For professional users of height safety equipment, PPE Lifespan can seem like a bit of a minefield. Recreational climbers, abseilers, and cavers are blessed with simply being able to follow the recommendations of equipment manufacturers. The added complexity of Legislation, Standards, Codes of Practice, and individual Company Policies and Site Rules is a lot to consider when using your height safety PPE. So, is it time to break up with your gear, or does it have a few more years left in it?
Surprisingly often we are asked how long a rope, harness, carabiner or helmet is "good for". What this question fails to consider is how the equipment will be used. Many rope manufacturers recommend a maximum lifespan of 10 years for their ropes, but you would be hard pressed to find a rope that will still pass an inspection if used every day for 10 years. Equipment inspection is an important process in using PPE, in the same way that a Pilot will conduct pre flight checks in an aeroplane. When considering that PPE is used to control or mitigate a risk, there's no point in using it if its not going to function correctly.
Every reputable PPE manufacturer recommends that PPE is inspected before each use. Further to that, a detailed, documented inspection should be carried out every 6 months. Why? You'd be surprised at what can be missed. Hairline cracks in carabiners, chemical affected slings, sharp edges on pulley sheaves - we've seen it all while providing equipment inspection services to clients.
Inspected your gear and it all looks OK? Carabiners, Descenders, Rigging Plates and other PPE made from Steel and Aluminium generally has a theoretically "indefinite" lifespan - they only need to be retired if damaged, broken, or no longer fit for use. On the other hand, soft goods like ropes, harnesses, slings and webbing have a maximum lifespan irrespective of how often they are used, or how worn they are. This is because the bonds that hold these plastics, fabrics and fibres together break down over time. Even if you only use a rope once a year for 10 years, the rope will still have a reduced breaking strength after those 10 years as the bonds in the rope material weaken. Equipment manufacturers have different advice about lifespan based on their own manufacturing processes, what sort of work the equipment is designed for, and how they expect the equipment to be used. Refer to the small paper booklet that came with your equipment (you didn't throw it out did you?), or the manufacturers website for your specific piece of gear.
When considering the added complexity of complying with Legislation, Standards, and Codes of Practice, it is important to remember that there are a lot of things that will reduce the lifespan of your PPE, but not much that will increase it. As an example, Rock Empire allows for 5 years of storage of their Open Work Sling, prior to a maximum 10 year life in service (providing a maximum of 15 years lifespan from date of manufacture). If legislation, or a Standard or Code of Practice that you work to requires a 10 year lifespan for sewn webbing slings however, you must consider an Open Work Sling to have a maximum lifespan of 10 years from the date of manufacture. In short, consider the MINIMUM lifespan for each piece of equipment allowed by the Equipment Manufacturer, as well as by any Legislation, Standards, or Codes of Practice that you are bound by.
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