Falls from height are one of the most common causes of serious work-related injuries. That's why they're one of OSHA's Fatal Four for the construction industry. To keep workers safe at height, OSHA requires equipping any worker exposed to vertical drops of six feet or more with a personal fall arrest system. But with all the options available on the market, how do you know which harness is right for you?
In this post, we'll go over the different options, and what you should consider before making your buy.
Why is a fall harness so important?
According to OSHA, employers must ensure that workplace safeguards are in place which will prevent employees from falling off of overhead platforms, elevated work stations, or into holes in the floor and walls. Unfortunately, not every company is getting the message. Fall protection topped the list of most frequent OSHA violations for 2016.
Making sure employees have the right safety gear is an important factor in staying compliant, but it can be difficult to know where to start. To better understand the different kinds of harnesses, it's helpful to start by knowing the purpose of fall protection systems.
Fall protection overview
Employers should plan their projects in a way that ensures the job can be done safely. The best way to begin is by completing an on-site assessment with a team of safety and compliance professionals. The goal of the assessment is to avoid personnel injury or death, loss, fines, legal action, and other costly disciplinary action related to safety. It's important to make sure the project complies with standards and guidelines set out by OSHA, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the Office of the Inspector General (OIG), and other regulatory organizations.
The assessment will identify the fall hazards workers face. Then, employers need to implement fall protection measures and provide the proper fall safety equipment to those working at sufficient elevation. Elevated locations requiring protection include:
- Walking-working surfaces
- Steel erections
Whatever the job, workers need to be provided with the fall protection suitable for it. For instance, workers required to tie off to an anchorage device must be equipped with a fall harnessand lanyard. The PPE must also fit the wearer properly and be inspected regularly to ensure that it is in good condition.
Most importantly, employers should train workers in hazard recognition and how to safely use ladders, scaffolds, and fall protection systems. Need more info on proper ladder safety? Check out our blog "Ladder Safety: Recent Updates in Fall Protection".
The fall protection harness: your first line of defense
When working at heights, your fall protection harness is your first line of defense. But the kind of harness you need will depend on the type of work being done, and the environment in which it is located.
Personal Fall Arrest Systems
A Personal Fall Arrest System (PFAS) stops a fall in progress by quickly decelerating the wearer. This it different from other types of fall protection. For example, guardrail systems are designed to prevent workers from entering an area where a fall could occur.
The type of harness suitable for a personal fall arrest system is dependent upon the type of work being performed. Harnesses equipped with hardware for climbing, positioning, retrieval, suspension, or other types of work must all meet the same basic requirements in termsof function. It must be capable of supporting a person with a combined tool and body weight of 310 lbs (although there are systems availlable for heavier weights), and must be used in conjunction with an anchorage device and deceleration device that limits the impact forces of a fall to 1,800 lbs. or less.
Positioning harnesses are all about providing freedom of movement for the worker. These systems let the worker “sit back” in their harness while performing work with both hands.
Harnesses of this type are often used in scenarios where a full PFAS is not necessary, as the height at which the work is being performed does not require it. Positioning devices (such as a rebar chain assembly) are often used with positioning harnesses to assist workers in performing their task from a fixed position.
Retrieval harnesses are commonly used in confined-space scenarios, where workers might have to be lowered or raised into a work space. The retrieval hardware makes rescue of an immobile worker more efficient, and distributes lifting forces more evenly.
OSHA doesn't have specific instructions for rescue and retrieval; they just require that a rescue plan be in place before work begins in any areas with fall hazards.
Suspension harnesses provide a built-in seat support for the wearer, allowing for a hands-free work environment. These are used by window washers and painters, tower maintenance, and drilling platform crews.
Suspension systems allow for freedom of movement, and allow workers to perform job duties in otherwise dangerous places. When used in conjunction with the other components of a PFAS, workers can safely perform their duties while ensuring that their risk of falling is minimized.
Factors to consider
Once you know the type of work being performed, there are a few other factors to consider when choosing the right harness :
Workers who spend entire shifts or other long periods of time in their harness should be issued one with a that is durable enough to handle the environment in which it is being used. Harnesses made of Kevlar or coated with Polyurethane, for example. Alternatively, If workers won't be using a harness constantly during their typical workday, a simple harness with basic comfort features might be a more suitable choice.
The highest quality safety harnesses are designed to maximize comfort and functionality. They offer extra padding and an ergonomic fit that increases productivity and ensures a safe and snug fit. This limits the potential for injury, making these a great investment.
For work done during the hot summer months or in any other environment where the temperatures might climb, look for a harness whose comfort accessories are made with breathable material. These will help keep workers cool and reduce their risk of heat-related illness. For more info about avoiding heat related illness, read our blog "How to Beat the Heat: A Guide to Protect Workers From Heat Stress"
Knowing why a safety harness is important, the differences between fall protection harnesses, and how to select the right harness for the job are important safety skills. Workers trained to understand the PPE needed for the work they do and the function of each piece of equipment are more likely to use it correctly and consistently. Having that training will help ensure they work comfortably while staying out of harm's way.