When do I remove rope or a harness from service?
Rope: A non-destructive test that tells how much strength your rope has left does not exist at this time. The decision to retire a rope or to keep it in service relies on good judgment that comes only from experience in working with rope. Inspecting a life safety rope involves visually looking for damage, feeling for damage and checking the rope’s history in the rope log.
Check your rope carefully after each use to make sure there are no cuts, chafed areas, broken fibers, soft or hard spots, glazed surfaces, discolorations, variations in diameter or any other visible damage. If any of the above are noted, the rope should be retired from service.
Inspect a new rope before it is put into service and then after each use. The inspection should be done by an experienced person deemed qualified by the agency/organization. A complete inspection includes both a visual and a tactile inspection.
Visually inspect the sheath to identify chafed areas, glazed surfaces, discoloration or variations in diameter. These areas should receive additional scrutiny during the tactile inspection. Look for areas of abrasion or cuts in the sheath where the core is exposed or enough of the sheath is worn that its ability to protect the core is compromised. The tactile inspection should be done with tension on the rope. Feel for variations in size and soft or hard spots that could indicate damage to the core or rope that has been overstressed. If any of the above are noted, the rope should be retired from service. If the rope has been subjected to shock loads, fall loads or abuse other than normal rappel or rescue training, the rope should be retired from service.
Each rope should be inspected before being used, even if the rope has never been placed in service. Keep ropes away from acids, alkalis, exhaust emissions, rust or other strong chemicals. Do not allow rope to be shock loaded or used over sharp bends.
It is impossible to state when to retire a rope because of the many variations with each rope. If you have any doubts about the integrity of a rope, retire it from service!
For more information on rope inspection, see ASTM F1740-96 Standard Guide for Inspection of Nylon, Polyester, or Nylon/Polyester Blend, or Both Kernmantle Rope.
Harness: The service life of a rescue harness is closely related to that of a life safety rope – both are used in the same environments, both are made from nylon or polyester and both receive similar levels of inspection and care. Since harnesses are worn on the body, they are generally better protected than ropes. On the other hand, harnesses rely on the stitching to hold them together, and due to its small diameter, the thread is more susceptible to abrasion, aging and chemical damage than web or rope.
The fall protection industry recommends two to three years as a service life for a harness or belt in use. They recommend seven years as the shelf life. The military was using seven years as a service life for nylon products. The Climbing Sports Group of the Outdoor Recreation Coalition of America states that a climbing harness should last about two years under normal weekend use. At this time, the rescue industry does not have a recommended service life for harnesses.
Through the ASTM consensus standards process, the rescue industry set 10 years as the maximum service life for a life safety rope (see ASTM Standard F1740-96 Guide for Inspection of Nylon, Polyester, or Nylon/Polyester Blend, or Both Kernmantle Rope). The guide stresses that the most significant contributing factor to the service life of a rope is the history of use. A rope that is shock loaded or otherwise damaged should be retired immediately. Hard use would call for a shorter service life than would be acceptable for a rope that sees very little use.
If we apply the same analysis to the rescue harness, then the actual use and the conclusions drawn from inspection would be the significant criteria for determining retirement. We do know that with any use a rope will age, and thus a harness is likely to do the same, so a 10-year maximum service life may well be appropriate for harnesses, assuming inspection has not provided any reason for earlier retirement.
As with life safety ropes, if the harness has been subjected to shock loads, fall loads or abuse other than normal use, the harness should be retired from service. If there is any doubt about the serviceability of the harness for any reason, it should be retired from service.