Experts debate the best and safest way to clean a building's exterior
Exterior façade cleaning is in the local news due to workers having died or been rescued from dire straits. fmME interviews experts on how companies pick the best way to clean a building
According to the Council of Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat website, there are currently 205 completed buildings that are 100m or higher in the UAE. That doesn’t include another 53 which are currently under construction or have topped out.
An important aspect of maintaining these buildings is cleaning the exterior. But how can firms guarantee the safety of their staff at dangerous heights, and in harsh climatic conditions? In light of recent tragedies, fmME speaks to experts from high-access cleaning firms.
Amel Vriesman is head of access division at Megarme, and also chairman of the IRATA Regional Advisory Committee in the Middle East. He has recently been appointed on the IRATA Executive Committee.
He says the design, height, conditions, frequency, duration, costs and the extent of the work ultimately decides which method brings the most benefits and guarantees the safest work environment.
“With Megarme we prepare a risk assessment for each project to determine the best suitable access system. This may vary from scaffolding, tensioned netting systems, rope access, fall arrest, cradles or MEWP,” says Vriesman. This is then discussed with the client.
Alain Al Tawil, managing partner of Grako, agrees and says the physical structure and design of a property determines the optimal access method required to clean the façade, but also takes an obvious side on which is safer: “Yes industry reports on safety suggest that rope access is safer than cradles given its inherent safety procedures.
Rope access is the one of the safest methods of high-level access cleaning, if proper procedures are followed and the technicians trained and certified.”
Vriesman says there have been nine fatal accidents in two years that have occurred using cradle systems or BMUs (Building Maintenance Units), and these are “worrying to say the least.”
He adds they raise questions about how they happened and who is responsible. “But simply saying that cradles are unsafe is not the answer. If all stakeholders do what they are supposed to then the use of a cradle system could be very safe. But if one of them fails or neglects its responsibilities then the probability of an incident increases significantly.”
Al Tawil thinks since the units are often owned, operated and certified by three different entities (the asset owner, the sub-contractor and the legislator), having so many disconnected parties involved is a recipe for problems.
“Cradles, in addition to this, feature the possibility of periodic mechanical failures, which increase the risk of operators failing,” he adds.
Vriesman says like cradles, rope access is only safe if carried out by professionals and points to the IRATA benchmark, which firms should abide by if they carry out any operations at heights.
“It may increase the cost level of the sub-contractor, however the benefit of saving a life is priceless,” he says. He adds that as a service provider, it is good to understand that human behaviour is responsible for approximately 73% of all incidents.
Al Tawil adds that safety out in the field is often about having multiple redundant safety processes and equipment in place so that technicians are prepared for any eventuality. Both experts stress the importance of training and revisiting fundamentals of safety at heights.
The problem seems to be legislation. Al Tawil says there are a few basic legislations in place, and Abu Dhabi has now come up with a whole document of health & safety policies.
“However, there is a need to have authorities to strictly enforce H&S policies on FM companies and cleaning service providers. Often new, inexperienced companies correctly spot the growing demand for high-level access cleaning services and seek to address the opportunity.
Unfortunately many either ignore or are unaware of the corresponding responsibilities for training and certification required to avoid the inevitable calamities that ensue.”
“With the high amount of amateurs involved, it’s fair to say the municipality can’t fight the battle alone. It reiterates the need for a fresh look towards the evolving work at height industry and recognise innovation and new products,” concludes Vriesman.
The safety of rope access versus cradle cleaning of building façades hit the news when two window cleaners plunged to their death from the 15th floor of a building in Abu Dhabi in October 2012.
They were trapped for four hours in the cradle before it crashed to the ground. This occurred a week after two cleaners were rescued after the rope supporting the platform they were on snapped while they were outside the 15th floor of another building in UAE’s capital.
A similar incident was prevented a few days later when two workers were rescued from the 23rd floor of an under-construction building where they were trapped on scaffolding. Rope access is used for those working at great heights and those officially trained in the method are certified by the Industrial Rope Access Trade Association (IRATA).
It works through a two-rope system meaning every worker has a back-up rope should the primary one fail. However, there is currently no UAE law requiring rope access certification.