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Horizontal Lifelines: Construction or General Industry

By Pat M. Stark, CHST, USF SafetyFlorida Safety and Health Compliance Specialist

Pat Stark1

Pat Stark

Why are homemade horizontal lifelines still being used at workplaces?

Answers can vary, of course. Maybe the employer / foreman/ supervisor / manager truly believes the device will work in the event of a fall—and, maybe it will. But is employee safety a guessing game? No, it isn’t nor should it be, especially when it comes to the prevention of falls. At 39 fatalities in 20081, falls continue to be one of the leading causes of fatalities in construction in Florida.

I’ve come across many homemade temporary or permanent horizontal lifelines in both general industry and construction applications. Many times these homemade horizontal lifeline systems are inadequate in the following areas:

  1. Not designed, installed or used under the supervision of a qualified person.
  2. The foreman, operations or facility manager, who has sanctioned the use of the homemade horizontal lifeline, is unaware about various calculations on the use of this system, such as the stresses that may be imposed on it, and what minimum standards require of a lifeline to prevent failure of the system in the event of a fall.
  3. There is usually more than one person attached to the system and no one has considered this additional stress factor on the line, the anchorage points and the angle of sag, etc., in the event of a fall.
  4. In most cases, when homemade horizontal lifeline systems are observed, the employer has done little or no fall protection training with those employees who will be attaching to this lifeline. The workers know little or nothing about inspection of their fall protection gear, how to wear it properly and proper inspection aspects of the entire fall arrest system.

One reason companies say they use homemade horizontal lifelines is the cost factor. Homemade horizontal lifelines are cheap. But, when an employee falls while using this homemade system because the system failed, the resulting injury or death, and all the immediate and downstream costs, including the potential OSHA penalties and legal costs can easily outweigh the initial cost. When it’s discovered that pre-engineered horizontal lifeline systems are readily available, and the employer failed to purchase this system because the cost of a 3/8” wire rope and wire rope clips as their horizontal lifeline was a few hundred dollars cheaper, what’s the verdict going to be?

In contrast, an adequately engineered (qualified) horizontal lifeline, both in general industry and in construction applications, can allow for easy movement of the worker and provide ample fall protection in tasks and situations where a guardrail or net system is truly not an option.

OSHA standards in construction specifically cover horizontal lifelines in CFR 29 1926.502(d)(8) Personal fall arrest systems-(8) “Horizontal lifelines shall be designed, installed and used under the supervision of a qualified person, as part of a complete personal fall arrest system which maintains a safety factor of two.” Additionally, in the non-mandated section of this subpart M, Appendix C (h)(6) Horizontal lifelines, there are detailed descriptions of the stresses on anchorage points, sag angle determination, multiple-tie off considerations and even testing of these lifelines.

When I observe a homemade horizontal lifeline systems, I question how qualified is the “qualified person” at the job site. I point out to them that the entire lifeline system has potential for flaw and failure. The recent ANSI Z359.0-.4 Fall Protection Code offers up-to-date specifics on fall protection systems including horizontal lifelines and minimum stresses, strengths on these systems, as in Z359.1 “Safety Requirements for Personal Fall Arrest Systems, Subsystems and Components.”

As a last note: Most if not all personal fall arrest snap hook gates are now being manufactured to meet the above ANSI standards since the older snap hook gates load requirement was only 220 lbs. The new standard requires these gate hooks to withstand a load of 3,600 lbs. Workers, supervisors, managers, safety personnel, workers' comp loss control and consultants should check on this factor since gate hook failure has occurred and resulted in serious or fatal injuries, especially when workers may anchor off at their feet during various types of construction work—many times when using a homemade horizontal lifeline system.

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1. Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, National Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries in 2008,

http://www.bls.gov/news.release/pdf/cfoi.pdf.