What exactly is an industrial abseiler?!

Technically it's called a rope access technician...

Except that 'rope access technician' makes sense to hardly anyone. The job is also referred to as industrial climbing, industrial abseiling and high rope access. 

This is my chance to explain seven years of work in a fun way, since I've had a career change and a short paragraph on my CV doesn't explain the job in much depth. 

Rope access involves using a twin set of ropes set up to suspend the worker in place and ensure they don’t fall. Falls from height accounts for some of the highest incidences of injuries and fatalities at work and at home. Back in the day, people might have done a lot of work without such safety measures in place, but there were way more deaths and injuries. We’ve come a long way from those sorts of practices, and as exciting as it looks, I definitely wouldn’t do it like that!

That’s me in the blue helmet. I’ve never not smiled for a photograph. Here, we’re replacing old sections of pipe (call ’em spools to sound like a pro) using rigging gear and rattle guns.

Star RiggerStar Rigger

Old school rigging techniques. It looks glamorous but I'll take a rope to secure me any day.

So what did you actually do?

Rope access can involve painting, maintenance, cleaning, construction, inspection and surveying on work sites that include skyscrapers, wind turbines, oil rigs, mine sites, energy plants, domestic construction, entertainment and events. I was fortunate to work in sunny Western Australia, in places that are ruggedly beautiful and where the weather is generally hot and dry, or hot and humid. It’s generally physically demanding and it’s sensible to be keep yourself fit for work, mentally and physically.

One of the toughest yet most rewarding jobs I worked on was the construction of a gas plant on the desert Barrow Island, 50km off the coast of Western Australia. The gas plant was built in modules in South Korea, then shipped over to Australia. For six months I worked the night shift in a team with three hilarious men, on a roster of 26 days on and nine days off.

Part of our job involved removed the various-sized pieces of shipping steel that had been put in place to keep the pipework secure during the ocean crossing. I thought it was a bonus that the shipping steel was all coloured bright pink.

We set up ropes to climb up and position ourselves underneath a 3m diameter pipe to shift a 100kg steel plate that separated the pipe from the concrete structure it was sitting on. 

The reality of the task meant that we were hanging from a rope next to smooth concrete, with no ability to establish a foothold or gain leverage, and swinging a sledge hammer to shift the plate inch by inch. It was a physical slog, but tell you what, it felt amazing to use a sledge hammer like that! I felt strong and satisfied at the end of each shift.

Another benefit is that you get to eat a lot of food, which for me included at least one block of chocolate every day. 

My favourite part of the job was working offshore with a view of the beautiful Indian Ocean, watching whales and whale sharks cruise by. The downside was having to go away to earn my keep, in remote places where contact with friends and family was limited.

WHale sharkWHale shark

One big highlight of the job was getting the chance to see beautiful remote landscapes and wildlife, like this beautiful whale shark. Did you know that scientists use the same technology that NASA uses to map stars to identify whale sharks from the spots on their backs?!

IRATA Level 3!

The Industrial Rope Access Trade Association (IRATA) is the international body that sets guidelines and regulations for rope access technicians to follow. You can get your Level 1 ticket by taking a one-week course and one-day assessment, after which you’re basically allowed to set up your own harness and work under supervision.

After at least one year and 1000 hours as a Level 1 ropey, you can do the Level 2 course and assessment. A level 2 ropey learns more complicated rescues, rigging and hauling techniques. The same requirements apply before you can sit your Level 3, a minimum of one year and 1000 hours.

 Trainers and assessors will put you through your paces when you go for your Level 3 assessment. It’s a heady thing to be ultimately responsible for the safety of your crew, and culpable if anything goes wrong. Going for my Level 3 was one of the toughest weeks ever, and passing the assessment was a massive achievement for me.

WalpoleWalpole

It was a treat to work amongst the Valley of the Giants near Walpole, south-west Western Australia. Though sadly I lost my sunnies in the forest that day - should've had a sunnies strap.

MinesiteMinesite

Working in the desert at a gold mine in remote Western Australia. The end of a shift where we'd been working inside the crusher engine, seen right beyond JB's head (on the right). 

Safety Safety Safety

The hierarchy of levels is a great system as it teaches you to look out not only for yourself but for others. It’s vital to communicate and work well as a team, because if something goes wrong it's likely to be seriously bad. It’d be hard to justify lazy or shoddy work practices after an accident. It became really clear when I was team leader how much people rely on each other for mental and technical preparation when they’re on the job.

Working at height, we also have to be hyper aware of the hazard of dropped objects to people outside of our work crew — the potential for serious injury resulting from an item we drop is high. We're diligent about putting a lanyard on everything and barricading the area below us. 

Teh safety mindset and culture is reinforced on good worksites. It can seem like overkill to outsiders, but it's an important core principle to industrial companies. As cheesy as some of the slogans sound, after a while it's hard to shake the safety thinking gets drilled into you. "It's always the right time to do the right thing." Even cheesier - "Safety never sleeps!" Word to the wise, avoid saying that to people in earnest!

Inside the engine it's hot and dark. Depending on what work you're doing, you might have to wear a load more gear to protect yourself. I was assisting one of the welders that day - he had to wear leather chaps and jacket over everything else!

One of these things is not like the other ones

"Morning lads! And lady..." 

I heard that every day for two weeks straight on one mine site job. I like to laugh, but that's a lame attempt at a joke. 

The construction and resources industries have traditionally been male-dominated and often I was one of a few or the only woman on a job. A workmate mentioned to me that he noticed a difference for the better when there were  women in the workplace, and I definitely had more fun when there were other women around. 

I was explaining the industry recently to someone who said that the job sounded ‘man-heavy’. I'd never heard that expression and it made me laugh, but it's important to consider why some industries are so women-light. I know the challenges of feeling like the odd one out, but the positives of the experience outweighed the negatives. There are huge opportunities to be had and it's important that we encourage people in their endeavours, especially as there's so much value in having diverse workplaces. 

We can do much better in encouraging young girls and women to approach working in any industry with a full belief in their own capabilities. Not every guy out there was a six foot body builder. Embrace mechanical advantage and learn to ask for help when needed, and anyone can work a physically demanding job. 

I was lucky to be raised without really having a concept of gender drilled into me, and the associated roles that go along with it. I’m keen to promote equality of opportunity and call out any kind of discrimination when I see it, because it holds us back as a society. It’s a good question why we consider a person’s gender, preferences, skin colour or religion over their intent and actions. I’m looking forward to seeing improved diversity in every workplace.

Rope chicksRope chicks

A rare day where there were several of us ropey chicks on the same shift! One of the perks of the job - never having to buy clothes for work!

'Everything is design. Everything!'

Blatantly ripped off Paul Rand there. 

But it brings me round to my career in user experience design. Perhaps you're thinking, 'Emer, the link seems tenuous'. And yes I see your point. But I gained invaluable experience in understanding the complexities of large-scale industrial design and their operations. I also learnt a tonne about people, teamwork, thinking on my feet, strategy, communication, planning, and the importance of having a problem-solving rather than a defeatist attitude. 

The funny thing about the move from rope access to UX design is that I hardly ever used technology in terms of digital interfaces. We barely had access to computers or our mobile phones on site, so we had to make our own fun and interact with each other. I think about this when I'm designing these days, aiming to keep digital interactions to a minimum for the user so they can get on with their day.

Useful links

Thanks for reading! If you'd like to check out some other links, there's a great video where you can see what it's like building a gas plant on a desert island and the marvels of engineering:

Chevron's Barrow Island

Shell's Prelude - floating LNG facility

If you're interested in rope access, check out the IRATA website.

WHUC crewWHUC crew

My last job on the Wheatstone, one of the best jobs I could've worked on. A glorious day at the top of the 200m high flare tower, the Indian Ocean our backdrop. From left: Coops, me, Adsy and Phid.