When going after the world’s most infamous fugitive terrorist in 2011, the U.S. government theoretically could have sent in the Army’s entire 4th Infantry Division. Instead, it sent in Navy SEAL Team Six, and the job was finished before anybody really knew what was going on. A rope access crew’s missions aren’t as tense and critical as those of a SEAL unit, but the parallels show why for many industrial inspection, cleaning, and maintenance projects, a streamlined, highly trained, highly professional outfit is the best choice, hands down.
Smokestack inspection, wind turbine hydroblasting and industrial petrographic testing are not jobs for the weak-minded or fearful. Nor are they jobs for the unprepared. But as any owner of a power or manufacturing facility knows, these and other related activities must be performed in order to:

  • operate at peak efficiency
  • provide a safe plant environment
  • align with numerous state and federal regulations

These days, a growing number of projects performed at great heights and/or on difficult-to-access equipment are accomplished by rope access teams that are characterized by speed, precision, and specialization, all hallmarks of another crack team we’ve heard a lot about in recent years.
Industrial Access (IA), a firm operating out of Cumming, Georgia., supplies specialized rope access teams made up of technicians with skill sets that allow them to meet a wide variety of objectives. The firm’s business development manager, Robert Washington, says comprehensive training is the foundation for everything that comes after.
“Clients call us because they know that we’ve got the personnel who can get the job done, period—that means both certified technicians and seasoned project managers,” Washington says. “No two jobs are alike, and each requires us to supply individuals with proven applied and technical experience who are able to get in there and complete the objective within the allotted time and with the expected outcomes.”
Like most top-level rope access firms, Industrial Access requires stringent training and certification of all employees before they’re assigned to a work crew. As with the Navy SEALs, once a crew is in place, each individual is expected to accomplish his or her phase of the mission with precision and excellence.
One of the most fundamental aspects of both special ops and rope access teams is that each team member is fully trained and capable of rescuing an injured climber, and returning themselves and the injured party to safety for emergency medical attention. When an injury or sudden illness occurs, the party in distress becomes the focus of the team, and getting them to safety becomes the mission. So in addition to rope and craft skills, each team member is a rescue climber and certified in first aid. They look after one another.
“We have experts in all the key disciplines,” Washington says. “From welders, pipe-fitters and inspectors to refinishers, painters and structural repair techs. We can accomplish projects on any scale and supply or create whatever kind of work teams, large or small, that are necessary. At this level, it’s all about solutions and a positive, expedient return on investment.”
Rather than working from the bottom up, which would include the time-consuming construction of scaffolding, and the unavoidable disruption to a plant’s operation, a rope access team works from the top down, affecting operations only to the extent necessary to get the job done. Rope access (think military rappelling or mountain climbing) brings numerous benefits to owners of industrial/manufacturing plants with tall machinery and equipment that often is hard to reach or access.
A rope access team is commonly made up of individuals with highly specialized skill sets. Each individual in a crew has a specific job, and all are certified by the Society of Professional Rope Access Technicians, also known as SPRAT. (Washington says every Industrial Access technician carries SPRAT certification.)
With intricate pulley systems and connected platforms as the only work surfaces, a rope access operation bypasses the sometimes exorbitant costs that come with constructing extensive scaffolding matrices.
Jobs can be initiated and completed in a fraction of the time of traditional cleaning, inspection, and maintenance projects as there is no downtime waiting for the required scaffolds to be built and other complex logistics to be put into place.
Smaller teams and far fewer material components mean excellent results with less money going to personnel and equipment. With reduced impact around the worksite, the safety of plant personnel is enhanced while workflow disruptions are kept to a minimum.
Because of meticulous training and oversight, neither SEAL teams nor Rope Access Teams likely will ever face a situation where a bloated personnel roster and tons of equipment are required to accomplish what a small, well-oiled band of technicians can’t.
Crews performing rope access projects started appearing in earnest in the early 1990s, when they could be found engaged in maintenance work on offshore vessels and rigs.
Onshore outfits quickly caught on to this advantageous method, and in the ensuing years rope access teams were seen performing a wide range of tasks anywhere speed, skill, and a good deal of courage were required. These teams are particularly valuable when working in sensitive, fragile, compromised, or hard-to-access spaces.
Areas where you’ll commonly find rope access teams include:

  • Engineering and architecture: Many technical and engineering support services including the design of chimneys, smokestacks, breaching ducts, inner stay-bands, and chimney caps. General structural analysis.
  • Testing and inspection: Structural testing and inspection for chimneys, stacks and other building types. Can include video and photography, all of which results in comprehensive reports based on the strictest industry standards.
  • Maintenance and cleaning: A full scope of on-site repairs along with sandblasting, painting, refinishing, power washing, and hydro-media blasting for smokestacks, wind turbines, chimneys, and other industrial structures.
  • Lifting and rigging: Encompasses a range of lifting capabilities for heavy and cumbersome loads, moving them to or from grade and work elevations.
  • Structural repair: Complete renovation and restoration of industrial structures built from such materials as fiberglass, concrete, steel, and brick.
  • Lining systems: Installation, replacement and repair of lining systems including refractory brick, gunite refractory, vinyl ester resin, and borosilicate block.
  • Painting and coating: For both high-angle and high-heat projects, such as with industrial smokestacks, and chimneys, a full menu of refinishing, painting, and coating capabilities.
  • Emergency applications: Fast response to assess and mitigate damage when chimneys, smokestacks or other structures are leaning, have fallen, or are in some other way safety-compromised.
  • Aviation warning lights: Proper configuring, inspection, and maintenance of warning lights on tall structures in accord with Federal Aviation Administration mandates.
  • Lightning protection systems: Installation, replacement, and repair of grounding systems to protect structures from the destructive force of lightning strikes.

It’s not hard to imagine—even from this partial list of projects undertaken by professional rope access operations—the amount of time and money that would be dumped into similar projects using traditional, old-fashioned processes involving extensive scaffolding and/or heavy machinery.
In addition to having to undergo and pass all training and certification evolutions, the rope access technician should possess traits instantly identifiable in any Navy SEAL: courage, and the ability to focus on the job at hand, even when that job puts the worker into seemingly perilous situations. Thanks to ongoing research and the industry’s dedication to safety and training excellence, rope and pulley technology has advanced to the point that this form of operation is among the safest and least prone to accident in industry.
In conclusion, industrial, manufacturing, and refining plants are turning more and more to certified, professional rope access teams for a wide range of cleaning, maintenance, repair, and installation disciplines. Rope access providers bring companies exactly what they need: small, agile, flexible, and skilled technicians who can complete projects faster, at lower cost, and more safely than teams that go about it in any other way. ◆
For More Information:
John Susong is CEO of Industrial Access, Inc., a recognized leader in rope access and engineered solutions for industrial and manufacturing. The company provides SPRAT-certified technicians skilled in inspection, maintenance, and repair in hard-to-reach and high places. For more information, visit www.industrialaccess.com.
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