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Fall Arrest Equipment Selection

Published: 10th Aug 2008

The Right Product, The Right Training - The Complete Solution

Of all the sectors of the safety market Fall Protection is one of the most complex, with every different scenario requiring a different solution. It is also one of the least understood and most often poorly addressed areas of personnel safety - while still remaining one of the few sectors where the result of a wrong decision will almost certainly result in the death of a worker should they fall.

Following the hierarchy of fall protection, as described in working at height regulations, Fall Arrest PPE is the final resort because working in an environment where Fall Arrest PPE is needed means that the worker is inherently at risk of injury (at least) even with fall protection equipment supplied and used correctly. Regulations require that no worker be placed in such a situation where it can be avoided, and that all measures to eliminate any risk be considered first.

The other dangerous area in the Fall Arrest Equipment sector is the belief that all equipment is the same. The idea that every product is equal just because it meets the same European norm is seriously flawed.

Take the example of a full body harness: In order to pass the European requirements the web of a harness must be able to absorb a minimum of 22kN before breaking, and it must maintain this standard in order to remain both legal and safe. This web is then open to the elements, the rigours of industry, and poor maintenance regimes. In a series of tests carried out by independent test houses a few years ago a large number of similar webs were subjected to ultra-violet light (the equivalent of a standard one year exposure in the UK) and were then re-tested against the EN standard. Almost all failed.

So it is clear that not all products are equal, regardless of the standards to which they are tested. Some manufacturers just meet the minimum standards, whereas those at the high quality end of the market ensure that the materials used to build the harness are capable of passing the EN test years after being put into use, even in the most rigorous environments.

The EN and CE stamps are no guarantee that the product, be it a harness, lanyard, rope system or self-retracting lifeline, will be safe after 5 months, let alone 5 years. In the 1990s there was a shift to ‘low-cost’ Safety for Compliance equipment. This is being increasingly replaced by the correct view of Safety for Safety, with user competency training becoming a must, whatever level they work at within an organisation. The market for height safety is finally catching up to the idea that a person’s life is worth more than the cost of the equipment used to protect him, and it is this that is changing the face of our industry.

This philosophy is best documented by an author from the 19th century, John Ruskin, who wrote:

“It is unwise to pay too much, but it is unwise to pay too little. When you pay too much you lose a little money. When you pay too little you sometimes lose everything, because the thing you bought was incapable of doing the thing you bought it to do. The common law of business balance prohibits paying a little and getting a lot. It cannot be done. If you deal with the lowest bidder, it is well to add something for the risk you run. And if you do that, you have enough to pay for something better.”

In the context of Fall Protection Equipment, you couldn’t put it better.

Designing for management of working at height

Wherever the requirements for working safely at heights are reviewed, be it with an architect, the main contractor or subcontractor during construction, or by a building owner for maintenance, the involvement of specialists in height safety is invaluable.

During construction fall protection should be a combination of scaffold, netting (where appropriate or possible) and Personal Fall Protection Equipment (PFPE) in the remaining areas. Protection in this phase is predominantly temporary, and can use temporary edge protection and anchorage straps for the attachment of fall arrest devices such as lanyards or Self Retracting Lifelines to the structure, or indeed Mobile Elevated Work Platforms.

If the work is part of the maintenance of the building, then the requirements are totally different. If access to any area for maintenance is needed then a risk assessment must be carried out and fall protection provided for each and every noted risk. Maintenance protection systems tend to be more permanent.

Hand rails, installed horizontal lifeline systems, single eyebolts and parapet walls are all recognised methods of providing safety for maintenance on roofing areas. The provision of these safety systems is initially the responsibility of the architect and main contractor. However, once the building is complete, if there are any modifications to the structure which result in a change to the safety in requirements on the roof, it is the responsibility of the building owner to ensure the provision of appropriate safety measures.

Incorrect design at any stage can be fatal. Human nature dictates that we will always take the line of least resistance, so a system that is too complex, requires a lot of input or excessive travel to get to the place of work is not a suitable solution as the worker will simply not use it.

Fall arrest equipment selection

There are ten considerations that every worker must give to the PFPE and the situation they are working in when selecting the equipment necessary to complete their task safely and in compliance with the legislation in force. These are:

Suitability, Condition, Traceability, Compatibility, Security, Anchorages, Harness Fit, Product Age, Available Clearance, Product Selection.

European Directive 89/656/CEE specifically addresses the use of PPE. This directive examines the correct usage conditions for PPE, and their role in improving health and safety conditions in the work place. As referred to in this directive, PPE is understood to be:

“...all equipment designed to be worn or held by the worker with a view to protecting him/her from one or more risks that are liable to threaten his safety or his health in the workplace ...”

Under European directives all Personal Protective Equipment, including Fall Arrest Equipment, is required to be ‘fit for purpose’. However, as already mentioned, the choice of equipment rarely focuses on providing the perfect solution to the circumstances, but rather on the cheapest way to meet the legal requirements. This is safety for compliance.

The correct way of selecting equipment is to first assess the risk, (consult an expert in fall protection if necessary) and then select the best equipment based on performance and suitability for purpose, taking into account, in all instances, the provision of worker comfort and rescue capability. This is safety for safety.

Fall protection: an overview

Fall protection falls into four main categories.

  • Process change The change of working practice to remove the fall risk
  • Collective, or passive safety Provision of fall protection without the use of PFPE
  • Fall restraint Provision of fall protection with the use of suitable PFPE and anchorages to provide a safe system of work where the worker is kept away from fall risks
  • Fall arrest Provision of fall protection with the use of absorbing PFPE and suitable anchorages to minimise the forces generated in the event of a fall

The risk assessment for any work to be carried out at height must include reference to these four areas, and care should be taken to ensure that the first of the four solutions reviewed that can fulfil the needs of the worker’s safety must be implemented. Failure to provide the correct fall protection method, essentially poor workplace design as mentioned earlier, can lead to failure of the safety measure completely, often resulting in fatalities or major injuries.

Fall arrest systems

Fall Arrest Systems are essentially a collection of equipment conforming to the required standards, used in conjunction with each other to ensure the safety of a worker whilst working at height. A simple way of remembering the core components of a fall arrest system is the ABCD of Fall Arrest.

  • Anchorage Anchorage means a secure point of attachment (structure) for the fall arrest system
  • Body harness Full body harnesses provide a connection point on the worker for the personal fall arrest system
  • Connectors Connectors are devices used to connect the worker’s full body harness to the anchorage system. (e.g. shock absorbing lanyard, self retracting lifeline, etc)
  • Descent and rescue Often forgotten, but always required, the need for adequate rescue plans, training and equipment is vital in every work at height situation

Anchorage

An anchorage is a secure point of attachment for the fall arrest system. ‘The anchorage must be capable of supporting the load of a fallen worker, (12kN) or shall be designed, installed and used as part of a complete personal fall arrest system which maintains a safety factor of at least 2:1, given that the maximum load permissible to be applied to a falling person is 6kN.’

Anchorages may be certified (designed or engineered on site for fall protection) or non-certified (beams, trusses or other suitably strong structures). Certified anchorages should be identified with paint or special markings and kept on a site location list.

Anchorage connectors are greatly dependent on the specific requirements of the purchaser, including the type of attachment, the environment and the connecting system.

Anchorage connectors provide a means of attaching the system to the anchorage. These vary widely depending on application. Some of the common types are anchor slings, roof anchors, beam clamps, rail sliders, trolleys, eyebolts and large opening snap hooks.

Full body harness

A full body harness is designed with straps to fasten around the user in order to distribute fall arrest forces over at least the upper thighs, pelvis, chest and shoulders. This moves the impact of a fall from the internal organs to the major bone and muscle groups around the pelvis. The full body harness includes a means to attach it to the other components of a fall arrest system. Harnesses must meet the European standards for manufacture and bear the CE mark.

Back D-ring

The fall arrest point must be located on the back, positioned between the shoulder blades. No matter what additional anchor points are on a harness, it must always have the dorsal attachment.

Webbing

Webbing is an important factor in the durability and safety of the harness.

Manufacturers work hard to ensure that the webbing is strong enough to endure rough use and exposure to the elements without tearing or fraying, yet stays soft and feel comfortable for the user. Kevlar® webbing is used for specialty applications such as welding that require fire resistance.

Adjusting points

Whether you wear a harness four hours a day or fourteen hours, it needs to fit properly for safety and comfort. Harnesses with adjusting points on the legs, waist, chest and shoulders allow for a better fit.

Pelvic support

The sub-pelvic strap provides additional support, security and comfort for the user. Properly positioned, it properly distributes forces during a fall.

Lanyards

Lanyards are flexible lines with a connector at each end used to join the anchorage to the body support. Lanyards should be connected to the back D-ring for fall arrest and ideally should be anchored above the worker to minimise fall distance. The worker should not move too far from the overhead anchorage or a swing fall may occur.

Positioning lanyards

Rope or web lanyards without shock absorbers may be used for applications that require positioning or restraint of a worker to prevent any fall risk.

Shock absorbing lanyards

Lanyards designed for use as part of a personal fall arrest system must contain an energy absorbing unit that will limit the force on the worker to below 6kN. Some manufacturers now keep arresting forces below 4kN.

If the lanyard has been used to arrest a fall or if the energy absorber has been deployed, the lanyard must be taken out of use immediately. An impact indicator gives easy visual reference of a blown shock.

Twin-leg lanyards

This style of lanyard is used to provide 100% tie-off. It allows you to stay protected while you move from one location to another. This is the safest form of lanyard as at no point is the user unprotected and, used correctly, ensures 100% safety. Health and Safety Executives prefer this type of connection above standard lanyards for this reason.

Webbing

Webbing is an important factor in the durability and safety of the lanyard. You want to ensure that the webbing is strong enough to endure rough use and exposure to sunlight and other elements without tearing or fraying. Webbing may also be coated with polyurethane to provide protection again grease, oil, dirt and grime.

Connector/hook

Most lanyards are available with traditional auto-locking snap hooks. There are also specific snap hooks which allow one-handed use with no pinching of thumbs or fingers. Lanyards can also be fitted with larger snap hooks or karabiners for connection to larger anchorages.

Length

Standard lanyard length is 2m.

A lanyard should be long enough to be user-friendly, but kept as short as possible to minimise the free fall distance. Knots should never be tied in lanyards to reduce their length as this can reduce the strength by 50%.

Self retracting lifelines

An SRL is a flexible lifeline attached to a mechanism that allows it to extend and retract under slight tension when the user moves away from and toward the device. This enables a user to work safely while moving within a recommended area at normal speeds.

SRLs can be used in a variety of situations, but are primarily used to provide movement and protection of users in a vertical work area. The SRL should be anchored to a location directly above the user. SRLs can also be used with a horizontal lifeline to improve the overall mobility of the system.

Housing

The SRL casing protects the inner parts of the SRL and holds the excess line when not in use. Durable, impact-resistant housings offer longer wear and greater protection of the brakes and retraction springs. Environmentally sealed SRLs isolate the critical working components, protecting them from the dirt, oil or grease that the retracted cable can bring inside.

Line

SRL lines can be made from cable, webbing or synthetic rope. Cable is considered best for rugged, outdoor applications or where the line may touch with sharp objects. Web is a more lightweight, compact choice, often preferred indoors for less industrial applications and for warehousing.

Stainless steel offers the ultimate in corrosion resistance, reliability and longevity.

Impact indicator

SRLs should be inspected before each use and monthly by the customers’ designated competent person. Inspections are made easier with an impact indicator that immediately shows an orange or red band if the SRL has been loaded or has arrested a fall. All SRLs should be removed from service following the arrest of a fall. In most cases the unit will have to be returned to an authorised service centre for servicing or replacement.

Reserve lifeline

Some SRLs have an emergency reserve lifeline feature which means that if a worker has nearly all the line extended and falls, the unit will still be capable of absorbing energy and keeping the arresting forces to a minimum.

3-way retrieval option

Some SRLs incorporate a built-in winch retrieval mechanism. These units not only provide fall protection as a worker enters a confined space such as a sewer or tank, but also allow for a fast convenient rescue.

Quick activating braking system

Many industry SRLs use a seat-belt type inertial extension and retraction mechanism. Some of these SRLs can be set too sensitively which can lead to the brake locking when you don’t want them to. This leads to worker dissatisfaction and lowered productivity.

However, there are SRLs on the market that feature anti-ratcheting mechanisms that provide smooth operation and lock only when you are ready, because they have a correctly set inertia braking systems. Once the mechanism engages, it stays locked, ensuring that the worker is not ratcheted down to the ground.

A fast acting braking system that reacts in less than 0.6m will ensure both the lowest possible forces on the body and also facilitate a rapid and safe rescue.

Requirements for worker training

Recent changes in legislation governing working at height have placed a much needed emphasis on the training of workers, and the responsibility of the employers to ensure that this is carried out. This legislation stipulates that all workers who perform their task in an area where a fall risk is present is both provided with equipment to minimise or negate the risk, and are also trained in its use. Competency training not only enables companies and individuals to comply with legislation, but also leads to a significant reduction in the risks the workers are exposed to.

For example, a user should be provided with pre-selected equipment suitable for his task by his employer, but should then be trained in its use and inspection. A manager/supervisor, and Health and Safety personnel should be trained to perform Risk Assessments and specify the equipment to be used, and have an understanding of the legislation which they and the worker must conform to.

Training should also cover the need for, and the details required in a rescue plan. It is essential to ensure that every worker is aware of the procedures, what their responsibilities are within the plan and how to perform a rescue if necessary.

The correct and accurate selection of Rescue Equipment is vital, as the incorrect equipment can not only place the injured person at more risk, but can also mean that the rescuing party is themselves placed in an area of heightened risk of a fall. Complicated procedures are to be avoided if possible, and in-depth training in the use of any equipment is absolutely essential. Rescues are performed in hazardous and stressful situations, so complete familiarity with the procedures and equipment can be the difference between saving and losing a life.

In conclusion

Working at height has never been safer than it is today, but it is still a hazardous occupation. Innovations in construction methods, materials and changes in industry continue to create new challenges which health and safety professionals, employers, governments and equipment manufacturers must work together to overcome. As the industries change, and awareness is increasing within the health and safety divisions and management of the companies employing any company working at height, the need for high quality and increased longevity in systems is even more evident.

Published: 10th Aug 2008 in Health and Safety Middle East

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