The Complete Guide to Full Body Harnesses

  • Safety Resources

Proper fall protection is often the only thing standing between you and serious injury or death. For full safety, it’s critical to choose the right full body harnesses for yourself and your team. Understanding the design and use empowers you to make the right decisions when it comes to your fall protection gear. This equipment will guard against accidents, maintain your company’s OSHA compliance, and create a better workplace for everyone involved.

KEY TAKEAWAYS
  • Learn about the different components of full body harnesses
  • Discover which types of harnesses are right for different industries and uses
  • Get tips for choosing a harness that fits and functions the way you need it to
  • Find out how you should inspect your harness for maximum safety
TABLE OF CONTENTS

What is a Full Body Harness?

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A full body harness is a safety harness that connects the worker to the fall protection system anchored into the structure they’re working on. Using a series of straps that fit around the thighs, hips, chest, shoulders, and back, these harnesses arrest falls while minimizing injury to the worker. Full body harnesses are also designed to keep wearers upright after a fall to prevent suspension trauma and facilitate faster rescue.

As you’ll see below, however, the harnesses recommended today haven’t always been the most common option. It took several decades to develop a full body option that doesn’t prolong the danger caused by a workplace fall.

Full Body Harness vs. Body Belt

Initially, fall protection systems relied on a single belt, usually made of leather or canvas and worn around the waist, to prevent falls. Though this did arrest some falls, it wasn’t always successful. And when it did work, it often created new dangers, including:

  • Internal injuries or death from the impact and/or being suspended for too long
  • Further injury if the worker slipped out of the belt
  • Asphyxia if the belt shifted under the armpits
  • Impacts, particularly to the head, if the wearer flipped upside down

In the 1970s and 1980s, workers began using two lanyards for additional safety. Known as a “100% tie-off system,” the second lanyard offered backup protection if anything happened to the first. It didn’t, however, prevent the hazards of using body belts. If you fell “correctly,” horizontally, you were often fine, but falling in any other position put you at serious risk.

Several safety organizations, including OSHA, tested body belts throughout the late 1900s. In one test performed by the British Standards Institute’s National Engineering Lab, the body belt folded the dummy in half, slamming its head against the surface below. In another study by OSHA, engineers determined that an average-sized woman could survive for 2.5 minutes while suspended in a body belt. The average-sized man would only last 32 seconds.

Though some companies used safety harnesses rather than just body belts as early as the 1940s, they didn’t become common until OSHA banned body belts as the only form of fall protection in 1998. Inspired by the harnesses used by paratroopers, manufacturers developed harnesses that strapped across the upper and lower body to distribute weight more evenly.

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Over the years, we have seen not just an evolution of the harness, but a revolution in comfort. Manufacturers use materials that are lightweight and strong enough to withstand regular use. The straps are arranged to arrest falls with minimal injury and maximum comfort during use. The dorsal D-ring is used universally because of the convenience it offers and the way it helps to distribute weight.

Today, full body harnesses improve safety in two main ways. Along with an optimized design, they are no longer uncomfortable to wear or use. Workers can easily and conveniently use them for specific tasks, encouraging regular use and increasing workplace safety.

Types of Full Body Safety Harnesses

Types of harnesses

Though all full body harnesses serve the same basic purpose, there are several options available for different types of work and use. These harnesses utilize different types of materials and designs to accommodate the demands of various industries without compromising safety. The applications for full body harnesses include:

  • Fall Arrest - Used in situations with great heights, these harnesses are used when workers are exposed to hazards that include 6-12 feet of free fall. All fall arrest harnesses include a back dorsal D-ring.
  • Ascending/Descending - This gear is used for situations that require controlled ascent or descent. They use a variety of frontal D-rings and may include a seat sling.
  • Rescue/Confined Space - These safety harnesses are not intended to arrest free falls. Instead, D-rings are attached to the shoulders to keep the wearer upright and in the best position for retrieval.
  • Climbing - Worn when going up or down ladders or other climbing structures, this gear is only used when the hazard involves 2 feet or less of free fall. Since climbing involves ascending, descending, positioning, raising, and lowering, these harnesses use features such as climbing D-rings to meet these many needs while still protecting the user.
  • Positioning Work - Several types of work require people to work on tall vertical surfaces. Positioning harnesses use side D-rings, seat support, and dorsal D-rings to give workers a full range of motion as they work from these sometimes awkward and dangerous positions.
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Different industries may use a variety of applications at different times. Use the information below to understand how these options serve different purposes and how to choose the best equipment for your workers and field.

Standard

Standard full body harnesses are those primarily used for fall protection, no matter the work or industry involved. This equipment doesn’t require specific types of material, beyond what is necessary for safe fall arrests, to guard against additional workplace hazards. The design includes straps across the shoulders, chest, back, and thighs, but does not include a belt worn around the waist. The attachments used for this option, typically dorsal D-rings, sit between the worker’s shoulder blades for the greatest safety during a fall. Standard harnesses have a maximum arresting force of 1,800 lbs, so be sure to do the necessary calculations when choosing equipment for people of different sizes.

Construction

Construction includes multiple types of work. Depending on the task, type of construction, and size of the building, the harnesses required may vary. If someone is working from a ladder, for instance, a positioning harness frees their hands and movements while protecting them from a fall. Painters may use a suspension harness to access sections of the building while hanging from above. If working above a 6-foot or more distance, such as roofing, all of your employees will need to use personal fall protection systems.

Construction workers often need their tools close at hand, so it’s also important to find harnesses that can hold both the user’s weight and the added strain from their tools. Generally, construction safety harnesses carry this weight on padded belts.

Welding

Welding work creates sparks and requires close exposure to tools that generate heat. Since most of a full body harness is made from cloth-like material, choosing the right option is critical to prevent smoking, melting, and burning.

Welding fall protection harnesses are made from materials like Kevlar and Nomex, heavy-duty options that are resistant to flames, sparks, welding splatter, and direct heat. They also use steel attachments that won’t warp or melt when exposed to high temperatures.

That said, these harnesses are still vulnerable to damage. Take care to use, store, and inspect this equipment properly to maintain safety. And if you notice any kind of damage, no matter how slight, repair or replace it immediately.

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Tower/Climbing

When climbing towers or other structures, there are several things to take into consideration. This work takes place outside, so you need to evaluate the weather conditions your workers will face. In extreme conditions, will your harnesses only add to their discomfort and risk? Climbing takes a lot of strength, so you may want to choose harnesses with lighter components to reduce the weight your workers have to carry. Tower climber harnesses should also include seat support for comfortable suspension.

Most importantly, these jobs always involve great heights and dangerous workplaces. Your workers must use a full body harness that will safely arrest any falls that occur.

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Utilities/Arc Flash

Working with utility infrastructure may put your workers at risk for contact with electricity. In these situations, employees may experience a phenomenon called arc flash. Occasionally, some of an electric current may unexpectedly arc away from the flow and connect to another conductor, such as someone standing nearby. When it happens, arc flash can cause life-altering injuries and even death.

To minimize the chances of attracting electricity, utilities and arc flash harnesses use specific arc-resistant materials, including black Kevlar, Nomax, leather, plastic, and insulated/dielectric steel attachments. In this field of work, balancing fall protection with arc-flash resistance is essential. Thankfully, there are numerous full body harnesses designed specifically for this need.

Oil & Gas

Workers in the oil & gas industry face difficult working conditions and significant hazards in their everyday tasks. They often have to climb ladders that are slippery with ice, water, and grease, moving from ladder to ladder to reach their destination. Even the platforms are treacherous and at great heights. With all of these dangers, fall protection is a high priority.

The safety harnesses used for the oil & gas industry use a variety of D-ring attachments and connection points, including hip-lifting D-rings and buckles that enable belly belt attachments. This allows workers to adjust their safety equipment to meet the requirements of different tasks. This equipment protects workers from falls and simplifies the difficulties of their work for reliable safety.

Traffic

In addition to the typical hazards of construction work, teams that work on roads, bridges, and other traffic-related infrastructure are also exposed to driving dangers. Since most of this work takes place on or near busy roads, you need fall protection equipment that will keep your workers visible at all times.

Traffic safety harnesses are typically paired with vests or straps made from reflective materials. When hit with light from a car or workplace lights, these harnesses flash to identify the worker’s location. At night and in low-visibility situations, this equipment can protect workers from horrible collisions. Beyond the reflective straps, traffic harnesses are similar to standard or construction harnesses. They may include padded belts for tools, but they don’t require any additional specifications.

Confined Space

Numerous industries require workers to climb or crawl into confined spaces such as crawl spaces and tunnels. In these situations, OSHA requires employers to provide safety harnesses that simplify rescue if needed. Along with a full body or chest harness, workers need retrieval lines that are attached between the shoulder blades or above the user’s head. Retrieval lines can also be attached, according to OSHA, “at another point which the employer can establish presents a profile small enough for the successful removal of the entrant.”

These design details ensure that workers can be lifted or removed from the tight spaces without endangering other workers. It also speeds up potential rescue efforts to minimize danger and injury to the people involved.

Basic Components of a Full Body Safety Harness

As you can see from the descriptions in the section above, form follows function for full body harnesses. The basic components of a full body harness include:

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  • Straps - These straps distribute the fall arrest forces across the user’s chest, shoulders, waist, pelvis, and thighs. Polyester and nylon are the most popular materials used, but many harnesses also use Dyneema, Kevlar, and Nomex.
  • Attachments - Standard steel or aluminum D-ring attachments are adequate for almost every situation, which is why they are used in nearly 90% of fall protection harnesses.
  • Additional Features - Depending on the work, harnesses may also include seat support, padded belts, belly belt buckles, reflective materials, and additional D-ring attachments.

These are the most personal pieces of equipment involved in fall protection systems, so they should be tailored to the user and the work. Some important considerations include:

  • Are there any hazards that can damage the harness?
  • Are there any workplace conditions that will affect the use of the harness or the comfort of the person wearing it?
  • Does this harness help or hinder the work? Is there a better option?

Given the effectiveness of current harnesses, innovation focuses more on comfort than new safety options. That said, manufacturers still offer new options, such as double self retracting lanyards, to pursue better protection options.

When Should You Wear a Full Body Harness

According to OSHA, any industry except construction that requires work above a height of 4 feet must utilize fall protection equipment that includes a full body harness. They refer to these fields as general industry. Regulations also include trigger heights, when fall protection is required, for several specific industries:

OSHA height requirements-02
  • Construction: 6 ft.
  • General Industries: 4 ft.
  • Long-shoring: 8 ft.
  • Shipyards: 5 ft.
  • Scaffolding: 10 ft.

Occasionally, some job sites will include work that falls under both construction and general industry regulations. To differentiate between the two, OSHA created descriptions of the unprotected working or walking surfaces that require fall protection systems. Some of these hazards must be above 6 or 10 feet, while others require additional safety measures at any height. In any of these situations, you and your workers must use full body safety harnesses.

Choosing a Full Body Harness

By now, you can see why it is so important to choose the right harness for your specific needs. This equipment is not one-size-fits-all and shouldn’t be treated as such. With these considerations in mind, use the following steps to find the ideal harnesses for your team.

1. What is your industry?

The first step is to evaluate the fall protection needs of your specific industry. Start by reading through the different types of full body harnesses that we listed above to see what is required in your field. If your industry isn’t included above, do research to determine the type of gear that you need.

Though you may be tempted to cut corners and just buy a standard harness, this decision may cost someone their life. Prioritize safety by using the right tools for your work.

2. What is your application?

In the section about types of full body harnesses, we also covered the different capabilities required by various applications. Once you’ve identified your industry needs, you need to know what type of harness is required for the work you complete. Consult OSHA requirements, application recommendations, and your team to make sure you have all of the necessary specifications. Then use this list to find options that best facilitate your work.

3. Select your configuration

Full body harnesses come in a variety of styles, such as Y, W, and H straps. Some may include seat support, tool belts, and a variety of D-ring options. You’ll want to choose a configuration that is easy to put on and comfortable to wear. If your workers don’t want to wear your safety equipment, they may not use them when they should. The configuration you choose should also support efficient and practical everyday use.

4. Select size & fitment

Once you know what you need for safety and compliance, you can focus on other elements. Most safety harnesses offer universal sizing, meaning the manufacturer made them to fit the average person. For workers that don’t fit this size, however, you will need straps with adjustable capabilities.

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5. Evaluate investment, materials, features, and comfort

Along with all of the features you choose for function, you also have to determine how much you want to pay for the comfort and quality of your gear.

Generally, the more you pay for your safety harnesses, the more comfortable they will be. You will get nicer materials, extended durability, and a better long-term investment. Our FT-Iron™ line, for example, includes a reinforced sub-pelvic strap with a durable wear pad, part of an intelligent design created to extend its lifetime.

While these things aren’t necessary, they are an upfront investment that pays off in the long run. Nicer, more expensive materials will last longer with fewer problems. Adding features such as trauma straps further increases safety and makes your harnesses more comfortable. You will pay a bit more now, but improve use and costs over time.

6. Make sure the product meets the ANSI Z359.11 standard

Fall protection manufacturers have to meet certain standards for their fall protection systems. If the gear you choose doesn’t meet these safety requirements, it may not protect your workers from a fall. When choosing your full body harnesses, review the test reports, ANSI and CSA compliance (particularly ANSI Z359.11), and manufacturer reviews. Ensure that the equipment performs well in the field. You won’t get a second chance to choose the right equipment if your harnesses fail, so use your due diligence to find the safest options from the beginning.

7. Make your selection

These steps will lead you to one or more harness options that will serve your team well. If you are on the fence about similar products, reach out to the manufacturer to see what else they can offer for your safety program. Purchasing full body harnesses presents an opportunity to build a relationship with a company that can help you improve workplace safety. Choose a manufacturer that is willing to work with your team to find the ideal solution.

Ensuring the Proper Fit

When your harnesses are in hand, you can work with your team to ensure the proper fit. It’s a good idea to hold a training session to teach everyone the right way to wear the gear. If it’s not worn correctly, it may fail or cause unnecessary injuries during a fall. Avoid these risks by following the steps below.

1. Hold and shake it

Pick up the harness by the dorsal D-ring and shake it so the leg straps fall down. Everything should hang like it would when worn, so you can check for any loose or twisted straps. You should also buckle any open buckles.

2. Put it on

First, place the harness over your shoulders like you would a shirt or jacket. The dorsal D-ring should be right between your shoulder blades. If it’s not, adjust it to the correct position.

Next, check the harness from the bottom up. Make sure the sub-pelvic strap is resting just under the buttocks so it will catch your weight correctly. Then, secure the leg straps. You should be able to place only two or three fingers beneath the straps when tightened. Before moving to the chest strap, check the sub-pelvic strap’s position again.

Check your shoulder straps, which should be spaced evenly across your chest with the straps running vertically down your body. Both straps should both be the same length. Buckle the chest strap, which should be sitting along your mid-chest. Any higher or lower and the chest strap won’t function properly.

3. Evaluate the fit

Now, straighten up and adjust any straps to feel snug but not tight. Use a mirror or a partner to visually inspect the fit as well. If it feels too tight or too loose, it isn’t safe for you to use. This is a piece of equipment that you may use all day, every day, so it needs to fit well and comfortably in its proper configuration.

How to Inspect a Full Body Harness

Since we are dealing with safety equipment, you’re going to want to inspect your equipment before and after every use. Tedious as it may sound, this precaution can prevent life-threatening situations. You can include the steps below in your training sessions to give your team the proper procedures to follow.

Check the impact indicators

Your safety harness likely includes a feature known as impact indicators. Though they can take a variety of forms, these features are always intended to show when the harness needs to be replaced or repaired. If the impact indicator is not there or is exposed, depending on the method used, remove this harness from service.

Labels

If you can’t read what the labels on your gear say, you shouldn’t use it. This information is critical for proper use and safety, so you need to be able to read it.

Hardware

To check the hardware, start at the top of your harness and work your way down. Inspect the dorsal D-ring for cracks, discoloration, and other damage. Make sure your chest strap buckle locks and stays together securely. Check any rollers and springs for proper function. Any mating buckles should allow webbing to move through them freely. Every part of every buckle, from grommets to tongues, should work well and be in good shape.

Webbing

Before you inspect your webbing, remove your gloves. Run your fingers along the materials to check for thinning and stretching. If the edges have more than 10% wear, the harness needs to be repaired. Look for tears, holes, and discoloration. As you go, invert the webbing in a u-shape to expose hidden damage. Lastly, make sure there aren’t any loose or missing stitches, particularly on the sub-pelvic strap.

Full Body Harness FAQ

Do full body harnesses expire?

Technically no, but that doesn’t mean you can use a safety harness forever. If your gear meets the inspection standards of your competent person, check with your manufacturer for the recommended lifespan. They know how well and how long the materials they use will last, so rely on their advice.

At what height do you have to wear a harness?

As we mentioned above, OSHA has specified certain heights for different industries. Generally, any work above 6 feet requires fall protection equipment. The trigger heights for the specific industries include:

  • Construction: 6 ft.
  • General Industry: 4 ft.
  • Long-shoring: 8 ft.
  • Shipyards: 5 ft.
  • Scaffolding: 10 ft.
What happens if you hang in a harness too long?

When a person is suspended motionless in an upright position for too long, they are at risk from suspension trauma, or orthostatic intolerance. This position prevents blood from reaching the brain, resulting in dizziness, nausea, sweating, headaches, weakness, unconsciousness, and, eventually, death. You can add trauma relief straps to your gear, which allow wearers to stand in the harness and prevents loss of circulation.

How much does a harness cost?

There is a wide price range for the different types and levels of quality for safety harnesses. You can find some compliance harnesses for under $50, while premium harnesses will cost more.

How often do fall protection harnesses need to be inspected?

As mentioned, we recommend that you inspect your harnesses before and after every use. While it may be okay to skip the post-use inspection, you should always evaluate your equipment before using it.

How much weight can a full body safety harness hold?

This number varies depending on the manufacturer. All of FallTech’s full body harnesses are made to hold up to 425 lbs.

Why Choose FallTech for Your Full Body Harness & Fall Protection Needs

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Choosing the right full body harness is essential for workplace safety. At FallTech, you can work with our sales team to find the exact equipment you need. Our salespeople are all product and industry experts, offering knowledge and advice throughout the fall protection field. With this experience, they help you find the best products and price for your budget.

Full body harnesses, in particular, are FallTech’s primary focus. We may not be the biggest manufacturer in the industry, but we aim to be the best. More than 90% of our harnesses are made in the United States to ensure higher quality. Our harnesses consistently meet our customers’ standards for cost-effectiveness, compliance, durability, and comfort. If you don’t see what you need, we’ll work with you to resolve your needs and complaints.

Our transparency is also unmatched. We are the only safety harness manufacturer that publishes all of our test results online with our products. Our manufacturing, testing, and products all meet industry standards, ensuring complete confidence in your safety. You can confirm all of our claims for yourself by viewing our documentation and by visiting our facilities for in-person tours.

At FallTech, we understand that every piece of equipment we create may be used to save someone’s life. For that reason, we are committed to doing whatever it takes to help you build the ideal fall protection system. We are here to keep you and your team safe, so every order is our priority.

Ready to strengthen your fall protection safety? Browse our body wear products to find the full body safety harnesses you need.

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