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What is a Fall Arrest System and How Does It Work?
What is a Fall Arrest System and How Does It Work?
The Work at Height Regulations 2005 were implemented to prevent injury or death as a result of a fall from height. Employers are responsible for ensuring that any work carried out at height is correctly risk-assessed by competent persons and carried out by individuals trained to work in this environment using a suitable fall protection system.
A ‘competent person’ is an individual with the skills, experience and knowledge to carry out a task. Employees also have a legal duty to be aware of risk and how it applies to them. They should cooperate with their employers to abide by Health and safety regulations.
The Work at Height Regulations initially stipulate that where it is practical, work at height should be avoided. However, where such actions are deemed necessary, then fall restraint equipment must be used to keep workers away from fall hazards.
In contrast with fall restraint – which essentially prevents an individual from reaching any identified fall hazard in the first place – a fall arrest system is designed to minimise the distance a worker can fall to safeguard life and reduce the potential for injury.
Both fall restraint and fall arrest systems consist of anchors, anchor points, lanyards and harnesses. In addition, fall restraint can include edge protection and other physical barriers designed to protect individuals from fall hazards.
For more detailed information, this PDF guide produced by the Health and Safety Executive provides general guidance on working at heights and potential fall hazards.
What is a fall arrest system?
Fall arrest systems consist of body harnesses, lanyards or self-retracting lifelines and anchorage points.
The purpose of the fall arrest system is to provide protection for an individual once a fall from height has occurred. This limits the distance he or she can fall and mitigates the chances of serious injury.
Fall arrest systems should be designed to keep the free fall distance to an absolute minimum to guard against possible additional injury. Harnesses are designed to distribute any impact forces to minimise injury. A secure anchorage point or reliable lifeline are also essential parts of the system.
When should a fall arrest system be used?
Fall arrest systems are considered as ‘last resort’ solutions, where fall restraint is not applicable because of unavoidable factors such as work required over the edge of a fall hazard. Anywhere a fall risk hazard is accessible, a personal fall arrest system is the safety solution of choice.
Typical industries where fall arrest is used to protect workers and ensure the safety of personnel include construction, scaffolding, offshore and power plant applications. They are often used in conjunction with work positioning equipment.
Rescue equipment is also an important consideration to avoid the potential for suspension trauma (also known as orthostatic shock) which can typically occur within five to thirty minutes of a fall and subsequent suspension in a fall arrest system.
What is a fall restraint system?
Fall restraint systems differ from fall arrest systems as they are designed to prevent an individual from accessing any space where falling is a potential hazard.
Like fall arrest systems, fall restraint systems or work restraint systems consist of a harness and lanyard connected to an anchor. This difference is that the lanyard is of a limited length which means the individual is kept safely away from the fall hazard.
When should a fall restraint system be used?
In terms of safety, fall restraint is the preferred option to fall arrest. It is used in areas where the free fall distance is shorter due to obstacles in the immediate area, making it impossible to arrest any fall safely and quickly enough.
Fall restraint systems are usually simpler in design and easier to use than fall arrest systems. They do not require any rescue equipment to be available.
What makes these active fall protection systems?
In the fall arrest vs fall restraint debate, both fall arrest systems and fall restraint systems are considered to be active fall protection safety systems.
An active fall protection system means that the user must actively engage with the system to implement the protective measures. As an example, the user must attach to a lifeline in order to engage safely. The user must take action in order to be safe and protected where working at height is unavoidable.
What's the safest? Fall arrest or fall restraint?
Both fall restraint and fall arrest have particular scenarios which influence the choice of system. However, there are environments where the individual has a choice.
Eliminating the potential for a fall using a fall restraint is always going to be the safer option, as there is always the potential for injury during the fall arrest process.
Falling is inherently dangerous with added risk due to the forces impacting upon the body. Fall arrest may save a life, but carries the risk of injury.
Fall restraint will have some disadvantages because it limits movement, but significantly reduces the potential for injury.
So how do you decide whether fall restraint or fall arrest is more appropriate in terms of potential fall hazards? The hierarchy of fall protection plays an important role in deciding which fall prevention system should be specified.
The hierarchy of fall protection states that the first consideration is to eliminate the risk by avoiding any work at height where at all possible.
It then moves on to providing guards for the fall hazard, if working at height is deemed essential. This is where guardrails and fall restraint systems are implemented.
Finally, providing protection for the worker is vital if the risk of a fall cannot be totally eliminated. This is where personal fall arrest systems are implemented.
The law also details the requirement for a comprehensive rescue plan wherever work at height using fall arrest equipment is in progress. This stipulation is to reduce the risk of any fall to the individual and means that rescue must be effected quickly and safely to avoid the potential for suspension injuries (suffered by a suspended worker) and harm. The rescuers will use equipment specifically designed to perform the rescue and they must be assessed as competent in the use of this equipment. A common mistake is to assume the Emergency Services will conduct the rescue plan, this is in breach of the regulations.
There are many fall protection rescue devices available on the market. Reece Safety offers a range of rescue devices to match regulations in the event of a fall.
Fall arrest and fall restraint systems each have an important role to play when keeping people safe working at height and ensuring that employers comply with all relevant legislation. For a comprehensive overview of products available and for specialist training and consultancy services, browse the Reece Safety product catalogue.
Andy is the Managing Director for two groups of Companies. The first comprises Reece Safety Products, Reece Training & Consultancy and Italian Locking Systems, with Abaris International and Reach & Rescue making up the second. Andy is a qualified Mechanical Engineer; his early career involved managing factories for multinational manufacturers, from where he moved to manage smaller businesses with the option for more agile thinking, quicker decision making and actions. He is a quick learner and brings a clear combination of experience and common sense to his business management style, whilst being passionate about keeping people safe and helping save lives. Outside of the office, his passions include family, rugby and dinghy sailing. You can find him on LinkedIn.