Ep 22 Liam O’Connor’s story about fast start up Tasman Rope Access innovates on Scaffolding

Brendan: Welcome to Episode 22 of the Australian Health and Safety business podcast. I’m Brendan Torazzi, the host of the show. Today, I’m with Liam O’Connor from Tasman Rope Access. Good morning Liam.

Liam: Good morning, Brendan. How are you?

Brendan: I’m well. Thanks for coming on the show this morning. Tell me a little bit about what Tasman Rope Access does.

Liam: We’ve been around since early 2015 when we sort of jumped on board with the original company Tasman Power. The board of directors came together and identified a niche in the market for rope access. The best way that I can put it for anyone that is listening that doesn’t know what it is. When you walk down the street and you see guys outside on the side of buildings cleaning the windows that is what we do effectively but we basically put men and women on to the ropes across oil and gas, mining, agriculture, defence, civil construction and a whole range of industries. There’s never a quiet day as you can imagine.

Brendan: Presumably like in oil and gas what sort of work would they be doing when they attending to machinery?

Liam: It all depends on the specific work. A lot of the time it’s wrapping pylons and a lot of blasting and painting, protective coating applications, that side of things. Basically wherever scaffolders are required. We can stick people on ropes down there and away we go. When it comes to just the one or two services it’s very varied so we tend to have quite a few services done in the same work order.

Brendan: How many people do you employ in the rope access business?

Liam: There’s about 450 members of our crew worldwide. On our books we checked the other day just over 410. We’ve got over 250 technicians out across Australia. It’s nice and busy. We just can’t keep up with the work at the moment unfortunately.

Brendan: I’ve come across IRATA a little bit before. What is the difference between IRATA training and say you’re working at heights ticket? Do you need both?

Liam: The IRATA is split into different levels. When you first come in to the industry you do a Level 1. That is a five day course with a half day assessment at the end of it. It teaches you a whole bunch of passing knots. The foundations of rope access. Then you get given what is called a logbook. You get given the card and then all the way through your career you get your hours signed off and the type of work by your Level 3 who is the rope access safety coordinator for that area. You want to do a thousand hours logged and then you pass a year you’re eligible to sit with the Level 2s. It’s a little bit more intensive and then from there it’s another thousand hours. Then you can basically become a Level 3. We do find that the younger guys and girls don’t tend to go to a Level 3 straightaway simply because they’re off the ropes. They set the area up. It’s affectionately known as pole polisher in the industry. They lean on a pole and make sure everyone is all right. They perform rescues. That is a nice specialized gig for them.

Brendan: People getting in the industry it sounds like they genuinely love being on the ropes so to speak whereas Level 3 is more of a manager or a supervisor or something like that.

Liam: It’s a very special type of person in the rope access industry with the height alone. We’ve got guys in their spare time they go skydiving. We’ve got a couple of Red Bull sponsored guys. I’ve got emails the other day from a group of guys on their break and they’re climbing glaciers. It’s an adrenaline junkie sort of industry for sure.

Brendan: It’s a lifestyle.

Liam: It is and these guys live and breathe it. It’s a lot of fun.

Brendan: How do you play into all of this Liam? Have you gone through that IRATA training yourself? How did you get to the role you are now and what do you do?

Liam: Basically I fell into it. Like most people I was completely oblivious to this whole industry. It was very underground at that point in time. Now it’s sort of become more mainstream especially with mining picking up the rope access side of things. Basically I was made redundant from a previous role. I was working for a national engineering company. Like everyone who goes through redundancy you go through that full range of emotions when you basically come to re-assess everything. I applied for a job with a company called Tasman. I got pulled in for an interview. They said, we’ve got HSC manager role. Would you be interested? We’ve got this little side project going on at the moment called Tasman Rope Access with a brand new general manager who is being relocated from the east coast to help build it and basically I’ve gone on like a house on fire. After a year another operations manager jumped on board.

The three of us pretty much since early 2016 have been building the Tasman Rope Access side. On top of that I also look after Tasman Power, the electrical side of the business as well. It’s about 150 to 180 sparkies out in the field at any one time. Then the board of directors which own the company based in South Australia. I have taken a step up to the group role with them so I’m working across South Australia, New South Wales, Queensland subsidiaries as well. It’s a very full on especially the time difference between WA and the rest of the states especially in the summer months.

Brendan: Is the bulk of Tasman Rope Access in WA or is it national?

Liam: It is national. About 60% of the work is across West Australia. About 10% to 15% is South Australia. The remainder over in our Queensland office as well. We just branched into Mount Isa and Weipa and a couple of other places around there.

Brendan: The company is pretty young. I know that you’ve got Tasman Power. Why do you think there was such a gap in the market? Presumably all these companies, all these industries needed these services. What was happening before?

Liam: The issues is people look at someone dangling off a rope and they automatically go no. That is not coming on to my site. It’s more about the educational piece with the interesting Australian standards. There is a rope access standard but it hasn’t been updated for two and a half decades. The same goes for working at heights. It’s a self-regulated industry with the accreditations by IRATA on top of that and then as they realize the potential reductions in dropped objects and scaffolding risks. That poor boy over in Sydney the other week. It’s a prime example. It’s self-regulated and there’s Level 3 self-influence down the field as well. The clients see the safety side of things as a positive after a little education session on what rope access is and then on top of that where to access pretty much any area without the need for scaffolds so you save all the money on the scaffolding costs and the additional tradesmen and the time lost between changing permits and changing up the equipment. It’s a safer option and on top of that it’s a safer and more time effective option as well.

Brendan: It’s a real win-win for everyone.

Liam: It is, yes.

Brendan: Go back a little bit for me. How did you start your career in health and safety?

Liam: First of all I got my gig with Rio Tinto as a graduate. It was a three month position then extended to six. At the end of six I jumped over to BHP at the start of the mining game. I’ve been involved ever since. I moved over to now Gibson Mining, Tallering Peak, Extension Hill and there was another one in Koolan before all the fun went down there with the actual thing collapsing. I moved on to Sodexo up in Karratha. From there I moved into that national role with the engineering company. That was 2012 I believe. I’ve been here since 2015. It’s just fun and games ever since.

Brendan: You were a graduate at Rio. Did you have tertiary qualifications?

Liam: I’m one of those weird guys who likes to study a little bit of everything. I’m an undergrad in OHS through Edith Cowan. My main background with the qualifications is pretty much all legal because back in 2010 almost I think it was I could sort of see the whole market was sort of shifting towards a national harmonization and obviously with that comes a whole bunch of legal compliance and the corporate governance that goes on top of it as well. I started studying law, international business law, business, commerce, a lot of commercial stuff. It’s definitely come in handy especially as the career has sort of grown and the work of safety sort of figures itself out over the next couple of decades as well.

Brendan: What do you see when we were speaking before you mentioned mental health. How does that sort of play into what you’re doing now? Is it an issue for people working on sides of buildings and that sort of thing or are they generally pretty up because they’ve got adrenalin pumping and it’s an exciting job?

Liam: It’s more the remoteness. I’m going through a whole rant but I’ll save your listeners. Basically the way it works is the guys and girls work away. They’re away from their family. They’re away from their support network and on top of that you’ve got a whole range of emotions going on because the whole mind is all over the joint between disjointed sleep, between transitioning from days to nights and back again half the time and then 12 hour shifts and then travelling to and from site. Sometimes the food is not too fantastic and the gym routine gets thrown out. On top of that you’re expected to Skype the wife, the husband, the kids and keep some form of sanity. For us, the main thing that we really focus on with our crews is that if anything personal comes up that you need to go sort out. We don’t need to know the specifics but just know you can be flying out at any time.

Brendan: That is amazing. I wouldn’t imagine that many companies would take that approach.

Liam: We have to. First of all the rope access industry is one big family anyway. Secondly I much prefer someone being able to have the ability to leave site and go sort the issues out and then potentially the complete opposite and this thing happening which it does happen the mining or the gas industry a fair bit. It just doesn’t really get too much exposure to be honest. For us, we’ve got all the basic stuff in the background, all the healthy eating and engagement and the real community sense and the recognition programs. On top of that we’ve also got the professional development that goes on internally. We have taken people aside and said look, this is your PD program that we envision you for the next three to five years. We do have traditionally a younger workforce on average. The moment that we find out what they’re all about, what they want to do with their career we can sort of come in and say look, this isn’t just a shot. You’re not just looking for this 10 days of work and then you’re gone away and then come back for another three. We want to bring you on board for the next three to five years and start and develop you as a person and in your career as well.

Brendan: For the younger people listening to the show is it either paid well? I guess it depends on what level you are in some ways.

Liam: It is. Level 3 is obviously gets paid the most because of the way that it works is you can’t actually have a work area set up without a Level 3. Level 1s and 2s you’d be looking at about four weeks’ worth of courses. I’m not too sure of the rights from other companies but it’s very well paid. It’s definitely more than that because down the road we’re working a buzz off it for sure.

Brendan: I guess what you’re saying is with the four weeks of training can anyone pick it up or do you have to have to have a special skillset to do this type of work?

Liam: The entering to the industry is rigging and dogging but we do have the majority of our workforce who tried qualified welders, a few fitters, electricians. As long as someone is pretty savvy with how to use a hand tool the company can take them under their wing and teach them what they need to get done out in the field.

Brendan: It’s not just being on the ropes. It’s actually being able to do stuff while you’re on there as well. Do people tend to stick around for quite a while?

Liam: We found we’ve got a good retention rate in the low 90% simply because we focus so much on the culture of the company. I’m not saying that everyone holds hands and skips off into the sunset. We’re really particular on the culture and just because someone has a rope access ticket doesn’t mean that they come in straight on to our books. We hold everyone against our values as a company and where they’re going to fit in with the crews, ourselves and that is where that social impact program that we’re running currently as well. Our values align with different contractors out and we’re happy to fill gaps and use the company as an instrument for positive change.

Brendan: How do you grow it from here? Is it a challenge getting enough staff?

Liam: We’re doing a lot of trade expos at the moment just raising the awareness. We’re going to schools. We’re going to trade colleges, word of mouth. The website and social media in particular has been massive in getting that out, getting that positive awareness about the industry and the need for people into it as well. There’s not many technicians in Australia that qualify for the rope access at this point in time and definitely not enough to keep up with the works that is going around. For us we’ve really started to think outside the box of where we’re trying to source quality candidates from. We jumped in with the Wirrpanda Foundation. There’s a whole bunch of aboriginal, Torres Islanders and indigenous candidates coming through which we’re taking in and training up. That has been a really successful program for us. Another one we’re currently with Defence Force Transition program pulling in a whole bunch of qualified ADF veterans which for me is a phenomenal program which we’re very proud of.

Brendan: Just tell me a little bit about how that would work. It’s ex-army or ex-military looking for the next step in their career.

Liam: We go through an organization called With You, With Me. They’ve got a database full of veterans. We say to With You, With Me we’ve got this position. These are the qualifications that you need or the training. Go find people on our behalf. They basically act as an HR consultancy agency. They send us all the resumes and in return we hold what we call assessment days. We run them through this is rope access. We do have a lot of people come in. They yes, this is amazing and then they realize that it’s quite a high height that they have to work from. They suddenly realize that they’re scared of heights. Not for them. We basically run through everything that is rope access, answer any questions, put them on the days and part of the With You, With Me is basically they receive government funding to be able to assist that veteran into new employments.

It’s fantastic because from a safety point of view I’ve got people out in the field that have been tried, tested and proven and trained by the best organizations in the southern hemisphere in you can’t argue with the worst situations. If anything goes wrong not that we expect them too but if anything happens out in the field our medical response crosses management incident response. I know I’ve got one or two people in each and every crew, in each and every shift that can essentially take on that situation on my behalf.

Brendan: It sounds to me like the risks are it’s obviously not for the faint hearted, working at heights and being in remote areas but what would you say are the sort of the key safety risks? Is it around that wellbeing angle?

Liam: Everything in Australia, some of the animals, it’s the equipment. For us, the environment in itself is very hazardous. Obviously remote. You’re working away. Emergency service officers, sometimes they can be half an hour away if anything does go wrong. On the mental health side of things the risks doesn’t stop the moment the work and the tools are dropped, put on the floor. That’s it. We’re done for this shift. It’s the source of that governance and that sort of oversight in the camps as well to make sure that our crews are all right. For us the risk, the mental health is huge for us and on top of that obviously the dropped objects and any governance that has got to do with working at height as a whole, making the rope areas are set out, the rope detectors are used, carabineers are properly locked in. Just the absolute basics and to say the rope access technicians as a whole because they face that risk pretty much in the face every second of every shift they’re very open to safety. They’re very open to hearing different viewpoints. If you talk to any roper they will literally talk your head off all afternoon about rope access.

Brendan: I’m also thinking fatigue management would have to be a bit of an issue as well.

Liam: It is. We’re going through a big overhaul internally with the way that we’ve managed the fatigue. We’ve been given a whole bunch of documents from our clients and we’re going through making sure that everything fits over the planning software and the internal management system that we have here. We’re basically going to be saying this is the maximum amount of work that you can work over a three month period.

Brendan: If it’s fly in, fly out work and you were saying 12 hour shifts how long would they typically go on, would they be flying in for?

Liam: It all depends on the shots sometimes. Two to four week long shots, other times it’s two or three days and it’s always the holidays. It’s definitely a range of work especially with the dates and the times and the locations as well.

Brendan: It sounds like there’s never a dull day Liam.

Liam: It’s fantastic. It makes the week go so much quicker. I’ll be a 100 by the time I retire.

Brendan: Where do you see sort of the future going with Tasman Rope Access or just with the industry in general? Do you see anything sort of on the horizon that is of interest or coming up?

Liam: There’s a few things with Tasman going on. Obviously we’re setting up a few more offices across Australia later on the year. That is quite exciting getting involved in the new areas and bringing the rope access industry into new areas which currently don’t have it. From my point of view I’d love to see the social impact program be further cemented into the company. We’re able to bring more candidates through and bring more quality people into the rope access industry from a whole walk of different streams of life. The rope access industry as a whole, it’s amazing now even the innovation. Two years ago rope access was considered innovation now it’s almost rope access the norm. Now we are moving into drones and UAVs and a whole bunch of suspended decking services. We’re going to see a lot more integration of technology definitely into the rope access sector in a way that things work.

Brendan: That sounds amazing. I’ve got five very short questions for you before we wrap up. How old are you?

Liam: I’m 31.

Brendan: What do you like to do to keep fit? It doesn’t sound like you have too much time Liam.

Liam: I’m in the gym every morning, box every second morning. By the time I realize I’m getting punched regularly in the head it’s time to go to work. I’ve got a young dog as well working long shifts and he keeps more than busy at night training him and getting all the energy out of him.

Brendan: How many hours sleep are you getting each night?

Liam: Normally about five to six.

Brendan: Do you have any personal achievements you’re looking to do in the next 12 months?

Liam: University studies mainly and then continue the Zero Harm metric that we have made internally since 2015. Two big ones but we’re working towards it each day.

Brendan: If you could be remembered for one business achievement what do you think that might be? In other words what is your legacy? What do you like to leave behind?

Liam: I like the fact that I’m assisting those who potentially couldn’t get into the industry to be able to come into the industry and get that crack, a brand new lease on life especially that social impact program that we run. That is something which I’m quite proud of internally and the rest of us are as well.

Brendan: If people want to find out a little bit more about Tasman Rope Access what is the website?

Liam: TasmanRopeAccess.com otherwise we’re on Instagram, Facebook and then LinkedIn as well.

Brendan: That is excellent. Liam, thanks very much for coming on the show today.

Liam: Welcome. Thanks for having us Brendan. I appreciate it.

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