Workplace Solutions Construction safety Facility safety Fall protection

Choosing a fall arrest system

What are the advantages and disadvantages of overhead rigid rail systems compared with those of overhead cable-based systems?


Responding is Kevin Kelpe, continuing education manager for Diversified Fall Protection, Westlake, OH.

Applying the Hierarchy of Controls is the best way to address fall hazards. The first – and most effective – step is to eliminate the possibility of a fall whenever possible. After that, the next best option is installing passive fall protection or work restraints.

If we can’t eliminate hazards or use passive systems, and an active system is required, we should consider a travel restraint system that prevents users from reaching hazards entirely. Of course, some work requirements expose users to falls as a necessity and, in these cases, an active fall arrest system is required.

If you determine that you need a fall arrest system, overhead rigid rail systems and overhead cable-based systems are two available options. However, both types of systems have their pros and cons to consider before making a final decision. We’ve compared cable-based systems with rigid rail systems on seven key attributes:

1. Fall clearance
Overhead cable-based systems must be designed to account for additional fall clearance. The cable used in these systems is flexible and deflects (sags) when a load is applied. This additional fall clearance can be several feet.
Advantage: Overhead rigid rail systems

2. After a fall
After a fall, overhead cable systems must be taken out of service and recertified by a qualified person before re-use. This process is timely, decreases productivity and can cost thousands of dollars. Overhead rigid rail systems can be back in service quickly after an inspection by a qualified person to determine that the system is working correctly.
Advantage: Overhead rigid rail systems

3. Cost of installation
Overhead rigid rail systems require the installation of beams and posts, which carry a higher initial cost than cable-based systems.
Advantage: Overhead cable-based systems

4. Ongoing maintenance
Overhead rigid rail systems last decades and require little maintenance. In contrast, overhead cable-based systems sustain more wear and tear and require ongoing maintenance and component replacement.
Advantage: Overhead rigid rail systems

5. System configuration
You can configure cable-based systems in many different layouts, including around corners. Although rigid rail systems aren’t as flexible as cable-based systems, they’re still customizable, and newer technologies are improving their ability to turn corners easily.
Advantage: Draw

6. Number of users
Rigid rail systems can accommodate multiple users, while cable-based systems are generally limited to two to three users, based on the system design.
Advantage: Overhead rigid rail systems

7. Functionality
Cable systems require intermediate supporting connections, creating a hang-up as the user moves along the system. Although traveler and intermediate bracket designs that significantly reduce this hang-up are available, it’s still annoying to most users. Rigid rail systems eliminate the need for intermediate brackets and provide continuous mobility throughout the system.
Advantage: Overhead rigid rail systems

Final verdict
Both overhead rigid rail systems and cable-based fall arrest systems are OSHA-compliant, but rigid rail systems are the clear winner.

Editor's note: This article represents the independent views of the author and should not be construed as a National Safety Council endorsement.

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