I once had a conversation with a safety manager that ended with, “I’m sorry, but I have to cut our call short. One of our managers just fell off a railcar.” Imagine falling 15 feet to the ground below. The very thought brings to mind images of debilitating injuries and possibly death. Fortunately, fixed horizontal railcar fall protection systems can prevent these types of incidents.

railcar fall protection system

Fall Protection Systems

Fixed horizontal railcar fall protection systems can be rigid or flexible. Flexible systems use a pliable horizontal lifeline, such as steel cable or synthetic rope, secured at each end by an anchorage. A rigid system utilizes a solid structure such as a pipe, channel, or I-beam to provide continual anchorage. Both rigid and flexible systems require the worker to connect the dorsal D-ring of their body harness to a self-retracting lifeline (SRL) attached to the system. Once attached, they can safely access and traverse the top of a car or string of cars.

SRLs come in a variety of lengths. A carabiner connects the SRL to the sliding connection on the horizontal system. An SRL has an automatic retraction system, similar to the seatbelt in a vehicle. SRLs are spring-loaded to prevent the build-up of slack. During a fall, impact, or load the internal braking mechanism of the SRL will lock. This happens when the lifeline retracts at a speed of four and a half feet per second. The braking mechanism remains locked until the tension is released.

Preventing Injuries

Workers cannot only be injured falling from a car but also when climbing railcar ladders or stepping onto cars. Therefore, workers should connect to the SRL prior to climbing the car’s ladder or stepping onto the car from a platform or gangway. While on top of cars, workers are encouraged to use the “tug and walk” technique. This requires the worker to grab the SRL’s cable just above the snap hook and give it a firm tug to engage the braking system. Once engaged, the worker can travel along the top of the car while maintaining their balance and keeping the overhead connection above the head to eliminate swing fall hazards. To minimize swing fall hazards, workers should never walk more than five feet from the overhead connection.

Inspections and Best Practices

It is important to routinely inspect the components of the railcar fall protection system. A competent person should inspect each SRL and system components at least annually. Workers must inspect both the body harness and SRL before and during the work shift. Harnesses must be checked for mildew, damage, and deterioration. The SRL must be inspected for proper retraction and braking, cracks or distorted parts, damage to the lifeline, proper operation of the snap hook and load indicator activation. SRL units are equipped with load or impact indicators. Many load indicators are located at the swivel part of the snap hook. The swivel eye will elongate and expose a red indicator when exposed to the forces associated with a fall. When a load shocks an SRL, it must be taken out of service and returned to the manufacturer for repair and recertification.

The SRL lifeline should be fully retracted when not in use. Workers must avoid attaching the snap hook to handrails or other attachment points. Storing the unit in this manner can cause the retraction springs to fatigue. Tag lines can be used to allow the unit to fully retract into the housing and to retrieve the snap hook for accessing the ladder, platform, or gangway.


Fixed horizontal railcar fall protection systems aren’t cheap, but they are well worth the investment. If you have a system at your facility, make sure to inspect the system and components routinely and make sure that employees understand the system’s purpose, components, the tug and walk technique, as well as the importance of inspecting their harness and the SRL. Remember, safety doesn’t have to be difficult, simple steps can prevent injuries and save lives.

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Joe Mlynek is a partner and subject matter expert at Safety Made Simple, LLC. He has over 25 years of experience in safety at the corporate level and as a consultant. He is a Certified Safety Professional (CSP) and Occupational Safety and Health Technician (OHST). Joe can be reached at [email protected]