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Safety is in the Details
by Bob Babin

A typical state of the art trolley beam system from Fall Protection Systems, Inc.
Fall arrest systems should be inspected regularly to ensure their readiness in the event of an emergency. One of the most frequently asked questions of those of us who are in the industry is “how often, and by whom should the inspection be done?” OSHA guidelines are reasonably clear on this issue. If the manufacturer requires it, you have to do it according to the manufacturer’s specific instructions. We have to separate the components of the system into separate categories to cover this subject.

Harnesses and carabiners

The harness should be inspected before each use. This inspection should include the webbing or belting material. Look for cuts or burns in the webbing, and inspect the stitching for frayed or broken threads. If you detect any sign of excessive wear, the harness should be replaced. When damaged, safety harnesses are inexpensive to replace and should not be repaired by sewing or gluing. Carabiners need replacement only after they wear out or become damaged. Damaged carabiners should be replaced as they are also very inexpensive. Most harness manufacturers recommend replacement of harnesses after five years.

Lanyards

Lanyards come in two distinctly different versions. The fall restraint lanyard, also known as a work positioning lanyard, does not have a built in shock absorber. This type of lanyard should not be used for fall arrest applications. The shock absorbing lanyard, also referred to as a fall arrest lanyard, is recommended for use only on a single point attachment fall arrest application, and is usually only recommended where a self-retracting lifeline can not be used. The shock absorbing lanyard should be carefully inspected before each usage. The inspection should first look for cuts, frays and torn threads on the webbing. The shock absorber is usually bundled inside a fabric sleeve and is usually not visible; however any visible damage should be cause for immediate replacement.

Self-retracting lifelines

Self Retracting Lifelines (SRL’s) are designed to maintain constant tension on the lifeline to eliminate slack in the lifeline as well as to arrest falls. The SRL should also be inspected before every use. The first inspection criterion is for spring tension. The SRL must maintain tension on the lifeline at whatever position it is in, and the lifeline must return into the housing when released. The harness attachment clamp must also work properly, and the lifeline (whether webbing or braided wire rope) must also be free of damage.

The consequences if you fail to maintain your system? Failure of the system, an injury to an employee and a high cost lawsuit.

The latest SRL’s usually include a built-in mechanism designed to absorb some of the energy developed by a fall arrest. The shock-absorbing SRL will soften the impact force created by the harness even as it arrests the fall.

Older SRL’s may include a label that lists an “Inspection Frequency Requirement” date of between one and two year intervals. After several years of historical record keeping, it became apparent that annual inspections were unnecessary, and most of the SRL manufacturers abandoned this practice approximately three years ago. Most of the latest SRL’s no longer require annual or bi-annual inspections. Check the labels carefully to make sure you’re following the manufacturer’s recommendations.

Cable-based systems

Warning Signs


The red warning indicator on the harness attachment clamp shows that it needs recalibration service.

Older style Latchways trolleys have caused falls. They should be replaced.

Harness or lanyard webbing should be inspected for damage before each use.

Horizontal “safety cables” utilize a rope typically made of braided steel or nylon thermoplastic materials to support a worker during a fall arrest. Although these systems have declined in popularity over the last several years, many of these systems are still in existence, and a few of these systems are still being sold each year. Because these cable-based systems typically have to be tightened to well over 1,000 pounds of constant tension, the constant force on the ropes, regardless of the material of construction, causes them to elongate over time and the cables begin to slacken and droop, much like guy wire supports commonly used to anchor and support towers and other elevator equipment.

When the only device supporting a worker is a horizontal cable, it must also be carefully and thoroughly inspected regularly for cuts, notches and oxidation. Nylon cables may also suffer deterioration caused by ultraviolet light. This is a very serious matter, as at least one galvanized steel cable system I know of actually broke in two and dropped to the ground. Fortunately, no one was using it at the time. Many of the braided wire rope cables made from galvanized steel have only a five year life expectancy, as they tend to rust from the inside out. Since the interior deterioration is not visible on the exterior of the cable, extreme caution should be exercised with these systems.

Many of the older trolleys from UK-based Latchways Mansafe have been replaced in the field because they tend to hang up on intermediate connections and also have a tendency to lock up as they wear out. These trolleys have actually caused falls by stopping an unsuspecting worker when the trolley jammed against an intermediate connection and yanked him to a halt! One recent fall caused by this problem resulted in a very serious injury to a grain loader at a large Indiana elevator, causing the victim to fall down into the gap between two railcars. The latest trolley designs from Latchways, as well as most of the American-based companies, are more reliable. Nevertheless, all cable-based systems, regardless of manufacturer, require annual inspection.

Rigid trolley rail systems

Now the most popular fall arrest systems in the industry, rigid trolley rail systems solve the problems associated with cable-based systems. A rigid steel trolley rail system, if properly designed and supported by structural members, is extremely durable and reliable. Fall Protection Systems, Inc., the leading manufacturer of rigid trolley rail systems, manufactures systems that are so reliable that annual inspections and recertification by a factory trained and certified technician are no longer considered necessary. A color illustrated self-inspection manual is provided for this purpose, saving the owner of the system as much as two thousand dollars each year in annual maintenance costs versus cable-based systems where a certified inspector has to be called in to inspect and re-certify the system.

Conclusion

Regardless of the type or brand of fall protection system you have, regular periodic visual safety inspections are a good idea. Many companies require monthly inspections of certain essential equipment including their fall protection systems. Harnesses should be inspected periodically by your safety manager, not just by the harness user. SRL’s and the other components should probably be visually checked out monthly by the safety manager as well, although a thorough “hands on” inspection of the entire system is usually only necessary on an annual basis. Ask about the suggested frequency of inspections recommended by the manufacturer and follow his guidelines. Failure to properly maintain your system can result in a failure of the system, an injury to an employee and a high cost lawsuit. I can assure you after hearing some of the horrible stories I’ve heard recently from facilities where periodic inspections were not performed, your efforts will be well worth the time you spend.

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