What is Overhead Fall Protection

Learn about the two most effective types of overhead fall arrest protection...rigid rail systems and overhead horizontal lifelines

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Published on: May 28, 2024

The Differences Between Rigid Rail and Overhead Horizontal Lifeline Fall Protection

In the effort to run a profitable company and pay workers their worth, managing “overhead” for a businessperson can be a headache. Rent, utilities, taxes, insurance, office supplies, professional services, travel, and marketing are all necessary, but they put pressure on the budget.  

For the safety manager, “overhead” has particular dread. Workers who perform tasks from overhead are constantly in danger of a slip or fall, which can result in, at worst, an injury—and also equipment damage and a drop in productivity. 

Maintenance workers who access large equipment from above in manufacturing and processing plants, service aircraft, trains, trucks, buses, and other vehicles, load and unload materials from rail cars or flatbed trucks, and handle inventory in warehouses and other establishments need overhead fall protection. 

Two effective types of overhead fall protection are rigid rail systems and overhead horizontal lifelines. Both provide fall arrest protection utilizing an overhead trolley to keep the tie-off point directly overhead but the systems have critical differences that are important to know when selecting the right solution to protection work at height.

If a worker slips, either system will arrest the fall quickly and effectively, with minimal chance of a severe injury. Nevertheless, a rescue plan must be in place to prevent suspension trauma 

The big difference – after a fall. 

The firm structure of a rigid rail system offers a smooth and predictable path for workers, which can instill confidence. They have a reduced fall distance, and the lack of a “pendulum” effect further contributes to a safer working environment. 

An overhead horizontal lifeline offers more flexibility regarding accessibility within the facility and user movement. It is a cable-based system that must have a greater clearance below the walking/working surface because the cable deflects (bends) by design. Shock absorbers on the attaching points ensure the cable does not detach from the structure. However, this may result in greater swing and a pendulum effect during a fall arrest. Users should be trained to navigate and use the system effectively to mitigate these risks. 

Differences in design.  

Rigid rail systems use a solid track (or rail) mounted overhead with a set path for travel. This ensures minimal deflection, which means a shorter fall distance with less swing to reduce the risk of injury and damage to equipment. 

Horizontal lifelines have a flexible cable or line tensioned between anchor points. The system can be adjusted to span various lengths and follow curved or complex paths. It can be used where a rigid rail might not fit due to building constraints. 

Differences in installation flexibility.

Depending on the application and supporting structure, modular rigid rails using pre-engineered components can be used for quick installation. Alternatively, custom engineered and fabricated systems can be designed specifically for the application.

Although fully custom engineered systems will often have a more complex mounting procedure, mounting and set-up is minimally disruptive. Lifting devices are used for both modular and custom systems, any welding is typically done off-site and neither system requires on-site customization. 

Horizontal lifelines can be adapted to unique layouts and structures and typically have site-specific needs. They require careful tensioning and anchoring. Due to the complexity and precision required, a qualified installer should mount and set up the system. 

Differences in maintenance.

Rigid rail systems require minimal maintenance and are less susceptible to environmental degradation. Solid construction and corrosion-resistant components mean less wear and tear with a long, cost-effective service life.

Horizontal lifeline systems may require regular inspections and maintenance to ensure proper tension and integrity of the line. Stainless steel and galvanized steel components are strong, durable, and corrosion-resistant. 

Which solution is best for you?

The specific workplace requirements determine whether a rigid rail or horizontal lifeline system should be installed. Both systems effectively prevent falls and ensure worker safety. Rigid rail offers robust, low-maintenance, and straightforward protection, ideal for environments where space allows for a fixed track. Horizontal lifelines are flexible and adaptable to more complex or constrained workspaces.  

If you have workers who perform work from overhead on vehicles, equipment, or other workstations and are responsible for their safety, contact Flexible Lifeline Systems. We will discuss your needs and concerns about regulatory compliance, visit your site to conduct a safety audit and map out a plan. Our services can include as little or as much as you need, from design, engineering, and fabrication to installation, training, and other support. 


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