Self-Retracting Lifelines: Where, when, and how to choose fall arrest protection
It is crucial to raise fall hazard awareness and understand which equipment is suitable for each specific working-at-heights application to avoid the death of construction employees caused by falls from elevation. One of those applications is Leading Edge.
There are many scenarios where working at height is simply unavoidable, and some of the most hazardous work sees operatives working on top of an elevated surface or structure. It’s here where selecting the correct fall arrest solution is critical — this article outlines where, when, and how Self-Retracting Lifelines (SRLs) should be deployed for vertical fall arrest protection and looks at the features that define the most reliable, robust, and best lifetime-value equipment.
Hierarchy of control — identifying the situation
The fall protection hierarchy is the starting point to determine what approach to working at height and protection system is required.
- The preferred solution to all fall hazards is elimination.
- Passive fall protection: Physical barriers like guardrails around unprotected edges, for example.
- Fall restraint systems are erected so that a fall cannot occur. They use PPE to restrict the worker’s range of movement so they cannot physically travel to the fall hazard.
- Fall arrest systems are erected so a fall can occur, but the fall is arrested within the acceptable force and clearance margins. A suitable rescue procedure would then need to be implemented.
Why self-retracting lifelines?
One of the most effective and widely used fall arrest solutions today is the Self-Retracting Lifeline (SRL). SRLs replace lanyards and rope grabs as they typically last longer, retract movement, offer faster lock-on, and are easier to store.
A synthetic line or metallic cable attached to the worker’s harness automatically extends and retracts from a floor or overhead anchored container unit as the worker moves. In the event of a sudden fall, the product will ‘lock on’ to arrest the force of the fall, and an energy absorption system will then limit the impact of that force on the body of the worker in the harness.
SRL systems and the working environment
The application and environment are the first factors to consider when specifying the correct SRL system. What are the atmospheric conditions? For instance, continuous exposure to saltwater vapour in a coastal location poses the risk of accelerated corrosion for metal parts. Similar corrosive hazards can be present in petrochemical sites, posing potential degradation risks for SRL plastics and composites. For example, SRL specification options from MSA include using sealed SRL casings, military-grade plastics, and high-grade S4 stainless steel components that provide additional barriers against corrosion.
Understanding SRL anchors
An SRL is there to provide a fall arrest point. It will always be attached to an anchor, which may be in different locations:
- Overhead anchor point: this is the standard way to attach an SRL — to a carabiner or point above the workspace. This approach is traditionally seen when there has been an investment in infrastructure, and the benefit is that there is less distance to fall in the case of a slip or trip.
- Foot level anchor point: a foot or deck level tie-off — positioned at foot level, with the SRL attached. This is a more standard approach and is in many ways easier to use as nothing needs to be lifted overhead. However, it does mean that if the worker falls, the product is at a 90-degree angle to the fall. On many sites, the edges of roofs and structures can be sharp, so a foot-level anchor must constantly be tested and ‘edge rated’.
Understanding your anchor point is the first step in making an appropriate product choice — you need to consider where the anchor is, how far it is away from the working end and how far away it is from the Edge. Being conscious of fall clearance is also vital — knowing distance means allowing enough space for a fall to happen in the safest way possible. Once these things are understood, you can make an informed choice on safety equipment, such as SRLs.
Match the solution to the application and value of the product
There are many situations where fall protection is necessary, and it’s essential to consider the individual differences between applications. For example, working with solar panels on a rooftop or servicing an aircraft wing will require care to prevent equipment from causing damage. A synthetic web lifeline will minimize the risk of damaging products and surfaces. Conversely, the presence of sharp edges that could sever a fabric line necessitates using a high-grade steel cable. Similarly, a construction site may have abrasive concrete dust that will degrade synthetic lines, requiring a steel cabled solution.
SRLs are also inherently versatile and used across various industries and horizontal, overhead, and leading-edge applications. From vertical access via pylons, turbines, water towers, and confined spaces to loading and maintenance bays, assembly lines, silos, rooftops, and the building and construction industry at large, SRLs can help to take the guesswork out of equipment selection.
Another factor to consider is fall clearance — the minimum vertical distance required between a worker’s feet and a lower level, which can also vary in different working areas. A self-retracting lifeline can accommodate significant variance since it remains under tension and automatically adjusts the line. For example, the latest addition to MSA Safety’s V-Series SRL range offers a new maximum line extension of 30m.
How quality design enhances lifetime performance and reduces the cost
Ultimately, the design of an SRL directly impacts the safety and total service-life cost. Human life is priceless, and employers have a duty of care to reduce the risks faced by their workers. While technically, all products are certified to the same standard, the reality is that not all are created equal. Entry-level, economy-priced PPE is much less likely to offer the same performance and durability as higher quality, more premium solutions.
Trying to minimize expenditure at the outset can be a false economy. Investing in the best equipment can yield lifetime savings and lower total ownership costs. For example, inherently designing equipment to be serviceable in the field and minimize repair times can dramatically reduce costly downtime and delays. Smart retraction dampening technology, which in some instances can reduce cable retraction speed by up to 3m/s, not only increases safety but limits damage to the product and surroundings, thus minimizing downtime and maximizing product lifespan.
By placing this philosophy of quality front-of-mind, standard and leading-edge SRLs by MSA Safety incorporate several innovative features in the V-Series range that add value. By fabricating the outer casing in clear, engineering-grade plastic, it’s easy to inspect the drum and mechanism inside quickly. An integrated roll cage protects housing for leading-edge SRL products when used in foot-level tie-off. Internal components like the cable, energy absorber and retraction dampener can be replaced on-site — reducing maintenance and repair times and eliminating the need for holding backup devices. The energy-absorbing technology also requires no additional calibration or adjustment, while retraction dampening limits the cable speed, protecting internal parts from wear and damage.
Making safety a mission
For over 100 years, MSA’s mission has centered around developing protection solutions that allow employees to return home safely at the end of every working day. Our portfolio of products has been considered and developed carefully over time, listening to the industry and responding to their challenges and concerns.
To optimize your investment while ensuring workers enjoy access to versatile, best-of-breed protection whatever the job, it always pays to scrutinize the quality and pedigree of PPE.
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