With the economy in shambles and companies struggling to find and apply any cost-cutting measure possible, e-commerce through online auction sites may become an interesting possibility for getting new equipment. But there’s a huge difference between purchasing pens and purchasing safety equipment online.

It’s true that you can get a great deal on online-auction sites. But if the equipment turns out to be inadequate for your application needs, you won’t be saving money and you may even be doing more harm by putting your workers in equipment that may not function properly in a life-threatening fall event.

Buyer beware
There are many dangers in buying a product such as potentially life-saving fall protection equipment through an online auction site or community.
  1. It may be difficult to tell if the equipment is new or used. Unless you know the reputation of the seller, you have no idea if the label of “new” or “like new” is correct.
  2. If the equipment is not new, you may not be able to tell if it has been involved in a fall. Although some fall protection products do have impact indicators, not all equipment will visibly show involvement in a fall, and it will be almost impossible to inspect it until the equipment arrives, after the purchase has been made. A buyer may think he’s getting a great deal on second-hand “like new” equipment, but if the harness arrives and shows signs of being involved in a fall, the buyer has no option except posting a negative comment on the seller’s profile.
  3. Even if the equipment hasn’t been involved in a fall, the buyer has no idea what kind of environment the product has been used or stored in, or whether routine maintenance has been performed on the equipment. Exposure to chemicals, sunlight, salt water and other extreme conditions could degrade the equipment. Finally, you won’t get the value-added services distributors provide, such as training and personal instruction on how to use equipment.
By following the tips outlined below, a buyer will be able to determine if his or her online fall protection purchase is a wise one.

Step 1: Determine who the seller is
Many manufacturer-authorized distributors have set up shop on online auction sites to move excess or older equipment. There may be nothing wrong with the equipment; it may simply be missing the newest features offered by manufacturers, such as a stand-up D-ring or RFID capability. The equipment might still be compliant in the field and appear to be an attractive option because it is often sold at a steep discount to move it from shelves. However, even this option is not without risk, especially if the excess or older equipment no longer complies with the latest safety standards.

Aside from the risk referenced above, manufacturer-authorized distributors are a safer seller from which to buy online than non-authorized distributors/sellers. However, it may be difficult to identify an authorized distributor from an individual or seller with a username that sounds like an authorized distributor. Take a look at the listing and see if there are any Web sites mentioned within the description. If so, visit the site to determine whether the seller has a distribution business. If a Web site is not listed, ask the seller if he or she is an authorized distributor and what the company’s name and Web site is.

If you’ve determined that the seller is indeed an authorized distributor, it’s safe to assume the product is likely being sold as overstock or older equipment. If the seller is not a distributor, move on to step number two.

Step 2:Determine whether the equipment is new or used
If the item is truly new, it should be unopened in its original packaging. If this is not the case, you can’t gauge the condition of the product by looking at photos alone, and buying the product is discouraged. It’s not just manufacturers who regard buying used or second-hand equipment as dangerous. ANSI A10.32-2004, a voluntary compliance standard covering the construction and demolition industries, states that all fall protection equipment should be purchased new and unused.

That said, if you do decide to purchase used fall protection equipment, keep the following tips in mind.
  • Ensure the owner’s manual will be included in the purchase.
  • Make sure all product labels are present and legible. If not, OSHA and ANSI requirements state the equipment must be removed from service. Removed labels or other parts could mean that the product has been stolen from a jobsite or taken from a dumpster, having been discarded due to its condition.
  • Some pieces of fall protection equipment have built-in impact indicators. If the indicator has been triggered, it has been subjected to fall arrest forces and should not be purchased.
  • Ensure the equipment is absolutely free of corrosion.
  • Inspect the connection points, including D-rings and O-rings, for deformity. If there is a deformity, the product has likely been involved in a fall and should not be used.
  • If you have any doubts about any of the above, do not purchase the equipment.
  • Ask for as much information up front as possible. Ask for images, especially close-ups. Ask for the date of the last inspection by a trained person. Make sure the instruction manual and inspection record will be included. Ask for the capacity of the equipment and which standards it is compliant with. Ask for a copy of the original purchase order. If you’re still uncertain, ask the seller to offer a satisfaction guarantee on the equipment. If it arrives and does not pass inspection, send it back for a refund.
Harnesses and lanyards
Harnesses and lanyards present a bit more of a challenge for online buying than other fall protection equipment because products made of webbing are the most easily damaged in the field. They are also the easiest targets for thieves and are the most likely products to gather dust in a construction worker’s garage. When purchasing soft goods:
  • Ensure all hardware is present, connected and without deformities.
  • Look for torn webbing, broken stitches, tape, paint, grime, dirt, grease, tears, burns and rust. If the equipment shows any of these characteristics, it should not be purchased.
  • Pay special attention to the webbing around adjustment points, the sub-pelvic area and the back D-ring on harnesses. If these areas show signs of wear, the product should not be used.
  • If you have any doubts about any of the above, do not purchase the equipment.
Equipment to avoid
Several lines of equipment should never be purchased used, including cable or rope-based horizontal lifelines, drop line ropes and mechanical devices such as self-retracting lifelines. It is too difficult to tell whether these products have been involved in a fall just from an exterior inspection. Mechanical devices, for example, must be inspected internally to determine the condition of the product, which requires specialized tools and education. To ensure satisfaction and a compliant product, purchase only new products in original packaging from authorized distributors.