Protecting workers from falls is a major concern within all parts of the construction industry, including utility construction. With falls being the leading cause of fatalities within the construction industry, OSHA is expected to continue its focus on fall hazards.
Obviously guard rails are the preferred method of preventing falls from an open-sided elevated work area, but there are many situations where railings cannot be installed. When this occurs, employers typically turn to personal fall arrest systems (PFAS) to protect workers. This has led a vast number of construction employers to personal fall arrest systems utilizing self-retracting lanyards or lifelines (SRLs), which are actually defined by OSHA as deceleration devices.
Sometimes referred to as fall limiters or yo-yos, SRLs are a practical alternative to using shock-absorbing lanyards. While the standard 6-ft shock absorbing lanyards permit 6 ft of free-fall distance prior to activating, and another 3 ½ ft of deceleration distance prior to arresting a fall, a SRL requires less than 2 ft to arrest the fall. With shorter activation distance and shorter overall arresting distance, SRLs reduce the risk of injuries. SRLs will also extend as the user moves away from the anchor point and retract automatically — enabling the worker to move about within a given working area while reducing the potential tripping hazard. In some situations, the SRL could actually prevent a person from sliding or falling over an edge due to its ability to activate quickly in response to a falling motion.
When used by someone climbing, such as when entering a confined space or climbing a tower, if the worker slips or falls, the device will activate and arrest the fall before the worker falls very far. In addition, some SRLs incorporate a means of quickly retrieving a worker following a fall.
Types of SRLs
SRLs come in different sizes and types, ranging from large lifeline units that can house 175 ft of cable down to small lanyard units housing 6 ft of web strap that’s attached to the “D” ring on the back of a person’s harness. They are also classified according to their dynamic performance. ANSI Z359.14-2012, Safety Requirements for Self-retracting Devices, defines SRLs as followed:
- SRL — Self-retracting lanyard or lifeline
- SRL-R — SRL with integral rescue capabilities
- SRL- LE — SRL with leading edge capability
And classifies SRLs accordingly:
- Class A: Maximum arrest distance of 24 in. with an average arresting force not to exceed 1,350 lbs
- Class B: Maximum arrest distance of 54 in. with an average arresting force not to exceed 900 lbs
All SRLs must be labeled with detailed information about the SRL including: the make and model; serial number; year of manufacture; working length; arrest distance; and more. In addition, the label must include warnings, inspection requirements and suitability for use.
How Should SRLs Be Used Properly and Safely?
In order to ensure worker safety, SRLs should be purchased for the use for which they are intended. Class “A” SRLs should be used only when the tie-off is overhead, the free fall is limited to 24 in. and there is no possibility of falling over a leading edge. Class “B” SRL-LE should be used for all other applications and are approved for tie-off overhead or at foot-level, horizontal installation and, of course, falls over a leading edge. Not all equipment has been tested and approved for leading edge applications, so look for the “LE” designation when a leading edge could be involved.
To minimize free fall distance when using a SRL, the device must be anchored above the worker’s work location and there should be no slack in the lifeline. When anchoring at foot-level, use only units designated “LE.” In any case, the lifeline should not ride over any sharp edges. When under the tension of a fall, a lifeline in contact with a sharp edge of a structure, beam or other type of edge can be damaged to the point of complete failure. SRL-LE units are more tolerant to leading edges, but it is still advisable to pad sharp edges. Above all, read the instructions.
Be aware of the potential for swing fall hazards. Depending on where the worker is in relation to the SRL anchorage and/or the presence of a leading edge, the worker may end up with a significant sideways motion during a fall, causing the worker to swing into a structure below.
If an SRL unit is involved in a fall, whether or not the impact indicator has been activated, it should be returned to an authorized service center for disassembly and inspection. In comparison, traditional lifelines and lanyards should be removed from service and discarded when involved in a fall.
Similar to other equipment used at the jobsite, the employer must follow the manufacturer’s instructions for using the SRL properly and safely. As part of the workers’ fall protection training, employers should include training on inspecting the equipment, its proper use and any safety precautions regarding SRLs if workers will be expected to use them.
What Are the Advantages of Using SRLs?
- Designed to arrest a fall while minimizing fall distance — resulting in less impact force and potential for injury.
- More freedom of movement for the worker, both vertically and horizontally.
- When tension is released, the SRL will retract the lanyard or lifeline reducing entanglement and tripping hazards.
- Available in a large assortment of types, lengths and sizes, which can be adapted to many different types of situations.
- Self-retracting lifelines and lanyards are designed for rugged use.
What Are the Disadvantages of Using SRLs?
- More expensive to purchase than tradition lifelines and lanyards.
- Heavier than traditional fall arrest lanyards and lifelines.
- The units need to be inspected frequently and sent back to the manufacturer for inspection and reconditioning after a fall.
- They are mechanical devices that require service and maintenance during their use life.
Falls from elevations happen all the time, and they happen so quickly that workers do not have a chance to recover and grab onto something. Therefore, it is necessary to provide workers who are exposed to a fall hazard of 6 ft or more with some form of fall protection. Falls can be prevented, and if a PFAS is the fall protection system of choice, SRLs offer a good alternative to using traditional lifelines and lanyards.
George Kennedy is NUCA Vice President of Safety.