Fall protection technology is constantly evolving, and the trends that shape this evolution are constantly changing. It’s important to stay on the forefront of these trends because advances in technology have traditionally preceded the development of standards. In other words, a nice-to-have feature today may be considered a need-to-have feature tomorrow. Furthermore, one trend in particular, industry specialization, could serve to simplify and improve traditionally dangerous tasks for which there have previously been no safer methods.

Advancements in fall protection technology are occurring in three types of equipment: soft goods such as harnesses and lanyards, hard goods such as self-retracting lifelines and rescue devices, and systems and anchors.

Soft goods
Soft goods have traditionally been the first piece of the fall protection system to wear out and require replacement. As a result, manufacturers are developing materials that increase the durability of the webbing. One example is repelling technology. When used as a coating on the webbing, it can make the material more moisture resistant and provide protection against abrasion.

The other major goal of soft goods product development is increased comfort. This is achieved by increasing padding and using soft materials as well as components that decrease the weight of the product, such as aluminum D-rings. A revision to the ANSI Z359 standard due out this month will allow the use of metal alloys as long as load requirements are met.

Adjustability is one of the factors affecting the comfort of a harness. In the past, adjustments on the leg, shoulder and chest straps have been difficult to maintain throughout a long workday due to movement and added weight on a harness. New features just being introduced will hold these adjustments in place, eliminating the need to constantly readjust throughout a shift.

Hard goods
Hard goods product development is geared toward versatility and efficiency. Today’s products offer multiple capabilities and create greater efficiencies in terms of equipment needed on the jobsite. Self-retracting lifelines with an integral rescue component are a recent introduction. These devices, which can be set to automatically lower a worker in the event of a fall, can eliminate the need for a separate rescue system on site, depending on the specifics of the environment.

Another example of a product that improves jobsite efficiency is a rescue device offering controlled descent, self-rescue, emergency evacuation and assisted rescue with lifting capabilities, all in one. Efforts are also underway to decrease the weight of products like self-retracting lifelines and to protect such products from the elements.

Systems and anchors
New systems and anchors tend to be highly specialized with many products being developed for specific applications, such as standing seam roofs, precast concrete and pole-climbing. At the same time, manufacturers recognize the need for economics in fall protection equipment. Reusable anchors that can be carried between tasks at a jobsite as well as between jobsites are becoming increasingly popular.

Overarching trends
Four major trends can be seen across each of the equipment categories: development of user-friendly equipment, a ‘do-more-with-less’ mentality, industry specialization, and customization.

The primary factors driving fall protection compliance rates are ease-of-use and comfort. If a harness is not comfortable, workers could choose to go without, especially for those tasks that “only take a minute” and that the worker has “done a hundred times before.” On the other hand, if a harness is simple to put on and is almost as comfortable as a work garment, compliance rates are significantly increased. The same user-friendly principle applies to all categories of fall protection equipment.

Doing more with less is not just a trend in fall protection equipment. As manufacturers recognized how the macro economic climate has changed the internal economics of companies that use fall protection, they have scaled up development of products that can decrease the cost of safety programs. This new generation of “domore- with-less” equipment includes products that serve multiple purposes, such as self-retracting lifelines with built-in rescue capabilities and versatile equipment that eliminates the need to buy multiple products, such as reusable concrete anchors, and built-ins that were previously separate accessories, such as suspension trauma straps and equipment pouches.

Industry specialization, which has been a focus of manufacturers for some time, continues to play a role as new industries arise and established industries grow. Renewable energy has given rise to specialized wind energy harnesses, lanyards and climbing and rescue systems. Manufacturers are also paying attention to the industries expected to see renewed momentum based on factors such as the stimulus package. The infrastructure and utilities sectors are prime targets, and recent innovations include improved full-body harnesses with built-in safety vests and anchor systems for pole-climbing.

Manufacturers are increasingly working directly with end-user companies to build fall protection systems customized to their needs. These may be as simple as a universal sleeve for different diameter cables on ladder safety systems or as elaborate as a full access system for a specific model military aircraft.

Each of these trends serves a single goal: improved safety. We’ve come a long way since body belts were used for fall arrest, but we still have a way to go. If technological advancements save just one life, the time and expense that went into research and development will have been well worth the effort.