By: Ryan Boling, Director of Training at HB NEXT
We experience countless situations in construction when reality fails to meet with our expectations; and while they do not always feel so in the moment, mostly, these situations are entirely manageable. When planning for fall hazards and worker safety on construction projects, unmet expectations relative to a safety plan can result in serious harm to workers, and in some cases, fatalities. With incident rates relative to falls being among the highest in the construction industry, you will often see a focused emphasis on fall prevention being a typical component of a company’s safety and health program. The dangers associated with working at height are numerous and impossible to ignore.
Because of this inherent danger, many companies are required to have comprehensive safety plans and programs that directly address the fall-related hazards their workers may be exposed to, including their recognition, methods for avoiding them, and controls for eliminating them from the workplace. But is having a great safety plan or program enough to reduce the ongoing potential for danger to our valued workers? What good is a robust safety plan if the plan itself does not address the training or knowledge required to effectively execute it? And while the use of personal fall protection is something typically addressed in safety manuals and related safety plans, how many of them require the training of employees to include recognizing the various methods and types of fall protection that could be encountered on a job site?
It is one thing to understand the safety plan for your particular work area. It is another to understand the safety plan, the equipment needed to perform the work safely, what that equipment looks like, and how that equipment functions.
The self-retracting lifeline, or, retractable, is popularly used on construction job sites as a means to limit a worker’s fall exposure from an unprotected opening, side, or leading edge. Like many other types of construction safety equipment, over time, evolution of the industry itself gave rise to adaptations of the self-retracting lifeline, allowing for application of these devices on job sites that require worker protection for both fall arrest and fall restraint. Advancements in safety technology can often serve as a catalyst for the introduction of new safety guidelines, and in 2012, the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) released a standard (Z359.14-2012) which categorized self-retracting lifelines into two classes, being Class A and Class B.
So, what’s the difference? Can’t anyone wearing a body harness just connect any self-retracting device to a secure anchor point and work safely?
It would be easy to assume that categorization of these devices was assigned based on their application or expected usage in the workplace. In reality, the distinction between Class A and Class B devices is not created by how they are used on the job site, but instead by their function and capacity relative to fall arrest distances and corresponding arresting forces.
Class A retractable devices offer a maximum arresting distance of up to 24”, and can withstand an average arresting force of up to 1,350 lbs.
Class B retractable devices offer a maximum arresting distance of up to 54”, and can withstand an average arresting force of up to 900 lbs.
While recognized by these formal classifications (from ANSI), Class A and Class B retractable devices are less of an ‘apples-to-oranges’ comparison than they may appear to be on the surface. Comparatively speaking, the equipment categories are separated by a mere difference of 30” (arresting distance) and 450 lbs. (arresting force). Yes, workers wearing personal fall arrest equipment can couple retractable devices to existing anchor points and work safely; but using a Class B retractable where a Class A device would be better suited for the work being performed, could mean the difference between a prevented fall and a serious injury or death.
Okay, then why is this difference so important, and what relevance does it have for those who use these devices to perform their day-to-day work activities?
ANSI developed the Z359.14 standard to specifically address the use of self-retracting lifelines in situations involving personal fall arrest and worker rescue. Being a key provision of the Z359.14 standard, these equipment classes were developed to encompass the various applications in which the calculation of fall distances and clearances determine the appropriateness of the device being used (either Class A or Class B).
Simply put, it is not enough to just know what a self-retracting device is, or what one looks like.
To ensure the proper device is used for the work being performed, companies must provide employee training on the devices themselves, including their identification, capabilities, capacities, and product labeling standards. Safe work practices dictate attention to these details, as multiple self-retracting devices are available on the market that have similar functions and appearances.
For example, self-retracting lifelines for leading edge applications are specifically rated and labeled by manufacturers to identify their intended use. They will typically feature an energy-absorbing component (i.e. – lanyard) and will have product markings identifying them as being acceptable for leading edge work. However, they are also Class A devices; so, it could be easy to confuse a leading edge retractable device for a similarly constructed Class A device which did not undergo the same criteria for dynamic product testing. Unlike devices rated for leading edge work, standard Class A retractable devices are designed strictly for overhead use and are unsatisfactory for applications where personnel may come into contact with an unprotected edge. In the event of a fall, mistaken identity relative to these devices could result in simple equipment damage, the breaking or shearing of a lifeline, or a fall to a lower level not being arrested properly.
Ultimately, the most effective method for ensuring the proper selection of self-retracting devices is twofold: training and routine equipment inspections. To fully understand the capabilities of SRD’s, workers must be trained to understand the differences between ANSI classifications (Class A or Class B), limitations relative to arresting distances and forces, product markings, and comparisons relative to other types of SRD equipment. Once these capabilities have been learned and internalized by workers, pre-use equipment inspections are an easy but critical step to ensuring the continued safe use of these life-saving devices on job sites. Having these devices inspected by a trained Competent Person before use is also highly recommended.
Be careful not to ‘fall’ into a trap of overconfident thinking, just because you have seen or used a self-retracting device in the past. Make sure you know which class of SRD you are using and the application(s) it is best suited for. That extra knowledge could end up saving your life, or that of one of your fellow coworkers!
The OSHA Form 300A (Summary of Work-Related Injuries and Illnesses) is required to be posted at all applicable workplaces / job sites by February 1, 2023, and must remain posted until April 30, 2023.