphasis on safety. Intense levels of training, combined with systems of certification and continuous assessment help to keep the specialists safe. In fact the industry has a remarkable safety record, given the dangers inherent in high work and the fact that falls from height are the number one cause of lost time injuries on construction sites in the UAE (source: Build Safe UAE).

Primary causes are inadequate training, poor equipment, or incorrect use of the right kit. Items such as harnesses have to be selected for the job and worn correctly. A harness must be designed to hold a person both during and after a fall in such a way that their head remains in an upright position, according to All Safe, a lifting and fall arrest solution provider.

"Prior to use, safety harnesses, their lanyards, shock absorbers and hooks should be inspected by a competent person," says All Safe corporate sales manager Hugo Laverdin.

Harkin says that Megarme uses a mixture of experienced people on each job, to make sure there is enough supervision and the right skill set for each job and its requirements.

Thanks to local visa rules this is often easier to achieve in the Gulf region than in Europe. Here, staff are permanent and tend to be trained by the companies they work for, where as European-based rope access technicians are often freelancers, who move from job to job, making it more difficult to keep a track of their current skills and qualifications.

Regular assessment, well established teams and adherence to appropriate international standards, will all help to ensure a solid safety record continues.

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