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Industrial rope access: A window of opportunity

06 May 2020

David Saville, operations director of Principle Cleaning Services’ Window Cleaning Division, examines industrial rope access in the London commercial window and high level cleaning market.

Traditionally, the values required of a reputable window cleaning company have been reliability, service, honesty and value for money. This remains the case today but the demands on window cleaners have grown, particularly in London where the design of buildings has placed more and more demands on the industry so that buildings are kept clean and defect free.

In nearly all cases a high level access strategy has been considered for all new buildings and while this has been helpful to the window cleaning industry in providing site specific guidance some of the practical issues they have been left to solve have not been so easy and this has resulted in parts of the industry becoming more specialist.

Safety and compliance underpin the industry more than ever and particularly, since the Working at Height Regulations - which require service providers to select access methods under a hierarchy of access so that the method providing the least risk of a fall is selected in preference to another access method. So, for example, reach and wash will be used in preference to working from a cherry picker and abseil will be provided only as a last resort - this to then be formally recorded in site specific risk assessments and method statements.

Specialising in the market

Due to the complexity of some buildings the abseil industry is thriving in the London window cleaning market and it is not unusual for rope access to be presented as the access method of choice for new or refurbished buildings where it can be shown to be safe, less disruptive and more practical than other methods. Window cleaning companies are therefore becoming specialists - not just generally in their field but at individual buildings. The experience that companies are building up by cleaning the high-rise landmarks in the City of London is proving invaluable.

Consequently, due to this building specific expertise, additional services are being requested of window cleaning companies such as defect reporting, equipment maintenance and supply of site-specific data. 

A small number of  window cleaning companies have been able to build on this, and have been able to diversify into more technical reporting of building and site issues. Technology has played a significant part in this where ‘the difficult bit’ is gaining access to difficult areas and the reporting is provided by the technology and various pieces of software.  PPE and other equipment checks, near miss reporting, equipment handover sheets, weather checks and all manner of safety checking and recording can be done remotely and stored securely in real time.

So, maybe it is better to outsource to a true specialist?  The arguments for and against directly employing staff remain as relevant today as they always were but the concept of outsourcing risk is an outdated one, particularly since the first publication of the Management Regulations in 1992 - we are all responsible for our staff whether they be directly employed or outsourced.  

A long-held view among some companies has been that it may be better to outsource to a specialist who can pour all their resources into compliance and this will be true if the sub-contractor is reputable and well resourced.  However, this brings a risk of loss of visibility and control, which the employer who employs staff directly has. This should be of particular concern when outsourcing a high risk activity like industrial rope access. There are many excellent rope access companies operating in the London window cleaning market but few which are accredited by IRATA.

Attaining greater control

Those companies which do employ abseil staff directly have greater control generally and not least on cost controls and providing value and visibility to their client. However, all companies whether with in-house or outsourced staff must comply with all of the relevant legislation relating to provision of work equipment, a safe place and system of work and proper planning - all of which require focus and resource.

What is clear is that there are increasing opportunities for Work at Height Specialists in London who are prepared to look ahead and invest in safety, compliance and technology and, above all, their people.  Rope access provides an ideal opportunity for staff to train, progress and gain vital skills and experience with the right employer.