When too little becomes too much of a good thing

Reducing calories and fat content, going light – or, as the PR gurus of the nutrition corporations like to call it, lite – is all the rage. By suggesting health benefits due to reduced intake of this or that they target – and reach – an increasingly large (no pun intended) segment of consumers out there.

One way to achieve this is by using artificial sweeteners, such as Aspartame, Aceslulfame-K, Sucralose or Saccharin. These artificial sweeteners continue to generate a lot of controversy in regards to whether they are safe. The FDA has ruled this to be the case, whilst pressure groups question whether this is really so, as according to some researchers these sweeteners are linked to and may possibly be the cause for a range of conditions as diverse as nausea, headaches, mood problems, impairment of the liver and kidneys, problems with eyesight and possibly cancer… and the list goes on.

Why am I writing this? Well, the issue got me thinking about how you cannot remove something (in this case sugars), without it having an effect.

And where is the link to the world of work at height?

Think about it: Going light is all the rage! I was struck last week at the Outdoor show in Friedrichshafen, how many manufacturers are falling over each other in an attempt to out-light everybody else. If you talk to them about it, they will explain that this is what the market demands. And my response to this is to wonder what the side effects are of taking this going-light philosophy to extremes? Of going über-lite? If I had to make a guess, I would suggest that possibly very adverse side effects to your health could be a consequence.

In recent years one of the main focuses in a market that has become increasingly competitive has been and is on design. A worrying development is that often as not, in this case function follows form, and not the other way round – so that means that primarily the product needs to look good in order to grab the customers attention when it is hanging there on the rack in the climbing shop. Accordingly, manufacturers and brands go to to considerable efforts to make their products look sexy, desirable and different. One of the ways this can be achieved is by extrem profiling of karabiners, shaving off excess grammes and giving them a futuristic look.

Extreme profiling on the nose of a karabiner

From a certification point of view this may work fine, when loaded along the correct axis on the correct diameter pins. But often as not, in the real world, this is not what happens.

It’s worrying to see more and more tools stripped down to the absolute minimum they need in order to pass certification, yet not leaving very much leeway for unusual loading. If you compare modern climbing tools, karabiners, ice tools or rock climbing harnesses to ones from fifteen or twenty years ago, they have changed almost beyond recognition. The main changes being styling and reduction of weight.

Reducing weight is fine if you add in materials with characteristics that allow for the reduction in diameter, as was the case when transitioning from Nylon to Polymid/ Polyester to high-modulus fibres. In this case, the reduced diameter was compensated for by increased performance in the materials used in manufacturing.

When discussing hardware, CAD software allows extremely optimized designs whilst at the same time using less material. Yet in this example, the material, aluminium, has remained the same, it is the design that has been tweaked and modified.

These developments coincide with a number of high profile recalls and product warnings we have seen in recent years. In my opinion this is not a coincidence. Amongst other reasons, due to increased competition from Far Eastern manufacturers, product development has become a much more rapid process, unlike what it used to be like, as manufacturers and brands need to get their product to market as soon as possible. This means less time for validation and gaining a thorough insight into how novel concepts may behave over a longer period of time and under a range of conditions.

This leads me to wonder whether manufacturers are getting the balance right between saving weight and going too light?

Going light may have its place, but not in a workplace such as professional work at height, with all of the wear and tear and knocks and bumps it entails.

Like artificial sweeteners, in moderation optimizing weight may be fine, but if you go too far it may well become a health hazard.