Work at Height Hot Topic at CWA Event

Back of the wall training. Photo: CWA
Back of the wall training. Photo: CWA

Earlier this October the Climbing Wall Association held their first Certification Summit at the new Petzl Technical Institute in Salt Lake City, Utah. The five day event combined the CWA’s Climbing Wall Instructor and CWI Provider certifications (and re-certifications) along with Petzl’s certifications for a Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) Competent Person and Work at Height for Climbing Gyms.

The CWA has been offering CWI and CWI Provider training since 2010 at their annual Climbing Wall Summit in Boulder, CO. Since that time they have certified over 700 instructors and providers. Petzl has also presented shorter versions of their PPE Inspection and Rope Access for Routesetters training during the event, but this was the first time these certification-level courses have been offered to CWA members.

“Given the overwhelming growth of our certification programs, we wanted to create an event focused on certification and continuing education for our certification pool and members”, said CWA’s CEO Bill Zimmermann in a press release. “This gives us the opportunity to offer enhanced education for new and existing instructors and to add a much-needed second CWI Provider course to our annual calendar.”

Work at Height

The event drew 29 attendees from 19 organizations and 3 countries, including Clint Searle, General Manager of True North Climbing out of Toronto, Canada. For him the foremost reason for attending was to keep all of his employees safe. “When the Work at Height for Climbing Gym Employees certification was announced I knew this was a course I had to attend,” Searle told CBJ.

Safe climbing demo. Photo: CWA

Routesetter safety and complying with regulations when working on or behind the wall are one of the more important, but often dreaded, topics of conversation among climbing gym professionals. That’s why the CWA teamed up with Petzl to offer a training program that tackles the largely ignored fact that routesetters work in potentially dangerous places with only limited knowledge of what it takes to be truly safe.

Though any company with 4 or more employees is governed by OSHA standards, many gym operators don’t understand the requirements or the implications of not following them.

According to Rick Vance, Petzl America’s Technical Director and a CWA Board Member, many people that attend the Work at Height training initially have a lot of fear that OSHA regulations are unattainable. However after getting familiar with the equipment and learning new techniques they realize it is within their reach.

“People see pretty quick that [being in compliance] isn’t too far off. They just need to tweak their procedures a bit, maybe buy one or two pieces of additional equipment.”

The Back of the Wall

One of the most dangerous places in a climbing gym is the back of the climbing wall. Though there are very few reported accidents involving falls behind the wall, every setter understands the potential tragedy that could happen with one misstep. For the sake of setter efficiency few gyms have taken measures to ensure setters’ safety when accessing the back of the wall, and even fewer hold setters accountable for using the safety equipment provided.

For Searle of True North, which opened in 2010, he came to the Certification Summit looking for ways to improve his operations. “I want to stay ahead of the curve. I want to be an industry leader when it comes to safety and I am always looking for ways to expand my knowledge base,” he said. “ The more I know the more prepared I am to prevent myself and others from falling into potentially dangerous situations, or worse, help someone escape an already hazardous position.”

Petzl’s “lobster claws”

During the work at height class participants were shown several different ways to ascend the back of the wall. One way is to use “lobster claws” attached to a personal energy absorbing system attached to a full-body harness (Vance also recommends a helmet and eye protection). These lobster claws are giant hooks that can be clipped to the existing steel skeleton of the climbing wall and do not require any additional rigging.

Though buying more equipment and slowing down your setters may put some managers off, Vance said that any wall can be easily retrofitted with a safety system, as long as it’s an engineered wall. “When we’re talking about fall arrest you don’t need to have big 5,000 lb anchors, you just have to know how your system works,” he added.

After the event Searle went back to Toronto and immediately started making changes. “I am currently in the process of setting up a series of anchor systems with safety lines behind our walls so that when staff are at heights behind the walls the risk of them being severely injured drops dramatically.”

The Rescue

One other popular subject at the summit was making sure your facility has a rescue plan in place for all employees who are working at height and in confined spaces. A rescue plan can be as simple as calling 911, though Vance warns that not all fire & rescue squads are trained for high-angle recovery. He recommends that you check with your local EMS/fire departments to make sure they are trained for the types of rescue that may be needed in your facility before adding them to your official rescue plan.

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Rescue from the ground. Photo: CWA

The class also taught more self-sufficient methods for rescuing an incapacitated fall victim. One way is to rig a vertical lifeline system so that if an employee falls they can be safely lowered by another employee; setting up a safety line with a releasable anchor, such as an auto-locking belay device, and enough rope at the bottom will allow the rescue team to stay safely on the ground.

Perhaps the most important part of a rescue plan is to make sure it is written down and covered during the training of every new employee. Vance argues that, “in terms of regulation it doesn’t really exist until it’s in writing.” OSHA also requires employers to create a Job Hazard Analysis. According to the OSHA website JHA’s should be written for:

  • Jobs with the highest injury or illness rates;
  • Jobs with the potential to cause severe or disabling injuries or illness, even if there is no history of previous accidents;
  • Jobs in which one simple human error could lead to a severe accident or injury;
  • Jobs that are new to your operation or have undergone changes in processes and procedures;
  • Jobs complex enough to require written instructions.

A Wealth of Knowledge

As with most gatherings of climbing gym professionals, the best part for many is getting to sit down and talk about common issues facing others who work in climbing facilities.

For event attendee Michael Baker, new GM of the Stone Summit Kennesaw location, the most valuable part of the training was being surrounded by a wealth of knowledge. “Spending a few days with other professionals in the climbing industry, discussing important topics for climbing wall instructors, is a great tool for myself being better able to impart knowledge to my staff,” he told CBJ after the event.

Baker believes that offering his instructors the CWI certification is “immensely valuable” and added that, “Attending the summit gave me another opportunity to grow within the climbing industry by meeting other professionals and staying up to date on the current trends and topics.”

Searle from True North agrees, “I would highly recommend everyone in the industry to start attending these trips so that we can raise the level of professionalism in the sport. The more informed we are the lower the risks become.”

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