Why Safety Harness Comfort is Critical to Protecting Workers from Falls

Why Safety Harness Comfort is Critical to Protecting Workers from Falls

Using human factors to overcome wearer reluctance

When it comes to fall protection PPE (personal protective equipment) harnesses, there’s no shortage of excuses from workers who do not want to don gear that’s hot and heavy.

Lighter weight harnesses are available, but they don’t always equate to “comfort”—especially for workers of varying shapes and sizes. So, even if workers are introduced to something “new and improved,” the improvements are so miniscule that the “it’s too hot, too heavy,” argument prevails.

Which begs the question: Can anything be done to make safety harness wearers more comfortable? Let’s answer that question by exploring:

  • Why comfort matters
  • How human factors figure into the wearability equation
  • Why safety managers should prioritize comfort when selecting a safety harness
  • What to look for when making the switch to next-generation fall protection

Comfort is Crucial

What does being comfortable at work have to do with performance? Everything.

We’ve all experienced less-than-optimal performance when trying to do a job wearing something unsuitable. For those working at height, however, ill-fitting and uncomfortable gear is like nothing else: It’s a potential distraction they simply cannot afford.

In the real world, the concept of “comfort” can be a bit elusive. What’s comfortable for one person may not be comfortable for another. In the world of worker safety, however, comfort must have a defined attribute; namely, unrestricted, freedom of movement, without pain or constraint.

Historically, safety harnesses have been everything but comfortable. This has gotten in the way of getting the job done safely. For example, the best-in-class gear of the mid-19th century was a simple body belt. The problem, however, was that the body belt could slip off, the worker could easily slide out or, worse, a fall could cause severe force trauma to the most vulnerable part of the body, the spine.

Fast-forward a few years when military-style harnesses came into vogue. They offered quite literal full-body coverage. Yet, these hot and hefty harnesses not only exhausted the wearer, they restricted movement and limited mobility in ways that made wearing them almost as unsafe as not wearing them.

The fact is, beginning in fiscal year 2010, Fall Protection—General Requirements has made OSHA’s “Top 10” citations list for eight years running. Meaning, in part, that workers are failing to be compliant with their PPE.

Even with “falls from height” ranking first in cause of death for the construction industry, many workers still forego wearing their safety harnesses at least some of the time when working at height.

Workers who don’t wear their safety harnesses not only put themselves at risk, they jeopardize the entire operation. In addition to the ultimate price (worker fatalities), the cost of workers not wearing their fall protection harnesses is staggering. According to the Liberty Mutual Workplace Safety Index, serious, nonfatal workplace injuries cost businesses more than $1 billion dollars a week and falls to a lower level ranks third on the Top 10 Injury Causes List, accounting for 10 percent of those costs.

So, if being consistently equipped and protected is central to performing well on the job and avoiding workplace injury, it’s incumbent on the Safety Manager to not only pick the PPE that’s right for the job but also make sure it is worn correctly. Ultimately, that means that safety managers encourage worker compliance by providing fall protection equipment that is properly fitted and exceptionally comfortable.

That’s where the discipline of human factors comes in.

What are Human Factors?

Human factors is an evidence-based approach that applies the combined principles of anatomy, physiology, engineering, and design to create a human-centric solution. According to the Chartered Institute of Ergonomics & Human Factors (CIEHF), the knowledge and science of the discipline plays a significant part in how best to develop products that optimize performance and worker health and safety.

The process begins with extensive research, usually involving some type of data point analysis in conjunction with usability studies. Human factors activities also may include:

  • Analysis of worker tasks and behaviors
  • Collection and synthesis of data, including: direct measurement, surveys, interviews and observations
  • Risk management-based reviews
  • Workload and workload distribution assessments

Safety Harnesses: How Human Factors Helped Build “A Better Mousetrap”

A human-centric approach to safety product design and development begins with understanding both worker needs and expectations, then translating those understandings into beneficial product features; features that allow the worker to focus on the task or job at hand, not on the fit of the gear.

This, of course, is a lengthy and involved methodology that requires a significant investment. Yet, human factors and participatory ergonomics (involving the worker in the design and analysis stages), “leads to work being made easier and more efficient, and systems being made simpler and safer.”

When it comes to improving worker compliance with respect to fall protection safety harnesses, one thing is clear: employers must offer a comfortable harness that workers will actually wear.

Mark Hall, an industrial designer with MSA - The Safety Company, encouraged the rethinking of safety harnesses through the lens of human factors. The result was a more profound understanding of what it would take to create a comfortable full-body safety harness that workers would be likely to wear consistently.

MSA conducted an exhaustive analysis that included:

Anthropometric data: Physical characteristics, such as height, weight, and waist circumference.

Human anatomy and ergonomics: Lumbar support, weight distribution, shoulder stabilization, and musculoskeletal benchmarks.

Range of motion study: Rotation, extension, lateral bending, and flexion.

Heatmapping: Thermal comfort, body heat radiation, and evaporative cooling.

MSA also conducted a thorough waist belt investigation, using actual people whose size corresponded to standard sizing charts. The extensive research was used to create a better understanding of worker needs and drove designers to integrate a first-of-its-kind feature: an adjustable waist belt.

Take the Next Steps

To better understand why comfort matters—and how to get it—choose a full-body harness that is contoured so workers can focus on their job—not the harness.

There’s only one reason safety harnesses exist: to save lives. Other reasons exist to help workers want to wear them.

This article originally appeared in the September 2019 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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