Inspecting Your Personal Fall Arrest System

When you don your Personal Fall Arrest System (PFAS), you are entrusting your life to it. Yet, too often this equipment is mishandled, stored improperly, and exposed to the elements or job site chemicals. And, that same equipment is then used without so much as a cursory inspection. Why do workers have such disregard for equipment that, quite literally, could mean the difference between life and death? If you were told a bullet would be fired in your direction, but you had one chance to choose a bulletproof vest, would you grab anything you found on the heap or would you take a close look at each one to make sure you got the best one possible? If you were in a fire and told you had enough time to choose one fire extinguisher, would you leave it to chance or would you make sure the one you were grabbing was properly charged? If you understood that your life depended on your decision, you would probably take the utmost precaution.

Which leads me to one conclusion: many workers don’t fully comprehend the serious risk of working at heights or how the Personal Fall Arrest system really works. They still believe falls “won’t happen to them,” or they assume that fall protection equipment will just always magically work. It is the employer’s job to ensure that their employees understand that this is not the case by providing all of the necessary fall protection training. Perhaps once trained, they’ll take better care of their equipment and inspect it prior to each and every use.

Inspections, though, are useless if the user doesn’t know what they’re looking for or rushes through without taking it seriously. Here’s what the users should be looking for with each piece of equipment:

Let’s start with the harness. To the untrained eye, the harness can look like nothing more than a jumbled mess of straps and buckles. Trying to put one on without training, let alone inspect one, is virtually impossible. When inspecting a harness, it’s best to hang the harness in your hand from the D-Ring so that you have an idea where you’re working from. From there, trace each strap, looking for fraying, stitching that’s coming undone, discoloration, burns, or other visual indicators that the straps have been damaged. Ensure that the material hasn’t become too stiff. From there, check each buckle, D-ring, and other pieces of hardware. Ensure that there is no pitting, bending, or other damage that would prevent them from buckling together or would weaken the metal. If your harness has grommets in the leg straps, check each and every one, paying special attention to the ones that appear to be most used. Think of a belt. The hole in your belt that you frequently use weakens quickly and the material becomes flimsy. This will happen with the grommets in your harness, as well, so don’t overlook it. Finally, look for labels. This may seem unimportant, but your labels need to be in place and legible in order for a harness to be considered usable.

Next is the lanyard. Your strap will be inspected the same way you looked at the straps of harness. If you’re inspecting a retractable, ensure that you play out the entire lanyard because damage can be hidden away inside the casing if you don’t. Now check the hook to ensure that the gate closes properly and cannot be opened without depressing the locking mechanism. With the lanyard, look for wear points where the webbing connects to the hook or to your expansion pack. And the expansion pack itself needs to be looked at. Are there signs of damage? Is the cover still intact? Has it been deployed? Note that for a “bungee” style lanyard, signs of deployment won’t be as easy as seeing an expansion pack torn apart. Look for the tag that pops out to tell you that the lanyard was involved in a fall, or whatever other method the manufacturer specifies.

Again, if you’re using a retractable lanyard, you’ll need to inspect the housing for cracks or other damage. Check the swivel and the retracting mechanism to see if they work like they should. If it’s wire rope cable, check for crimping, bird-caging (separation of individual strands), or breaking of individual strands.   Make sure you can play out the entire cable and ensure that the lanyard locks if you yank on it. And, just like with the harness, make sure all your labels and markings are in place and legible.

Finally, you need to inspect your anchor point and any connectors you may be using. For instance, if your anchor point is a structural I-beam, you can probably rest assured it’s in good condition (though it doesn’t hurt to look!) but if an eye-bolt has been mounted to the structure you’re working on, don’t take for granted that everything is fine. Look at it to see that the hardware itself hasn’t been damaged or that the installation doesn’t seem to be failing. If you’re using beam straps, inspect them like you did the straps of your harness and lanyard and if you’re using a beam clamp, check every piece of hardware for damage and function. If you’re tying off to a temporary anchor point like a weighted standalone anchor or a roofing fall protection cart, ensure that all of the weights are in place and it’s been placed properly for your work.

Leave no stone unturned, as they say, and, if you are in doubt about any of your findings, remove the equipment from service. Trade it out for something that passes your inspection without the slightest doubt. Your well-being should not be left to chance. The inspection doesn’t have to be an hour-long process, but it shouldn’t take thirty seconds either. Make sure that you put every ounce of thought and care into this as you would a life and death decision, because that’s exactly what it is.