How to Use a Personal Fall Arrest System

Using OSHA Fall Protection

Fall protection violations are the most common citation issued by OSHA, and understandably so; in construction, falls account for the most worker fatalities annually. In 2012, 279 construction workers died as the result of falls.

Employers are responsible for implementing a satisfactory fall protection program at any workplace where employees work at heights of six feet or greater. This program can include guardrails, warning lines, floor covers and fall arrest systems. For many applications, personal fall arrest systems are the most effective means of preventing accidents, and safety managers and supervisors must ensure employees know how to properly use this type of protective equipment.

In this post we will examine the parts of a personal fall arrest system, how to check for damage before use, how to don a system and how to adjust it to fit. When everyone at the job site understands when and how to use personal fall arrest systems, fall accidents can be significantly reduced.

Parts of a Personal Fall Arrest System

fall protection

Personal fall arrest systems have three main parts: anchorage devices, body support and connectors. These parts are sometimes referred to as the “ABCs” of fall protection. All three parts of the system need to be in proper working order to protect a worker should a fall actually occur.

The anchorage device, as the name suggests, anchors the rest of the personal fall arrest system. This device—sometimes called a tie-off point—is attached to something steady like a wall, I-beam or other portion of a structure. Anchorage devices must be capable of withstanding 5000 pounds of static force and they must be inspected at least once every six months by a competent person who has detailed knowledge of fall protection systems.

Body support is the harness worn by workers that fastens around the back, shoulders, chest and legs. The harness has straps—called “webbing”—that are made from a synthetic material, and they are secured around the legs and chest using metal fasteners. These fasteners come in three main styles: quick connect buckles, mating buckles and grommet leg attachments. On the back of the harness a metal D-ring is positioned between the shoulder blades, which is where the worker is clipped into the rest of the fall arrest system.

shock-absorbing lanyard
Lanyards should be designed to absorb shock.

The body support and anchorage device are held together with connectors, of which there are two main types: shock-absorbing lanyards and self-retracting lifelines. Lanyards are made from cable, rope or webbing and are designed to absorb some of a fall’s energy to reduce the amount of shock absorbed by the body. Typically, lanyards are six feet long and they are designed to stretch during a fall. (For more detailed information about fall distances when using lanyards, see the infographic below). Self-retracting lifelines, on the other hand, will unroll from a drum when a worker moves around the jobsite. If he or she falls, the lifeline will automatically lock, preventing a free fall greater than 24 inches. Whether a lanyard or self-retracting lifeline is used will depend on the work being performed and the distance between the work location and the level below.

Connectors all have some type of metal hook like a snap hook or carabiner so they can lock to the D-ring on the worker and to the anchorage point.

Workers need to be educated about these technical aspects of their equipment so they can feel confident using it on a daily basis. 

What to Check Before Donning

Before donning harnesses, workers should check all parts of the fall arrest system to make sure it shows no signs of damage or wear and tear.

If an anchorage device is at all damaged, the whole fall arrest system could be compromised, so if something looks out of place, employees should consult a supervisor.

If a harness has ever been involved in a fall, it should be removed from service because its materials are no longer as functional as they once were. This should be done immediately after an accident, but employees should still know how to recognize signs that a harness has caught a worker during a fall. Many harnesses have built-in indicators like a red fabric that becomes exposed after a fall so workers can tell the equipment is no longer viable.

To check the harness for other types of wear and tear, workers should hold the harness by the D-ring and shake it to untangle all the straps. Next, they should inspect both sides of the webbing to make sure the thickness of the material is uniform. Any fraying, loose or missing stitches, discoloration or hard spots (which can be a sign of heat stress from using the harness in hot environments) could indicate the harness is too worn to be used safely.

Workers should check the lanyard or the lifeline for signs of damage like fraying, too. The braking mechanism on self-retracting devices should also be tested by sharply pulling on the line. Then, if everything is in working order, workers can move on to donning and adjusting the harness. 

How to Put on and Adjust a Harness

Fall Protection
After checking for wear and tear, workers can put on and adjust harnesses.

The body harness can be put on the same way one would put on a jacket by putting it over one arm and then the other. Before fastening any clips or buckles, the worker should adjust the harness from the bottom up. This involves making sure the leg straps aren’t twisted, positioning webbing appropriately and checking to make sure the D-ring falls between the shoulder blades about three to six inches below the neck (any higher or lower could lead to injury during a fall). Then the wearer can go ahead and secure the buckles/clips over the legs and across the chest.

The harness should fit snuggly, but not too snuggly. A good rule of thumb is that a worker should be able to fit two fingers between the straps and the body. If the webbing is any tighter, it could restrict movement too much.

Another good reminder: make sure pockets are empty. Keeping keys or anything else in pockets could lead to injuries during a fall.

Once the harness is in place, workers should connect themselves to the anchorage device using an appropriate connector. They should test metal fasteners to make sure they are secure before beginning work. For snap hooks, make sure the moving piece of the hook easily snaps into place. For carabiners, make sure the locking mechanism works properly. With all metal fasteners, workers should also look for cracks and other signs the metal may be comprised. Never put these connectors directly on webbing or rope, and don’t connect two snaphooks to each other.

Make Fall Accidents a Thing of the Past

By using proper fall protection, workplaces will not necessarily eliminate falls, but they will reduce the number of fall fatalities. OSHA focuses a lot of attention on fall hazards. According to Robert Kulick, OSHA’s regional administrator for New York:

Falls are the number one killer in construction work. To raise awareness of fall hazards and safeguards, OSHA has created an ongoing fall prevention campaign aimed at educating workers, employers and the public about how employers must plan work safely, provide their employees with proper effective fall protection equipment, and train their employees to recognize fall hazards before they occur.

Consult OSHA’s Fall Prevention Campaign for further information. To learn more about fall distances related to personal fall arrest systems, take a look at the infographic below.

The ABCs and 123s of Fall Protection


Fall Protection Infographic

Additional Resources