Personal Fall Arrest Systems


It is important to understand how personal fall arrest systems work and what behaviors are required to use them safely. It is of course good practice to visually inspect these systems and physically test them prior to use.





Learning Objectives

  • Identify the hazards posed by falling four feet (1.2 m) or more without and with a personal fall arrest system.
  • Identify the components of a personal fall arrest system and how they work together to arrest a fall.
  • Identify the steps for properly inspecting and donning the full-body harness.
  • Identify key fall arrest system design requirements, including the maximum free fall distance permitted, the maximum deceleration distance allowed, and the safety factor required for lanyards and anchorage points.
  • Identify the criteria for properly attaching the connecting device to an anchorage connector, vertical or horizontal lifeline.

Where employees are exposed to serious fall hazards, and protection by other means such as guard rails or nets are not used, the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) requires employers to establish a personal fall arrest program for fall protection. These programs typically identify common hazards and offer solutions for mitigating them, usually by instructing the use of fall protection systems, outlining situations where fall arrest devices are appropriate for use.

It is important to understand how personal fall arrest systems work and what behaviors are required to use them safely. It is of course good practice to visually inspect these systems and physically test them prior to use.

Most personal fall protection systems involve the use of wearable harnesses, designed to suspend a free falling worker. These systems are tethered to structural points capable of withstanding a lot of force. Even with a harness properly in place, the force required to arrest a free fall places considerable stress on the body. For example, a 200-pound person free-falling 6 feet, with an additional distance of 3.5 feet for the system to completely arrest the fall, equals a total force of 542 pounds of force generated on the body. Defying gravity is a challenging for the human body; while personal fall arrest systems save lives, the body can be incredibly stressed by the act of violent restraint.

If the harness is improperly positioned or improperly attached, the stress to the groin, back, and chest increases dramatically. The pressure applied to the legs from the leg straps supporting the body’s weight, even for properly worn harnesses, can result in a restriction of blood flowing to and from the legs. If the worker cannot be rescued quickly, serious injury can result from this condition. Even with all parts of the system working perfectly, a worker suspended in a body harness faces the serious hazard of restricted blood flow to and from their legs.

The ground is not the only thing that poses a hazard to employees working at heights. Contact with any lower level structure or other object beneath workers also poses a serious hazard in a fall, even when wearing fall arrest equipment. The components in a personal fall arrest system are designed to work together to limit a worker’s fall distance and the deceleration forces on the worker’s body to safe levels.

One method for preventing this situation until rescue can be accomplished is the use of trauma suspension straps. These straps are deployed by the suspended worker and attached to the body harness, and allow the person to stand with one or both feet in a stirrup. This removes the body’s weight from the leg straps that tend to cut off circulation to the legs until the worker is rescued.

To protect your safety in the event of a fall, OSHA requires specific minimum requirements. Anchorages to which personal fall arrest equipment is attached must be capable of supporting at least 5,000 pounds per employee attached. Rings and snap hooks must also be capable of sustaining a minimum tensile load of 5,000 pounds. Self-retracting lifelines and lanyards which automatically limit free fall distance to 2 feet or less must be capable of sustaining a minimum tensile load of 3,000 pounds applied to the device with the lifeline or lanyard in the fully extended position.

Self-retracting lifelines and lanyards which do not limit free fall distance to 2 feet or less, ripstitch lanyards, and tearing and deforming lanyards must be capable of sustaining a minimum tensile load of 5,000 pounds applied to the device with the lifeline or lanyard in the fully extended position.

Tips for properly attaching your connecting device to an anchor point:

  • Do work directly under the anchorage, whenever possible, to avoid injury resulting from swinging and striking another object during a fall.
  • Do ensure that the anchorage is at a height that will not allow a lower level to be struck should a fall occur.
  • Do attach to the anchorage or anchorage point specified by the qualified person.
  • Do tie off in a manner that limits free fall to the shortest possible distance.
  • Don’t attach your snap hook around a sharp or rough edge. Use a cross-arm strap or other compatible anchorage connector.
  • Don’t attach multiple lanyards together.

The best protection against falling at work? Awareness. Encourage your workers to always wear personal fall arrest systems, and to remain vigilant about the presence of potential pitfalls when working at heights.

Fall Protection Systems

OSHA compliance standards state that for construction activities, where a fall from a height of 6 feet or more is possible, guardrail systems, personal fall arrest systems, safety net systems, or some other fall protection device must be used.

Fall protection systems come in the form of guardrails, temporary warning lines, warning monitors, fall restraint systems, and fall arrest systems.

Guardrail Systems

Permanent guardrails are often constructed as part of stairways, landings, work platforms, and equipment access platforms.  Where short-term fall hazards exist, temporary guardrails are used.

Guardrails must meet certain requirements to be compliant with regulatory standards.  Guardrails must include a top rail, mid rail and toe-board. The top rail needs to be between 39 and 45 inches above the working surface (or ground), and capable of withstanding 200 pounds of force downward or outward.  Commercial grade 2 x 4 lumber or better will meet this requirement.

Similarly, a guardrail’s mid rail must be capable of withstanding 150 pounds of force downward or outward.  The toe-board must be 3.5 inches above the working surface and be capable of withstanding 50 pounds of force downward or outward.  There must not be more than a quarter of an inch gap between the bottom of the toe-board and the working surface.

When tools, equipment or materials are piled higher than the top edge of a toe-board, paneling, screening or safety nets must be used from the working surface or toe-board to the top of the mid- or top-rail.

Temporary Warning Lines

Consisting of ropes, wires, chains and supporting props, temporary warning lines are designed for short-term hazards. They must be flagged at least every six feet with high-visibility material, and signage must be posted indicating controlled access during construction.  Warning lines are required to be no lower than 34 inches and no higher than 39 inches from the walking surface.

Warning Monitors

Warning monitors are competent personnel assigned to keep others away from a fall hazard, and they should only be utilized when all other means of fall protection are not possible.  Warning monitors must not have any other duties in addition to keeping people away from the fall hazard.

Fall Restraint Systems

As its name suggests, a fall restraint system restrains an employee to prevent them from falling to a lower level.  Fall restraint systems consist of anchorages, connectors, body belts/harnesses, lanyards, lifelines and rope grabs.  Anchorage points used for fall restraint must be capable of supporting four times the intended load, and must be ridged so there is no vertical free fall if the employee slips.

Fall Arrest Systems

Fall arrest systems are designed to minimize injury from a fall.  It is important that fall arrest equipment is used correctly to prevent injury as much as possible.  Fall arrest equipment includes body support devices (harnesses), lanyards and anchorages.

Body Support Devices

Body support devices are designed to place the arresting force of a fall on the strongest parts of the body. Types of body support devices are waist belts, chest harnesses and sub-pelvic full body harnesses. Waist belts are designed to be used as restraints only.  They have an average of two minutes of endurance. Chest harnesses are designed for rescue and restraint and have an average of six minutes of endurance. Sub-pelvic full body harnesses average ten minutes of endurance and, of the three, are the optimal type for fall arrest.

Even after an individual is caught from a fall by a fall arrest system, they aren’t out of danger. Within 15 to 20 minutes, suspension from a harness causes blood to pool in the legs, eventually making the suspended individual pass out.  The un-circulated blood in the legs then loses oxygen and becomes toxic, a dangerous condition known as suspension trauma.

To prevent suspension trauma the best practice is to utilize a body harness with suspension trauma straps that the individual can use to hook their feet into and push their body upward, allowing their blood to continue circulating.


Lanyards hook to the body support device and are designed to stretch when loaded.  The stretch decelerates impact speed and arresting force when the wearer falls. A typical lanyard harness is rated for a total capacity of 310 pounds.

Employers should choose the proper length lanyard for the job; too long and it may not prevent the fallen individual from striking surfaces or objects below them. As for the lanyard’s snap-hook device, only self-enclosing and self-locking types should be used, and two lanyards should never be connected together.


Personal fall arrest equipment is attached to an anchorage point, which ultimately supports the equipment and the individual in the event of a fall. OSHA requires that any anchorage used for attachment of personal fall arrest equipment must be independent of any anchorage being used to support or suspend platforms.

Types of anchorages include cross-arm straps for wrapping around approved structural members, driven anchorage points that affix temporarily or permanently to the structure, concrete anchors that are drilled into the concrete floors or walls, and bar anchors that span an opening.

Commonly Asked Fall Arrest System Questions

Question: “For fall arrest system training, how close to the edge will mandate required training?”

Answer: Generally, distance from the “edge” isn’t the determining factor; the threshold is height – 4ft for general industry; 6ft for construction.

The larger answer is that it depends on your business category—general industry, specific industry, or construction—because there are many regulations addressing fall protection/fall arrest systems across the federal code book.

To guide you going forward, let’s look to the most basic guidance: 1910.132 General Industry Standard for Personal Protective Equipment:

  • 1910.132(d)(1)

The employer shall assess the workplace to determine if hazards are present, or are likely to be present, which necessitate the use of personal protective equipment (PPE). If such hazards are present, or likely to be present, the employer shall:

  • 1910.132(d)(1)(i)

Select, and have each affected employee use, the types of PPE that will protect the affected employee from the hazards identified in the hazard assessment;

  • 1910.132(f)(1)

The employer shall provide training to each employee who is required by this section to use PPE. Each such employee shall be trained to know at least the following…

Following the path outlined above—assess, select, and train—should help you make decisions around who needs fall arrest training and when they need it.

Also, OSHA’s recently published final rule for walking-working surfaces (1910.30) changed several standards pertaining to fall protection:

  • Personal fall protection system performance and use requirements (1910.140).

The final rule, which allows employers to use personal fall protection systems (i.e., personal fall arrest, travel restraint, and positioning systems), adds requirements on the performance, inspection, use, and maintenance of these systems.  Like OSHA’s construction standards, the final rule prohibits the use of body belts as part of a personal fall arrest system;

  • Training (1910.30).

The final rule adds requirements that employers ensure workers who use personal fall protection and work in other specified high hazard situations are trained, and retrained as necessary, about fall and equipment hazards, including fall protection systems.  Employers must provide information and training to each worker in a manner the worker understands.

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