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Men on harnesses hanging from tall buildings — they are a common, fascinating sight in the UAE.
Tasked to clean the façades of buildings, these daredevils play an important role of keeping the UAE's iconic skyline sparkling clean. Their job is especially crucial considering how buildings get dirty easily because of the abundant dust in this part of the world.
The method widely accepted as the safest and most efficient way for these technicians to get to high and difficult-to-reach areas while cleaning the exterior of buildings is through rope access.
''The rope-access method remains the core practice of cleaning high-rise towers in the world,'' says James Grumley, Business Development Manager at Total Solutions Middle East (TSME), a rope access specialist in the region. ''The advantage of the rope-access method is that technicians can reach critical areas of the skyscrapers, tall structures and oil rigs, which are not easy to reach using other methods.''
Ropes may eventually take over cradles that crawl up and down building exteriors, which are another common sight in the country, although the latter is far from obsolete.
Matt Cox, Chairman of the International Institute of Risk and Safety Management Middle East, explains why some are reconsidering their use: ''Many high-rise towers in the region have had suspended man-baskets or cradles installed, which are affixed to roof rails or rigged via cantilever booms. In recent years, there has been a catalogue of cradle/wire rope failures, leading to numerous fatalities and serious injuries.''
On the other hand, rope access systems have proven to be very safe and effective in accessing hard-to-reach places and are used across many industries.
''Many designers in the region have started to reassess the suitability of suspended cradle installations for their high-rise towers of all shapes and sizes,'' Cox points out.
However, this doesn't mean that cradles should be thrown out with the bathwater. The key lies in correct risk assessment, Cox emphasises.
''The causes of accidents include the use of poor quality materials, poor installation or a lack of routine maintenance and inspection, combined with a lack of operative training,'' he says.
Properly applied cradles can actually be more useful in some jobs, say experts. Moreover, one can't be certain that one technique is more dangerous than the other, says Mazen Harake, Managing Director of Spider Access, a cleaning and maintenance company.
''It all relates to the level of risk and the access method used. Ropes, cradles, cranes, etc. will have their own operational advantages and their own varying degrees of risk,'' Harake says. ''Cradles are mechanical pieces of equipment and as such require regular maintenance, inspection and trained operators to ensure they are safe.''
Still, Cox advocates the use of ropes because they offer some safety advantages. ''Cradles may be installed and then left unused and exposed to the elements for months on end, leading them or their cables to rust or weaken, while rope systems are only installed moments before use,'' he says. ''This allows for a full pre-use inspection, which means that issues are identified before operatives are potentially put at risk.''
Cox explains that the rope access system could be safer because, typically, operatives are attached to both a working rope and a dedicated, independent safety line, anchored on the roof level.
''This significantly reduces the chance of any catastrophic incident, in comparison to cradle failures,'' says Cox. ''It's a specialised area with a professional regulatory body, the Industrial Rope Access Trade Association [Irata], which seeks to regulate and promote best practices in the field.''
The rope access system has a formidable safety record, although it is not foolproof, especially when human error kicks in. Practitioners use semistatic ropes that are 10.5-11mm thick; these ropes don't snap easily, but as one of the Irata safety advisories point out, if they are rubbed long enough against a sharp edge, an accident could become more than just a scary thought.
Irata has been developing the rope access system over 25 years, starting in the oil and gas industry. It aims to enhance safety and speed and make it less of a nuisance to the surroundings when employed.
''Most people that have heard of rope access think that it is purely for cleaning windows on tall structures. This is not the case. In fact, cleaning windows amounts to only a very small proportion of our work,'' says Grumley.
While the majority of TSME's work is still on oil rigs and platforms, it also takes on a whole array of other jobs, such as the installation of cladding and lights on stadiums or towers, including the aircraft warning lights on Burj Khalifa's spire.
''All our rope-access technicians, including electricians, pipe fitters, welders, blasters, etc., are trained in our very own state-of-the-art training school based on Irata standards, which are proven globally to have the best safety record,'' says Grumley.
It only takes a week to learn the skills required for first-level proficiency, while all technicians are also trained to conduct rescue operations. To reach level three, the highest skill proficiency, advanced rescue and first aid skills must be acquired.
Spider Access, which also uses rope access as its primary method, is also an Irata member and trains its staff according to Irata standards.
''All worksites operated by Irata member companies have at least one Irata level three rope access safety supervisor on-site,'' says Harake. ''This is the person responsible for the safety and rescue of the rope access systems as well as the level one and level two rope access technicians.
''The majority of our rope technicians are from Nepal, but we also have Indian, Filipino, Bangladeshi and Pakistani operators.''
Hailing from the Himalayas may have given the Nepalese technicians a distinct edge, as they are used to working at high altitudes. However, the technicians also have to deal with a distinctly hotter climate than in Nepal.
''Environmental factors constitute the biggest challenge, such as the temperature, so we schedule cleaning to ensure the maintenance technicians are impacted the least during their operations,'' says Harake. ''This involves starting early in the morning, cleaning the elevations that face away from the sun at first and moving around the building as the sun moves its position in the sky. We also employ staggering procedures during the day in order to avoid the hottest period.''
The wind, however, is a much harder obstacle and can present more serious problems at height. The use of an anemometer to measure wind speed every hour is therefore crucial.
''In addition, our level three supervisors are constantly monitoring the environment. It is not uncommon for the wind speed at the ground level to be slight, but it can be much greater at height, which has major considerations for safety,'' says Harake.
Grumley concurs: ''Wind speed is very crucial in the rope access method and when working on very tall structures.''
He says if the anemometer records wind speeds of more than 18 knots, the rope access technicians are called back.
A thunderstorm wouldn't only put the team at risk, but can undo weeks of meticulous work in minutes. ''Weather certainly does cause us significant challenges. We have had instances where we finish a clean only for the rains to come and undo all our good work,'' Harake points out.
The experts also explain that the length of a cleaning cycle depends on the building design and access method used than on height. It takes a team of six around seven days on average to clean a 30-storey building. It may seems pretty quick, however, when Spider Access tackles the Index Tower, it will need 30 days for a full clean.
''It takes just as long to set up the ropes, rigging and safety systems for a ten-floor building as it does for 50-floor building,'' Harake says.
According to Grumley, the frequency of cleaning depends on the budget and other requirements, although most facilities management companies go for four cycles in a year.
''We have some buildings that we clean just once, while others we clean six times a year. In the latter cases, this means that we are only offsite for a few weeks before returning,'' Harake says, adding that a once-a-year clean requires more work to remove the accumulated dust, dirt and grime.
Unusual building features also require a little more imagination, such as a variety of rope protection systems to reduce the impact on the structure, as well as complex rigging and securing methods to protect the team. More simple solutions include extension/telescopic poles, allowing for a longer reach.
''Other methods employed are Power Seats that allow ease of climbing and enable operators to ascend to difficult-to-reach areas of a structure that cannot be accessed from above,'' Harake says.
He adds: ''Louvers can present challenges that often require us to develop a unique cleaning methodology, which also ensures minimal disruption to the material and function of the louvers.''
For Grumley, the building design presents the biggest challenge. Among TSME's clients, the Infinity Tower is one of the most challenging.
''Cleaning the Infinity Tower is very challenging due to its structure. It is an 80-storey building with a dynamic and twisting shape. It is the world's first structure with a 90-degree twist,'' he explains.
Whether complicated or not, the need to constantly clean hundreds of towers, meanwhile, may present another set of challenges — this time to the environment.
''We use neutral solutions, biodegradable products and new technologies that offer minimum use of water, but produce more air pressure, to guarantee less consumption of water and energy in line with our environmental policy,'' says Grumley.
Spider Access also minimizes its impact on the environment by using water sparingly and avoiding harsh chemicals, typically using an all-natural cleaner that is 100 per cent environmentally safe, although tough on stains, Harake says.
''We have also engaged a number of international suppliers of green products and nanotechnology,'' he says. ''We are currently working with European, Japanese and American companies to identify solutions that are more ecofriendly for our operations, but still effectively tackle the many cleaning challenges presented by the environment here.''
Moreover, he says the company also looks at solutions that help prolong the lifespan of their clients' assets, such as sealing and protection products.
''Because of the nature of our work, Spider Access technicians are often the only personnel who get to see the outside of a building since its construction. As such, we are in a prime position to be able to report on obvious concerns, such as cracks, gaps or excessive wear and tear,'' Harake points out.
Although Harake and his team aren't structural engineers, he says they can still spot what doesn't look quite right. ''Each façade has its own set of potential problems, but excessive deterioration is something we have not yet observed, as the majority buildings we service are new.''
However, it is more common for his team to detect poorly installed or missing equipment, as well as fittings and fixtures that are broken due to building settling or poor-quality installation or material.
''Our role is to highlight any such observations to the building owner and, if possible, propose a solution to repair the item or items in question, or to support others in the repair,'' says Harake.
In light of the risks involved, the possibility of using robots comes to mind, but experts say humans still have a distinct edge in this profession.
''A robot can't assess the quality of cleaning,'' says Grumley. ''It goes to an area for a certain period and then moves to the next. What about stubborn stains that require a bit extra elbow grease — more agitation? A rope access technician cleaning your building is also visually assessing the condition of the glass, façade, lighting, etc. — a clean
and survey at once. Robots can't do this.''
Source: Nicole Walter, Special to Property Weekly