A Change For The Better: Accurate Testing Of Fall Protection Products

By W. David Lough

The accuracy and repeatability of test results for fall protection equipment has always been in question.  Fundamental problems such as liberties taken with interpretations of standards, limited conformity of testing apparatus between laboratories, unknown testing uncertainties, technicians that do not understand the equipment and the spirit of the standard, non-calibrated measuring equipment, etc., have led to inconsistent results between labs. Without a benchmark, the ability to trace the source of the discrepancy has also been difficult.  Each lab believes that their test data is correct. Combine this with the fact that most labs are created and maintained by the manufacturer of the final product and it can be a recipe for disaster.

Many design assumptions are based on the results of initial product testing and therefore the final product’s function can hinge on this information. To start the design process or verify equipment strength and functionality with incorrect, corrupt or unsubstantiated data could result in an end product that is based upon a premise that is flawed. Reaction to this knowledge will lay the foundation for the design of future fall protection equipment.

To combat these issues, the ASSE /ANSI Z359 Accredited Standards Committee has established the ASSE/ANSI Z359.7 “Qualification and Verification Testing of Fall Protection Products” standard. This new American National Standard has been recently balloted and approved, and will likely be released in the Fall. Once it has been published, manufacturers will have a one-year implementation period to comply with the standard.

What does the new standard mean to the fall protection equipment manufacturer? For the first time, manufacturers using the ANSI Z359 marking on their fall protection equipment will have to verify that their testing results meet the individual standard that the product is supposed to conform to. Manufacturers will have to follow testing guidelines that will require them to either have an in-house ISO accredited laboratory or use a third-party ISO accredited laboratory to perform the qualification and verification testing of their product. Becoming an ISO accredited laboratory is no easy task and will help to ensure that each laboratory is using the proper technicians and have a thorough understanding of the standards being tested to. ISO accredited labs are required to have properly calibrated equipment, to ensure that test results are correct and calculate the uncertainty of the entire test. The intent and the expected final result is that testing in any lab should be repeatable and consistent anywhere in the United States and theoretically the world.

Up until this time laboratory accreditation was not required and consumers of fall protection products relied solely on the scrupulous nature of the manufacturers and their testing practices. Similar to any industry, there are fall protection manufacturers that are very responsible and there are some that are not. Having performed and witnessed hundreds, if not thousands, of tests on all families of fall protection equipment, it was always surprising to find “life-saving” fall protection products that carried the ANSI marking but did not meet the standard it was said to conform to.

This failure to meet testing specifications occurs more often than one would expect. In most cases, the failure would not indicate an imminent life-threatening concern, as there was more than enough strength in the component from an engineering standpoint. The failure could be caused by a number of factors: poor qualification testing on the manufacturer’s part or a change in the product that no one thought would affect the strength or test equipment that was not properly calibrated or set up. It is always difficult to determine the root of an issue when no one wants to take accountability for, admit there is a problem, or be unable to trace the testing history of a product.

What does the new standard mean to the end user? If you are an end user of fall protection equipment it means that there will now be a standard that all manufacturers can be measured against and a method to verify and prove that the equipment being purchased has been properly tested. It provides the user with a level of confidence that, if a manufacturer has used the ANSI number on their equipment, they have used an ISO-17025 accredited lab for testing, as required, and there is verification that the equipment has met the applicable standard and not just the word of the manufacturer. End users are encouraged to ask manufacturers for documentation of the testing, which the manufacturer will have to provide. Although the fall protection industry has always been a buyer-beware market, the new testing standard will help to even the playing field and make the purchasing experience a little less confusing. End users can be confident knowing that the equipment they are using has been tested in an environment where the results of the testing are accurate and can be verified.

What does the new standard mean for the testing laboratories? Test laboratories will have to meet more stringent levels of knowledge, procedures, documentation, test equipment calibration, uncertainty measurements, test weight conformity, etc., the list goes on and on from there. Proficiency testing procedures have to be implemented at the test laboratories so that repeatability in test results can be verified, which will help to ensure that results are similar no matter which laboratory performs the testing. Presently, it is very common that two labs have different results for the exact same tests on a product. Which lab is correct? Are they both wrong? There is no way to tell unless they both have to meet the same basic operating requirements. Until ASSE/ANSI Z359.7 is implemented, there is no way that we can be sure and both labs will attest that their results are correct.

Without the commitment to ensure repeatable results, no matter what laboratory is performing the testing, we can never be absolutely sure that the basic premise we are using to develop and test fall protection equipment is correct. The new standard will help to foster a culture within the fall protection equipment testing laboratories which will allow them to provide information to the manufacturers so that they may create safer and more reliable equipment.

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