December 11, 2018

Fall Limiter vs. Self-Retracting Lifeline: What’s the Difference?

Fall Limiter vs. Self-Retracting Lifeline

When deciding between a fall limiter vs. a self-retracting lifeline (SRL), there are a few things to keep in mind.

A simple self-retracting lifeline definition is a fall safety device with a spring loaded line or cable that connects to a worker’s safety harness and activates in the event of a fall to arrest the fall (stop the person mid fall).

An SRL is larger in size and has a greater length than a personal fall limiter. The cables can reach up to 100 ft in length. An SRL is typically installed above the worker.

A personal fall limiter is a subtype of an SRL. It has a much shorter working length, usually not more than 8 feet. They are smaller in size and allow for more worker mobility. Unlike the SRL, the PRL is body-mounted and connects directly to the safety harness on the worker’s back.

Fall Safety System Overview

Fall protection is a key element of workplace safety on industrial job sites.

A complete personal fall arrest system consists of a full-body harness, an anchor point, and a device that connects the two together.

During a fall, it is this connecting device that actually takes most of the fall force. For that reason, choosing the appropriate device and using it properly is critical when ensuring safety.

Shock-absorbing lanyards have long been the go-to device for personal fall protection. However, new and innovative products are beginning to nudge lanyards out of use in some workplaces .

Since their development only just a few years ago, personal fall limiters and self-retracting lifelines have become viable, convenient alternatives to lanyards that can also provide greater safety for the user, depending on the conditions of the workplace and the fall clearance required.

To understand the difference between these various personal fall protection devices, let’s take a look at each individually.


Shock-absorbing lanyards, sometimes known as fall protection yoyos, are the traditional mode of fall protection.

However, while cheaper than personal fall limiters, lanyards often do not activate until up to 6 feet of free-fall distance. One point to consider when weighing up SRLs vs. lanyards is that self-retracting lifelines and fall limiters begin to decelerate the fall within inches and can achieve complete fall arrest in under 2 feet.

This remarkably quick fall deceleration and brake activation means that fall limiters reduce risks of the user hitting the ground or any lower-level obstructions upon descent. When necessary, they also allow for users to be rescued more easily.

Additionally, a shock-absorbing lanyard has a fixed anchor point and therefore a more limited working radius. If a worker needs to move outside of that radius, they will need to disconnect from their anchor point and reconnect elsewhere.

Conversely, workers using some retractable systems can cover a larger work radius. Given the increased mobility and ease of use, it’s easy to see why many are choosing fall limiters over lanyards despite the higher cost.


A self-retracting lifeline, or SRL, is a vertical line used as part of a fall protection system.

Functioning somewhat like a seatbelt in a car, an SRL responds to tension by quickly engaging an internal braking system that can stop a free fall within inches while also limiting physical impact on the user. When tension is released, the line can then be easily retracted.

An SRL is composed of a plastic or metal casing that contains a toothed braking mechanism, the drum for the line and the line itself, and a motor spring which maintains tension on the line when it is being fed out.

During a fall, the line (typically steel or some form of synthetic cable) is engaged by the braking system which is a toothed mechanism. The teeth of the braking system then slow the fall.

To protect the user from the force of a fall, the SRL hooks onto a full-body harness which distributes the impact to prevent or limit injury. A friction control mechanism provides a smoother, less jerky stop.

Given the quick arrest distance of an SRL, the key is to limit fall forces to very low levels in order to minimize the risk of injury. Additionally, the use of an SRL is only ideal under conditions that pose the risk of very quick freefalls. Falls at lower speeds over shorter distances – for example, off a sloped surface like a rooftop – may not engage the mechanism in time to prevent injury.


A personal fall limiter (PFL) is a smaller type of SRL that typically only weighs 1 or 2 pounds and has a working length of 6-9 feet.

The braking mechanism operates very similarly to an SRL, but is designed specifically to arrest shorter fall distances. However, don’t let its small size fool you – most PFLs can accommodate up to 400 pounds of weight including the user’s tools.

Most PFL models include a swivel mechanism or rotating attachment point that prevents the cable from twisting when deployed. This makes it an especially convenient choice in work conditions that require the user to move in a radius rather than at one fixed point.

Additionally, a PFL retracts when not in use. This makes it easy to tell it apart from a lanyard and therefore minimize risk of choosing the wrong fall protection equipment.

The retractable capability also minimizes risks of tripping on the job site. Furthermore, while the traditionally used lanyard can take up to 6 feet of distance in a fall before activating, the braking system in a PFL can stop a fall in mere inches while also offering a much more compact, lighter weight casing.


As mentioned, both SRLs and PFLs are designed and operate very similarly. They are often discussed in terms of fall limiter vs. self-retracting lifeline, even though a PFL is actually a type of SRL.

However, there are several key distinctives between them that should be considered carefully.

  1. SRLs are more durable.
  2. SRLs offer longer lengths. While a PFL has a working length of 6-9 feet, an SRL offers a minimum length of 9 feet and a maximum of 175 feet, depending on the model.
  3. A typical SRL is mounted at the anchor point, but the lighter-weight PFL attaches to the D-ring on the back of a user’s harness.
  4. A PFL offers a swivel attachment that allows the user to work in a radius, whereas an SRL is attached to a fixed point.

In summary, PFLs are ideal in conditions that require less fall clearance, like the average rooftop.

Their lightweight design provides easier mobility, and the retracting line prevents the hazard of tripping on a busy job site. The more durable heavy-duty SRLs, however, are best suited for greater fall clearance and higher weights.

When it comes to choosing a fall protection system, there are key considerations to weigh before making a decision.

Whichever fall protection system you choose, the proper use and care of each device is critical. Always check the manufacturer’s instructions and follow appropriate maintenance of your fall protection system to continue ensuring safety on your job site.

The right solution depends on the nature of the work and the unique conditions of the work environment. We hope this article has helped you compare and contrast fall limiters vs. self-retracting lifelines to make the right decision for you.

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