What exactly is an industrial climber?!

Problem Solving

Emer Boothman
May 18, 2017 · 6 min read

I’m embarking on a total career change and it’s involved wrapping up seven years of work into one paragraph on my CV. Here’s my chance to explain it a bit more in-depth!

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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.

Rope access involves using a twin set of ropes set up to either suspend the worker in place or ensure they don’t fall. Falls from height accounts for some of the highest incidences of injuries and fatalities at work and even at home, and we’ve come a long way from these sorts of practices (as exciting as it looks, I probably wouldn’t do it!):

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A rock climbing mate of mine used to call out at the crux of a climb, ‘Don’t fall now!’ — I bet you’d be cruising for a bruising if you said that to this guy.

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, then hot and humid. It’s generally physically demanding and it’s a good idea to be keep yourself fit for work.

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 with limited contact with friends and family.

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Maintenance on a gold mine’s crusher. Good times somewhere in the desert.

IRATA Level 1, 2, 3

The Industrial Rope Access Trade Association (IRATA) is the international body that provides 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, you can do the Level 2 course and assessment. You learn more complicated rescue and hauling techniques. The same minimum requirements apply before you can sit your Level 3. Trainers and assessors will put you through your paces and it’s a heady thing to be ultimately responsible for the safety of your crew. Passing my Level 3 assessment was one a big achievement for me, and it’s one of the toughest things I’ve ever done.

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Polishing the hand-rails with these handsome fellas.

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 work well as a team, because if something goes wrong it is likely to be seriously bad, and it’d be hard to justify 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 injury resulting from an item we drop is high. Hence why we put a lanyard on everything. With all the safety training I’ve undergone, it’s hard to shake the motto ‘It’s always the right time to do the right thing’, as cheesy as it sounds.

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This set-up was just for the glamour water shot. Just kidding — here we’re taking down rigging gear that had been set up in an elaborate engineering plan to lay new pipe on the ocean floor.

I heard that every day for two weeks straight at one job. I like to laugh but it just wasn’t funny after a while. Construction has traditionally been a male-dominated industry. I was explaining the industry to a designer I met who remarked that it sounded ‘man-heavy’. While I laughed at that expression, it’s important to consider why some industries are so ‘women-light’. I’d look around me at work and wonder why there weren’t more women working with me. Believe me, I know the challenges of being the odd one out, but the positives of the job outweighed the negatives.

A workmate mentioned that he noticed a difference for the better in the workplace when there were women around, and I certainly had more fun at those times. There are so many factors contributing to lop-sided workplaces and we should all strive to improve on the fact.

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OITNB. Side bonus was not having to buy clothes for work.

We can do better in encouraging young girls and women to approach working in any industry with a full belief in their own capabilities. Physically I probably (maybe…!) wasn’t as strong as all of the men I worked with, but I made friends with mechanical advantage and learnt to ask for help when I needed it.

I was lucky to be raised without really having a concept of gender 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.

“Everything is design. Everything!”

^Thanks for that tie-in, Mr. Paul Rand^

This brings me round to my approach to my new career in user experience design. Perhaps you’re thinking, ‘Emer, the link seems tenuous’, and yes, I see your point… though we did test the rope systems before experiencing them.

What I did learn a tonne about was people, teamwork, thinking on my feet, strategy, communication, and the importance of having a problem-solving rather than a defeatist attitude.

It gave me an understanding of the complexities of large-scale industrial design and their operations. An example — a pipe-laying vessel was positioned alongside the offshore gas-production platform to lay a new pipeline on the seabed. The platform has infra-red sensors to detect gas leaks, and they kept alarming. This tripped the platform’s gas production and the resulting excess of gas was released via the flare. It’s terrifying to behold flames spurting from a flare tower in the middle of the night (though it wasn’t an emergency, I was still going over escape plans in my head!)

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While I miss being able to wear trendy overalls to work, I don’t miss the dirt.

The culprit? The windows of the ship were reflecting the light of the flare tower onto the infra-red detectors, so it was a bit like a false alarm. Who knew. Well, actually when I told my Uncle Davey about it later, he knew exactly what was happening. He’d worked on the same platform for twenty years, so there’s a lesson in the importance of respecting experience and asking questions.

I’m not suggesting we design ship windows to not reflect sunlight or flare flames (or am I?) But minor things can have an unanticipated impact further down the track, and while ‘blaming a person is seldom appropriate or useful’ (so says design guru, Don Norman), we have to ensure we’re making informed decisions.

I am suggesting that whatever we do, try to do it well.

Thanks for reading! If you’d like to check out my next career endeavour, I’m working on projects that you can see at my website — www.emerboothman.com.

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Perks of the job — sunshine, blue ocean and wildlife.

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