From roofers to construction workers; from window washers to electricians. Millions of workers put their lives on the line every day by working at height.

Falls from height remain one of today's biggest workplace hazards. Often, a worker’s only line of defense is their fall protection equipment, which commonly includes a self-retracting lanyard (SRL). When your life is on the line, you need to know that your SRL will do its job. Part of your job is knowing how and when to properly inspect it.

Know Your Fall Protection Equipment

You've been working with fall protection equipment for years. You figure your brand new SRL will do the same thing the last one did. So, instead of taking the time to read the instructions, you just strap on your new gear and get to work. They're all basically the same, right?

Every device is designed and built differently. And as construction safety standards and regulations change, so does the safety gear. This is true even if you've always used the same brand. Equipment gets updated and upgraded to enhance its performance, its safety, and to comply with current standards. If that's the case, you might be dealing with a whole new lifeline.

What Are the Different Types of SRLs?

Based on the language of the ANSI Z359.14 standard, there three types of devices, with a fourth that is being defined with requirements currently in the process of being drafted for a new edition of the standard. Each of these types is lumped together under the umbrella of what is now called "Self-Retracting Devices" (SRDs), which are defined as:

“A device that contains a drum-wound line that automatically locks at the onset of a fall to arrest the user, but that pays out from and automatically retracts onto the drum during normal movement of the person to whom the line is attached. After the onset of a fall, the device automatically locks the drum and arrests the fall. Self-Retracting Devices include Self-Retracting Lanyards (SRL’s), Self-Retracting Lanyards with integral rescue capability (SRL-R’s) and Self-Retracting Lanyards with leading edge capability, and hybrid combinations of these.”

Let’s briefly examine each of these, as well as the SRL’s of the personal type:

SRLs: Self-Retracting Lanyard intended to be mounted to a fixed anchorage, horizontal lifeline, rail system or trolley, generally overhead, or rigged so as to limit free fall to a maximum of two feet. These devices provide a degree of lateral and vertical movement for the user.

SRL-Rs: Self-Retracting Lanyard with integral rescue capability, meaning an integral retrieval winch, which will allow a fallen or injured worker to be raised or lowered. These devices are most commonly used in confined space applications, although they may be used interchangeably with SRLs, provided that the rescuer has access to the rescue mechanism.

SRL-LE: Self-Retracting Lanyard for leading edge exposures are required to have a supplemental Energy Absorber at the point of attachment to the user’s FBH back D-ring. These units are designed to protect steel erectors who may be exposed to leading edge falls, and often also feature a larger diameter wire rope constituent line to resist cutting and abrasion. These devices should be used as a last resort, as the application has a high degree of risk, and the qualification testing required by the ANSI Z359.14 standard is not comprehensive and does not anticipate hazards that may be damaging to the SRL line, such as unbeveled concrete, metal decking and joints or gaps between beams and columns (find out how much clearance you need to safely use a leading edge SRL).

SRL-P: Personal or “compact” SRLs designed to be worn and utilized in lieu of Energy-Absorbing Lanyards.These devices are best utilized when attached to anchorages that are overhead or directly adjacent to the back D-ring of the user’s Full Body Harness, relative to the walking-working surface. Not all units are tested in extremes of free-fall, and the increase dynamic loads resulting from reduced anchorage height can produce forces that may exceed the capacity of the energy-absorbing element of the device or may be damaging to the structural integrity of the device should the energy-absorbing element be over-loaded.

Having described and defined the basic types, there are also two classes that are specified in the ANSI Z359.14 standard that apply to the SRL, SRL-R and the SRL-P.

Class A devices are those which, when subjected to Dynamic Performance Testing, will have an arrest distance which shall not exceed 24 inches, a Maximum Arrest Force of 1,800 pounds and an Average Arrest Force of 1,350 pounds.

Class B devices are those which, when subjected to Dynamic Performance Testing, will have an arrest distance which shall not exceed 54 inches, a Maximum Arrest Force of 1,800 pounds and an Average Arrest Force of 900 pounds.

Note that these performance thresholds only hold true in actual practice if the SRDs are mounted overhead. In the event that there is any free-fall input whatsoever, the performance characteristics will change, perhaps considerably – particularly with respect to the SRL-P or Personal Device.

So, what should you do to ensure safe and successful lifeline use every time? Take the time to read the manual and get to know the SRL you are using. There's a difference between being familiar with your equipment and assuming you know how it works. This difference can make a huge impact in the event of an accident.

Beyond the SRL itself, you also need to understand the other components of your fall arrest system. First, the anchorage device should be inspected to ensure that it is in good working condition. Proper placement of the anchorage device is critical – the anchorage device is only as good as the anchor point to which it is attached. This is especially true if the anchorage is temporary. These factors, as well as the constraints of the work environment, will help determine the proper anchorage device to use (learn How to Choose Your Fall Protection Anchorage).

Your fall arrest harness is another critical component. Its role is to coordinate with the deceleration device to evenly distribute the energy generated by a fall on your body. While it is critical to make sure your anchor and lifeline are secure, don't overlook the importance of a properly adjusted harness.

When to Inspect Your Self-Retracting Lifeline

OSHA standards state that personal fall arrest systems should be inspected prior to each use. Inspecting your fall protection equipment should be a part of your daily routine. Do it sometime between your first coffee and the time you climb up to get your work done.

You might think that brand new gear that you just took out of the package doesn't need inspection – but there is always the possibility that something went wrong somewhere along the way. Human error from the manufacturer, damage from the shipping process – there are a significant number of things that could have compromised its integrity before it landed in your hands. With the possibility of a free fall if your equipment fails, not inspecting your new SRL isn't worth the risk.

And if your equipment isn't new, the same rules apply. Even if it worked fine yesterday or it has kept you safe all year, don't skip the inspection. The job will get done even if you take a few minutes to carefully inspect your equipment, but it won't get done if something tragic happens.

Falls continue to cause more than 100,000 injuries and deaths each year. Construction safety teams, companies, and agencies like the National Safety Council keep looking for ways to curb those numbers. Help them out. Do your part in reducing those numbers by inspecting your self-retracting lanyard and other equipment before each use.

How to Inspect Your SRL

Inspecting your SRL doesn't have to take a long time, and a standard inspection is not an intricate, complicated process. It must be done carefully, however. Follow these steps to perform a basic but thorough overview of your equipment:

  • Make sure that labels are visible and readable
  • Look closely for signs of physical damage, wear, corrosion, or malfunctioning parts
  • Make sure that the load indicator is not visible
  • Extract all cable and webbing to examine for defects and test its strength. Watch for any signs of damage, including burns, bends, bulges, and snags
  • After retracting the rope, pull it sharply to make sure it performs properly
  • Check all components for signs of cracks and weaknesses. This doesn't include scuffs or minor indentations.

Don't forget to assess the area in which you will be working for potential hazards. There must be enough clearance beneath your working surface to accommodate you in the event that a fall occurs. Also, be aware of any environmental hazards (chemicals, welding tools, sharp edges, etc.) that could damage your gear as you work.

And remember, your device may require additional inspection procedures depending on the type. See the manufacturer's instructions for details.

When to Consult a Professional About Your Fall Arrest System

It should be standard practice to read the instructions that accompany your equipment and to inspect your equipment on a daily basis. It is also a requirement to have a Fall Protection Competent Person inspect it at least once a year. There may be subtle signs that you miss in your daily inspection, and another set of eyes from a more experienced individual may pick up on them.

Those who work in extreme conditions or around hazardous chemicals should have their SRLs inspected by a Competent Person on a more frequent basis. Those with frequently damaged or improperly stored equipment also need more regular inspections. Extreme conditions cause the components of your fall protection to break down faster. They also increase the likelihood for unexpected damage.

Typical Signs That It’s Time to Send Your SRL in for Repair or Recertification

  • If the device incorporates a load indicator with a visual warning that the device has been impacted, it must be removed from service and returned to the manufacturer immediately for repair or recertification
  • If there is any fraying, bulging, burns, or other damage to the cable or webbing, the device should be removed from service and returned to the manufacturer for repair. The equipment needs recertification before further use
  • When pull-testing the braking device, the unit may fail to retract properly after braking. If that's the case, the device should be removed from service and sent back to the manufacturer for repair

If in doubt, it is always best to remove equipment from service and send it in for repair. Some manufacturers have return-and-inspect options. This encourages employers to send equipment back rather than risk using it. Take a moment to check with your supplier about this option. Finally, be sure to keep your safety team aware of the need to remove questionable gear from use.

Fall Protection Is Not a Question

When it comes to fall protection, there is no room for mistakes.

Every employee should be comfortable and familiar with their gear. They should feel confident that it is working properly. Safety supervisors should be well trained on all equipment and should know what to look for during an inspection.

If an SRL doesn’t meet the requirements specified in the user’s manual, it not be used. Remove questionable or damaged gear from service. Send it in to an authorized repair facility for any required repairs or recertification. Staying safe is far more important than getting the job done quickly!