How to Select a Full-Body Harness

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Occupational Health & Safety magazine

Summary Statement

Discusses the importance of having a safety harness and how to select, maintain and don them to increase safety.
November 2000

Reprinted with permission © 2000, Stevens Publishing Corporation.


Employees more readily and properly wear a comfortable harness that easily adapts to lanyards and other connecting devices.

Photo of correct harness use

What makes one worker wear the proper fall protection equipment and use it in the correct manner, while another doesn't? On one hand, workers must receive the proper training on adjusting, inspecting, and maintaining the equipment. On the other hand, no matter how thorough the training, workers might leave the equipment

"Our workers like a comfortable harness," said Jim Owen, director of construction safety operations at Dick Corporation. "They'll wear a harness if it's comfortable." Owen and other safety directors agree that a harness--or any fall protection equipment that's difficult to don and hard to adjust--won't be used.

Before purchasing any fall protection equipment, buyers should note that harnesses are not all the same. Everything from harness construction to strap placement can be compared and contrasted. All of these elements do make a difference in the comfort and safety the harness offers the user. Harness buyers and users should also remember that harnesses don't last forever.

Some harnesses have a minimum adjustment on the chest strap that cannot be used by shorter workers.

Harnessing Size

Many manufacturers rely on universal sizing, which means a harness should fit the average person. However, universal sizing is designed to fit most, not all, workers. Some harnesses have a minimum adjustment on the chest strap that cannot be used by shorter workers. "I like the harnesses that offer adjustments for height," said Western Summit Constructors Inc. Safety Director Neal Timmons.

Donning a Harness

The ability to adjust a harness correctly is important, but some manufacturers' adjustable straps are often too complicated, said Harry Galer, director of corporate safety for Clark Construction Group Inc. "Employees often have trouble adjusting the leg straps, or they have the D-ring in the back adjusted improperly," he said. In many instances, workers wear harnesses far too loose in order to find a comfortable fit. "These are things our safety managers have to watch constantly," Galer said.

Clark Construction uses several different types of harnesses, but their workers prefer full-body harnesses with stretchable webbing that allows workers to flex and bend. "With some harnesses, they complain about them not fitting properly--they cut and pinch," Galer said. "When adjustments are difficult to make, we find a lot of workers don't wear their harnesses properly."

How Safe is that Safety Harness?

Most buyers would expect a harness to meet specific standards, but surprisingly, some brands don't meet basic safety standards. Before purchasing fall protection products, ask these questions, and ask for written proof from the manufacturers:

  • Where are the products manufactured? Does the facility have ISO 9001 certification?

  • ISO 9001 certification proves facilities meet strict international standards in quality assurance for design, development, production, installation, and service.
  • Do the products meet ANSI and CSA standards?

  • Not all harnesses meet ANSI Z359.1, ANSI A10.14, CSA Z259, and CSA 259. Insist on written proof in addition to product labeling.
  • Does the fall protection manufacturer have a Statistical Process Control (SPC) program?

  • Fall protection products are only as good as the quality of the raw materials/components.
  • Does the manufacturer participate in SEI or any other recognized third-party testing?

  • Reputable manufacturers often are members of Safety Equipment Institute (SEI), which provides independent testing programs for all fall protection products.
  • Does the manufacturer have qualified engineers designing/testing products in an in-house testing facility?

  • Ask for documented results ofr dynamic drop tests and static load tests.

Strapping Down Safety

Check whether the manufacturer is a member of the Safety Equipment Institute, which provides independent testing programs for all fall protection products.

Harness construction is anything but standard. Some harnesses are manufactured without a back strap. In the event of a fall, the person may actually fall out of the back of the harness. Chest straps should be easy to adjust and must withstand a fall without tearing or breaking. In test cases with inferior quality harnesses, some chest straps broke from fall forces.

The stronger the straps and stitching, the better the fall protection. Some manufacturers use Velcro for chest straps, but others refuse. "For Miller brand products, we find Velcro is not a suitable substitute for chest hardware because it doesn't hold well enough. When Velcro gets dirty, its holding power is affected," said Ron Cox, Vice President and General Manager of Dalloz Fall Protection-Americas.

Inspection and Maintenance

A harness should have hardware that's sturdy, but not oversized and awkward. At the same time, the hardware should easily attach to connecting devices. For example, the D-rings on some harnesses are so small that hooking a lanyard can be a tricky process.

Harness hardware also poses a hazard if it has sharp edges. The edges can cut into harness webbing or can be positioned in such a way that they dig into the skin in the event of a fall. To protect workers from hardware injuries, the components must be appropriately manufactured and assembled.

Hardware with exposed springs should be avoided. Exposed springs, especially on friction buckles, can be easily disabled or removed. Reliable hardware construction is an important feature because friction buckles that are not spring-loaded can easily begin to loosen once the harness has been adjusted to fit.

Avoiding Tangled Webs

Webbing may seem like an innocuous item that would be similar in all cases, but it varies drastically from brand to brand. Some harnesses use webbing that folds over and tangles, and that can be as frustrating as handling a disagreeable telephone cord.

Harness webbing should be sturdy, and the yarns should be tightly woven so the webbing slides easily through the hardware. If webbing snags when it glides under hardware, it can result in cuts to the webbing. Once cut, the harness must be taken out of service.

Examining the tensile strength of webbing is also important. After abrasion tests, some webbing begins to fray and pucker bringing the harness to the end of service. Stitching is just as important as the structure of the webbing. The stitching must not rip away during a fall.

Harness webbing should resist the effects of sun, heat, and moisture for an extended period of time. If a harness is used in an electrical environment, it must also resist conductivity. If it is used in a harsh chemical environment, the webbing must be able to resist toxic chemical fumes and splashes.

Inspecting for Wear

Webbing may seem innocuous but varies drastically from brand to brand.

In order to ensure a harness will perform the ultimate function it is intended for--saving a life--it must be inspected prior to every use. Remember that all harnesses have a limited life. However, the length of wearable life will vary greatly, depending on the amount of wear it receives and in what type of environment it is worn. For example, a harness worn only indoors, or only a couple of times in a week, will have a much longer life than one worn outdoors every day. A harness worn outdoors endures a variety of environmental forces and may even show visible signs of damage or corrosion in a matter of months. When inspecting your harness, a good rule of thumb is: Any doubts, toss it.

Padding is meant to make the harness more comfortable, but if it's difficult to adjust or is made of material that becomes brittle in cold weather, it can become another problem that discourages proper use of the harness.

How Does It Work?

It sounds too simple to address, but clear, easy-to-read instructions should accompany every harness. In the best case scenario, the instructions will be in more than one language. All of the instructions should include explicit guidelines for usage, maintenance, and inspection.

It Adds Up to Safety

When purchasing a harness, make sure you are buying the correct harness for the appropriate application. Remember, employees will more readily and properly wear a comfortable harness that easily adapts to lanyards and other connecting devices. The better the harness, the better your company's chances of employees wearing them. That increases safety and regulatory compliance. Most important, it saves lives.

Donning a Harness: Six Easy Steps that Could Save Your Life

Harness styles vary. Always refer to the instructions enclosed with your harness.

1. Hold the harness by the back D-ring. Shake the harness to allow all straps to fall in place.
2. If chest, leg, and/or waist straps are buckled, release the straps and unbuckle at this time.
3. Slip the straps over shoulders so the D-ring is located in middle of the back between shoulder blades.
4. Pull the leg strap between legs and connect to the opposite end. Repeat with the second leg strap. If belted harness, connect the waist strap after the leg straps. The waist strap should be tight, but not binding.
5 .Connect the chest strap and position in the mid-chest area. Tighten to keep the shoulder straps taut.
6. After all straps have been buckled, tighten all buckles so the harness fits snugly but allows full range of movement. Pass excess strap through loop keepers.

Mating Buckle

1. Pull the center bar buckle completely through the square link.
2. Allow the center bar buckle to fall into place on top of the square link.
3. Pull the loose end of the strap to tighten adjustment of the harness.
4. Slide keepers to hold any excess webbing.

Tongue Buckle

1. Insert the loose strap of webbing through the tongue buckle, placing the buckle tongue through the appropriate grommet.
2. Push remaining webbing through the keeper to retain the loose end.


1. Pass webbing under the buckle, over knurled bar, and back down between knurled bar and frame.
2. Pull web end to tighten.

Inspection and Maintenance

To maintain service life and high performance, you should inspect harnesses frequently. Visual inspection before each use is required. Regular inspection by a competent person for wear, damage, or corrosion should be a part of your safety program. Inspect your equipment daily and replace it if any defective conditions exist.

1. Webbing
Grasp the webbing with your hands 6 to 8 inches apart. Bend the webbing in an inverted "U" as shown. The resulting surface tension makes damaged fibers or cuts easier to see. Follow this procedure the entire length of the webbing, inspecting both sides of each strap. Watch for frayed edges, broken fibers, pulled stitches, cuts, burns, and chemical damage.

2. D-Rings/Back Pads
Check D-rings for distortion, cracks, breaks, and rough or sharp edges. The D-ring should pivot freely. D-ring back pads should also be inspected for damage.

3. Attaching Buckles
Attachments of buckles and D-rings should be given special attention. Note any unusual wear, frayed or cut fibers, or distortion of the buckles or D-rings.

4. The Tongue/Grommets
The tongue receives heavy wear from repeated buckling and unbuckling. Inspect for loose, distorted, or broken grommets. Webbing should not have additional punched holes.

5. Tongue Buckle
Buckle tongues should be free of distortion in shape and motion. They should overlap the buckle frame and move freely back and forth in their socket. Roller should turn freely on frame. Check for distortion or sharp edges.

6. Friction and Mating Buckles
Inspect the buckle for distortion. The outer bars and center bars must be straight. Pay special attention to corners and attachment points of the center bar.

7. Visual Indications of Damage to Webbing and Rope
a) Heat. In excessive heat, becomes brittle and has a shriveled brownish appearance. The fibers will break when flexed. Should not be used above 180 degrees Fahrenheit.
b) Chemical. Change in color usually appearing as a brownish smear or smudge. Transverse cracks when bent over a mandrel. Loss of elasticity.
c) Molten metal or flame. Webbing strands fuse together. Hard shiny spots. Hard and brittle feel.
d) Paint and solvents. Paint that penetrates and dries restricts movement of the fibers. Drying agents and solvents in some paints cause chemical damage.

Irene Smith works in the product management department for Miller brand fall protection products, training, and engineering systems manufactured by Dalloz Fall Protection of Franklin, Pa. The company ( been a world leader in the design and manufacture of fall protection equipment for more than 50 years.