Personal Fall Limiters

Many workers say they prefer this alternative to shock-absorbing lanyards for fall protection.

PROVIDING flood control, navigation, and electric power to 8.3 million people throughout the southeastern United States requires the 13,000 employees at the Tennessee Valley Authority--the nation's largest public power company--to work at low to moderate heights. These workers require easy-to-use, comfortable, and versatile safety equipment. They prefer to incorporate personal fall limiters (self-retracting lanyards), instead of traditional shock-absorbing lanyards, as the key component in their fall protection system.

"If we relied on shock-absorbing lanyards for all of our fall protection needs, our workers would possibly strike the ground before the lanyard activated," said Chad Isaacs, safety manager at the TVA Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant in Decatur, Ala. "The personal fall limiter complies with scaffolding fall protection requirements and arrests free-falls within inches."

TVA recently added new personal fall limiters to its inventory. These lightweight alternatives to shock-absorbing lanyards require less fall clearance, limiting free-falls to inches. They also offer more versatility and provide greater mobility than traditional shock-absorbing lanyards with 9 feet of working capacity.

Developed in response to workers' needs for readily accessible products that solve fall clearance issues on work sites, personal fall limiters offer more-convenient, affordable, and competitively priced alternatives to shock-absorbing lanyards, Isaacs said.

"I was first introduced to the fall limiter at an on-site industry event," he said. "I immediately recognized how its reduced fall clearance would benefit my workers and ordered 50 on the spot."

Calculating Fall Clearance: A Critical Issue
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration requires that self-retracting lifelines limit free-fall to 2 feet or less and deceleration to 3 1/2 feet, for a total line payout of 5 1/2 feet (not including the worker's height and a 3-foot safety factor).

Most self-retracting lifelines meet this requirement, but a personal fall limiter arrests a free fall within inches and has a maximum total extension of 12 inches or less. In comparison, a shock-absorbing lanyard requires more than 18 1/2 feet of fall clearance, including the length of the lanyard (6 feet), deceleration distance of the shock absorber (3 1/2 feet), height of the average worker (6 feet), and a safety factor (3 feet).

In head-to-head comparison with shock-absorbing lanyards, PFLs provide the greatest advantage and versatility with their dual operation feature. A PFL can:

  • attach directly to the harness back D-ring for use as a fall limiter, or
  • be used as a traditional retractable lifeline, in combination with a variety of anchorage connectors.

The ultra-smooth, ultra-quiet, lightweight design of a personal fall limiter is virtually undetectable, but it is highly durable with a stainless steel and aluminum body encased in a high-impact polymer cover. Additionally, some manufacturers protect the lifeline with a finish that provides superior water and oil repellency, as well as added protection against grease, dirt, and grime.

Whether conducting outage and maintenance activities or working new construction projects, scaffolding employees prefer using personal fall limiters instead of lanyards because they reduce the risk of the worker's lifelines getting tangled, have a greater range of motion for improved productivity, and have a shorter free-fall distance than standard lanyards. For example, if a worker wearing a shock-absorbing lanyard falls, he could be dangling far below the original work surface until co-workers rescue him. With a PFL, the decreased free-fall distance means a worker could probably perform a self-rescue and pull himself to safety.

Employees are required to use fall protection whenever a walking working surface is 4 feet or more above the ground and has an unprotected side, which includes working in hoist areas, on the surface of certain equipment, and virtually all aspects of demolition and new construction.

Shawn Simms, site and safety manager with a major project management and construction services firm, finds his 7,500 employees worldwide prefer personal fall limiters. "Not only is the PFL lighter than competitive products, it provides greater working capacity than traditional lanyards--9 feet versus 6 feet," said Simms. "The electrical contractors prefer the versatility of the new PFL because they can use it while maneuvering in the ductwork on job sites.

"The contractors recognize the benefits of the PFL and want to test it on-site, and many have purchased them because they are safer and easier to use," Simms added. "Most importantly, workers want to use them."

Scaffolding Safety Facts

  • An estimated 2.3 million construction workers climb on scaffolding frequently to perform construction and myriad other duties.1
  • In 2002, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration cited 7,953 builders for scaffolding violations; it was the leading reason for citations that year and indicated a 10 percent increase from 2001.2
  • Failure to provide fall protection was the leading OSHA scaffold violation, with 1,270 citations in 2002.2
  • OSHA estimates unsafe scaffolds cause 9,750 injuries and at least 79 deaths per year.2
  • Scaffolding workers represent about 65 percent of the construction industry's employees.1
  • Protecting these workers from scaffolding-related accidents would prevent 4,500 injuries and 50 deaths per year.1
  • A Bureau of Labor Statistics study indicated 72 percent of workers injured in scaffolding accidents attributed the accident either to the planking or support giving way, being struck by a falling object, or slipping.1
  • When directly compared with shock-absorbing lanyards, the personal fall limiter (PFL) offers a lightweight, cost-effective alternative with less fall clearance, greater mobility, and reduced tripping hazards.

1. Occupational Safety and Health Administration,
2. Nation's Building News Online,

No Annual Factory Recertification Required
As an affordable, competitively priced alternative to shock-absorbing lanyards, the PFL was the choice Tom Graf, area manager for Kokosing Construction Co. Inc., ordered based on value-added benefits. "Simply stated, this is an inexpensive, yet effective self-retracting lanyard. It's extremely lightweight and well-made," said Graf. "With no annual recertification required, it will prove to be very cost-effective in the long run."

With approximately 2,000 workers in Ohio and surrounding states, Graf chooses PFLs that do not require an annual factory recertification because they offer cost and time savings in maintenance. He also prefers PFLs that include a load indicator, which visually identifies units that have been involved in a fall and must be removed from service.

Another Ohio-based company that rents more than 2,500 pieces of equipment, including scaffolding, PFLs, and lanyards, chooses PFLs for similar reasons. "No annual recertification is a key feature because it ultimately saves time, cost, and paperwork," said Steve Leverone, vice president of sales for Schulhoff Tool Rental Inc. in Cincinnati. "Equipment is often purchased at different intervals throughout the year. When one needs to be serviced, there's a possibility that it's out on a job site.

"The no-annual-recertification feature eliminates the time lost and resources spent to track, collect, package, ship roundtrip, and then document and re-distribute the units," Leverone added.

Recertification costs vary by manufacturer and repair center. For example, if every one of 100 units sent in for recertification costs $62, the end user would incur $6,200. Owners need to add two-way shipping, which depends on when the units were initially purchased and generally occurs at various times throughout the year. Units can be shipped individually or in multiples and from varying distances. At an average of $6.30 per unit, the company has an additional $630 in shipping costs.

Because the company is unable to use these units during the recertification process, a minimum of 10 additional units must be available to use in the interim at a cost of $1,417. These same 10 backup units also will need to be recertified, with $620 in repair fees and $63 for shipping, padding another $683 onto the recertification bill.

For every 100 units kept in service, the total is more than $7,500 annually or every two years, depending on the manufacturer's policy. This fee doesn't include the time and materials involved in arranging, packaging, and shipping the units for recertification.

Developing better, safer, and faster fall protection equipment remains the key component in any fall protection system. For safety personnel and workers alike, personal fall limiters (self-retracting lanyards) are a safe method of fall protection and have received increased acceptance on job sites nationwide.

This article originally appeared in the July 2003 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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