Rope access is a specialised technique allowing people to access hard-to-reach locations via abseiling. While it started as a means of exploration, rope access has revolutionised the way we approach maintenance on tall buildings and structures.
From its rudimentary origins in climbing to its modern applications in skyscraper maintenance, rope access has come a long way to be the fastest-growing sector in the remedial trade works market. In this article, we look back on the history of rope access to see just how far the sector has evolved.
The Genesis of Rope Access
While ropes have been used for building and maintenance for millennia, the concept of rope access, particularly for industrial purposes, originated from techniques employed in climbing and caving.
The primary goal was to access challenging terrains using equipment that was lightweight enough to be carried and versatile enough to provide an access solution for anything nature could throw at you.
As mountaineering progressed from a method of exploration to a hobby in the early 19th century, these requirements only grew. With adrenaline seekers attempting to conquer more difficult and dangerous terrains, rope access equipment and techniques began to evolve to meet the challenge.
The Modernisation of Rope Access
The first generation of skyscrapers appeared in Chicago and New York in the 1880s. At this time workplace health and safety weren’t a priority and many construction workers and those that worked at height would go about their tasks without wearing any ropes or harnesses.
Unsurprisingly this resulted in a terrible fatality rate, with one US firm admitting that one worker died for every 33 hours of employed time between 1910 and 1920. 
It would take another 100 years for the rope access techniques of climbers and cavers to gain popularity as an access method for working at heights as demand for safer working conditions grew.
With the mid to high-rise construction boom of the early 1980s, rope access systems with a single rope began to be used during construction and maintenance works. While significantly safer than their predecessors, workers quickly realised that a backup rope would add much-needed redundancy. The two-line system (which we still use today) was enforced by IRATA, dramatically improving safety by preventing falls if the main line was damaged or a component failed.
The development of high-strength synthetic lines, tackle, and anchor points as well as advances in harness design also greatly improved safety during the 80s and into the 90s. These materials were lightweight, more comfortable to wear and significantly more resilient to degradation than natural fibres. This inspired confidence and allowed access to a far wider variety of locations as buildings pushed ever taller.
The Birth of IRATA
1987 marked a pivotal moment in rope access history with the formation of the Industrial Rope Access Trade Association (IRATA). Established to address maintenance challenges in the offshore oil and gas sector, IRATA quickly became the leading authority on industrial rope access.
Through the implementation of IRATA standards alongside government legislation, rope access was able to attain an unrivalled safety record.
Today, IRATA continues to set the gold standard for safety and training in the industry. This globally recognised certification system ensures workers are fully equipped to undertake their tasks following best practice safety standards.
The Future and Beyond
With advancements in technology, the rope access industry is poised for further evolution. Power ascenders, which automate the ascension process, are making tasks quicker and less labour-intensive.
Moreover, as build taller and the demand for wind farms and offshore rigs increases, the need for skilled rope access technicians is set to soar.
Industrial Rope Access is the fastest-growing sector in the remedial trade works market. Qualified specialist trade personnel in cement rendering, concrete spalling, painting, cleaning and other remedial works are undertaking Industrial Rope Access courses to obtain their rope access certifications in numbers previously unseen.
The journey of rope access is a testament to human innovation. From its humble beginnings to its current status as an industry standard, rope access has consistently proven its worth as a safe and versatile access method. As we look to the future, it’s evident that rope access will continue to play an integral role in shaping our built environment.
Interested in learning more about rope access techniques or considering a career in the field? Anchor Safe Rope Access has Sydney-based job opportunities for qualified tradespeople, such as Painters, Renderers, Waterproofers or Carpenters with IRATA Level 2 or 3 competency.
Brad Love is a veteran of the rope access painting and decorating industry, with over 47 years of experience under his belt. Brad is the Service Design and Estimator at Anchor Safe Rope Access and a trusted voice in the painting and decorating community.
Anchor Safe Rope Access
Proudly Australian-owned and backed by the strength of a national height safety leader, Anchor Safe Rope Access is a proven and respected provider of external high-rise cleaning, painting and maintenance in Sydney. Our Rope Access teams are highly skilled and accredited height safety specialists as well as trade-certified technicians, so you can trust Anchor Safe Rope Access to provide award-winning services at competitive prices.