Construction usually involves the use of scaffolding. Scaffolds are structures that are mostly made of metal in Europe nowadays and provide construction workers with easy access to the building site at higher floors. Working in buildings is convenient thanks to scaffolding, especially since the floor grows with the height of the building. However, the higher the building, the more complex the construction of the scaffolding becomes to ensure that the structural analysis is appropriate. Scaffolding becomes disproportionately more expensive with each floor. As a result, the cost-benefit ratio is no longer optimal above a certain height.

Above a certain height, scaffolding reaches the limits of its physical capabilities. When building skyscrapers, for example, it becomes unthinkable to actually assemble scaffolding from the ground to the top. Moreover, the subsoil or ground conditions may make the use of scaffolding impossible or at least extremely difficult. As a result, the possible uses of scaffolding are limited. Therefore, the construction industry is relying on alternatives that are as flexible as possible and, above all, efficient and inexpensive. One such alternative is scaffold-free construction with the help of industrial climbers.

In this article, we explain how this construction method works, what exactly the industrial climber is and does, as well as how this type of construction and the job of the industrial climber differs in different countries.

Dmitry Ivanov., CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Industrial climbers instead of scaffolding

Nowadays, industrial climbers are increasingly employed instead of using scaffolding. There are several reasons for this, which we will get to later. However, the fact is that industrial climbing is becoming ever more vital for the construction industry. Until five decades ago, industrial climbers lived an absolutely niche existence. But this has changed with the construction of skyscrapers. Today, industrial climbers are indispensable for the construction of modern skyscrapers, wind turbines and other tall structures.

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Construction using industrial climbers differs substantially from construction using scaffolding. When building with scaffolding, the scaffolding grows along with the height of the building. This means that the construction workers always have access to the outside of the building. Conventional scaffolding built by a scaffolder reaches about 20 to 40 metres, depending on the type of scaffolding and the legal situation. Buildings that are higher have to rely either on special scaffolding, or on construction cranes and industrial climbers. The climbers do not stand on a fixed scaffold, but are attached to the building façade with a safety device such as a rope or a safety basket and build the building at dizzying heights. Special training is required for this in many countries. From the point of view of the construction project manager, however, this type of building is worthwhile in numerous instances compared to building with the help of scaffolding.

Why do industrial climbers come into action?

Industrial climbers are employed because they offer numerous advantages in some situations compared to construction with scaffolding. This applies, for example, to the construction of high-rise buildings. Nowadays, skyscrapers reach several hundred metres. The tallest skyscraper in the world, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, UAE, is 828 metres high. It is unthinkable to build scaffolding that reaches such heights; the scaffolding would collapse under its own weight with today’s materials, gusts of wind would knock the scaffolding over and the movements of the building could damage the scaffolding. Industrial climbers are therefore useful in the construction of skyscrapers. In addition to the construction of skyscrapers, however, this type of construction offers a number of additional advantages. Industrial climbing is also suitable for the construction of other tall structures such as wind turbines, telephone towers, high-voltage power lines or drilling platforms.

In some cases, scaffolding would be possible, but construction using industrial climbers might be more affordable. This is true when aggravating factors make scaffolding more expensive, for example when the ground is unstable, when space is tight or when other reasons influence the cost equation. So there are many reasons why construction project managers choose to use industrial climbers instead of scaffolding.

What is an industrial climber?

Industrial climbers work at height without scaffolding, cranes or lifting platforms. Only a system of two ropes and a suitable harness provides the industrial climber with the necessary protection against falls. Industrial climbing originated in England and was also widely used in East Germany about 15 years later. In Western Europe, industrial climbing was less widespread than in the Eastern Bloc. After reunification, this method of work was initially discontinued in Germany because various interest groups did not want to accept this form of work. Industrial climbing was revived in Germany in 1995 with the founding of FISAT. In the 1990s, industrial climbing became more widespread in other European countries as well.

In most countries, industrial climbers first undergo intensive training consisting of several courses, with an examination at the end of each course. Before the training, a basic test of suitability for heights is carried out. All equipment such as harnesses, ropes and various other aids for abseiling and rope climbing are also subject to strict safety regulations and are constantly checked for functionality.

Industrial climbers are very versatile. The rope climbing technique allows fast and flexible climbing both vertically and horizontally. 

Is industrial climbing dangerous?

Industrial climbing, also known as tower climbing, has been repeatedly described as one of the most dangerous professions in the world. But how dangerous is industrial climbing really? Although there are no worldwide statistics, there are regular reports in the media about industrial climbers who suffered accidents. However, the media’s image distorts reality somewhat. The majority of accidents happen in countries where safety regulations are less strict than in Europe, or in countries where safety regulations are insufficiently enforced. Moreover, accidents are usually isolated incidents; the hundreds of thousands of times when nothing happens are, of course, not reported.

In Europe, safety regulations are extremely strict. Lessons are learned from past accidents and numerous improvements have been introduced to ensure that industrial climbing is safe. All necessary hooks and ropes are provided with multiple and redundant protection, climbers are well-trained and factors such as wind, rain, humidity and temperature are always considered.

Industrial climbing still involves certain risks and is certainly more dangerous than an office job. However, the common opinion in society that industrial climbers gamble with their lives is wrong. Most industrial climbers are absolutely capable, competent and responsible people who can rely on a trustworthy team. In short, industrial climbing has its risks, but it is much less dangerous than is often assumed.

Are industrial climbers more expensive than scaffolding?

Whether using industrial climbers is more expensive or cheaper than building a scaffold always depends on the situation. For smaller buildings, scaffolding usually costs less than industrial climbers or special cranes. For larger and higher buildings, however, the construction of a simple scaffold in Europe can quickly cost several tens of thousands of euros. If there are also aggravating conditions, such as loose ground or strong winds, the costs may rise even further. Above a certain height, the construction of a scaffold is no longer economically viable. However, it is not possible to universally state when this cost limit is reached. The builder must calculate these costs in the scope of planning, considering the individual peculiarities of the building project and the local costs for scaffolding and industrial climbers.

Depending on the country and company, industrial climbers earn around 15 to 50 euros per hour. Safety surcharges and insurance premiums are often added. A scaffold costs about 10 to 20 euros per square metre, with higher scaffolds the cost per square metre increases. 

Scaffolding is therefore paid per square metre, plus the scaffolding rent. Industrial climbers are only paid on a temporal contract rate. For constructions that do not last very long, such as masts for high-voltage power lines or wind turbines, industrial climbers are therefore often cheaper.

Scaffold-less construction in international comparison

Scaffold-less construction using industrial climbers emerged in Britain in the mid-20th century. It first spread to the United States and Eastern Europe. In the Eastern bloc, construction using industrial climbers was more widespread than in the West of the European continent, which was more sceptical about the new technique. This is illustrated by the example of Germany. In the German Democratic Republic, scaffold-less construction was used, whereas this technique did not yet exist in the Federal Republic of Germany. After reunification, the technique was banned throughout Germany before it was finally reintroduced in 1995.

But what about today? Has construction through industrial climbers been able to establish itself in Europe? This is what we are investigating with the example of various European countries. We refer to various current statistics from reliable sources. The focus of our investigation lies on Europe.

United Kingdom

Great Britain is considered the place of origin of modern industrial climbing. The technique of constructing buildings with climbers instead of scaffolding was developed here. Like almost everywhere else in the world, the majority of all buildings in the UK are constructed with the help of regular scaffolding. Nevertheless, a study by BFT Mastclimbing has calculated that around 120 million British pounds could be saved each year in England if industrial climbers were used instead of scaffolding. This does not mean that construction using industrial climbers is not being applied at all. The technique has been used especially in the construction of skyscrapers. London is considered one of the European cities with the most high-rise buildings. Without industrial climbers, this boom in skyscrapers in London would hardly have been possible.

The United Kingdom is also a pioneer in the safety of industrial climbers. With the Work at Height Regulations 2005, a clear basis was created for work carried out at height. This includes both the construction and work with scaffolding, as well as the job profile of the industrial climber. The training is divided into several levels and specializations, which are offered by several associations and private companies.

Germany

In Germany, construction using industrial climbers emerged during the period of divided Germany in the German Democratic Republic. The technique spilled over from Great Britain and was seen by the regime as an effective and cheap method of constructing tall prefabricated buildings and impressive structures. Although construction with the help of scaffolding was the main focus in the GDR as well, there were numerous scaffolders in the German Democratic Republic.

In West Germany, on the other hand, the technique of building using industrial climbers was not allowed. After reunification in 1989, the technique was thus also banned in the former GDR, as industry associations opposed it. About 6 years later, FISAT was founded. FISAT stands for Fach- und Interessenverband für seilunterstützte Arbeitstechniken e.V. FISAT is commercially involved in the practical aspects of using ropes for working and rescuing. In addition, FISAT draws up safety guidelines for industrial climbing and provides training up to and including examination regulations for rope access technicians. In Germany as well as in other countries, FISAT is involved in committees and working groups regarding the further development of rope-assisted working techniques and the continuous improvement of safety and health protection at workplaces at height.

Austria

Industrial climbers are used in a wide variety of fields in Austria, including façade cleaning, high-altitude assembly, pigeon repelling, roof repairs and corrosion protection. However, construction using industrial climbers is less widespread in Austria. One reason for this is that there are fewer high-rise buildings in Austria than in Great Britain or Germany. In addition, the services of industrial climbers are expensive in Austria, as special and intensive training is required for height workers.

Industrial climbers were employed in projects such as the DC Tower 1, but the majority of high-rise buildings are primarily built using crane techniques. Scaffold-less construction is highly regulated in Austria and does not represent a major part of the construction industry. The technique is not prohibited per se, but it remains unattractive for many larger construction projects. In Austria, scaffold-less construction is mainly used for smaller scale works, such as the construction of fire escapes, the assembly of temporary platforms or the construction of lifts.

Switzerland

In Switzerland, scaffold-less construction is gradually gaining acceptance. In almost all Swiss cantons, at least one building has already been constructed using this technique. Until about two decades ago, scaffold-less construction with industrial climbers was hardly an option in Switzerland. However, this has changed in the last two decades. More and more buildings are being constructed using this technique. Buildings where industrial climbers have been deployed include the Prime Tower in Zurich, the high-rise residential buildings Hochzwei in Lucerne and the Roche Towers in Basel.

According to Swiss law, façade scaffolding is actually required above a height of 3 metres. However, the law allows the state accident insurer SUVA to investigate deviations from the general scaffolding requirements in special cases and to issue written exemptions if necessary. The prerequisite for this is that the protection goals of workers and the public can be achieved or exceeded with the alternative solution chosen, and that no additional hazards or exposure times arise. The safety components used must comply with the standard SN EN13374. If the side protection elements of the façade arrangement are set back from the edges, they should mainly serve as zone barriers. Appropriately trained personnel must be used for work on the rope guard.

Italy

The Italian Insurance against Occupational Accidents (INAIL) stipulates that all building construction sites must have scaffolding if a construction height of two metres is exceeded. Yet, industrial climbers are employed in Italy. How is this possible? Industrial climbers in Italy are primarily hired for cleaning and inspecting high structures. The installation of smaller building components also falls within the remit of industrial climbers in Italy. However, in Milan, where many high-rise buildings are located, industrial climbers are also regularly employed on active construction sites of skyscrapers

Similar to Switzerland, special permits for scaffold-less construction can be issued in Italy if the requirements of the building authorities and INAIL are met. However, such permits are usually only granted if scaffold-less construction is the only realistic option. In Italy, scaffolding is usually used for smaller buildings that are, nevertheless, over 2 metres high. The details of scaffolding and working at heights are regulated in Italy in the Uniform Text on Occupational Health and Safety and in Legislative Decree No. 81 of 9 April 2008

France

In France, scaffold-free construction is less popular than in other European countries. There are many high-rise buildings in France, especially in Paris. Industrial climbers are often hired for the cleaning and maintenance of these buildings. For the 2021 Tour Silex 2 in Lyon, industrial climbers also supported the construction work. During construction, however, cranes and stationary trestles were primarily used.

The big boom in scaffold-free construction with industrial climbers has not yet happened in France. Although there are high-rise buildings and elevated structures in France, the legislation regarding this type of construction is particularly restrictive. However, it may well be that the laws will be relaxed in the future and we will see a shift towards scaffold-free construction in France as well.

Non-European countries

Although scaffold-less construction with the help of industrial climbers originated in Great Britain, the technique has long since become established outside Europe. Examples of countries that use scaffold-less construction on a large scale include the United States of America, the United Arab Emirates, China and India.  Depending on the country, the safety requirements for industrial climbers are more or less strict. 

The technique is most common in the construction of skyscrapers. In China, for example, scaffold-less construction with industrial climbers is replacing the bamboo scaffolding traditionally used in many places. Scaffold-less construction is considered safer and cheaper than bamboo scaffolding in a number of respects, especially for buildings over 40 metres. In the United Arab Emirates, on the other hand, the technique is used to construct difficult ground plans of futuristic-looking buildings. Here, building with the help of industrial climbers opens up new possibilities and also helps to cut costs. The same applies to the United States of America, one of the countries where scaffold-free construction is particularly widespread. Industrial climbers are used in the construction of numerous high-rise buildings in the United States, where they support cranes and workers on local platforms.

Table: Industrial climber vs. scaffold

  Scaffolding Industrial Climber
Price 10 to 20 euros per square metre + rent 15 to 50 euro per hour
Height Depending on the country, up to about 20 to 40 metres No height limit
Is the technology safe? Yes Yes
Suitable for high-rise buildings? No Yes
Suitable for small houses? Yes No

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Building without scaffolding – an increasingly popular construction method: Conclusion

In most cases, construction involves the erection of scaffolding that gives workers access to the building area. In the middle of the 20th century, however, the technique of scaffold-free construction with the help of industrial climbers emerged in Great Britain. In Western Europe, a certain scepticism prevailed at first, but from the 1990s the technique became more and more popular here as well. Scaffold-free construction with industrial climbers is particularly suitable for the construction of high-rise buildings and the installation of building components at great heights.

Building without scaffolding often relies on the work of industrial climbers. Industrial climbers are skilled workers who carry out construction at dizzying heights while secured with a safety device. This job has its risks, but thanks to constant improvements, the profession of industrial climber is no longer a gamble with life.

Nevertheless, there are countries like Austria and France that heavily regulate this construction method. Countries like Germany and the UK take a more pragmatic approach. In Switzerland and Italy, scaffolding is actually mandatory, but special permits have made scaffold-free construction possible. Countries like China, the United Arab Emirates or the United States of America use this construction technique on a large scale.

Since this new technique in numerous instances has numerous advantages over traditional construction with scaffolding, it is assumed that scaffold-free construction with the help of industrial climbers will probably become more widespread in the coming decades. Scaffold-free construction is uncomplicated and often cheaper and safer than working on a scaffold. The growth of this technique in Europe over the last two to three decades is a testament to its enormous potential.

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