Using a personal fall arrest system is no different than using any other personal protective equipment. In the hierarchy of protection, it is the last resort. The first step should be to remove fall hazards through engineering controls, such as guardrails. When all else fails, employees must rely on their personal fall arrest system. As the final protection between the employee and a catastrophe, it can't fail. It must be the right equipment for the job.

Be sure to select the correct size harness. Most manufacturers rely on universal sizing that will fit individuals that fall into the average size range. However, the adjustment available on the chest strap is limited and may make the harness unsuitable for short workers. In addition, the adjustment on some harnesses is difficult. Frustrated employees may not adjust straps properly.

Consider employee comfort. A harness that is difficult to put on, hard to adjust and/or uncomfortable is less likely to be worn. Some harnesses may cut and pinch when tightened, causing many employees to wear their harnesses too loosely. One solution is a full-body harness with stretchable webbing that allows workers to flex and bend. There are stretchable harnesses designed especially for women.

Make sure the harness meets the minimum specifications for body harnesses required by ANSI requirements. Do not rely on labeling. It may be bogus. Make sure the dealer is reputable and question them about the equipment's compliance with the standard.

Evaluate the harness' construction. Harnesses without a back strap may allow the employee to come out of the harness in the event of a fall. Poor-quality straps can fail. Examine the hardware. It should be sturdy, not oversized and awkward. Connecting devices (shock-absorbing lanyards) should attach easily to the hardware. The D-rings on some harnesses are so small that attaching a lanyard can be difficult. Others have sharp-edged hardware that can wear on the webbing or cut the skin when a fall occurs.

The webbing itself is critical. It should be tightly woven. This will ensure the straps slide easily into the hardware. Check the stitching on the web. It should not appear as though it will tear away easily in the event of a fall. Harnesses are now available that prevent tangling.

Match the harness and equipment to the application. What hazards are presented by the tasks to be performed? A key hazard that corresponds with electrical construction is the conductivity of the harness. It should be resistant to electrical current. If there is potential exposure to hazardous chemicals, the materials used in the lanyard and harness must have the ability to withstand those particular substances. If welding is to be performed, Kevlar webbing for flame resistance is a must.

Is mobility an issue? Self-retracting lifelines are popular in situations where greater mobility is needed. The line extends as needed, allowing the worker to move about. It retracts automatically as well. A tripping mechanism locks the line in place in the event of a fall. Be sure to evaluate all hazards. Self-retracting lifelines may snag and can present additional tripping hazards.

Consider the other uses for the harness. If a fixed ladder is used to access an elevated surface, a D-ring in front may serve as attachment while climbing. D-rings to the side can be used for attachment with positioning devices.

Where is your best anchorage point? Often there is no overhead anchorage point. If this is the case, you may need to connect at your feet. Girder grips or other devices are available for connection. When connection does occur at the feet, shock absorption must be considered. The best shock-absorbing lanyards will reduce the arresting forces during a six-foot fall to approximately 900 pounds. This is half the maximum allowed by OSHA. This is only the case when the worker is connected to an anchor overhead. If the anchorage point is at the feet, the fall will be 12 feet or more and the force greater. Specialized shock-absorbing lanyards are available to arrest falls and still meet OSHA standards for these situations. In some cases, such as in building construction without flooring, a horizontal lifeline system may be the only solution. Many systems are lightweight and can be transported quickly and easily.

A note of caution when making your harness and equipment selection. All selection criteria must be evaluated in relation to one another. For example, stretch fabric may add comfort for wearers of harnesses, but add to fall distance.

Ensure that the harness comes with an instruction manual. All instructions should include explicit guidelines for usage, maintenance and inspection (preferably, the instructions will be provided in multiple languages). If you have any questions, ask a fall expert for help. Manufacturers often provide engineers who will assist with system designs. EC

O’CONNOR is with Intec, a safety consulting, training and publishing firm that offers on-site assistance and produces manuals, training videos and software for contractors. Based in Waverly, Pa., he can be reached at 607.624.7159 or joconnor@intecweb.com.