Fall protection is the leading liability risk in the occupational health and safety industry. Since everything from harness construction to harness components can be compared and contrasted, selecting the proper harness to protect your workers can be a confusing process.

To help you make an informed decision, here are some tips from safety directors and product managers on what to know before you invest in equipment.

Harness comfort

Comfort and fit affect the safety and use of a harness – influencing compliance, according to Jim Owen, director of construction safety operations at Dick Corp. “Our workers will wear a harness if it’s comfortable,” he says.

Owen adds that if fall protection equipment is difficult to don and hard to adjust, it won’t be used. With comfort in mind, Dick Corp. workers use several different types of harnesses, but the majority of them prefer full-body harnesses with stretchable webbing that allows them to flex and bend.

Stay away from harnesses that cut and pinch, suggests Harry Galer, director of corporate safety at Clark Construction Group, Inc.

Harness features

A full-body harness includes hardware, webbing and pads with specific functions.

Hardware must be sturdy, but not oversized and awkward. At the same time, the hardware should easily attach to connecting devices. For example, the back D-rings on some harnesses are so small that hooking a lanyard can be a tricky process. Harness hardware must also be smooth because it can pose a hazard if it has sharp edges that cut into the harness webbing or dig into the wearer’s skin in the event of a fall.

Hardware construction is an important feature, specifically in friction buckles. If friction buckles are not spring-loaded, they can begin to loosen once the harness has been adjusted to fit properly. Also, hardware with exposed springs, particularly on friction buckles, can easily be disabled or dislocated.

Webbing should be sturdy with tightly woven yarn that slides through hardware without snagging. Once webbing is cut, burned, frayed, etc., the harness must be taken out of service. Webbing should meet the ANSI standard of 5,000 lbs. tensile strength. Stitching should have enough strength that it does not rip away during a fall, and the webbing should endure traditional abrasion tests without fraying and puckering.

Since webbing will be used in sun, heat and moisture over extended periods of time, it should resist natural weather effects. Similarly, in an electrical environment, webbing must resist conductivity, and in a harsh chemical environment, it must resist toxic chemical fumes and splashes.

Dirt and grime can also pose hazards to webbing, according to Duane Seib, who performs sandblasting on building restoration sites in Erie, Pa. He says webbing treated with protective DuPont Teflon® HT finish extends harness life, offering cost savings to construction companies.

“On our job sites, webbing is exposed to particle dust that settles into the fibers, and we may not see the damage, but we know it’s there,” says Seib. “A protective finish keeps the dust out of the fibers and keeps the equipment in service longer, saving replacement costs.”

Padding should be pliable and easy to adjust to ensure a comfortable fit. Like webbing, padding must withstand harsh weather and maintain its shape. Some padding can become brittle in cold weather, so look for padding with breathable fabric and durable construction.

Critical components and fit

While safety directors agree a comfortable fit is crucial to compliance, some workers lose sight of how important it is to follow directions when it comes to ensuring a snug fit with chest, back D-ring and leg straps. In many instances, workers wear harnesses far too loose, according to Clark Construction Group’s Harry Galer.

“The ability to correctly fit a harness must be balanced with easy-to-adjust straps. When adjustments are difficult to make, we find a lot of workers don’t wear their harnesses properly.”

Placement and connection of the chest strap and back D-ring critically affects harness fit and safety. It is vitally important that chest straps are positioned in the mid-chest area, and back D-rings located in the middle of the back between the shoulder blades. Both must be tightened for a “snug” fit.

Chest straps should be easy to adjust, but must withstand fall forces without tearing or breaking during a fall. If a chest strap is not fastened properly, it can slide up around a worker’s neck after a fall.

To provide easy and proper chest strap adjustment, fall protection manufacturers use a variety of connecting devices from metal hardware to Velcro straps. Metal chest hardware is the preferred choice for greater safety, consistently meeting 4,000 lbs. of “pull force” when tested.

Appropriate harness sizing influences compliance, as well. Universal sized harnesses, designed to fit almost everyone, don’t offer a comfortable fit for shorter workers. To accommodate all employee shapes and sizes, some manufacturers offer more than 30 styles and designs.

Clear instructions

It sounds obvious, but clear, easy-to-read instructions should accompany every harness. Ideally, instructions should be available in more than one language with English, French and Spanish being the most common. All instructions should include explicit guidelines for usage, maintenance and inspection. Right application Finally, when purchasing a harness, make sure you are buying the correct harness for the appropriate application. Remember, employees will more readily and properly wear a comfortable harness that easily adapts to lanyards and other connecting devices.

The better the harness, the better your company’s chances of employee compliance, which in turn increases safety and reduces liability risk. Most importantly, it saves lives.

SIDEBAR: Ask the right questions

Before purchasing fall protection products, including full-body harnesses, request written proof from the manufacturer for the following items:

  • Are the products manufactured in an ISO 9001 facility?
  • Do the products meet ANSI standards?
  • Does the fall protection manufacturer have a Statistical Process Control (SPC) program?
  • Does the manufacturer utilize independent, third-party testing?
  • Does the manufacturer have qualified engineers designing/testing products in an in-house testing facility?