Next Generation Fall Protection Equipment Makes Work at Height Safer than Ever
Manufacturers are making fall protection equipment that is not only stronger, but also lighter than ever before.
These are some exciting times in the world of work at height. Modern fall protection equipment and systems allow workers to perform their jobs with more mobility, greater comfort, and most importantly, with a higher degree of safety. Manufacturers are making fall protection equipment that is not only stronger, but also lighter than ever before. Until recently, strength and weight were diametrically opposed, but design innovations and the use of modern materials are resulting in gear that is stronger pound for pound than anything we’ve had in the past.
The Engineering Revolution in Fall Protection Equipment
With the assistance of computer aided design (CAD), engineers can analyze high stress points on equipment and determine the required cross section, shape, and material requirements for virtually any new design. Gone are the days of solely relying on destructive dynamic and static pull testing of design prototypes. In the past, this strategy required the designers to follow a “trial and error” product development process, adjusting the design until satisfactory results were achieved. This slowed down the development, drove up research and development costs, and seldom accounted for eccentric loads that can now be evaluated with the use of CAD. With the ability to design equipment with precise and predetermined strengths and performance characteristics, while using modern lightweight materials, the designers are able to save weight by not over-engineering equipment where it is not needed.
Reduced Weight Means Higher Compliance
From the Authorized Person’s point of view, one of the most important factors is weight of the equipment. When harness mounted, self-retracting lifelines first came to market, they were pretty heavy. For all the convenience and added safety they provided, workers were reluctant to use them due to their added weight. Modern materials such as metal alloys and advanced synthetic fibers allow manufacturers to reduce the weight of equipment substantially while still providing the required strength.
Modern Synthetic Fibers
We can very easily see and feel the improvements in our lighter, stronger hardware pieces, but just as important are the softlines and woven safety gear made from modern synthetic fibers such as Technora and Dyneema. These products are now much safer due to their increased resistance to cuts and abrasions. This is an important consideration when working near leading edges that may have a swing fall or other abrasive hazard.
We’re also seeing design innovations in the area of pre-engineered systems that can be installed by the Competent Person without the need for a Qualified Person in house. Three such systems are discussed below—these are among the most popular types with broad applicability that you might consider for your own workplace.
Horizontal Lifelines. Temporary horizontal lifelines (HLL) can be used in many situations both as a fall arrest system as well as a fall restraint anchor. These are designed to be very easy to set up and take down. These HLLs are typically delivered as a system along with comprehensive instructions for use that include minimum anchor strength requirements, the total span of the system, the type of connectors required (SRL vs fixed length lanyard), and charts detailing the clearance requirements below the HLL depending on the number of users. They should also include an energy absorbing component that is designed to minimize the dynamic forces on the anchor. The users must still provide appropriate energy absorbers for their individual connections depending on the connector they use.
User Installed Ladder Safety Systems. The requirements of the current OSHA Walking and Working Surfaces regulation have created huge demand for user-installed options for retrofitting ladder safety systems, and manufacturers have responded with numerous options that simply didn’t exist a few years ago. Most systems on the market have limited height configurations, but there are still many systems that provide safer, economical solutions for the majority of fixed industrial ladders.
Multi-Functional Systems. More and more manufacturers are looking for opportunities to design equipment that has multiple functions or can be used in multiple configurations. Temporary vertical lifelines are just one example. They were originally intended for pure vertical applications, but manufacturers are increasingly authorizing them for use on steep angle, low angle and flat surfaces for both fall arrest and fall restraint.
Leading Edge SLRs
One of my favorite new pieces of kit is a leading edge SLR that has hoops surrounding its body that are designed to keep it oriented in line with the user as they move in an arc around a central anchor. As it turns out those hoops work great if that SLR is attached to a horizontal lifeline at the peak of a residential roof. As the worker moves from one end to the other along the HLL, the SLR follows along, staying relatively plumb to the worker. This greatly reduces swing fall potential, or the potential to arc swing off the eaves of the roof due to the SLR being offset of plumb from the user.
Full body harnesses are also utilizing lighter, stronger materials in their construction. Most users only need a simple fall protection harness with the minimum required attachment point being the dorsal attachment high and centered on the back. However, there are users who need other attachment points such as a ladder safety system attachment point, descent control attachment point, or side position rings. In the past, this meant having to provide multiple harnesses depending on the nature of the job. Or alternatively, wearing one multi-purpose harness every day. The problem with previous multi-purpose harnesses was that they were much heavier than a simple figure-8 harness with a single dorsal attachment ring. Now, with the use of lightweight alloys and modern fibers, these harnesses are much lighter than before.
Harnesses and harness subsystems are now beginning to offer solutions for the fallen suspended worker and the potential for suspension trauma. Some harnesses allow the fallen worker to activate an automatic descent control system.
Another strategy is to allow the worker to transition from a dorsal attachment point, which accelerates the onset of suspension trauma, to a frontal attachment point. This repositioning relieves the pressure on the femoral veins and places the fallen worker in a horizontal position, which is both more comfortable, and helps restore blood return from the legs to the core circulation.
“Retro” Clothing May Be Stylish, But Outdated/Retro Fall Pro Gear Is Not
It’s very difficult for an employer to legitimately justify foregoing fall protection systems and instead rely on less effective preventative measures, such as controlled access zones. This is especially true today when modern fall pro equipment is so lightweight and easy to use. Authorized Persons appreciate the aesthetic appeal of some of the shiny new gear and equipment that’s available today, which further boosts compliance.
That said, many workplaces continue to utilize old equipment and systems. A large majority of employers and end users are simply not aware how far modern fall protection kit has come in the last few years.
Knowledge is power, so you should visit several manufacturers’ websites and take a look at what’s available. Better yet, invite some sales representatives to the workplace and get your hands on the latest equipment and give it a good evaluation. When it comes to modern fall protection equipment, staying current is much more than a fashion statement—it can be a lifesaver, and that’s never going to go out of style.
About the Author
Pat Furr is the Corporate Safety Officer and VPP Coordinator for Roco Rescue. He’s also a longtime Chief Instructor and Technical Consultant, having taught Roco Rescue courses in confined space rescue, fall protection, rope access, and tower rescue, among others. He is a regular contributor to industry publications and has spoken at numerous conferences on safety and rescue topics. Pat is on the National Fire Protection Association’s Committee for Technical Rescue and helped author NFPA 1006, which outlines the professional qualifications standard for technical rescue personnel. He also helps design innovative equipment, including a Class III rescue harness, a revolutionary fall protection harness, and a specialized anchor hook used for container access operations. Prior to joining Roco Rescue, Pat served his country for 20 years as a U.S. Air Force MSgt/Pararescueman.
This article originally appeared in the March 1, 2020 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.