Fall-Arrest Harnesses Are Saving Lives

A fall-arrest system is intended to stop the lift operator in the event he or she falls or is knocked out of the bucket. This TCIA staff photo was part of a demo staged by Stanley Tree Service and Cranes101.

While the increased use of aerial lifts has increased productivity and made working aloft safer in many respects, along with these lifts have come new dangers – in the form of falls. The results of these falls can be seen almost monthly in TCI Magazine’sAccident Briefs” feature, in the reports of injuries and even deaths. In response, we’ve seen an increase in safety protocols, devices and systems to address the problem, including the main focus of this article, the fall-arrest harness.

To be clear, the fall-arrest harness and its related components need to be distinguished from fall-restraint systems.

“A fall-arrest system will stop you in the process of a fall, while a fall-restraint system will keep you from reaching the edge, not allowing you to fall,” according to an explanation from Simplified Safety, a Rochester, New York, provider of fall-protection equipment for the construction industries.

Since there are two parts to fall arrest – the harness and related components, plus the lift itself – both elements are addressed here, starting with the fall-arrest harness.

“OSHA mandated the use of full-body harnesses for fall arrest in the construction industry back in 1998,” says Tyler Lusht, arborist accounts manager, speaking for the team of professionals at Buckingham Manufacturing Co., Inc. Buckingham is a maker of safety gear for power-line, telecommunications and tree workers, as well as a 26-year TCIA corporate member based in Binghampton, New York. “This also included when working aloft in a bucket truck, as covered under OSHA 1926.453. This, however, excluded tree workers (residential/commercial and line-clearance personnel), because their work is not considered construction, so instead, the OSHA General Industry standards apply to their work (1910 subparts D & I, and 1910.67 for aerial lifts).

“It wasn’t until 2017 that those OSHA General Industry standards were updated to at least mirror the OSHA construction standards in regard to fall protection,” Lusht continues. “It’s quite clear that the use of a full-body harness in conjunction with an energy-absorbing or fall-limiting connecting device, as part of a personal fall-arrest system, will greatly mitigate any further injury to the worker when arresting a free fall. This is especially important in tree work, because the work includes cutting and moving heavy materials that could come into contact with the boom of the aerial platform, or cause the vehicle to move unexpectedly, possibly ejecting the worker.

Paul “PJ” Dowd with All Access Equipment shows a fall-restraint safety harness being held in the proper position for putting on quickly and easily. Photo courtesy of Lenny Polonski.

“Saddles also are now available with fall-arrest capabilities built into them. The upper harness acts like suspenders and helps support the weight of the saddle from the hips to the shoulders,” says Lusht. “Some are permanent designs and some are removable, depending on the preference of the user and their work practices. They would be a good choice if the worker does both bucket and climbing work, or if they have to transfer into the tree from the bucket to a climbing system.

“Fall-arrest systems are designed to prevent further bodily injury while arresting a fall. The full-body harnesses are designed to distribute any shock loading from the harness to the muscular regions of the body (buttocks, chest, groin). The connecting device is designed to limit the amount of shock load created from the fall. OSHA only allows up to 1,800 lbf (pounds of force) and 6 feet of free fall.”

“As far as styles, the full-body harnesses are fairly similar (to each other) in their construction due to having to meet ANSI and OSHA standards,” Lusht says. “The differences would be hardware and padding for comfort, ease of use or needing added connection points to meet work-practice criteria.”

Buckingham’s Ergovation Y-Style Harness, front and back. “Saddles are now available with fall-arrest capabilities built into them,” says Tyler Lusht. “Some are permanent designs and some are removable.” Courtesy of Buckingham.

When asked why some workers eschew using a fall-arrest harness, the Buckingham team is “not sure age has a lot to do with it,” says Lusht. “It’s (likely) more a work-safety-culture thing that includes training and education, so they understand why they have to do it. Other things that can be done are to supply fall-arrest gear that is user friendly, easy to put on and take off, plus comfortable and applicable for the work they have to do. Workers will be more apt to wear the proper gear if it helps rather than hinders them.

“Know your equipment and know the standards your PPE is supposed to meet,” says Lusht. “The equipment you wear should meet and/or exceed all applicable industry standards, and it is important that you trust the manufacturer. Know your company’s gear-inspection policy, and always follow manufacturer recommendations.”

Jeremiah Wangsgard, technical information manager for Petzl America, a 26-year TCIA corporate member company based in Salt Lake City, Utah, explains the physics of fall arrest.

“In a fall, the harness is designed to support and hold the body,” he states. “A harness distributes the load to different parts of the body that are more capable of sustaining the forces. When supporting the user by the dorsal (back) attachment of a traditional full-body, fall-arrest harness, the load is directed through the shoulder straps and around the thighs,” rather than in the thighs and buttocks as with a climbing saddle.

“In order for the harness’s design to work, it is extremely important that it fits correctly and is properly adjusted,” he continues. “A properly fitted harness can help reduce the risk of injury during a fall. Harnesses are not designed to absorb energy. Impact is absorbed through the fall-arrest system’s deceleration device,” i.e., energy-absorbing lanyard or fall-arrester.

“Fall-protection equipment, including harnesses, should be inspected before each use. However, they should undergo an in-depth inspection at least every 12 months,” Wangsgard recommends. “Your intensity of use may cause you to inspect your equipment more frequently. Manufacturers will specify the maximum lifetime of their fall-protection products, and Petzl recommends a maximum lifetime of 10 years for any product made of plastic or textiles, as long as it continues to pass inspection. An exceptional event can lead you to retire a product after only one use, depending on the type and intensity of usage and the environment of usage.”

Fall-arrest harnesses are only as good as their connection to the equipment they are attached to, and lift manufacturers and sellers take this issue seriously.

Altec offers an optional lanyard alert with its lifts that alerts the operator and ground crew when the fall-arrest harness and safety lanyard are not engaged. Photo courtesy of Altec.

“Each new Altec unit comes with a harness and lanyard,” says Joe Coleman, a trainer with Altec Sentry, a safety division of Altec Industries, Inc., a 36-year TCIA corporate member company based in Birmingham, Alabama. “Also available is an optional lanyard alert, interlocking with the lift unit, that alerts the operator and ground crew when the fall-arrest harness and safety lanyard are not engaged.”

According to Coleman, while an anchor point, lanyard and harness are required by OSHA, right now any interlock that either alerts operators and crew or prevents lift operation when not engaged remains a user option.

“Tree care trucks and the tree care LR8 articulating, over-center aerial device are insulating units and are available with a lanyard alert or interlock,” he says, reinforcing the fact that the interlock provides audio and visual alarms, as well as the lockout to prevent the unit from operating if the lanyard is not connected properly.

(For more information on warning and interlock systems, see “Warning: Aerial Lift Attachment Systems In Use!” in TCI Magazine, February 2020.)

Regarding the history of fall-arrest harnesses, “Like everything else, somewhere, someone got hurt. This is a way to fix that,” says Tony Trainer, tree care account manager with USM Falcon Lifts/USM Rerents, a two-year TCIA corporate member company based in Elmhurst, Illinois. “There are ample stories of workers being catapulted from a lift. In effect, a boom is loaded under tension followed by a release.” He says it’s just like a rock getting catapulted. “If you do not have a way to avoid that, humans get hurt.

“A typical tracked lift in compact form is pretty safe, but I do not recommend them being used without a harness,” says Trainer. “Some lifts have the capability of launching an operator just while driving.” Trainer says this is not as much of an issue with lower-slung tracked lifts, which he explains are more compact in transport versus wheeled machines.

“Safety,” Trainer stresses, “is one of the non-negotiable components of an operator-training class. An operator cannot pass if the lift is started without clipping in. It is that much of a huge safety deal.

“I do training, and I tell people never to use just a saddle system to lock into a bucket. You really have to use the full-arrest system, the principle being that if you fall out of the bucket and fall head first, a saddle alone can be ripped off your legs, defeating any intent of protection. However, with a full leg-and-shoulders harness, you will not fall out of the arrest system.”

Trainer says to “check for nicks and cuts in your fall-arrest harness to see that nothing might give way, given the hundreds of pounds of force generated in stopping a fall. Also, check buckles and clips for cracks and nicks for the same reason.”

Lenny Polonski, in sales at All Access Equipment, an 11-year TCIA corporate member company based in Wilmington, Massachusetts, stresses that OSHA regulations must be followed chapter and verse. “I say that because a lot of people treat wearing a fall-arrest harness as optional. It is not. It is a requirement that can save your life.

“Something someone told me at a trade show made a lot of sense and drives home that message,” he says. “Those rules were written with the blood of people who ignored safety. That may be a bit gruesome, but it gets the point across.”

An employee with Harrison McPhee, Inc., an accredited, seven-year TCIA member company based in Millis, Massachusetts, climbs to his bucket wearing his fall protection. TCIA photo by Richard May.

He adds, “I have heard it said by some people that putting on this safety gear is a pain. To me, that means they were never properly instructed. If they had been, it would be no worse than lacing shoes. If you make a practice of putting on a safety harness every day, it is so easy.

“In fact, the correct and easy way to do it is to pick up the harness by the D-ring, and it all falls into place,” he reports. “To TCIA’s credit, you are educating people with these articles, and that is an important job because you may save someone’s life.

“Every time we sell a lift, we include a safety harness. Even though it is not required, we do it anyway and teach people how to use it,” Polonski says. “We show them how to take it out of the package and hold it by the D-ring so everything falls into place and it can be put on easily. Nine times out of 10 they get it right away.”

Reflecting on the fact that fall-arrest technology is part of an integrated system, Mike Hrycek of Tracked Lifts, Inc., a 14-year TCIA corporate member company based in New Oxford, Pennsylvania, says, “All lift equipment is required to have points of arrest. Manufacturers of our equipment test attachment points with drop tests. All of my equipment is tested with a weight drop equal to the weight capacity of our machines.”

Dead weights are attached to the fall-arrest points with a lanyard, lifted by a crane and dropped to induce a dynamic shock load, simulating what it would be like with a falling worker. “This ensures that the machine to which the fall-arrest harness is attached is built to a high margin of safety.”

Hrycek observes that a full fall-arrest harness is certified for use with an aerial device. “Alarmingly, we also see some users still using only a climbing belt without a full fall-arrest harness. So we provide a proper harness with all sales to encourage the use of a proper, full fall-arrest harness.”

There are other components of aerial-lift fall protection worth exploring in upcoming issues, but for now, because “things happen” on the job, safety systems should be top-of-mind for aerial-lift operators and the crews who back them up.

Falls from lifts

The following were taken from TCI Magazine’sAccident Briefs” listings from 2020 and 2021.

Lift operator dies in fall

An aerial-lift operator doing tree work was killed after a cut limb struck the bucket he was in and he fell 30 feet to the ground February 23, 2021, in Anderson, South Carolina. Jacob C. Williams, 64, was treated at the scene and transported to AnMed Health after suffering cardiac arrest and traumatic injuries. He later died; the cause of death was blunt-force chest trauma, according to a FOX Carolina News report.

Operator dies in fall from bucket

An aerial-lift operator from Tennessee died September 15, 2021, in the Page Community of Bell County, Kentucky, when he fell from the bucket he was using while doing tree work at a residence. Brian Terrence Parker, 54, of Tazewell, Tenn., owner of Parker Tree Company, was pronounced dead at the scene. Officers on scene determined Parker was not wearing a safety harness at the time of the incident, according to ABC 36 WTVQ-DT and claiborneprogress.net reports.

Operator knocked from bucket

An aerial-lift operator for a tree-trimming service was hurt January 15, 2020, in Wayne, Pennsylvania, after a branch snapped, hitting him and knocking him from the lift’s basket. The man, 34, was secured by his harness but was hit by the branch a second time before being lowered safely to the ground. The victim, who was able to speak with first responders and never lost consciousness, was taken to a local hospital, according to a Main Line Media News report.

Bucket operator hurt after lift struck by falling crane

An operator of a truck-mounted aerial lift suffered a back injury April 2, 2020, in Beloit, Wisconsin, when a boom truck tipped over and its boom struck the aerial-lift truck, knocking the operator out of the bucket. The boom truck tipped over while lifting a large section of a tree, causing it to fall on top of the bucket truck. The injured bucket operator was transported to a local hospital with non-life-threatening injuries, according to News 3 Now/Channel3000.com and vertikal.net reports.

Operator dies after tree hits lift

The operator of an aerial lift was killed July 13, 2020, in Coudersport, Pennsylvania, when a piece of the tree he was removing struck the lift truck, knocking him from the bucket. Lance Newton, 50, of Shinglehouse, Pa., was killed. The incident happened at the Eulalia Cemetery, across the street from the fire department. The crew from a tree-service company was removing the top of a pine tree when the large top fell, broke a large limb that was serving as the anchor point and struck the fully extended boom, ejecting Newton from the bucket as it collapsed to the ground. Newton died from blunt-force trauma, according to the Olean Times Herald report.

Operator killed when lift tips over

An aerial-lift operator was killed while tree trimming August 1, 2020, in Stockton, California, when the truck he was working in tipped over. The 52-year-old man was in the boom’s bucket cutting a tree. As the lift was lowering, the truck tipped over and the operator fell out. Medics arrived shortly afterward and the man was pronounced dead at the scene, according to a KCRA Channel 3 report.

Lift operator killed in 40-foot fall

An aerial-lift operator died after falling approximately 40 feet while cutting a tree branch August 24, 2020, in Harrington, Delaware. The 59-year-old man was inside the bucket of the boom lift when it was struck by a snapped branch, knocking him from the bucket. The man was transported to Bayhealth Hospital, Sussex Campus, where he was pronounced dead, according to a Delaware State News report.

Operator dies in fall from bucket

An aerial-lift operator died September 13, 2020, in Sioux City, Iowa, after falling 30 feet to the ground. Police said the man was not wearing a harness, according to Siouxland News and KMEG Fox 44 reports. The victim was subsequently identified as Jason T. Buckholtz, 44, of Sioux City, a tree worker with 22 years of experience in the industry.

Operator hurt in fall from bucket

A tree worker was seriously injured in a fall of 10 to 15 feet from the bucket of his aerial-lift truck October 29, 2020, in Indian River County, Florida. The man, described as being in his 30s, was conscious when firefighters arrived. Indian River County Fire Rescue took the man to Lawnwood Regional Medical Center & Heart Institute in Fort Pierce with a probable broken leg and other injuries  It was unclear if the worker was cutting limbs at the time of the fall, according to the Treasure Coast Newspapers report.

Operator seriously injured in fall from bucket

An aerial-lift operator was seriously injured November 5, 2020, in Reisterstown, Maryland, after a tree or tree part struck the bucket he was in, knocking the operator out of the bucket and causing him to fall 30 to 40 feet to the ground. The man was taken to R Adams Cowley Shock Trauma Center with serious and potentially life-threatening injuries, according to a WBAL-TV 11 report.

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