PPE used for fall arrest is an area where there is often confusion over requirements and suitability of equipment. This article responds to some FAQs and is intended to support health and safety professionals to provide safe systems of work and comply with regulations and standards.
We shouldn’t just consider fall arrest, but other types of personal fall protection as well. A better title for this article would be:
Fall Protection Equipment
Once a thorough review of work tasks and risk assessments have been completed, a clear procurement specification should be written, and it should be ensured that this is not adversely influenced by those involved in procurement and provision.
Let’s start with nailing down some of those terms, with a bit of a glossary that we will use as we work through the FAQs.
Work at Height – working in a location where you may fall and be injured, there is no distance in the regulations and it could be at, above or below ground level.
Fall Protection – all forms of preventing harm due to falls from height.
Fall Prevention – stopping people before they fall.
Fall Mitigation – stopping people after they fall, but minimising how far they fall and the consequences of the fall, which relates to arrest forces and prompt rescue.
Personal Protection – protecting people individually.
Collective Protection – protecting everyone in a work at height zone.
Hierarchy of Control – this is from the Work at Height Regulations and tells us, that as far as reasonably practicable, the order in which we select control measures is: Avoid, Prevent, Mitigate.
PFPE (Personal Fall Protection Equipment) – commonly harnesses and lanyards, but other equipment can be included in this too, such as retractable fall arresters and rope grab systems.
PFPS (Personal Fall Protection System) – a complete system comprising PFPE and a suitable anchor.
Work Restraint – the use of PFPE to stop people before they fall, note that technically, the term “Fall Restraint” is not used in UK regulations, standards or other formal guidance.
Fall Arrest – usually this is the use of PFPE to stop people after they fall, in a controlled manner. Collective types of fall arrest can also be used.
Fall Arrester – a term, which is sometimes used to describe a PFPS, or elements of it, but which is not used formally.
“we shouldn’t just consider fall arrest, but other types of personal fall protection as well”
Types of equipment
Now let’s consider some of the types of equipment which is considered PFPE. The selection of which types of equipment are required will depend on the worker’s competency, the work environment, and the tasks to be performed.
All equipment should comply with the relevant standards, but detailed knowledge of these standards should not normally be required by an end user or their manager. However, the selection of the equipment should be undertaken by a competent person with an understanding of the limitations of the standards.
ABC – An acronym often used for PFPE, this is from:
- A – Anchor
- B – Full Body Harness
- C – Connection between A and B – usually a lanyard, rope grab or retractable
ABCDE – A less common, but useful acronym formed from:
- ABC – see above
- D – Decelerator – or energy absorber
- E – Emergency – or rescue system
A device, formed of webbing and buckles, designed to hold the body such that it cannot be released in a fall arrest. It must be correctly sized and fitted for each individual. There are a few different types, but basic harnesses are suitable for most work at height. There is a range of quality of harnesses and better (more expensive) harnesses are easier to adjust to fit and so are more comfortable and less prone to misuse. Harnesses should comply with EN361.
A device to connect the harness to an anchor. Usually formed of webbing, but sometimes rope, and connectors. To comply with standards, a lanyard cannot be longer than two metres. Some lanyards include an energy absorber and can be used for work restraint and fall arrest. Other lanyards do not include an energy absorber and can only be used for work restraint. There are no negative consequences to including an energy absorber in a lanyard intended for any use. Lanyards should comply with EN354.
A device that can be included within a lanyard to limit the level of force generated in arresting a fall. Without an energy absorber excessive arrest forces can be applied to the PFPE, the anchor system or the user, resulting in failure and/or injury. From a perspective of being reasonably practicable, it would be unusual to be able to justify not including an energy absorber in all PFPS, as they are low cost and significantly mitigate risk of harm. Energy absorbers should comply with EN355.
These are most commonly karabiners, but other types are available. There are different types of karabiners, the most significant differences are how they lock. Some must be locked manually, some lock automatically (“auto-lock”/ “twist-lock”) and some have additional automatic locks (“triple-lock”). All are acceptable, but generally karabiners which lock automatically are preferred for most workers as there is less chance that they will be used un-locked, which leads to a significant reduction in strength. Connectors should comply with EN362.
Rope grab system
A combination of a rope and a device which grabs on to the rope. These devices originated as a means of protection for vertical ladders and the standards reflects this use. Formally, these are known as “Guided Type Fall Arresters on Flexible Anchor Lines”. The test to demonstrate compliance with standards is for the rope to be rigged vertically and for only a very short free-fall of the test mass to be used, which results in a low energy fall arrest event. However, these systems are often used horizontally on roofs, with the intention that the worker adjusts the position of the grab on the rope to restrain themself and prevent themself reaching a location where they may fall. In reality the probability of a fall will remain significant due to human factors in most scenarios and so only rope grab systems which are rated for horizontal use over an edge should be used on roofs, which will be a significantly higher energy fall arrest. Most rope grab systems have not been tested in this way. All rope grab systems should comply with EN353-1 and for horizontal/roof use, they should additionally comply with CNB-RFU-11.75.
Retractable fall arrester
Also commonly referred to as an inertia reel – a device to connect the harness to an anchor, formed of a spring-loaded retracting line within a housing. The lines are usually webbing for shorter retractables (less than 2.5m) and steel cable for longer ones. Other high strength, lightweight materials may also be used. These units have an advantage over lanyards and rope grabs in that they continuously automatically retract, which eliminates slack and so reduces fall distances. Most retractables have only be tested when attached to over-head anchor points with the angle of the retractable line limited to around 40 degrees from vertical, though this angle varies by model and the manufacturer’s information should be checked. If the retractable is used with the line at shallower angles, which often happens with low anchor points or excessively long lines, then the device is being used beyond its specification and the free-fall distance will be greater than tested, leading to potential failure of the retractable in a fall arrest event. Retractables should comply with EN360.
“the probability of a fall will remain significant due to human factors in most scenarios”
An element which is able to resist the high loads generated in a fall arrest event. Generally the strength of an anchor should be at least 12kN (equivalent to 1,200kg or 1.2tonnes), which is the weight of a Ford Focus car. For fall arrest, workers are considered to have a weight of only 1kN and so the 12kN strength requirement for anchors may appear to be an excessively high requirement, but the dynamic effects in a fall arrest will result in a much higher applied load than just the worker’s weight. With an energy absorber, this load will be limited to 6kN, without an energy absorber the loads can be much higher. We also need to allow a factor of safety of two, hence a 6kN applied force requires an anchor strength of 12kN. This strength requirement applies to both the anchor point (such as an eyebolt) and to the structure to which it is fixed, such as a beam. Anchors should comply with EN795, but there is also BS8610 for fixed anchor points, lifelines and rails.
A system used to rescue someone who is suspended after a fall arrest, it is often wrongly omitted from a safe system of work, despite it being a requirement of the Work at Height Regulations to plan for emergencies. A rescue kit is commonly a “duffel bag” containing devices specified to suit the work environment and PFPE being used. Following a fall arrest event, a colleague will connect one end of the rescue kit to an anchor, then remotely connect the other end to the suspended worker. Once the connection is made, the rescue kit will normally be used to raise the suspended worker a short distance, so that their fall arrest equipment becomes slack and can be disconnected. The worker is then suspended on the rescue kit, and they are then usually lowered to the ground. There are many scenarios where this most simple rescue scenario cannot be safely implemented and advice from a competent person should be sought. All workers should be trained in the operation of the rescue kit and frequent refresher training given, such that even in the high-pressure situation following a fall arrest, the rescuer is comfortable in the correct use of the rescue kit. It can only be argued that a rescue kit is not required where there is no significant risk of a fall occurring. Rescue kits include various elements which should comply with various standards.
Frequently asked questions
And so finally to the FAQs, note that the responses to the FAQs should be read in conjunction with the information above.
How do the terms fall arrest/fall protection/fall prevention differ?
Fall protection covers everything that protects people at height; fall prevention stops people before they fall; and fall arrest stops people after they fall, in a controlled way.
What types of fall arresters exist?
There are several types of devices which can be used to form a fall arrest system, including a lanyard, a rope grab and a retractable, to connect a harness to an anchor.
Why do we need fall arresters?
All fall arrest systems should include an energy absorber to limit the forces generated in arresting a falling person, otherwise the forces could be excessive for the PFPE, the anchor and/or the worker.
When would it be best to use a fall arrest system?
It’s never ‘best’ to use a fall arrest system, we should always try and use a work restraint system and only if this is not practicable, should we use fall arrest as a means of protection. Work restraint is achieved by ensuring that the lanyard (or similar) length is shorter than the distance between the anchor and the edge. If this can’t be ensured, then the protection needs to be a fall arrest system. It is best practice to design protection to be a work restraint system, but to ensure that it could work as fall arrest system if need be.
How do you create/set-up a fall arrest system?
First, we should try and utilise work restraint, not fall arrest as a means of protection. Ideally the system will be configured to allow the worker to remain in work restraint at all times. But whether or not this is viable, the system should be designed to arrest a fall if need be. This will require the inclusion of an energy absorber. The first step to creating a fall protection system (either work restraint or fall arrest) is to ensure a suitable anchor system is available, this needs to be high strength and proven for the substrate structure on which it is used. Secondly, the most appropriate PFPE should be selected, this should preferably prevent falls, but include an energy absorber in case of a fall.
How do you ensure correct fit to the wearer?
Fit is only an issue with harnesses, all other equipment is universal. Most manufacturers provide harnesses in a small range of sizes. The key body dimension for a harness is the distance from groin to shoulder, which is a measurement that is not used for any other attire, so choice of harness size is not always obvious. Some people are tall, but have long legs so a medium/large harness will be the best fit. Others are short but have a large torso, requiring a large harness. The best thing to do is trial and error, but some manufacturers do have sizing charts.
Why is fit important?
Getting the fit right is important and this is achieved through a combination of correct size and correct adjustment. If the harness does not fit correctly, then there are two main concerns:
- Rapid movement of the harness in a fall arrest, which can lead to high impact forces to the genitals area and serious trauma.
- Position of the dorsal attachment point (where the lanyard is attached), this should sit between the shoulder blades, if it is too high or low, then forces are not applied distributed to the larger muscle groups in the shoulders and backside. Additionally, the worker may not be suspended at the desired angle, which can lead to asphyxiation due to blood in the mouth.
What regulations must fall arrest equipment comply with?
Each element of a fall protection system should comply with its own standard and be CE marked. Standards are identified above.
How is fall arrest equipment tested?
In very general terms, most fall arrest equipment is tested using static and dynamic load tests. The dynamic tests involve dropping a 100kg mass through a 4-metre free-fall. Not all equipment is subject to this onerous test regime, notably rope grab systems as discussed above.
How long should it take to rescue somebody following a fall arrest?
Work at Height Regulations require that we plan for emergencies and guidance from standards tells us that 20 per cent of people will suffer pre-syncope within 10 minutes. Syncope can lead to death in a few more minutes, so good guidance is for rescue plans to be achievable in 10 minutes.
Should we use front or rear attachment points on harnesses?
Generally rear attachment points are preferred for basic workers. This keeps the lanyard out of the way of any hot/sharp work activities and following a fall arrest will leave the worker suspended at the best angle.
How much fall clearance is required for a fall arrest system?
The rule of thumb on this is around six metres or two storeys. It would only be more than this for a very poorly configured system. It could be less than this, but this should be determined on a location-specific basis by a competent person.
What competencies are required to use a fall arrest system?
The competency of the worker, should be matched to the complexity of the protection required in the height zone. Some zones will require greater competencies than others, due to the degree of adjustment required, the number of systems and the access locations. It is beneficial to use a graded competency system, but in general terms the competencies which may be required are:
- Use of harness
- Use of connecting system (lanyard, rope grab or retractable)
- Use of anchor
- Use of rescue kit
- Ability to perform work task
What inspection is required for PFPE?
In general terms, most equipment should be inspected at least every six months by a competent person, this should be recorded, and the equipment tagged. For equipment which is used frequently and/or in harsh environments, such as construction, more frequent inspection is recommended. In addition to this, all workers should perform a visual/tactile/functional inspection of their equipment before each occasion of use. The ability to do this should be part of their competency to use the equipment.
Is CE marking required on PFPE?
All PFPE shall be CE marked and/or UKCA marked. This demonstrates that the specific model of equipment has been assessed by a Notified Body (a government approved assessment institution) as being compliant with the relevant standard. The marking should include reference to the standard and the Notified Body’s registration number (the 4-digit code after CE). From the 1st of January, 2023 in GB all newly introduced PFPE should be UKCA marked, this will probably be provided in addition to CE marking as the technical requirements are unchanged. PFPE which is already in use or in stock does not yet need to be UKCA marked. For anchors the situation is complex, but currently anchors which do not require fixing to the structure require CE marking, whereas anchors which do require fixing do not require CE marking, this is due to an unfortunate administrative anomaly.