A tragic incident in British Columbia last week highlighted a lack of clarity regarding steel-core lanyards, an issue that has repeatedly been a topic of discussion and worry for us.
The climber was dismantling a tree, and was blocking down the stem, climbing with spikes and a steel-core lanyard, as demanded by BC regulations. The inquest is on-going, but what seems to be clear is that when he leaned back to push a block of wood off the stem, his lanyard failed, resulting in the climber falling and sustaining fatal injuries.
Our thoughts go out to his family and friends. Every fatality is one too many!
The suspected reason for the lanyard failing is that the steel-core failed at the base of the swage (see image below) due to continual bending over the sharp corner at the bottom edge of the sleeve of the swage and the resulting fraying. Obviously at this point in time this is all pretty speculative and before any conclusions can be drawn we need to wait for the the results of the investigation of the accident.
Yet the fact remains that a steel-core lanyard failed. Which brings us back to the false sense of security regarding the degree of protection that bombproof products offer: It is made from steel, it is bombproof, no way it can fail!
The truth of the matter is though that any material can be fail when stressed beyond a certain point. In the case of steel wire, constant bending over a tight radius can lead to failure.
So one possible conclusion might be that swaged terminations are less safe than spliced ones – yet I am not so sure. Swages are used in many and diverse applications with a perfectly good track record. I suspect it may rather be down to exactly how the termination is constructed.
The unease regarding steel-core lanyards that I mentioned above concerns a number of aspects in relation to this product, such as what the exact inspection criteria are, what are fail criteria, when does the lanyard need to be taken out of service? As far as I am aware this is not clearly defined anywhere. Is damage to the rope cover enough reason to fail it – or not, as the core is the load-bearing part? Does the part under the cover of the swage need to be inspected regularly – and if so, how? What is the life span… and so the list goes on.
So that is why I say let’s turn the floodlights on these grey areas and replace assumptions and it-has-always-been-done-like-this attitudes with a well-structured approach based on clear comprehension and fact.
A further issue this incident highlighted to me is that of certification. I am aware that for some this seems to be a point of contention and I can just imagine someone reading this rolling his or her eyes, going Oh no, here we go again, the old treemagineers’ mantra of “certification, certification, certification”. Do they never stop? Hell, in fact: Petzl’s Zigzag is certified and look at all the trouble that has been having! I can think of a number of devices that are not certified that are being used with considerably less issues…
To that I say: this is not a question of either or.
Certification creates clarity.
Of course, when a manufacturer tries to incorporate a novel approach into a product to solve a problem or uses innovative production techniques, this can result in problems – this is just one of the risks of manufacturing.
DMM introduced their Dragon Cams (see image above) into the sport climbing world a couple of years ago. This is an intensely competitive market, requiring manufacturers to really think outside of the box in order to gain sales of their product. In the case of the Dragon Cams this was achieved by hot-forging the cams, allowing for cams to be very strong and light at the same time. Not to mention that they look rather stunning. However, the design and manufacturing specifications really meant pushing the envelope and doing something no one had tried before. Shortly after the launch, a number of units developed cracks, leading to DMM issuing a recall of the concerned batches. The issue was subsequently analyzed and resolved.
So no, in and of itself, certification is not a guarantee against issues in manufacturing. But what it does ensure is a framework that picks up on these things, by means, for instance, of a quality control scheme: this is part of the submission to the notified body during the type certification process and defines how the manufacturer intends to guarantee consistent quality throughout the lifespan of the product. This ensures, for instance, that originally high-quality constituent materials cannot be switched for cheaper materials in order to reduce production costs. Obviously such a step has consequences for the strength and resilience of the device – and in a worst case scenario can lead to failure.
It is important for the strengths and weaknesses of PPE items to be thoroughly understood by all parties involved and for their technical specifications to be laid out in clear, transparent terms rather than shrouded in mystery.
How anybody can be opposed to this concept escapes me.
Surely, all stand to profit from it: the end user gains a greater sense of understanding and the information he or she requires to base decisions on, the manufacturer is able to make clear, concise statements regarding their device and the device gains further credibility having passed the defined hurdles demanded by the certification process.
So let’s turn those floodlights on!