Vertical Lifelines

While vertical lifelines have long been a viable solution to many fall exposure situations, they are about to get a new burst in popularity. With OSHA’s release of its new Walking-Working Surface rule in 2017, there was a new requirement for fall protection devices on fixed ladders beyond the heretofore accepted cages and wells. The most likely of these devices is a vertical lifeline which is a practical, inexpensive way to protect employees in almost all climbing situations (as well as other work-at-heights situations).

What, exactly, is a vertical lifeline, though?

Beyond stating that it is exactly what it sounds like: a lifeline that runs vertically (as opposed to the horizontal lifelines that many may be used to), it is a rope, cable or track to which an arrestor of some type is attached. In a fall, the arrestor will clamp down, lock in, or deploy whatever mechanism with which it is designed in order to slow and eventually stop the employee’s descent. A version of this that many may be familiar with is a rope grab. A rope grab would be used with a rope that is properly anchored at the uppermost point (or beyond the uppermost point) of the ladder, scaffold, or other location where your employees are climbing or working at heights. The employee would be wearing a standard full-body harness with a lanyard attached to the D-ring on back. The lanyard would be anchored to the rope grab which is a device located on the rope itself. In the event of a fall, the rope grab will basically squeeze down onto the rope preventing it from moving down (there are also manual rope grabs in which the rope grab will not move unless you are pulling the handle to free it up – so the difference is a rope grab that always moves unless you are falling versus one that never moves unless you intentionally allow it to do so).

Rope grabs are just one example, but probably the most frequently used as they are inexpensive, versatile and portable. Another option would be a fixed track installation with an arresting device, but it is highly unlikely that you will see roofers or window washers employ this type of installation since the track would need to be mounted each and every time they moved their work. However, in a factory setting, for example, where a fixed ladder is used day in and day out, it may make sense to install a fixed track. This type of system would keep it from being moved (or removed) and would also be more durable over time.

There are a couple of safety issues to consider when installing a vertical lifeline (and this applies to anybody who may be considering using a retractable lanyard in place of a vertical lifeline, as well):

  • Remember that your employees will need to utilize this fall protection even when descending, so unless they are going to remain attached to it the entire time they are working at heights, you need to anchor the top at some point where they do not need to walk to the edge and lean over to reach it.
  • The anchor will need to get back down if others will be utilizing it before the first person descends. This may require having a separate rope attached in order for somebody down below to retrieve the anchor (or somebody above to retrieve it if somebody else has recently descended). Know ahead of time how this works and determine what the best plan of action is for your situation.

As always, training is an important part of using any type of fall protection equipment. Don’t expect that your employees will just know how to properly wear their harness, properly hook off to the anchor point, or any aspect other aspect of the system. The employer is required to provide this training so that the employees have the knowledge to keep themselves safe. Also, it is important that you train them that the device is not optional. Many employees would opt to not use the protection, so make the requirement clear and be prepared to enforce it.

Also, be prepared for OSHA’s Walking-Working Surfaces rule to be enforced. Any existing ladders over 24’ must now have some type of protection, whether a cage, well, ladders safety device, or personal fall arrest system. Any new installations over 24’ may no longer use a cage or well, so if you’re installing something new, you may become familiar with vertical lifelines very quickly. For those ladders over 24’ feet that now have wells or cages, you’ve got a little time. By 2036, those all must be converted to ladder safety devices or personal fall arrest systems.

Vertical lifelines, as mentioned, provide a fairly inexpensive, simple to use solution when climbing, working on suspended scaffolding, or otherwise working at heights. Ensure that your systems are installed properly and that your people know how to use them. Learn how to properly install and use vertical lifelines and you have added a new weapon to your arsenal against falls.