There are many occupations that require the use of harnesses when working at heights, such as roofing, oil and gas, and confined space work. Not all of them are made equal, however, and selecting the right harness is a critical part of implementing a successful fall protection program.

There is an almost dizzying variety of safety harnesses to choose from, and making the right selection without guidance can be difficult.

The first step to narrowing down that selection is to determine which type of safety harness will be required for your job.

Types of Safety Harnesses

  • General fall arrest harnesses: These harnesses have a D-ring on the back and is used for general fall protection. They are not suitable for confined space work, rescue and retrieval operations, work positioning, descent control, or suspension.
  • Ladder climbing harnesses: These have a D-ring on the front, allowing the user to connect to an installed ladder climbing system.
  • Work positioning harnesses: These have D-rings at the hips to allow users hands-free operation. These pair with work positioning lanyards or pole straps to hold the user at a specific location.
  • Descent control harnesses: These harnesses have frontal attachment points for use with descent control devices.
  • Confined space entry and retrieval harnesses: These have an attachment point on each shoulder for upright retrieval from confined spaces.
  • Suspension and rigging harnesses: Used for rope access, rescue, tower, arborist, and rigging applications, these have attachment points on front, back, and sides.
  • Specialty material harnesses: Often used for arc flash protection, or protection while welding and grinding, these harnesses are often made of Kevlar or Nomex. The hardware may have special coatings, and other options are usually available depending on the application.

Making Your Selection

First and foremost, it's important to consider quality and not just cost when selecting harnesses. A good, comfortable harness will increase the user's productivity, so it doesn't take long before a higher quality harness pays for itself, especially if you get three to five years of use out of it.

The nature of the work will determine which type of harness you will need.

For a worker in an aerial lift, a general fall arrest harness is likely sufficient. They are also suitable for general work at heights that does not involve hot work, confined space entry, climbing ladders, suspension, or descent.

Welders, on the other hand, will need a harness with specialty material like Kevlar to prevent the harness from getting damaged by sparks or flames. I have personally inspected safety harnesses used by welders and fabricators. They were not made from sufficiently flame-resistant materials and most of them had burn holes in them. Their integrity was compromised and the protection they provided was questionable as a result. They needed to be replaced in order to allow the welders to do their work safely. Selecting the right harnesses from the beginning would have prevented this added expense.

Workers who are at risk of potential arc flashes will need harnesses that have the appropriate arc rating.

Climbing harnesses are needed for workers who use fixed ladders that require fall protection systems. In some facilities, this can be a significant number of them - I've assessed oil rigs with approximately 200 permanent ladders on board - but each ladder needs to be evaluated to determine if its height requires a harness when climbing.

Work positioning harnesses are required for workers who need to remain stabilized while using both hands. Think of an iron worker leaning back while connecting rebar, using both hands to position and tie off the rebar. When a fall is just a matter of inches or would just take one slip, a work positioning harness is precisely what is called for.

Confined space entry harnesses are not designed to keep workers from falling while working. Rather, they have shoulder rings meant to be hooked onto a spreader bar in the event of an emergency rescue. The harness allows the user to be safely hoisted out of the space.

(Learn How to Safely Rescue Someone from a Confined Space.)

Suspension and rigging harnesses are used when easy movement and action are needed. The comfort this affords is important, since they can be worn for extended use. For instance, a rope access team can spend a full 12-hour shift hanging from the derrick of an oil rig or an industrial facility.

Consult the Experts

In some cases, you can have a tricky situation with multiple hazards. It might not be clear to you exactly what kind of harness you should choose.

Even when you know the type of harness you require, you may not be sure which features will be needed for your specific application.

No matter your questions, it's important to consult a reputable manufacturer or your supplier if you're at all uncertain. Their experts will help you find the right harness and ensure that your workers are safe and comfortable at any height.