A harness, belt or saddle, depending on where the climber hangs their hardhat or helmet, is an intimate part of every working day, often spending a lot more time in contact with the user’s body than anything else in their life.
While many folks spend a fair amount of time, energy and bandwidth deciding which harness to “upgrade” to next, there are quite a few more who just go with the best bargain available or what their bud likes. Cost will always be a factor in harness selection, or gear selection in general for that matter, particularly given the wages available in most small tree care operations, but it’s shortsighted in the extreme to make it the only factor when deciding which new saddle to strap on.
Safety and security are obviously part and parcel of a good harness, but a climber’s speed and efficiency can also be greatly affected by it, so the initial savings of a bargain harness may actually cost a climber real money in the long run.
Our climbing ancestors had their harness with them as long as they had a climbing line, tying one out of the end of the line, and they would no doubt chuckle at the modern-day conveniences. However, the reality is that a poorly fitting or uncomfortable harness not only takes a toll on the climber’s energy every day, but also chronic illnesses/damage over the course of their career, leading to some pretty noticeable “hitches in their giddyups” later in life. A little information and knowledge about harnesses and their applications will not only help climbers make better informed choices, but also safer and more efficient ones in the appropriate use of harnesses.
There are four basic types of industrial harnesses, which is technically what the tree industry is using: fall restraint, fall arrest, work positioning and suspension. Many tree industry specific harnesses will have elements of each one.
Fall restraint — This system is meant to prevent the user from getting into a position where they can get hurt or, in tree work, fall. It is pretty limited in tree work and would most commonly be seen in the use of a body belt with the appropriate lanyard in an aerial lift or device. The right length lanyard used with a fall-restraint harness is the key component, as it is what prevents the user from getting to a spot where a fall could occur. Personal experience has shown that using a longer lanyard with a fall-restraint harness or body belt is not good, and if a fall happens it will result in unpleasant memories and at least a fair amount of soft tissue unpleasantness.
Fall arrest — This system is supposed to stop a fall, as well as lessen the forces and possible injuries that the “fallee” experiences. In tree care, these types of systems are most often called full-body harnesses and are often used in aerial lifts, though some can also be used for climbing.
Harnesses with beefy suspenders may look like full-body or fall-arrest harnesses, but users should check out the specifications, as they may just be intended to provide more support for big saws and gear hanging from the waist.
A true fall-arrest system will have a dorsal attachment point, roughly between the wearer’s shoulder blades. This attachment point is used with a deceleration lanyard to provide the force decreasing capability. These lanyards have an additional bundle of material sewn into them that is intended to separate under specific forces, thereby slowing down and decreasing the force of the fall. This deceleration works with the full-body nature of the fall-arrest harness, which tries to spread out the force of the fall over the wearer’s body as much as possible, instead of focusing it on one or two possibly more vulnerable points like other harnesses. The whole system doesn’t work if a user takes a “shortcut” and uses the wrong lanyard or hooks the right lanyard to the wrong attachment point.
As mentioned before, there are specific fall-arrest harnesses meant for both climbing and lift use, but most of the basic ones that come with a bucket truck are not this type and should not be used for climbing operations.
Work positioning — A work-positioning system gives the climber exactly what it says: the ability to position themselves safely and correctly to carry out the needed work, preventing a fall while keeping the hands free.
Side attachment points or D-rings are a good example of work positioning. These are used with a lanyard around the trunk or limbs of the tree to get in a secure position to make a cut, tie off a piece or any number of operations aloft. D-rings are meant to be used with the lanyard going from one side to the other around the trunk or the branch; reattaching to the same side can lead to some Cirque de Soleil looking positions should the climber slip, not to mention the possibility of injury.
Suspension — This is the one that is probably most familiar to climbing arborists, and the one most often used in ascending, descending and working in the tree. Its purpose is to sort of cradle the climber in an upright, slightly seated position while tied in above. When set up properly, it can also allow stable work positioning with both hands free.
Almost all tree work harnesses are going to have components of both work positioning and suspension, though some will also have fall-arrest capability. It is up to the climber to decide which systems work best for their work needs and make sure the harness chosen is designed for those uses.
Most of the harnesses described above are available with different leg position options, particularly in tree industry specific harnesses. This choice is going to be very user specific, and the best way to determine which one feels best is to “hang” in the options prior to putting any money down.
The two most likely options are a sit harness or a leg strap harness.
A sit harness supports the user’s rear with a flat batten, almost like a swing; although straps to secure the legs are often part of it, the primary support is the flat batten. A harness of this type that doesn’t have a stiffener is going to push the legs and hips inward, leading to long uncomfortable days for most users.
A leg strap harness has individual loops for both legs, which means the weight is distributed between the two. This can allow for greater freedom of movement than a sit harness, but if poorly adjusted, or so “economical” it cannot be adjusted, this type of harness can qualify as an implement of torture. Climbers should think about their most common jobs when choosing. A lot of “hanging” work, such as cabling or crane, might mean a sit harness, while a lot of movement, such as pruning, might mean a leg strap.
There is no shortage of attachment options for suspension available to climbers, but they can roughly be divided into two kinds: sliding or fixed. A lot of the newer harnesses offer both options on the same saddle or allow the user to switch out options as desired/needed.
While the most basic type of fixed point is a single one in the front and center of the harness, different ones to either side offer options and also spread the weight a little bit. Sliding attachment points typically use some form of rope or strap to allow the attachment setup to “slide” from side to side with movement, making it a bit easier on your back and hips.
As mentioned previously, cost is always part of the equation when buying any piece of new gear, and given the price of a modern harness with all the bells and whistles has to be considered. Just because something is the latest and greatest doesn’t mean it will work for each and every climber, but if part of a new harness’ buzz is adjustability and individual options, it is certainly worth taking a closer look at.
In addition, trying a harness out either through a bud that already has one or at a progressive arborist retailer’s shop will help climbers make these big money decisions. In the end, the climber will be using this piece of gear almost every day for quite some time, bringing the cost down to possibly dollars or even cents a day, and the pain of a poorly researched harness choice will be felt on a daily basis.
Editor’s note: This article was originally published in October 2012 and has been updated.