Don't know your PPEs from CEN? Climbing Equipment Standards explained.
Almost all climbing hardware comes under the European Personal Protective Equipment Directive (PPE). This applies to equipment carried on the person which protects against falls from a height. To be allowed to sell an item of PPE in Europe a manufacturer must go to an independent ‘Approved Body’ and have their equipment tested against the appropriate standard and their quality control verified. Once approval is given the equipment can carry the CE mark and go on sale.
Pre 1995 the international standards to which much equipment was manufactured were those drafted by the UIAA Safety Commission. Manufacturers could choose whether to manufacture to the UIAA standard and if so they were awarded a UIAA label. Since 1995 there is no such choice, manufacturers are required by law to meet the appropriate standard and in the case of climbing equipment these are the EN standards drafted by CEN working group 5. Much of the active input into working group 5 comes from members of the UIAA safety commission and as a result the EN standards are largely based on the old UIAA standards but with considerable revision and updating. Since the publication of the EN standards the UIAA Safety Commission has redefined its own standards to be based on the EN standard with a few additional requirements.
Although the PPE directive came into force in 1995 work on the EN standards has progresses at somewhat variable pace. Most of the Standards have now been completed and published but a few are still being worked on. The chart below shows the progress to date of each standard.
Q Does the PPE directive stifle invention. What of useful items that do not come under an existing standard or would not meet the requirements of a standard, such as RURPs?
In practise the PPE directive is surprisingly sympathetic toward innovation. For example, RURPs are very useful to the climber but do not meet the strength test in the standards for Chock and Pitons respectively. To get round this they are now described as progressive (i.e. to be used for aid) and not protective equipment. This makes it clear they are not designed to protect against falls from a height and so they do not come under the PPE directive. For items where no appropriate standard exists then the manufacturer is free to write a new standard and present this to the ‘Approved body’ to receive the CE mark. In this case as long as the standard is appropriate to the intended use and quality control is up to scratch then a CE stamp will be given.
Q How does PPE apply to equipment manufactured outside Europe?
If equipment is classified as PPE it must go for approval at an ‘Approved Body’. If it meets the appropriate European standard and if the companies quality control is in order then it can be sold in Europe.
Q With the CN working groups?
now producing the legally required standards has the UIAA’s standards role become superseded? UIAA standards are still the international benchmark, and many non European countries manufacture to the UIAA standard. This now matches and sometime exceeds the European standard. In addition the UIAA safety commission is constantly reviewing standards, which the CN working group cannot do, and modifying its standards if necessary. It is envisaged that this process will then feed into CEN standards work as they are updated. Because UIAA standards can be modified relatively quickly this means that UIAA standards will be the most up to date.
Q I thought standards are meant to ensure equipment is safe but how come some gear still breaks in normal climbing situations?
Climbing equipment standards are written to minimise the risk of failure whilst keeping the equipment usable. The consequences of a failure are also taken into account. In the case of ropes a failure is likely to have fatal consequences and so the standard demands a high level of safety. As a result a rope has never broken in use (they have always failed by abrasion or cutting). In the case of snapgate karabiners a failure is less likely to have fatal consequences and climbers want lightweight karabiners. Because of this the standard allows an open are strength of 7kN. This makes open gate failure very unlikely but not impossible. The EIP sees a couple of such failures each year but fortunately such incidents rarely have injuries associated with them.
Q I’m told that PPE requires me to retire my equipment after a certain time, is this true? NO. The PPE directive requires that manufacturers of equipment ‘subject to ageing’ include with their product information advice to the user on when to retire equipment. In response most manufacturers took the obvious step of giving a lifetime, typically in the form of “ x years of average use and in any case not more than y years regardless of use”. The figures x and y tend to be very conservative, as the manufacturers quite understandably have to be 100% sure that the item will not have degraded significantly after y years. In practise the figures are not terribly helpful.
In use any items lifetime is entirely dependant on the pattern of use (or misuse). The decision on when to retire equipment should be made on the basis of an equipment log, regular checks and a knowledge of how various uses will degrade the equipment. If equipment has been stored unused then things become complicated, an individual can make a free choice to use equipment for as long as they have confidence in it but a centre will have to have a clear cut argument if equipment is to be used after being stored for y years.
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