The Fall Protection Revolution

Safety has come a long way since the advent of early fall protection. In its earliest form, people used hemp ropes and knots to secure themselves (and other objects) against the forces of gravity. Early fall protection became increasingly popular above ship decks during stormy seas. It usually consisted of ropes and a body belt restraint. Other forms of fall protection could be found in ships, line-utility applications, and construction.

Between 1880 and 1930, nearly 24 million immigrants arrived in the United States and began working in modern cities like New York and Chicago. The cost of land prompted architects and engineers to build up, bringing a new kind of building to life: the skyscraper. During this time, steel was the basis for the sky scraper’s architectural design, and as such, it required hundreds of men to work at height unprotected. Fall protection equipment was limited, especially in the construction industry. Workers had to walk across one-foot-wide steel beams hundreds of feet in the air. This led to countless injuries and deaths, approximately accounting for 40 percent of the workforce—or two out of every five workers. With such a staggering loss of life, engineers began looking for better solutions to keep workers safer at height.

At the end of the 20th century, technological advances helped to shape the concept of horizontal overhead fall protection. Overtime, fall protection solutions began to evolve, and hemp rope was eventually replaced with wire rope. Manufacturers began developing new and innovative fall protection products to improve worker safety. Body belts remained in use for several decades, until workers began to understand the dangers associated with them. Body belts were typically worn loosely around the waist, making them unreliable and dangerous. Workers had to fall a certain way to circumvent potential hazards. The body belt would arrest a fall if the worker fell ‘correctly’. However, if he fell ‘incorrectly’, the belt could be pulled up under his arms, or he could slip from the belt entirely.  In the event of a fall, dangerous forces were directed to the worker’s spine and midsection when wearing a body belt.

In the late 1940’s, manufacturers began looking for equipment that would better distribute fall arrest forces throughout the body. Engineers modeled the first body harness after parachute harnesses worn by paratroopers. They were cumbersome and challenging to use, but they were much safer than body belts. Full-body harnesses were designed to minimize stress forces on a worker’s body in the event of a fall. They also provide freedom of movement, so workers can perform their jobs safely and effectively. 

Over time, body belts and harnesses began to improve. Early models were made from cotton and leather. Today, they are made [mostly] from polyester, which is far more durable and comfortable to wear. Some harnesses are designed using specialty materials for exposure to heat sources like welding work and arc flash. Unlike body belts, full-body harnesses wrap around the waist, shoulders, and legs.  A D-ring is located on the center of the back to provide a connecting point for lanyards or other fall arrest connection devices. On January 1, 1998, OSHA regulated that body belts are not an acceptable part of a personal fall arrest system. Now, they are only used for positioning system applications.

While body harnesses began replacing body belts, rigid horizontal lifelines (also known as enclosed track) began replacing flexible horizontal lifelines. Engineers developed rigid horizontal lifelines in the year 2000 to reduce the potential for injury. Flexible lifelines—like wire rope or cable systems—can cause significant injury due to free-fall distances. Unlike wire rope systems, rigid horizontal lifelines won’t flex during a fall or generate horizontal pull forces on anchorages. Changes like these have greatly improved worker safety, decreased impact forces, reduced swing hazards, provided self-rescue options, diminished fall distances, and eliminated free-fall injuries. The evolving nature of fall protection continues to encourage new and improved ideas and solutions. The rudimentary design of early fall protection laid the way for more suitable solutions to take its place. With safety equipment constantly evolving to meet the needs of at-height workers, today’s fall protection solutions are safer and more effective than ever before.

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Kristina Harman

Senior Technical Writer |
Kristina Harman was formerly a senior technical writer and content manager for Rigid Lifelines, a division of Spanco, Inc. Kristina has twelve years of experience in content development, technical communications, and copyediting. She holds a Bachelor of Science Degree in English from Towson University and a Master of Education Certification in English from Johns Hopkins University. She is a member of the Society for Technical Communication and the American Medical Writers Association.