When the British Standards Institute's National Engineering Lab captured on film the gruesome fall of a lifelike dummy in a body belt, European regulatory agencies, starting with the French, advised employers to replace belts with harnesses. The image of the dummy almost folded in half by the belt, with the head and upper torso dipped down and slammed into a surface, spurred them on. That was 23 years ago.

U.S. regulators didn't get around to considering the issue until much later. In the mid-1980s, OSHA asked engineers at Wright Patterson Airforce Base in Dayton, Ohio, to determine how long a motionless worker, knocked unconscious in a fall, could survive suspended in a body belt before being retrieved by rescue workers.

An average-sized woman, they calculated, could live two and a half minutes before dying of asphyxiation or internal injuries caused by the belt. A man would survive for about 32 seconds. In a harness, however, a worker could survive between 19 and 29 minutes.

Those figures, and the high incidence of fall-related deaths in the construction industry (350 annually), explain why OSHA has banned, effective this month, the use of body belts as part of personal fall arrest systems in construction.

What J. Nigel Ellis, Ph.D., would like to know is why OSHA hasn't banned them in all industries.

Fall protection crusader

Ellis, a certified safety professional, safety engineer and ergonomist, is on a one-man crusade to change this country's fall protection standards. His curriculum vitae indicates he's serious. The former owner of RTC, a fall protection equipment manufacturer, Ellis now runs a fall protection consulting firm, Dynamic Scientific Controls in Wilmington, Del. and San Diego, Cal. He has served as a fall protection advisor, consultant, trainer, author or expert witness to the American National Standards Institute, OSHA, the Industrial Safety Equipment Association, the National Safety Council, the American Society of Safety Engineers, the Best Safety Directory, the International Society for Fall Protection, and Harry Philo's Lawyers Desk Reference.

Ellis advises employers and safety managers in general industry to comply with OSHA's new rule for the construction industry.

To be sure, many employers in every industry have replaced body belts with harnesses. Some have been motivated by a proposed ban on belts in general industry that OSHA circulated in 1990, but has yet to promulgate as a final rule. Others just can't find body belts anymore: many equipment manufacturers, including RTC, purchased from Ellis in 1996 by Sellstrom Manufacturing, dropped body belts from their lines years ago.

But Ellis says there are still hangers-on. For one thing, body belts are cheaper than harnesses--about $20 versus between $40 and $100 for a harness, he says. And others stick with belts because that's what their father used or that's what they've always used, Ellis says.

Converting users from belts to harnesses isn't difficult, says Ellis, who claims to have personally trained over 20,000 managers and workers in fall protection techniques and procedures since 1970. "If they had to hang, everybody would choose the harness," he says. Construction workers are still permitted by OSHA to use body belts for work positioning, or for balance while performing hands-free tasks.

But in general industry, workers allowed to use body belts for fall protection include those working in trenches, trees, sewers, or confined spaces. Belts are also allowed for non-construction work on cranes, equipment, machinery, roofs, welding locations, aerial lifts, or scaffolding. Unfortunately, Ellis says, some employers will keep using belts until they're forced to stop.

Until then, he waits for OSHA's response to the question he posed in a letter not long ago: "Why would OSHA find body belts dangerous in one industry and not another?"

More information and a videotape depicting fall protection hazards is available from Dynamic Scientific Controls, Inc., (302) 762-4304, ext. 21. On the Internet: www.fallsafety.com OSHA's construction industry fall protection standard is available on the Internet at: www.osha.gov.