‘I’m not afraid of heights but I am afraid of dying’
Niall McDonagh is not a man who takes unnecessary risks. In fact, he would say himself that he takes as close to zero risk as possible. Not the words you might imagine coming from a man who has forged a living suspended by rope from the tops of buildings, or the sides of notoriously fragile islands.
“A lot of the work we do, perhaps all of it really, is highly specialised work at heights,” he says. That highly-specialised work, as it happened, contributed to our interview date being delayed as McDonagh was needed on Skellig Michael where terrain is too dangerous for scaffolds to be erected.
Niall McDonagh Roofing and Rope Access Services steps in “where clients struggle working at heights, to carry them out safely, we come in with a proper risk assessment to complete the work safely.”
“We’re qualified, competent, and experienced to do it,” he says. “Rope access is very uncommon here in Ireland compared with the international context.”
He describes the initial scepticism and reaction when he started in rope access eight years ago when people would say ‘that crazy fella chancing his arm’.
“People know very little about it, including rope access being set out in the working at height regulation from 2007 as a safe method of work,” McDonagh adds. “My biggest job is educating the client, if I can educate the client then that’s half the battle.”
Roll back the clock to ask the question why, and the answer invariably comes down to family. Why pursue a living providing rope access services? The answer is precisely that – to provide a living for his family. That decision took place in the wake of the global recession.
The domestic construction trade was in turmoil and McDonagh’s skills in carpentry and roofing unspent as work dried up with the downturn in new housing estates being built. The few odd requests for some roofing repair work become a reliable demanding market.
The only way he could commit to this new revenue stream was to do so in a way that guaranteed a return home safe to his family. “This had to happen. I needed to work, and I needed to go home to my family safely after,” he says. “It was important to me to be as safe as possible. With scaffolding there is still a significant risk of falling.”
Rope access presented the opportunity for a safe and viable living to provide for his family. The technology is centred on safety. “There are anti-panic devices on the ropes that prevent a fall in the case of panic because panic at a height can be fatal otherwise,” he says.
The ‘anti-panic devices’ lock the user out of the ropes, suspended safely from whatever height the panic set in. “It’s safety all the way with rope access. We are the only certified member of the Industrial Rope Access Trade Association (IRATA) in the Republic of Ireland,” he adds. “It took us three years to get that certification as it’s held to a very high standard.”
A decision once more necessitated by McDonagh’s number one concern, returning home safely to family. There are other benefits, to clients in particular, in rope access over scaffolding that can often come down to time costs.
Especially relevant in otherwise minor, or niche, works that need to be carried out. Replacing roofing tiles for example. Scaffolds might put the whole building out of commission for the duration, not so with ropes. “With rope access, performed to the safety standards we employ, you’re talking hours instead of the days or weeks lost to scaffolding.”
Ultimately, he says that “the only cost that matters first and foremost is the human cost of any project. Once you employ the safety techniques and standards that ensure safety that’s the most important part of any job.”
Rope access is not uncommon in the international context but, McDonagh adds: “Ireland for whatever reason has been slow to adopt these systems.”
As a result, people often ask him whether he has a fear of heights? To which his response is always the same. “I’m not afraid of heights, I’m afraid of dying.”
“If I didn’t have my rope equipment on and my trusted colleagues with me, then yes, I would be afraid of the height because it’s a natural human self-protection system.
“That’s the testament to how highly I rate the ropes and the people I work with.” Once more it all comes down to the importance of returning home safely.
“Human life is too valuable, especially when you’re a parent you realise how delicate life is. It’s just so important to look after it,” he says. “We’re not here for a long time, so it’s important to be there for your family.”
He languishes at the sight of “people taking risks all the time working at heights. I just think, my God! Have they no sense whatsoever?”
When it comes to his work with ropes there are “checks, on checks, on checks for safety before any job.” Because as he adds: “What’s the cost of life? It’s surely worth more than the extra 30 minutes to carry out those checks. I have great faith in the ropes. It’s almost a comfort to be on them because I know the capabilities of this technology.”
The challenge remains in recruiting clients to share his confidence. “There are plenty of clients that are too afraid to change from the costly slow systems that they have been going on doing for the last 20 years,” says Niall McDonagh.
Although in an Irish context “some younger companies are a bit more open to the innovation.” This is another reason for becoming an IRATA certified member. “It’s too high risk of a job to work at a height and not take safety seriously. I want to be around for the future of my family,” he says.