Fall Protection for Wood Pole Climbing

With the right equipment and a combination of three basic methods, it's a cinch.

When considering overhead work such as pole climbing, it's apparent fall hazards are present at all times. However, these hazards are often overlooked and underestimated as experienced climbers become too complacent up in the air. Employers can help protect workers by addressing these hazards and providing means to prevent accidents.

With the right equipment and a combination of three basic methods, it is a cinch.While bucket trucks are often used to work on utility poles without climbing, sometimes climbing is the only way to get the job done. Climbing a wood pole requires skill that takes a person time to develop; however, regardless of skill level, all climbers are susceptible to falls. Fall protection systems used on wood poles can add a degree of difficulty to an already challenging task, although recent improvements are making these systems easier to use, while new options make wood pole fall protection more practical in the field.

A combination of three basic methods can be used to help prevent fall accidents when climbing and working on wood poles: work positioning, fall arrest, and fall restrict.

Work positioning allows the climber to work hands free by securing a positioning strap around a pole. This system requires the strap to be placed over an object that is capable of supporting the climber's weight during a fall. Work positioning systems must limit the fall distance to 2 feet or less.

Fall arrest is now an option for wood poles. On poles with significant obstructions, such as vines, foliage, or equipment where linemen need more mobility, vertical lifeline systems allow the worker to free climb without a second positioning strap. A wood pole fall arrest system works by securing a rope positioning tube and dielectric lifeline at the top of a pole. The worker raises the tube from the ground and drops it over a suitable anchorage point near the top of the pole using an extendable hot stick tool inserted into one end of the tube in order to manipulate it into position. While the hot stick is still extended, it is used to capture an eye in the lifeline, which is then retracted to the ground. A carabiner is used to choke the lifeline back at the top of the pole. A rope grab with an integrated shock-absorbing lanyard is connected to the dorsal D-ring of a full-body harness and lifeline, allowing the climber to move safely into position around virtually any obstruction. This fall arrest system provides easy, fast climbing without requiring connections, disconnections, and adjustments each time a lineman passes an obstacle on the pole.

Most linemen still use body belts when climbing poles, but full-body harnesses with integrated tool belts are becoming more popular. Harnesses provide an advantage by better supporting the weight of a climber's tools, and they also make wood pole rescue much safer.

Fall restrict uses the climber's body weight to mechanically cinch a device around a pole to stop the fall in the event of a cut-out (when a worker loses contact with the pole). When used correctly, these systems are effective and offer the highest degree of versatility for the climber. Fall restrict systems consist of two pieces: an exterior strap and an interior strap. The exterior strap makes contact with the pole as it is raised or lowered into position using a "hitchhiking" motion. This strap also contains the adjustable hardware and points that connect to the interior strap. The interior strap pulls the exterior strap together to create the cinching action. It is also the portion that connects to the climber's body belt and provides additional adjustment for the climber to control his distance from the pole. To maintain 100 percent fall protection, fall restrict systems require a second positioning strap when transferring over or under obstructions.

Fall Restrict Selection Criteria
When selecting a fall restrict system, consider the following:

  • Ease of use. Lack of adjustability is the most frequent complaint from fall restrict users. Many belts require long periods to "break in" before the material is soft enough for the hardware to slide along the strap. This problem is often compounded by a secondary loss of adjustability after the material becomes softened.
  • Ergonomics. Watch out for belts that require extra movements when transferring over obstructions. Taking the belt out of adjustment and having to readjust it every time it is transferred adds additional movement and time to the transfer.
  • Simplicity. Fewer mechanical pieces mean contending with fewer problems and less weight.
  • Function. Not all fall restricting belts are created equal. Some systems may not meet the stringent CSA-Z259.14-01 standard for this type of equipment. This certification should be a prerequisite when considering a fall restricting belt.
  • Strength. Look for ANSI Z359.1-07 stamped on the connectors; such gates are rated for 3,600 pounds in every direction. This should be a consideration because these systems require multiple connections, and gate loading could become an issue if connections are inferior.
  • Versatility. The newest fall restrict systems offer the ability to change the size of the exterior strap, which allows the worker to climb large-diameter transmission poles without having to purchase a separate pole climbing system. The optional transmission strap rolls up and takes up very little space for storage.

Effective fall protection equipment for workers who climb wood poles has been one of the most difficult challenges facing the electrical utility industry. Because of the latest equipment advances, the feasibility of protecting these workers has become a reality and should be considered a priority. After all, it is the employer's responsibility to be aware of potential hazards workers face and provide the proper equipment to protect them.

This article originally appeared in the January 2011 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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