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Fall Protection Systems

What is a Fall Protection System?

If workers will be exposed to fall hazards that you can't eliminate, you'll need to prevent falls from occurring or ensure that if workers do fall, they aren't injured. A fall protection system is designed to prevent or arrest falls.

Check out this short audio clip by Dan Clark of the Personal fall arrest systems (PFAS) are life savers in construction and industry. Hear how to use and maintain them in this podcast.

Types of Fall Protection Systems

Changing a Lightbulb on a 1500 Feet TV Tower
(Click to play video)

There are seven general fall-protection systems:

  • Personal fall-arrest system (PFAS): Arrests a fall
  • Personal fall-restraint system: Prevents a fall
  • Positioning-device system: Positions a worker and limits a fall to 2 feet
  • Guardrail system: Prevents a fall
  • Safety-net system: Arrests a fall
  • Warning-line system for roofing work: Warns a worker of a fall hazard
  • Safety monitor system: Keeps watch on a worker near a fall hazard

Other Fall-Protection Methods

The following methods may also be appropriate for preventing falls:

  • Safety monitoring for roofing work: A method in which a person - rather than a mechanical system - warns roofers when they are in danger of falling. The monitor, who must be a competent person, is responsible for recognizing the hazards and warning workers about them.
  • Catch platforms: Though not covered in OSHA standards, catch platforms are an acceptable method of protecting workers from falls.
  • skylightcover

  • Covers for holes: Simple and effective when they're properly installed, rigid covers prevent workers from falling through temporary holes, openings, and skylights in walking/working surfaces. Net covers for holes is another method more recently being employed (See image).
  • Fences and barricades: Use a fence or similar barricade to keep people away from wells, pits, and shafts.

Identify and Evaluate Fall Hazards


Wherever possible, you need to try to eliminate fall hazards. In many situations, you won't be able to eliminate fall hazards. Make sure you identify hazards that you can't eliminate and evaluate each one. The evaluation will help you determine appropriate fall-protection systems for your work site. Consider the following:

  • What is the fall distance from the walking/working surface to the next lower level?
  • How many workers are exposed to the hazard?
  • What tasks and work areas are associated with the hazard?
  • How will the workers move - horizontally, vertically, or in both directions - to do their tasks?
  • Are secure anchorages available or can they be easily installed near the hazard?
  • Are there other hazards near the work area, such as overhead power lines?
  • How will workers be promptly rescued if they are suspended in a personal fall-arrest system?

Personal Fall-Arrest Systems (PFAS)

A personal fall-arrest system consists of an anchorage, full body harness (FBH), and connection systems, that work together to stop a fall and to minimize the arrest force. Other parts of the system may include a lanyard, a deceleration device, and a lifeline.

The personal fall-arrest system is effective only if you know how all of the components work together to stop a fall. Before you use a personal fall-arrest system, you should know the following:

  • How to select and install a secure anchorage.
  • How to select and use connectors.
  • How to put on and use a full-body harness.
  • How to correctly attach and use a lanyard.
  • When a deceleration device is necessary.
  • How to erect and use a lifeline.
  • The correct procedures for using retractable devices.
  • How to estimate fall distances.
  • How to avoid swing falls.
  • How to inspect and maintain the system.
  • How you will be promptly rescued if you fall.

The Anchorage

An anchorage is a secure point of attachment for lifelines, lanyards, or deceleration devices. How can you be sure that an anchorage is secure? An anchorage for a personal fall-arrest system must support at least 5,000 pounds. Anchorages that can't support 5,000 pounds must be designed and installed under the supervision of a qualified person and must be able to maintain a safety factor of at least two - twice the impact force of a worker free-falling 6 feet. If you don't know how much weight an anchorage will support, have a qualified person check it before you trust your life to it.

Anchorage strength is critical, but is not the only factor to consider. Also important:

  • Anchorage connector: Unless an existing anchorage has been designed to accept a lanyard or lifeline, you'll need to attach an anchorage connector - a device that provides a secure attachment point. Examples include tie-off adapters, hook anchors, beam connectors, and beam trolleys. Be sure that the connector is compatible with the lanyard or lifeline and appropriate for the work task.
  • Attachment point: The anchorage can be used only as the attachment point for a personal fall-arrest system; it can't be used to support or suspend platforms.
  • Location: The anchorage should be located directly above the worker, if possible, to reduce the chance of a swing fall.
  • Fall distance: Because a personal fall-arrest system doesn't prevent a fall, the anchorage must be high enough above a worker to ensure that the arrest system, and not the next lower level, stops the fall. Consider free-fall distance, lanyard length, shock-absorber elongation, and body-harness stretch in determining the height of an anchorage. Free-fall distance is the distance a worker falls before a personal fall-arrest system begins to stop the fall.
  • Connectors: An anchorage, a lanyard, and a body harness are not useful until they're linked together. Connectors do the linking; they make the anchorage, the lanyard, and the harness a complete system. Connectors include carabiners, snap hooks, and D-rings.
  • Carabiner: This high-tensile alloy steel connector has a locking gate and is used mostly in specialized work such as window cleaning and high-angle rescue. Carabiners must have a minimum tensile strength of 5,000 pounds.
  • This video show why you should wear a safety harness!
    (Click to play video)
  • Snap hook: A hook-shaped member with a keeper that opens to receive a connecting component and automatically closes when released. Snap hooks are typically spliced or sewn into lanyards and self-retracting lifelines. Snap hooks must be high-tensile alloy steel and have a minimum tensile strength of 5,000 pounds. Use only locking snap hooks with personal fall-arrest systems; locking snap hooks have self-locking keepers that won't open until they're unlocked.
  • D-ring: D-rings are the attachment points sewn into a full-body harness. D-rings must have a minimum tensile strength of 5,000 pounds.

The Full-Body Harness

A Full-Body Harness (FBH) is used in general industry, construction and any other industry where work at height is required. Its use protects workers against falls from heights and allows for travel restraint, positioning, suspension and/or rescue.

The full-body harness has straps that distribute the impact of a fall over the thighs, waist, chest, shoulders, and pelvis. Full-body harnesses come in different styles, many of which are light and comfortable.

Body Belts

Body belts have a strap with means both for securing about the waist and for attaching to other components such as a lanyard used with positioning systems, travel restraint systems, or ladder safety systems. Since 1998, OSHA standards which address fall hazards call for the use of body harnesses rather than body belts when used as part of a personal fall arrest system. They should be used for positioning only.

Purchasing a harness for a Personal Fall-Arrest System

Before you purchase harnesses, make sure they fit those who will use them, they're comfortable, and they're easy to adjust. A full-body harness should include a back D-ring for attaching lifelines or lanyards and a back pad for support.

Keep the following in mind:

  • The harness must be made from synthetic fibers.
  • The harness must fit the user. It should be comfortable and easy to adjust.
  • The harness must have an attachment point, usually a D-ring, in the center of the back at about shoulder level. The D-ring should be large enough to easily accept a lanyard snap hook.
  • Chest straps should be easy to adjust and strong enough to withstand a fall without breaking.
  • Use only industrial full-body harnesses (not recreational climbing harnesses).
  • The harness must be safe and reliable. It should meet ANSI Z359.11 and CSA Z259.12-11 standards and the manufacturer should have ISO 9001 certification, which shows the manufacturer meets international standards for product design, development, production, installation, and service.
Left - Standard lanyard. Right - Integrated Lanyard (Courtesy Miller Safety)

Connection Systems: Lanyards

A lanyard is a specially designed flexible line that usually has a snap hook at each end. One snap hook connects to the body harness and the other connects to an anchorage or a lifeline. A special type of lanyard, called an "integrated" lanyard only has a snap hook at one end. Lanyards must have a minimum breaking strength of 5,000 pounds. They come in a variety of designs, including self-retracting types that make moving easier and shock-absorbing types that reduce fall-arrest forces. Don't combine lanyards to increase length or knot them to make them shorter.

Deceleration Devices

Deceleration devices protect workers from the impact of a fall and include shock-absorbing lanyards, self-retracting lifelines or lanyards, and rope grabs.

Personal Fall-Arrest Systems (PFAS-Continued)

Shock-Absorbing Lanyard

A shock absorber reduces the impact on a worker during fall arrest by extending up to 3.5 feet to absorb the arrest force. OSHA rules limit the arrest force to 1,800 pounds but a shock-absorbing lanyard can reduce the force even more - to about 900 pounds.

Because a shock-absorbing lanyard extends up to 3.5 feet, it's critical that the lanyard stops the worker before the next lower level. Allow about 20 vertical feet between the worker's anchorage point and the level below the working surface. Always estimate the total distance of a possible fall before using a shock-absorbing lanyard.

Example: Lanyard length (6 feet) + deceleration distance (3.5 feet) + worker's height (6 feet) + safety margin (3 feet) = 18.5 vertical feet from anchorage to lower level.

How to determine total fall distance with a shock-absorbing lanyard.

Never use a shock-absorbing lanyard if the shock absorber is even partially extended or if the lanyard has arrested a fall.

Self-Retracting Lanyard/Lifeline

Self-retracting lanyards and lifelines offer more freedom to move than shock-absorbing lanyards. Each has a drum-wound line that unwinds and retracts as the worker moves. If the worker falls, the drum immediately locks, which reduces free-fall distance to about 2 feet - if the anchorage point is directly above the worker. Some self-retracting lanyards will reduce free-fall distance to less than one foot. Self-retracting lanyards are available in lengths up to 20 feet. Self-retracting lifelines, which offer more freedom, are available in lengths up to 250 feet.

  • Self-retracting lanyards and lifelines that limit free-fall distance to 2 feet or less must be able to hold at least 3,000 pounds with the lanyard (or lifeline) fully extended.
  • Self-retracting lanyards that don't limit free-fall distance to 2 feet must be able to hold at least 5,000 pounds with the lanyard (or lifeline) fully extended.

Beware of Swing Falls


If you use a self-retracting lanyard or lifeline, work below the anchorage to avoid a swing fall. The farther you move away from the anchorage, the farther you will fall and the greater your risk of swinging back into a hard object. Swing falls are hazardous because you can hit an object or a lower level during the pendulum motion.

Rope grab: A rope grab allows a worker to move up a vertical lifeline but automatically engages and locks on the lifeline if the worker falls. When using a rope grab, keep the following in mind:

  • The rope grab must be compatible with the lifeline.
  • The rope grab must be correctly attached to the lifeline (not upside down).
  • Keep the lanyard (between the rope grab and the body harness) as short as possible.
  • Keep the rope grab as high as possible on the lifeline.

Personal Fall-Arrest Systems (PFAS-Continued)


Lifelines: A lifeline is a cable or rope that connects to a body harness, lanyard, or deceleration device, and at least one anchorage. There are two types of lifelines. (Vertical and Horizontal)

Vertical lifeline: A vertical lifeline is attached to an overhead anchorage and must be connected directly to a worker's full-body harness, lanyard, retractable device, or rope grab; it must have a minimum breaking strength of 5,000 pounds.

When a worker needs to move horizontally, however; a vertical lifeline can be hazardous due to the potential for a swing fall - the pendulum motion that results when the worker swings back under the anchor point. A swing fall increases a worker's risk of striking an object or a lower level during the pendulum motion.

Horizontal lifeline: Unlike a vertical lifeline, the horizontal lifeline stretches between two anchorages. When you connect a lanyard or rope grab to the horizontal lifeline, you can move about freely, thus reducing the risk of a swing fall. However, horizontal lifelines are subject to much greater loads than vertical lifelines due to what is called "sag angle."

Sag angle is the angle of horizontal lifeline sag when a fall occurs. According to OSHA Standard 1910.66 App C, when the angle of horizontal lifeline sag is less than 30 degrees, the impact force imparted to the lifeline by an attached lanyard is greatly amplified. For example, with a sag angle of 15 degrees, the force amplification is about 2:1 and at 5 degrees sag, it is about 6:1. But, as you'll see below, sag angle is not the only factor that determines force amplification.


Impact force, as used in this context, is the force or "shock" imparted to a lifeline by the attached lanyard. If the lifeline is not so tight, it will sag more and the impact force on the lifeline will actually be less. It's important to know that impact force is determined by a number of factors in addition to the sag angle of a horizontal lifeline. The type of material used for the lifeline, the amount of "spring" in the lifeline, and the elasticity of the horizontal supports at the end of a fall. (T. Dranger, "Design of Horizontal Life Lines in Personal Fall Arrest Systems", Engineering Journal, Vol 52, No.2)

Example: If the sag angle is 15 degrees, the impact force, or force amplification, imparted to the lifeline is only about 2:1. However, when the sag angle is decreased to only 5 degrees, it's tighter, and the impact force imparted to the lifeline increases to about 6:1.

Remember, lifeline anchorages must be strengthened as impact forces increase. To reduce loads on a horizontal lifeline, increase the sag angle or connect to the lifeline with a shock-absorbing lanyard.

Personal Fall-Arrest Systems (PFAS-Continued)

Safe Practices for Personal Fall-Arrest Systems

  • Don't tie knots in rope lanyards and lifelines; knots can reduce strength by 50 percent.
  • Don't tie lifelines or lanyards directly to I-beams; the cutting action of beam edges can reduce the rope's strength by 70 percent.
  • Know how the sag angle of a horizontal lifeline can affect arrest forces on the anchorages. Remember that horizontal lifelines must be designed, installed, and used under the supervision of a qualified person.
  • Think about the potential for a swing fall whenever you connect a lifeline to a personal fall-arrest system.
  • Remember that a shock-absorbing lanyard will elongate before arresting a fall. The fall distance includes lanyard length (before the shock absorber extends), deceleration distance (shock-absorber extension), worker height, and a safety margin (allow 3 feet).

Real-World Falls

(Click to Enlarge)

Fall from a Telecommunications Tower

A worker was climbing down a 400-foot telecommunications tower when he lost his footing. The ladder safety device or system (consisting of the carabiner, carrier rail, safety sleeve and body harness) he used failed to arrest his fall. The safety sleeve did not activate correctly to stop the worker’s fall, the chest D-ring ripped out of the body harness, and he plunged 90 feet to his death.

Likely Causes of Incident

  • The worker did not receive proper training on the ladder safety device he used.
  • The pawl of the sleeve was defective. The defect prevented the device from activating properly to stop a fall within 2 feet (.61 meters) of its occurrence (29 CFR 1926.1053(a)(22)(iii)). This was identified in a safety notice issued after the incident and as a result of OSHA’s investigation.
  • The weight of the worker, his tools and equipment was more than the 310–pound rating of the body harness.
  • The safety sleeve was connected to the harness at the chest D-ring instead of to the navel D-ring as specified by the manufacturer of the ladder safety device.
  • The body harness was not a component of the manufacturer’s ladder safety device.

Fall Restraint

Fall Protection highlights the need for fall protection systems in the workplace. With dramatic footage of accidents and computer animation, this WorkSafeBC video outlines the steps to develop safe practices when working from heights


Fall Arrest

Rudolph & Sletten and Ultrasafe - Testing safety lanyards for construction workers.


Before beginning this quiz, we highly recommend you review the module material. This quiz is designed to allow you to self-check your comprehension of the module content, but only focuses on key concepts and ideas.

Read each question carefully. Select the best answer, even if more than one answer seems possible. When done, click on the "Get Quiz Answers" button. If you do not answer all the questions, you will receive an error message.

Good luck!

1. A fall-arrest system _____ the fall and the fall-restraint system _____ the fall.

2. Which of the following is not one of the major components of a personal fall-arrest system?

3. Anchorages that can't support 5,000 pounds must be designed and installed under the supervision of _____.

4. The harness must have an attachment point, usually a D-ring ________.

5. Which of the following is true regarding lanyards?

Have a great day!

Important! You will receive an "error" message unless all questions are answered.