By Michael “House” Tain
The treeMotion from treemagineers also being used in a suspension system. Note the sliding attachment point. Photo by Michael “House” TainThe harnesses that climbing arborists use on a daily basis, pieces of equipment that most would consider vital to the safe and efficient completion of their work, are actually a fairly recent development in the tree care industry’s history.
It was not that many years ago that a climbing line and a saw comprised the bulk of a tree care professional’s gear kit. The climbing line was placed in the desired, or accessible, tie-in point, a rope harness was tied/fashioned in the end of the climbing line, and off to climb and prune went the intrepid tree worker. Some individuals added a board or other stiffener for buttock comfort, but, in general, the presence of a rope and a saw fulfilled all their equipment needs. Obviously, the comfort levels and ergonomics of these “climbing line harnesses” was not all that high, but they did accomplish the vital task of securing climbers and allowing them to work “hands-free” — and are a much better option than free climbing unsecured. Although most modern tree workers would shudder at the thought of working all day with only a pair of Arborwear britches between their body weight and a half-inch climbing line, the ability to tie a harness out of the end of a climbing line is not a bad skill to have. For climbing arborists need to know where they have come from to understand where they are going, and forming a field expedient harness out of rope could also be quite valuable in emergency situations. Thankfully, the advent and variety of modern harnesses have spared tree crews, and the tender parts of their bodies, from the daily required use of rope harnesses. Yet this same variety has made it imperative that tree care professionals realize the different applications for which industrial harness are designed, make informed and educated choices about appropriate applications, and use the harnesses correctly in the proper applications. The knowledge of a few basic principles will assist in this education and information process; and this knowledge, coupled with the individual’s comfort needs and work style, will help climbing arborists make comfortable, safe and efficient harness choices.
This type of industrial harness system is one that is meant to prevent the wearer from moving into an area of fall potential, thereby “restraining” them from a fall. Its application in tree care is quite limited; and is primarily only found when using a body belt in an aerial lift with an appropriate lanyard. The length of lanyard is critical in this application, as it is the only link that prevents the user from being able to get into a position with fall potential. Thus, using a longer fall arrest lanyard with a body belt is a recipe for disaster, and should be avoided.
This type of harness system is meant to arrest and dissipate the forces of a fall should one occur. In the tree care industry these systems are often called full-body harnesses and are used in aerial lifts, though care should be taken by users to ensure that the full-body nature of the harness is meant for fall arrest and not simply to support the weight of gear or saws hanging off the waist, as both systems are commercially available. The fall-arrest attachment point is a dorsal one, located on the back of the wearer, roughly between the shoulder blades. The harness is used in conjunction with a deceleration lanyard, one that has additional material sewn in a bundle within it. This additional material will “tear” as the force of the fall impacts it, lessening the amount of force experienced by the user. The full-body nature of a fall arrest harness is meant to dissipate the remaining force after the deceleration lanyard over the wearer’s entire body, instead of focusing it on or at one point of their musculoskeletal system. This dissipation is completely negated by an operator attaching the deceleration lanyard to an inappropriate point, such as a center front or side attachment/tie-in point.
A harness system of this nature is meant to help users position themselves safely and correctly to carry out the required work, typically with both hands free, while preventing the likelihood of a fall. The most common work positioning feature in the tree care industry is some form of side attachment point(s), often referred to as side D rings. These are used in conjunction with a work positioning lanyard and the structure of the tree to establish a safe, secure cutting or climbing body orientation. The majority of modern tree climbing harnesses provide at least some measure of a work positioning system and a suspension system, though some are commercially available with fall arrest capability also.
A Petzl Sequoia harness being used in a suspension system. Photo by Michael “House” TainThis system is intended to cradle the user in a fairly stable and comfortable seated position while suspended from an overhead tie-in point (TIP), securing the user from possible falls while also leaving his or her hands free for work. This system is probably the one most commonly used in the tree care industry through the use of the front attachment point(s); and, along with a work positioning system, comprises the bulk of modern tree climbing harnesses.
Some of the harness systems described previously are also available with differing leg position options. The two primary options for tree climbing harnesses are leg strap and sit harnesses. Leg strap harnesses have individual straps for each leg, which bear the climber’s body weight while allowing for greater freedom of movement in the tree’s canopy. However, some users may feel these individual loops “pinch,” and are uncomfortable when hanging in a fixed position for an extended period of time. Sit harnesses may have supplemental leg straps for additional safety, but the user’s bodyweight is primarily supported by a strap beneath their buttocks, almost as if they are sitting in a swing. These harnesses are available both with and without reinforced battens in the sit strap, though users of non-reinforced sit straps may find they tend to “pinch” the hips and push the knees together, making them uncomfortable and awkward to use in certain climbing techniques.
The method and variety of attachment options available to progressive climbers is constantly evolving. Far more options are available now then just a few short years ago, but they can be roughly divided into two basic types — fixed or sliding, and many of the most recently released harnesses offer both. The simplest form of a fixed attachment point is a single point in the front of the harness, either hard or soft in material makeup, intended to allow the climber to connect into a suspension or ascension system. Most new harnesses provide multiple fixed attachment points in the front to attempt to meet individual user’s needs and to distribute body weight more evenly across the harness. Sliding, or sliding D, attachment points use some form of cordage or strap in the front of the harness along which the attachment point moves. This allows the attachment to adjust with the user’s movement, and, to some degree, allows the harness to turn instead of the wearer’s back.
The last few years have seen several new harness designs and features be released to the tree care industry. Unfortunately, there are far too many to be discussed here, but all are geared toward making climbing arborists safer, more efficient and much more comfortable when aloft. At this point in the industry’s development, harness manufacturers are using and implementing direct input from climbers in their harness designs. In many cases working arborists are developing, designing and assisting in the manufacture of the harnesses being released. Additionally, some companies are even incorporating research and data on ergonomics and body mechanics into better harnesses that not only allow for current safe work comfort, but also lessen the likelihood of long-term chronic problems for climbers who wear them. All in all, harnesses have advanced a great deal from those fashioned from the end of climbing lines. But, as we move forward, let us never forget where we began.
Michael “House” Tain is a contract climber, splicer, educator and writer associated with North American Training Solutions www.northamericantrainingsolutions.com and Arbor Canada Training and Education www.arborcanada.com. He is currently located in Lancaster, Ky., and can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com