By Michael “House” Tain
Although most tree crews probably do not spend a great deal of time and energy discussing “fall support systems” over cold beverages in their downtime, the reality is that these systems are an integral and vital part of every tree care professional’s working life. More often called saddles or harnesses in the “real world,” fall support systems are one of the primary tools that allow climbing arborists to do what they do in a safe, secure and efficient manner. The variety, comfort and adjustability of harnesses continues to grow and expand in the arboricultural world on almost a yearly basis, particularly when it is considered that for many years, and until fairly recently, climbers fashioned their own harnesses out of the end of their climbing lines, but even with all these many harness options, a knowledge and understanding of fall support systems’ intended use and operations is vital for tree care professionals.
Although it may seem quite obvious, tree care professionals should always keep in mind that a key part of all fall support systems is that they are “systems,” meaning the harness is simply one component of them. As will be more fully described below, each type of system needs to be matched with the appropriate components to work well and correctly. For example, matching a harness intended for fall restraint with components intended for fall arrest negates the effectiveness, and more importantly the safety, of the whole system; and may very well result in an emergency room visit for the user. This is yet another reason that it is important to understand the different type of fall support systems, their uses, and required components.
This system could be considered the most basic of fall support systems; and is intended to prevent the user from getting into a position where they might take a fall, or restraining them from taking a fall. Although it has several applications and uses in other industries, the main appropriate example from the tree care industry is the use of a body belt with appropriate lanyard in aerial lifts. Many companies, municipalities, and states/provinces require fall arrest systems when using an aerial lift, but there are some where only a fall restraint system is required. The key element of any fall restraint system, regardless of use or application, is the length of the lanyard, as this is the component that prevents the user from reaching a position with fall potential. This relates to the earlier discussion of the importance of systems over components; and users of a fall restraint system should be using the appropriate lanyards — typically 24-inch or less.
A fall arrest system is one meant to not only stop a fall to the ground from occurring, but also to “spread” the forces generated by the fall over the user’s body, and absorb those forces in the most “survivable” manner. This system is used in many industrial applications, but in the tree care industry the most prevalent example is a full-body harness with a dorsal attachment point coupled with a deceleration lanyard. The full-body harness is designed to dissipate the forces of the fall over the entirety of the aerial lift operator’s body, assuming the harness is properly worn and adjusted. The dorsal attachment point is located roughly between the user’s shoulder blades in the back; and is the optimal, and legally only acceptable, point for attachment of the deceleration lanyard. The deceleration lanyard has additional material sewn into it that will “tear” apart on impact, absorbing the forces of the fall while still keeping the operator connected to the aerial lift attachment point. Once again, the importance of the “system” can be seen, as the attachment of a deceleration lanyard to a side D-ring could be quite injurious, if not fatal, in the event of a fall with this system.
While other industries have harnesses that are solely work positioning, this is typically simply a component of an appropriate tree industry harness; and is the use of the side D-rings or attachment points on the harness. These are used to achieve and maintain a safe working position to avoid a fall through the use of some form of work positioning lanyard; and although they may be used exclusively for support in such activities as spur climbing, are more appropriately and safely used as an adjunct to another system such as an overhead tie-in point (TIP). A common error in the tree care industry is to attach the lanyard back to the side D-ring from which it originates, leaving the user hanging from their side in the event of a fall. The lanyard should go from side to side, or from the center attachment point and back to itself for the greatest safety and security.
The suspension fall protection system is one with which the majority of the tree care industry is familiar; and is intended to “suspend” the user from an overhead TIP, allowing them to carry out work and movement in a safe, controlled manner. This is typically employed with a doubled or single line over a suitable TIP in the canopy and some form of hitch or device attached to the front points of the climber’s harness. The system can be used in conjunction with the work positioning features of the harness to help the user get into and maintain a safe and secure position for cutting and rigging.
Harnesses are available for tree care industry use that allow climbers to have access to all the fall support systems described here, full-body harnesses with dorsal attachment points that also have the required components for work suspension and positioning. Although quite useful and effective, tree crews must keep in mind the “systemic” nature of fall support; and use the appropriate and required components of each system — even with these multi-use harnesses.
A variety of leg positioning options are available within harnesses that meet the requirements for tree industry fall support; and climbing arborists should attempt to find the option that not only suits their body type and climbing style, but also their most common work activity. Individual leg loops typically provide more freedom of movement and flexibility, but can be uncomfortable to some users, particularly if the user spends a great deal of time suspended as in crane operations or cabling/bracing. A sit or “butt” strap option will provide more support, but may limit movement and flexibility to a certain degree. Users of sit straps will find that choosing a harness with a reinforced batten within the strap will prevent the tendency of this harness to put undue pressure on the hips and force the legs together.
Attachments and adjustability
The majority of tree-care-industry-specific harnesses are going to have numerous features for both attachments and adjustment; and users should explore all the options available to create the safest and most comfortable “ride.” In many cases, a simple adjustment to the leg loops tension or waist belt can ease those nagging “hot spots” or limitations in movement that might cause the user to consider buying another harness. In addition, climbers should consider the “appropriateness” of the harness’ attachment points. Options include moving attachment points that slide along a stitched or spliced bridge, multiple fixed attachment points, and both soft and hard attachment points. All of these factors need to be considered in conjunction with the climber’s style and method of climbing, along with what type of link will be used to secure the line to the attachment points. As an example, carabiners attached to larger “hard” attachment points can get into a position where they are cross or side loaded, a position that negates much of their strength.
As every tree care professional who spends any amount of time on the Internet or in the catalogs knows, the number and variety of harnesses available at this time is greater than ever before; and the options, along with the prices, can be overwhelming at times. However, given the fact that gravity is the law wherever a climber might travel, a safe, functional and comfortable harness is a good investment — and actually quite economical if the cost is broken down into how many days one climbs in a year. The basic knowledge and descriptions shared here should assist in making sure that the harness, and system, chosen are the right ones for the given tree industry application.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo by Melissa LeVangie