Making Sense of Fall Protection Safety Lanyards

Making Sense of Fall Protection Safety Lanyards

Fall hazards are abundant and varied, making them difficult to protect against.  Every single situation is different and employers need to work with employees to ensure that the correct solution is in place.  The solutions may be easy or they may be complex, but either way, as the narrator of the opening sequence of The Six-Million Dollar Man said, “We have the technology.”

While the answer to a problem can be something like guardrails, very often employers are faced with the challenge of finding ways for their employees to “tie-off”.  As they work through the process, it is important that they determine not just what the anchor point is going to be, but what type of lanyard to use.  Many factors come into play when determining this, not the least of which is fall distance.  But you can’t choose the proper equipment if you don’t understand the options available.


Each category could be further broken-down, but essentially there are three types of lanyards: shock-absorbing lanyards, self-retracting lanyards (or SRLs), and positioning lanyards.  For the sake of this article, let’s assume that you’ve connected your lanyard – whichever type it is – properly.  If, for instance, your anchor point is at your feet rather than at your D-ring or above, there is going to be a larger fall distance than what’s listed here and there will be excessive force exerted on your body.

Shock-Absorbing Lanyards

These seem to be the most popular types, mostly because they are easy to use and it’s very obvious if they’ve been deployed or not. They are often 6 feet long and have an expansion pack on one end, or you might see the “bungee” style (though, be very aware of the fact that these are not bungee – they are not elastic and will not bounce a person back).  It will not be as easy to tell if a bungee lanyard has been deployed in a fall.  The expansion pack (which could be rip-stitch or glue) will expand up to another 3.5 feet in the process of slowing your descent.  The same goes for the “bungee” style.  The lanyard will start out at 6 feet and could be 9.5 feet after it has been deployed.

There are a couple of important things to consider when deciding on a shock absorbing lanyard.  First, what is your fall distance?  The link above leads to an article that shows you that you are going to need a minimum 18.5’ of clearance in order to use one of these.  If you don’t have that, you need to consider other options.  Second, why are you looking to arrest a fall after it has occurred, rather than stopping it from occurring in the first place? 
Which leads us to our next options…

SRLs (Self-Retracting Lanyards)

To be fair, SRLs do also arrest a fall after it has occurred, however the distance in which they engage is short, leading to a maximum arrest distance (for a Class A SRL) of 24”.  This is significantly different than the 3.5 feet plus the length of slack in your shock-absorbing lanyards.  One of the features of an SRL is that there should be no slack since the lanyard recedes back into the casing when the tension releases.  In recent years, SRLs have shrunk in size, reduced in weight, and become much more manageable than some of their predecessors.  This is a great option in most fall protection situations.

Positioning Lanyards

These lanyards offer the least amount of flexibility.  They are fixed length and are designed to keep you in place, rather than arrest a fall.  You will see them in frequent use when doing rebar assembly for pour-in-place concrete walls.  For some, these are the only lanyards that should be used in a boom lift.  Many will argue that the forces exerted on the basket of a boom in the event of a fall while wearing a shock-absorbing lanyard or an SRL could cause a tip-over and a fixed-length positioning lanyard is the only way to go.  Despite those arguments, valid or not, OSHA has not banned the use of any type of lanyard in a boom lift as long as you would be protected from striking the level below.  Still, if you feel this is a concern, consider the positioning lanyard.

Other Considerations

Even if you’ve determined which type of lanyard you are going to use, your decision doesn’t end there.  Lanyards are made of various materials and not just for the fun of it.  While many lanyards are nylon webbing, others are Kevlar or wire rope.  Why?

  • If you are performing hot work of some kind – welding, torch-cutting, burning, for example – you are going to want your lanyard to be made of a material that isn’t going to burn through when the slag hits it. 
  • Are you walking steel at the top of a newly constructed building?  Well, the only anchor point may be at your feet.  You’d better employ the use of an extended freefall lanyard which is manufactured to allow a 12’ freefall as opposed to your standard 6’ while maintaining the forces on your body below the allowed levels. 
  • Will there be situations in which you need to switch from one anchor point to another?  If so, you may need to use a double-legged lanyard so that you are not exposing yourself to a fall when transitioning from one to the other. 

There’s a reason why just saying you are going to “Tie-Off” is an insufficient answer when a safety professional asks what you are going to do for fall protection.  There is no “One Size Fits All” fall protection solution.  Each situation requires careful attention to detail so that the employees can be properly protected.  Review your situations beforehand and come up with an agreed upon method, otherwise, there’s a chance your people in the field will grab whatever is in the nearest toolbox, regardless of whether or not it will actually protect them (if they use anything at all).

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