It takes a while before the Englishman Young has freed himself from all the safety ropes and special clothing. Fellow builders who do the ‘ordinary work’ look on aghast. ‘You wouldn’t catch me dangling up there at 80 metres on a rope.’ It’s not the first time that Young has heard comments like this. ‘To me, it’s just business as usual, but I understand their reactions. It’s natural to be afraid of heights; it’s one of the most common fears, so people are intrigued by the fact that I choose to face what they see as a fear every single day.’ Although working at these heights has become normal for Young, he still thrives on it. ‘The freedom, the view and – most of all – being outside. I just love it.’
Abseiling glass-fitter enjoys ‘the freedom’
Entirely at the mercy of the weather, they dangle precariously at high altitudes for a living. ‘They’ are the abseiling construction workers responsible for applying the finishing touches to the outside of the Hourglass building. Aaron Young talks about his unusual profession.
Hobby and skill
The work that he does is a combination of a hobby and a skill. Young: ‘I started out as a glass-fitter in London, which is where I live. Sport climbing was my hobby. When I realised that I could combine my work with my sport, I didn’t have to think twice.’ Young took a number of training courses and got the certificates he needed. He then spent countless hours practising to gain the necessary experience. ‘Once you’ve spent the required hours working at one particular height, you can progress to the next level.’ Figuratively and literally, Young climbed his way up the company Rope Access Contractors, and now he can be deployed at any height.
Despite the apparent danger of his work, Young thinks the chances of an accident are higher on a regular ground-level construction site. ‘As you can see, we are secured to the hilt and there are very stringent back-up safety requirements, so the chances of falling are practically zero.’ Young doesn’t get scared while he’s working. ‘No, that would be a disaster. You have to be on top of your game.’ Being focused is essential. ‘We’re a team that attaches glass to the outside of buildings. We’re regularly up in the air holding enormous sheets of glass or handing them over to each other. And although the sheets are securely anchored, this part of the job is more intimidating to me than working at a great height is.’
To make sure that the men, indeed, stay focused, they are regularly tested for alcohol and drugs. Young: ‘I’m glad about this. Imagine what would happen if one of those sheets of glass fell to the ground because you’d had a skinful the night before.’ Mutual trust within the team is an important factor in Young’s work. ‘There are six of us and we’ve been working together for over 15 years. You know everything there is to know about each other and you trust one another implicitly.’ Young and his team have never had an accident. Touch wood. ‘I count myself lucky, but we’ve definitely had some very tense moments.’
The team hasn’t had any tense moments since starting work in Zuidas, where they are attaching bronze-coloured cornicing to the outside of Hourglass. Young: ‘It’s quite unusual for us to be working in the Netherlands.’ The Dutch company Byldis brought the team over from London specially, because they’d had a good experience working with them before. ‘We normally work in the city centre of London, on buildings that are much higher than Hourglass.’ He takes out a photo of The Shard, a 310-meter glass colossus in London. But this building wasn’t the biggest challenge he’s ever faced. ‘That was when we were working on the Queen Elizabeth bridge in Dartford. We had to work at 150 metres in the middle of nowhere, with no surrounding buildings to protect us from the elements. Every breeze felt like a gale. I still wasn’t scared, but it was sometimes uncomfortable, bleak and tense.’
The men obviously don’t work in all weather conditions. Young: ‘There are very strict rules regarding the weather. Safety is paramount. We stay on the ground if the wind speed goes above 40 km per hour. That might not sound like much, but it is if you’re dangling on a rope. We don’t go up in thunderstorms either.’ But rain is no excuse and it’s business as usual. Young laughs: ‘The weather in Amsterdam has been dreadful these last couple of weeks.’ And it’s quite a tough job, out there in the open air. ‘It’s tiring. When we finish work, we go back to the Olympic hotel around the corner where we’re staying and we all immediately go to our rooms. Get a good night’s sleep.’
Not a professional footballer
Although Young and his team like being in Amsterdam and enjoy the view (on a good day), they are looking forward to returning to London. ‘We travel back and forth quite a lot, but it’s not the same as being at home. I miss my five-year-old son. That’s why I’d never take on a job in Dubai, for example. Luckily, there’s plenty of work in England.’ Young has stopped sport climbing. ‘It started to feel like work. These days, I spend my days off taking my boy to an Arsenal match or going to the pub for a pint with my friends.’ Young’s son isn’t particularly impressed by his dad’s work. ‘He’d rather have a professional footballer for a dad. Ha-ha.’