Shock-Absorbing Lanyards Can Let You Down

With the reduction in size and weight comes a reduction in price, making PFLs more affordable than ever.

A quick-acting braking system that arrests falls within inches, not feet, has safety managers retiring their shock-absorbing lanyards in favor of a new generation of compact, lightweight personal fall limiters (PFLs), also known as self-retracting lifelines. And now, as manufacturers introduce PFLs with 100 percent tie-off fall protection capability (dual legs or twin legs), workers can move safely anywhere on a job site without ever being disconnected and at risk of a fall.

When building scaffolding and maintaining tank farms at one of the nation's largest oil refineries, it's good to know someone has your back.

More than 340,000 barrels of crude oil rush through miles of pipe racks at a leading refinery in Houston every day. The refinery converts the sourest crudes from Mexico, Africa, and Venezuela into high-quality gasoline, jet fuel, and military-grade diesel. The facility operates 24/7, and at any given moment, there are 200 to 300 people working at height.

Underscoring the company's commitment to reducing fall hazards, 150 personal fall limiters were recently added to its arsenal of fall protection equipment in a move that will eventually outlaw lanyards on the job site. All employees, contractors, and subcontractors will be required to comply with the new policy, which incorporates rigorous, hands-on training and inspection and encourages people to take personal responsibility for their own safety. This refinery joins a growing number of safety-conscious industries, construction companies, and utilities that are eliminating shock-absorbing lanyards on the job site.

The 6-foot shock-absorbing lanyard was the dominant tool in personal fall protection for years, but as soon as personal fall limiters became available as a viable alternative, the lanyards were headed to being a thing of the past, much like safety belts were a decade and a half earlier. The primary driver of their decision to change out lanyards for PFLs, safety managers tell us, is fall arrest clearance, which is critical to worker safety.

While traditional, 6-foot shock-absorbing lanyards allow for up to 6 feet of free-fall distance before activating, and another 3.5 feet of deceleration distance before arresting a fall, a personal fall limiter requires less than 2 feet to arrest freefalls. If you have 15 feet of fall clearance or less, you'd better have a retractable on or you're going to hit the ground.

Today's Personal Fall Limiters
Developed in response to workers' needs for quick stopping action at low fall clearances and to allow greater mobility around barriers, personal fall limiters have evolved to become more compact, lightweight, and affordable. Today's high-strength, high-impact materials allow product engineers to build smaller units that can withstand the required fall forces. Some models accommodate workers up to 400 pounds, including tool weight. Advanced designs incorporate a built-in swivel mechanism and D-ring connectors that easily adapt two lightweight PFLs for continuous, 100 percent tie-off fall protection, eliminating the need for double-legged shock-absorbing lanyards.

With the reduction in size and weight comes a reduction in price, making PFLs more affordable than ever.

Just in the past 12 months, three workers in the Houston-Beaumont area fell while wearing dual PFLs, and all of them went home at the end of the day. That speaks volumes for the equipment and the focus on proper fall protection training.

Wondering whether it's time to transition from lanyards to PFLs? Think of it this way: For years, we had no seat belts in cars; then came the lap belt, and then a lap belt plus a shoulder harness; then they were incorporated together with quick-acting pretensioners; and then they moved around you automatically when the door closed. We complained about the changes but got used to them, and now we buckle up without thinking.

Advances in personal fall protection have taken us from the safety belt, to the 6-foot shock-absorbing lanyard, to personal fall limiters. You think you're never going to be in a car accident, and you think you're never actually going to fall. But if one person falls, on his way to an incapacitating injury or worse, and you've caught him before he's hit the ground, isn't it worth it?

Six Reasons to Make the Leap from Lanyards to Personal Fall Limiters
Many companies are eliminating shock-absorbing lanyards on job sites, writing new requirements for personal fall limiters into their safety policies.

  • Quick stop at low clearances
  • Reduced tripping hazards and liability
  • Better mobility on the job
  • 100 percent continuous tie-off fall protection
  • Capacity for up to 400 pounds working weight
  • Affordable, cost-effective alternative that saves lives

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

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