Well, she may have. You see, I was up an extension ladder preparing to paint some decorative structural beams above our outdoors balcony and she came over and told me how worried she was that I was going to fall and kill myself on my concrete driveway.
She was perfectly justified since she had suffered severe injuries falling from a ladder within the last year. My initial thought was, I’m healthy, I’m not stupid, and I’m careful, so no worries, right? Buts as I respectfully heard her concern, I realized she was right. And I promised her I would go back to my Boy Scouts approach and get prepared to do the job safely with a proper harness. Now, beware that this post is meant to get you to think about what you are doing and how to do it safely. I cannot guarantee your safety under any circumstances, even if you follow this advice exactly. The point of this is to get you to think about what you are doing and how you might do it more safely….
After making this promise to my neighbor, I researched commercial harnesses and I quickly determined that I would spend about $100 on a harness with a deceleration lanyard and another $25 or so for a properly rated rope.
Then I would use it and it would sit stored in my garage forever as I don’t typically have a need to work at elevation. Instead, I chosed to create my own safety harness with some nylon cargo strap webbing, a climbing carbiner and all I would need to buy was $20 worth of rope.
This post is about what I learned and what you should know about fall prevention around your own home…
First, there is a rule of thumb when it comes to ladders… It is referred to at the 4 to 1 rule.
For every 4 fee of elevation you need the foot of the ladder to be 1 foot out of vertical. I was working between 16 and 20 feet so I would have the ladder at about 4 to 5 feet from vertical.
Next, without deceleration lanyard, you can’t afford to fall very far before being stopped. Your speed accelerates from the start of a fall and within 2 to 3 feet, you are already falling at 9 miles per hour. If I were to fall 20 feet, I hit the ground at about 24 miles per hour. Whether you stop at 9 mph or 24 mph, whether it is because you hit the end of a rope, or hit the ground, your speed goes to 0 immediately. At 9 mph, it isn’t fun. At 24 mph, you are going to break something, if you survive.
My point here is that using a harness with a rope you need to always have it near taught. This requires a lot of hitching and re-hitching. So, if you need to do this a lot, just buy the harness and lanyard. This post is for people like me who aren’t going to do that.
OK, so you are going to forgo the professional safety rig? Here is what you need….
1. Rope – you need a rope that has a maximum breaking strength (MBS) rating.
That rating should be at least 10 times your weight because when you are caught in free fall, you go from falling speed to stopped immediately. That is a major acceleration and translates of a force on the rope at multiples of your static weight. I found a good rope at Sportsman’s Warehouse for about $20 with an MBS of about 2400 lbs.
2. Carbiner – you need an actual mountain climbing carbiner rated to support a climber.
And it should have a locking mechanism that prevents it from opening accidentally. You can get one for about $8, but I had one from a backpacking trip some years back.
3. Harness Tape – The nylon web tape that is typically used for inexpensive cargo tie-downs is rated for very significant loads.
You can buy them from Harbor Freight, Home Deport or Lowes for very low cost. I bought two for about $5 each quite a while ago which I repurposed for this project. Keep in mind that if you are connected in multiple locations, your weight is distributed among those connections, so this type of tape works nicely. The MBS of the web material was about 4000 lbs.
4. Support point… I had a very solid beam for my project.
You will have to figure this out on your own. But just make sure that you attached to something strong enough to support the force of a solid fall. I am expecting to do some exterior painting within the next year and I will likely be attaching hitch points to my exposed rafters, probably using two rafter hitches for each position.
Getting in the harness
OK, so here is the harness setup… There are two straps, one will be for the chest portion of the harness and a second will be for a waist portion. In each case, you can create a knot similar to the one you will make in the rope to connect to. For the clarity of the pictures, I sewed loops in place with a sewing machine, but using a “knot in a bight” is perfectly safe (discussed later in “hitching technique”).
Step 1: Chest harness – start with a a piece of strap that is twice the length of my arms with both ends attached to the carbiner in a loop. Step into the loop with the carbiner in front. You will have to watch the video to see this, but you create a loop with each hand and pull each up over your head to the opposite shoulder. Then you pass the point at which they cross on your chest into the carbiner as well.
Step 2: Waist harness – with a strap that is also about twice the length of your armspan (I found that I needed another 3 feet or so – no jokes about my girth :-)… position the middle of the harness behind you as if it were the seat on a child’s swing set. Hold the two free ends in front with one hand while you reach between your legs to pull the middle forward for form a loop between your legs and drop the free ends down inside the loop. Grab the free ands and pull them up to tighten the strap around your upper thighs. Then pass the free ends back behind and around your back to bring the free ends to the front on opposite sides and connect the free ends to the carbiner. Now lean forward and hook the section you earlier pulled forward from between your legs into the
Step 3: Adjusting – Stand up and adjust the harness and make sure that the carbiner is in a good position to attach a rope. You want the latching portion forward and the straps and rope to be connected away from the latching portion. Here is a review of the whole harness setup…
There some important things to know and think about while you are working at elevation with a harness…
1. Don’t forget the 4 to 1 rule so that the ladder is secure while you are on it. You do not want to test your harness. Do not fall. It will be uncomfortable under perfect circumstances and possibly downright painful. So, don’t fall. Got it? OK…
2. Don’t work alone. Have someone there to laugh at you and to call 911 if you get hurt or if you are dangling 20 feet in the air and can’t manage to get down for any reason. I’d tell you to have the observer hold the ladder, but I still don’t quite understand how that is supposed to help. If they do though, they should be definitely wearing a hard hat… just sayin’.
3. There will likely be a short trip up the ladder without protection to attach the rope. I didn’t have this problem because I conveniently had a balcony to drop the rope from, but just be very careful when you do this. You typically can’t avoid all risk of injury but the point is to reduce the risk of injury as much as possible.
4. When ascending the ladder, stop to make a hitch at the height where you think you would no longer feel comfortable jumping from. In knot tying, when a piece of rope loops back on itself to form a loop, that loop is called a bight (pronounced like something you do with your teeth). If you loop the bight back on itself and pass it back through so that the loop now sticks out of the knot that was created, that is called a “knot in a bight”. You can securely attach a harness carbiner to that know in the bight on the rope. Once connected, you must lock the threaded carbiner lock in place and you can continue your ascent.
5. After you have gone up another 2 to 3 rungs, you will want to form another knot in a bight. Once it is made, unthread the carbiner lock, and put the new bight into the carbiner WITH THE PREVIOUS BIGHT!!! At this point, you will have two bights in the carbiner. If you fell at this moment, the first bight would do nothing and the new bight would save you. Carefully shift the new bight on the carbiner out of the way and remove the first bight. Now you must lock the threaded carbiner lock in place and continue your ascent.
6. Repeat this process until you are at working height. Make sure you have the rope on a bight that keeps the rope nearly taught while working. This is the whole reason for everything we’ve done. You want to have protection while you are not focused on climbing up and down the ladder. So make the extra knot in a bight at the ideal spot to keep the rope taught so that if you fall, you are caught immediately.
7. Of course coming down, you will replace the taught bight with the next lower bight on the loose portion of the rope and begine your descend until the rope gets almost taught again. Remember to tighten the lock thread on the carbiner and then continue to descend until the rope is near taught again. The carbine can’t open if it is locked. And it can’t save you if it is allowed to open.
Two things I wan’t to re-emphasize.
– You may feel silly rehitching every two rungs. Tough. Do it. If you go much higher than that, should you fall, it would really hurt because you would be falling too fast when you hit the bight connection on the rope.
– Next, pay close attention when you are changing hitches. You can have one bight in the carbiner. You can have two bights in the carbiner. You might even have occasions to have more, depending on your situation. But under no circumstances do you ever take the only remaining bight off of a carbiner. If you do, you’d better be prepared to jump to the ground!
Ok, so that is about it. Be careful out there ladies and gentlemen