Can current fall protection systems save fat people?

Australian OHS research has raised some concerns about the “adequacy of  personal fall arrest energy absorbers in relation to heavy workers“.   In summary:

“The research demonstrates that most energy absorbers are not able to ensure that the two test criteria are not breached during the arrest of a heavy worker in the worst case scenario fall.”

There are many variables in this statement but it means that safety professionals may need to review their fall arrest devices to verify that the safety devices meet the needs of the (increasingly obese) workforce.

The two researchers, Yang Miang Goh and Peter Love, said that the lack current anthropometric data on obesity may lead to people relying on fall protection devices that may not cope with the stress applied if used by an obese worker.  They point out that most fall-protection standards around the world are rated to a test mass of 100kg and that an increasing number of workers exceed this benchmark.

The researchers undertook the research for many reasons but one was that the UK’s Health & Safety Executive’s studies into fall arrest equipment in the last decade have not considered heavy workers.

SafetyAtWorkBlog contacted fall protection retailers and manufacturers to get a quick idea about whether the issue of heavy workers has been considered.  Thankfully, one manufacturer said that there are fall protection devices that are rated to 140kg.  One retailer said that their first response to a customer would be to provide a harness that matches a large physical frame.  This would most-likely generate an upgrade of the fall arrest equipment to the heavier limit.

Of course all this comes down to caveat emptor.  Safety equipment purchasers need to ensure that what they purchase meets the safety needs of their particular workers.  In industries where shortcuts on safety are regularly made, suitably fall protection is another issue that needs to be considered in their safe work method statements, OHS procedures and in their negotiations with contractors and labour-hire agencies.

Goh and Love’s research highlights the risk of making assumptions on fall protection devices but also illustrates deficiencies in standard setting (or at least, maintenance) by the official bodies.  One would have to ask why the 100kg rating has existed so long in a time when workers are getting heavier.

So, to answer the title of this blog, yes it can, but there is the suspicion that unless the issue of heavy workers is spoken about in the safety context at work, someone, sometime will have a fall arrest fail with dreadful consequence.

Kevin Jones

reservoir, victoria, australia
Categories business, construction, Duty of Care, height, OHS, PPE, research, safety, standards, UncategorizedTags , ,

5 thoughts on “Can current fall protection systems save fat people?”

  1. I think that if someone was overweight then really then should not be doing the kind of work that requires them to use fall arrest systems, purely in the interest of safety they could fall on someone else so it\’s not just the protection of one worker it\’s the protection of all those below aswell.

  2. The debate over the weight of the worker, isn\’t dealing with the real issue.

    The issue is that there are far too many harnesses in use in Australian industry, and that risk assessments aren\’t following the hierarchy of control for Fall Prevention.

    A risk assessment that follows the hierarchy of control for Fall prevention, steers users away from the risk of falling in a harness (level 4) to safer and simpler controls like guardrail (level 2) or working off the ground or a platform (level 1).

    Any size worker, regardless of skill level, fitness, age or size, can safely use a platfrom or guardrail. Platforms are generally rated to a minimum safe working load of 150kg.

    I constantly see situations where people are using harness, which is totally innappropriate and unsafe for the task.

    Let\’s talk about why so many harnesses are being used in the first place, and let\’s create more awareness of the correct implementation of the hierarchy of control for Fall prevention. When the hierarchy gets applied correctly, the issue of overweight workers in harnesses will be siginificantly reduced.

  3. The use of fall arrest equipment and the rating is a constant bug bear in many industries. I believe it is very important for personnel to be aware that the rating for these devices are for their maximum fall distance, i.e. in Australia, the maximum fall distance for a harness is 2 metres after a drop test of 4 metres as they have a 2:1 safety margin. Let me make this very clear, a test is conducted which drops a 100kg torso shaped dummy 4 metres without any energy absorber and the harnesses arrest this fall without breaking.

    So the issue isn\’t really whether the harness will hold the heavier workers or not, the question is, what state of health will the person be in at the end of the tether? The heavier they are, the more the forces will be generated and the more stress on energy absorber devices.

    The USE of Fall Arrest Equipment should be the focus. Whatever the size of a person, use Fall Arrest Equipment which is suitable to the employee, large enough to fit around the person. If this person then works in restraint (not able to reach the edge) they will not load up the harness and it really is just a glorified seat belt therefore the weight of a person does not need to be factored in. As a lot of these devices are adjustable though, there is always the potential of someone making a mistake and potentially falling. This highlights the need for strict risk assessment and adequate training and supervision to ensure that this risk is minimised.

    If I was a supervisor of personnel using Fall Arrest Equipment, I\’d be contacting the manufacturers of the harnesses and lanyards etc and I would be asking for written assurance of the maximum load the harnesses can sustain for free fall. From my experience, most manufacturers will supply documentation up to 132 – 136 kilograms. If I had an employee which exceeded this weight limit, I would not allow them to work in any position which had any risk of them being put in a free fall position. If they where only working in restraint though, I would be happy for them to don the harness.

    1. I noticed at the Safety In Action trade show this morning that there were very few fall protection exhibitors compared to previous years and only one, that I noticed, offered a harness \”rated\” to 160kg and that was with tools.

      I support your comment on assessing the risk of a large heavy worker working at heights or needing a fall arrest system. The physical type of each worker should be a consideration when undertaking a job safety analysis or developing a safe work method statement.

  4. Surely there is some commonsense out there, if a worker exceeds the rated weight capacity of safety equipment, then the worker should not be employed in any capacity that requires use of such equipment.

    If employers want to use weightier workers then they will have to assist in the development of appropriately rated and tested height safety gear.

    If equipment is rated at 100kg then that is the maximum and it is the employers responsibility to ensure that it is not exceeded by 1gram.

    It is also the workers responsibility not to uses PPE that is inappropriate for the task and this should be reinforced by Safety Training as part of induction policy.

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