The Complexities of Achieving Comfort in Fall Protection Harnesses

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The Complexities of Achieving Comfort in Fall Protection Harnesses

Today’s fall protection equipment user understands the need to use a full body harness and has since ditched the body belt in fall arrest scenarios, yet this worker seems to have an unquenchable thirst for comfort from their harness. That being said, fall protection is an ever-evolving endeavor. The act of arresting the fall of a worker safely requires a connection device, such as a lanyard or self-retracting lifeline (SRL), to absorb as much of the energy developed in the fall as possible. A well-designed full body harness will disperse any remaining energy in a safe manner to the strong and durable areas of the body.

Harnesses manufactures have tried to keep these safety components intact while addressing comfort in many ways. Over time, there have been multitudes of changes, including adding padding, refining the padding, adding stretch and pivot points, reducing the overall weight of the harness and addressing the overall fit. These improvements, along with enhanced hardware, have resulted in a category of harness known as the “comfort harness.” Comfort harnesses have been around for more than 20 years. Harnesses have evolved from feedback of end users, and some of the complaints workers have about harness have been addressed.

However, although advancements in padding, buckles and flex points have been made to help comfort, complaints nevertheless persisted. The chafing type complaints subsided, but those of the sore shoulders, upper back and lower neck area continued. Parallel in timing, the industry was seeing relatively light weight lanyards being replaced by personal fall arrestors (miniature SRLs if you will).

This change meant workers went from very little weight suspended from their dorsal D-ring area with the use of a lanyard to an increase of two to eight pounds when using personal fall arrestor(s) suspended between the shoulder blades at the dorsal D-ring. This increase from two to eight pounds may sound minimal, but several factors can make it problematic, including location of the weight, duration of the task and even the aging of the work force.

Evolution of Addressing Comfort Concerns

As mentioned earlier, initial attempts to increase comfort focused on adding padding, introducing flex/stretch, and improving buckles/hardware to ease adjustment and donning/doffing. One of the regular questions from customers searching for a more comfortable harness was, “how much does this harness weigh?” or “what is your lightest harness?” Hearing these questions so frequently manufacturers realized that a comfort harness wasn’t addressing all the comfort issues.

The difference in weight between two similarly equipped harnesses was rarely more than a pound. Trying to take one pound off the worker by lightening the harness equated to throwing a deck chair off the Titanic to keep it floating. Never mind the deck chair, patch the hole. This problem of lightening the load of the harness prompted safety managers, application engineers and others to encourage the worker to source the best fitting harness possible—not just with size but also adjusting it to ensure the respective parts of the harness were in their proper locations. This helped ensure the padding would best suit the user and that the sub-pelvic strap was located properly to support the worker in the event of a fall arrest event. Also, optimal dorsal D-ring placement would ensure optimal arrest and make connecting easier.

Focusing on proper adjustment and sizing was definitely a step in the right direction towards comfort, but workers wearing personal SRLs still had complaints, especially about the ergonomic variety in the upper back/neck, shoulder region. Fall protection manufactures had made these SRLs about as light as possible. Now what? What else could be done?

The Weight Distribution System (WDS) Solution

In 2014, the concept of relocating fall protection equipment weight away from the “sore” body parts surfaced. At that point, it became about tackling the task of moving the weight from the dorsal D-ring area to the strongest part of the body: the hips. But how?

There was an idea that formed that this could be done by adding a weight distribution system (WDS) to transfer the weight from the dorsal D-ring area to the hips. After engineering mock-ups, several field studies to gather end user feedback and collaboration with different groups, the concept was fine tuned. A small, inconspicuous bar running from the D-ring to padded waist belt proved to radically enhance workers’ experiences.

Testimonials from end users told us the weight was off the shoulders of the worker, and the fatigue they had experienced was helping to be negated. Most of the personal fall arrestor (SRL) weight was moved to the hips, where strong leg muscles could hardly discern a few extra pounds. Workers performing overhead work noticed an unexpected improvement as well. The WDS ensured the weight of their tool belt didn’t get transferred to the deltoid (shoulder) region each and every time they did overhead work. The WDS has since helped pay dividends to mitigate ergonomic nuisances and strain.

Finally, training end users on the risks they face and how to use their PPE properly to avoid accidents and injuries is widely accepted as an important key to modifying behavior and building a strong safety culture. Safety managers’ need to encourage users to embrace the value of training as part of optimal safety culture on a work or job site. Improving comfort and reducing fatigue like the WDS has the ability to help build consensus for a safety culture where working safe is not only accepted by employees but also driven by them.

In fact, according to Ryan Hasse, who is currently a general foreman with Miron Construction but who used to be a connector, reported that after using a harness with this weight distribution system that he ‘”…felt that the weight was not always on my shoulders. [It] distributed the weight off of my lower back. [I] felt normal at the end of the day.”

“Feeling normal at the end of the day,” is the minimum expectation of any PPE. Comfort is important, especially if you are wearing a harness with other fall protection equipment and tools on it. A weight distribution system can make a significant difference for those working at height. So, the next time you have to evaluate your harness needs, make sure to take into account safety, comfort, ergonomics and the weight workers feel when trying to complete their work from height.

This article originally appeared in the June 2020 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

About the Author

Jason Giefer is a 3M Personal Safety Division senior technical service engineer for fall protection. With over 20 years of fall protection PPE experience, he is committed to helping develop products and solutions to help workers safely return home every day to their loved ones.

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