Harnessing the Technology

This RFID-based system is designed as a lifeline for safety directors.

HARNESSES, lifelines, and other fall protection components are only as good as the life they have in them. One U.S. company is trying to add to that truism by showing safety directors that such equipment may only be as good as the RFID tags it has in it--tags that, when read by a handheld PDA, tell them something about the gear's life, including when it was last inspected, its assignment history, and other information.

The company is Capital Safety of Red Wing, Minn. The system is called i-Safe™, and how it works is this: Passive RFID (radio frequency identification) tags, or transponders, programmed with a unique ID that registers model type and history are embedded in or attached to each piece of the company's fall protection gear; a portable PDA reader scans the tags in the gear on site, logging inspections and equipment assignments by worker or location with one click; this data is then linked to a customized Web portal hosted on the Capital Safety site (www.capitalsafety.com). The portal, which is available to i-Safe users at no cost and password protected to individual companies, provides instant access to inspection and training records on a scanned piece of equipment, plus any product advisories, official regulations, and related safety information.

Capital Safety began beta-testing the system with select companies earlier this year and says response has been enthusiastic. The insulated, weather-resistant RFID tags are already standard in all of its new DBI-SALA-brand harnesses, and, according to Bill Schultz, global vice president of marketing, all other DBI-SALA products--lanyards, lifelines, and even hard goods--will include the tags by the end of the year.

"This system is bringing fall protection into the information age," Schultz said. "The feedback we're getting really falls back on what we're calling the three I's of the system--inspections, inventory, and information. Users are saying, 'This now easily gives me the ability to control my inspections; it systematically takes me through the criteria by which all fall protection products are inspected consistently, time after time, regardless of who's conducting that inspection, and at the same time, it's giving me real-time access to my records.'

"Before, OSHA would show up and say, 'Let me check your inspection logs on your harnesses,' for example, and, without this technology, it could be rather challenging to do that. In a big construction project, a big stadium project, you're dealing with literally hundreds of harnesses. That's where the benefits of this system really come into play, because now safety directors can comply with the requests and do it in a real-time mode. They simply go back into the portal and say, 'Please print out my inspection list for all products on, say, Site 21,' and it's done."

Schultz added that the system also makes equipment transfers among sites easy to track and is reducing costs associated with last-minute product assignments. He noted, however, that this feature tracks only location, not motion or activity, and that the tags are not equipped for use as GPS devices, which would add elements of complexity, cost, and potential worker antipathy, all of which Capital Safety is avoiding.

Putting RFID in FP
Shaped like miniature doughnuts, the i-Safe tags are about the size, weight, and thickness of two quarters. Capital Safety Vice President of Information Technology Bruce Underwood said most users will never even notice the tags, unless they have been integrated in the equipment through the retrofit kit the company has made available. The kit, sold for $5 each and comprised of a pouch with a one-time snap and a tag that fits inside, makes the system work with any brand of equipment.

"In terms of the type of equipment you're putting them on, these tags are a pretty cost-effective solution to tracking the life of these products," Underwood said. "But RFID is RFID, and a tag is a tag. What's really unique about our solution is 1) the fact that it is becoming standard on all of our products, and 2) now we have a mobile software solution through the PDAs, so you can take i-Safe to the construction site, the oil rig, or wherever and, while being in the field, you're inspecting, assigning, checking the status of things with this system. So the power of i-Safe isn't in the tag, it isn't in the reader; it's actually in the software. The software is where the value is. It's the software that will give you better compliance and better inventory and inspection records literally by the press of a button."

Even with the information that button press facilitates, gear such as harnesses must still be inspected with the eyes and hands prior to every use. And it is a best practice to remember that the life of all such gear is limited.

This column appeared in the October 2006 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

This article originally appeared in the October 2006 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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