Hangin’ in there

County engineer inspects covered bridges by rope access

County engineer Winston Sitton examines the underside of Horton Mill Covered Bridge.

County engineer Winston Sitton examines the underside of Horton Mill Covered Bridge.

With the recent changes to the bridge inspection standards, county engineer Winston Sitton was faced with having to find another way to ensure two of the three Blount County covered bridges were safe for travel.

“We used to be able to inspect these bridges visually through long-range cameras or other such equipment,” Sitton says. “However, with the recent changes to the Bridge Inspection Program, we are now required to physically inspect underneath the bridge to determine how safe it is.”

With this knowledge, Sitton had a high problem for Swann Covered Bridge and Horton Mill Covered Bridge. On most bridges, Sitton uses a lift truck, similar to those utilized by power companies. Instead of the lift going up, the lift swoops down and around the side of the bridge for access to the underside. With covered bridges, this technique is impossible. Luckily, Easley Covered Bridge is accessible by ladder. But, with Swann, 30 feet above water, and Horton Mill, 75 feet above water, Sitton was going to have to come up with a different method.

During the Horton Mill Covered Bridge inspection, Sitton dangles 75 feet above water.

During the Horton Mill Covered Bridge inspection, Sitton dangles 75 feet above water.

He decided his best bet was rope access, a technique during which a person hangs below the bridge while ropes attached to the bridge hold them up.

“The only way to touch and see the four beams and hangers to ensure their safety was to use rope access,” Sitton said. “Most bridges don’t have these limitations, but these two were special cases.”

For two days last week, Sitton inspected the two bridges for a total of 13 hours. He says he and the team of rope access experts will be considering different ways to make the inspection faster in the coming years.

No problems were found on either bridge, according to Sitton, but yearly checks will be administered from now on.

Considering this was the first time attempting this type of inspection, a rope access team from Applied Tech Services out of Marietta, Ga., assisted Sitton. He says these type of professionals are rare throughout the United States, and none were available within the state.