Falling from height is one of the most dangerous hazards of on-site work, whether in construction or other areas of industry. Here are some recent and sobering numbers OSHA:

  • In 2017, 5,147 workers died on the job, translating into more than 99 a week or more than 14 deaths every day
  • Of these deaths, leading causes of private sector worker deaths (excluding highway collisions) in the construction industry were falls, causing 381 out of 971 total deaths in construction

Like many areas of industrial and consumer life, new technologies have emerged to make safety easier, cheaper, and more accessible than ever before. In the case of fall protection, self-retracting lifelines/lanyards (SRLs) are replacing their bulkier and heavier predecessors.

Types of SRLs

Self-Retracting Lanyards

Self-retracting lanyards use a line wound around a drum that functions like a car seatbelt. At normal speeds of movement, such as a worker walking or climbing down from the SRL anchor point, the cable feeds out smoothly and retracts back around the drum when the worker approaches it.

(Find out How to Choose Your Fall Protection Anchorage.)

If excess speed or force is placed on the mechanism, it locks up quickly, using a friction brake to absorb the braking energy. This results in less of a shock to the person, the device, and the anchor point when the worker’s fall is stopped.

Under proper operation (meaning it has been anchored at the height of a worker’s harness D-ring), a Class A SRL should stop a person falling within 24 inches (60 centimeters). But this is not a measurement that should be held as an absolute.

Self-Retracting Lanyards with Integral Rescue Capability

This type of SRL also includes a winch or hoist to help raise or lower an incapacitated worker after a fall or in confined space operations.

(Learn more in A Primer on Rescuing Fallen Workers.)

Self-Retracting Lanyards with Leading Edge Capability

This type provides protection against free-fall of five feet or more over a structural edge. They are often used in leading edge construction activities or in circumstances where overhead anchorages may not be available.

Self-Retracting Lanyard, Personal (SRL-P)

An SRL-P is a miniaturized SRL which is becoming very popular as a substitute for its larger and more expensive cousins. However, according to some experts, testing and certification of these units has not been adequately or universally established or enforced.

Misconceptions and Assumptions

Employers and their workers must take direct responsiblity in ensuring their chosen SRL will do its job, namely preventing a worker from suffering an injury or dying due to a fall. That means they need to avoid some common assumptions and misconceptions about SRLs, including:

  • Expecting the brake to deploy for any type of fall. There is a big difference between falling vertically from a surface versus falling slowly down an angled plane a slanted roof. The speed of a vertical fall will suffice to deploy the brake, but this may not be the case for a person tumbling down a roof.
  • Leaving insufficient stopping distance. Even when an SRL is rated to stop a fall within 24 inches, most SRLs require more than that to function correctly. This leads to the very real danger of a worker falling and hitting the surface below before the braking takes effect.
  • Forgetting about edge friction. When an employee is working below a leading edge and their SRL is anchored above the edge, the friction from the edge may pose a risk. If the edge is more abrasive than the materials used during testing and certification, the cable may weaken or break during a fall.

Human Behavior Does Not Equal Lab Test Conditions

Workers don't always have the time or inclination to read every manual or attend every safety lecture. Even when they do, insufficient practice with the mechanics of an SRL can lead to misuse.

This leads to employees being unaware of the limitations of their equipment. This could result in them exceeding weight limits by carrying extra tools, anchoring the device to inadequate anchor points, and overlooking physical influences such as edge surfaces or dust and grime that can foul an SRL’s internal workings.

Paradoxically, enhanced safety can also lead to riskier behavior, with workers placing too much faith in their equipment and relying on it for tasks or durations it was not intended for.

As with everything on a worksite, safety starts and ends with people. A self-retracting lifeline is a vital and compulsory piece of safety equipment for any person working at height, but using it requires familiarity, practice, assessment, and proper installation and use.

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