To Belt or Not to Belt?

By Joe O'Connor | Nov 15, 2003




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Body belts and body harnesses are often the first things that come to mind when fall protection is mentioned. But confusion arises over where and when they should be used. This article will review Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulations and select responses to questions about the use of body belts and harnesses.

The general fall protection rule is that employees must be protected at heights of 6 feet or more. There are variations based on the equipment being used, such as ladders or scaffolds, and the operations being performed, such as steel erection. For electrical operations on elevated surfaces (rooftops, working decks, etc.), the 6-foot rule should be the target.

As with any hazard, the first option for protection is the elimination of the hazard. Before determining whether or not to use a body belt or body harness, an attempt must be made at installing guardrails or using a form of protection that will prevent a fall. Body belts and harnesses are Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and should be used as a last resort. A body belt or body harness used as part of a restraint system that does not allow the worker to be exposed to a fall can be considered prevention. If it is determined that prevention is not possible, then a decision on which type of protection is needed must be made.

A body belt can be used in a positioning device, which is used to protect workers on vertical surfaces. It is described as equipment that limits a potential fall to 2 feet. Basically, it holds an employee within a distance of 2 feet from a vertical surface. If the employee slips, the device must limit the arresting force on the individual to less than 900 pounds. A body belt used for pole climbing is a perfect example.

A body harness would be needed as part of Personal Fall Arrest System (PFAS) that is used to prevent a worker from free falling more than 6 feet and prevents impact with the lower surface. The body harness distributes the force over the thighs, pelvis, waist, chest and shoulders. A PFAS with the body harness must reduce the fall arresting force to 1,800 pounds. The PFAS includes a lanyard, deceleration device, lifeline or some combination of these.

Scaffolds are common working surface for the electrical contractor. Scaffolding regulation present one of the variances to the general rule. When working on a scaffold, Federal OSHA requires fall protection at 10 feet. The positioning device or body belt is not applicable to scaffold. The type of scaffold determines whether or not a body harness (PFAS) or guardrails are needed. The table below lists the scaffolds and fall protection needed.

Associated with the scaffold variance for fall protection are scissor and aerial lifts. OSHA views a scissor lift as a mobile scaffold. Workers on scissor lifts must be tied-off or protected by guardrails. Aerial lifts, on the other hand, are covered by a separate OSHA standard and require fall protection including a body harness.

Fall protection for a ladder is unique. Unless it is a fixed ladder above 24 feet, neither a body belt nor harness is required. Fall protection is provided for in the rules for climbing (i.e., three-point contact, centering the body, etc.) and ladder setup (i.e., height-to-base ratio of 4:1, securing the ladder, etc.). However, OSHA encourages the use of fall protection and many general contractors have established a rule mandating the use of a belt or harness while working on a ladder.

A word of caution: Falls are a leading cause of injuries and fatalities. Always insure adequate protection is provided. A large portion of this review was based on OSHA letters of interpretation, which explain requirements and how they apply to particular circumstances. Any variation of conditions may affect the applicability of the explanation. Confirm the use of fall protection equipment with the regulations. If you have any questions, contact your local OSHA office for advice over the telephone. 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 [email protected].


About The Author

Joe 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 [email protected].

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