Meet the Qualitative Researchers: Andrew LaBonte

Andrew is a PhD Student at Public Services Management and Organization Research Group, researching positive health and safety practices in the rope access industry. Rope access refers to any work that is performed at height where people need to use rock climbing equipment to access the job site and keep safe there. He specialised in video methods during a Master’s in Human Geography Research Methods.

Sohail: Tell me a bit about what you do.

Andrew: In short I am researching how rope access safety is learned.

Despite the many dangers of working at extreme height, the rope access industry has a very good safety record, which makes it quite interesting. We want to know what it is they are doing well, how do they learn that, and how do people get socialised into this community of practice. Basically, how do people learn the norms of practice that keep them safe in this extreme context of work.

In the broader field of health and safety studies, there is a realisation that a lot of the research is quite negatively focussed and that it is very often focussed on the statistics of accidents, or case studies of disasters. So we have a good idea of what happens when things go poorly, but less is known about what good health and safety practice looks like.

I use ethnomethodology and conversational analysis (EMCA), to study the learning of the skill of safety. To collect my data, I have to use lots of video cameras. So I go into the training centres where people do this kind of training and ask people to wear Go-Pros on their helmets and police style body cameras on their harnesses and I hang 360°degree cameras at different places from the training centre. All of those perspective help give me different points-of-view at key moments of learning.

Sohail: What lead you to research in this area, are you a climber?

Andrew: Yes! I have been climber for 20 years, I was a rock-climbing instructor for eight years, and I worked in the roofing industry for 3 years as a project manager for a general contractor. After completing my master’s, a friend sent me a link to an ad that King’s Busines School were looking for research proposals for a studentship, and they were interested in a qualitative video studies of work practice. Rope access work was the natural choice because I have a lot of friends who do that sort of work and they make it seem very interesting. Which it is!

In London, one of the big rope access jobs is window cleaning. So after I got my rope access qualification as part of my PhD research, I worked as a window cleaner on some London high-rise buildings for a while. It is physically tiring but mentally it is quite relaxing when you get in the flow of it. It does get a bit uncomfortable in the winter when your hands are cold from being wet all the time!

Sohail: Why did you focus on health and safety?

Andrew: From a social science point of view the interactional aspects of safety are really interesting. When I worked in the roofing industry, I often had to get on the roofs with insurance adjusters who didn’t want to cover something. We’d be up on the roof together and we’d be arguing as adversaries professionally, but in terms of getting on and off the roof together, and holding the ladders for each other, we were still working together to maintain each other’s safety. I just think that when there is the possibility of someone getting seriously hurt or dying, it changes the way people interact with each other. Those sort of extreme contexts are really interesting to study the social order and the interaction of people.

Sohail: How did you get into climbing and roofing?

Andrew: I was born in New Hampshire in the USA, and there is a lot of outdoor climbing there, and I was involved in boy scouts. And I thought it was really fun, and that the instructors were really cool people. So while at university, I worked at an outdoor centre during the summer. Then, after university in Canada, I moved back to the United Arab Emirates, where I grew up since I was 10. At the time, a new outdoor education centre had just opened up that was training the Emirati military. They were looking for outdoor instructors and even though I didn’t have any instructing qualification, my Arabic was passable, so I got a job as a translator. Later on I was able to go to the UK on my holidays and get some qualifications so I eventually became a full instructor. I did that work for almost five years.

Sohail: That’s a very interesting journey to your PhD! Looking forward, what would you like your research to achieve?

Andrew: I hope my research will show some of the complexity that is involved in rope access safety are show how complex of a social achievement it is to learn and teach these embodied skills. It’s a different kind of competence that can’t really be taught in a classroom or assessed in a written test but the people who have this competence are able to recognize it in others. As a social scientist I find it fascinating to use video and qualitative methods to study the kind of social interactions where that phenomenon is visible.