Workplace Solutions Fall protection

Suspension trauma prevention

What are the best methods for avoiding suspension trauma after a fall?

Responding is Anne Osbourn, industrial and utilities marketing manager, MSA, Cranberry Township, PA.

Working at height presents many potential hazards, and while most users of fall arrest personal protective equipment are confident their equipment will arrest a fall, there are further risks to be considered.

Medical experts caution that prolonged suspension within a full-body harness after a fall event is associated with a serious health risk known as orthostatic intolerance, or suspension trauma.

According to OSHA, orthostatic intolerance due to sustained immobility may be experienced by a worker when suspended in a fall-arrest system after a fall. Depending on the individual’s health, dizziness, weakness, sweating and fainting, venous pooling (blood accumulation in the veins) may occur.

Suspension trauma can commence within a few minutes of a fall, especially if the worker is unconscious while suspended within a full-body harness. Although not common, orthostatic intolerance may even lead to death.

It is therefore essential that employers have rescue plans in place, as well as means to retrieve fallen workers quickly after an accidental fall has been arrested. OSHA regulations (29 CFR 1926.502(d)(20) require prompt rescue in the event of an accidental fall. ANSI Z359.2-2007 Fall Protection Code recommends that contact be made with a fallen worker within six minutes after a fall event.

While rapid rescue is imperative, the onset of orthostatic intolerance can be delayed or prevented through use of several safety methods. These methods can include either a simple prevention device that workers can carry as part of a personal fall arrest system, or a more advanced means of integrated self-rescue.

Suspension trauma relief steps

This easy-to-use accessory relieves pressure caused by harness leg straps by providing users with a foothold to stand up and flex leg muscles necessary to increase circulation and blood flow. Manufacturers provide these products in convenient pouches that can be used with fall-arrest harnesses, and are easily deployed in the event of a fall. These types of products only delay or prevent suspension trauma.

Integrated self-rescue harness system

For performing self-rescue that lowers the worker to the ground, manufacturers may offer an integrated self-rescue device with a full-body harness. This technology allows for controlled descent to the ground for users after a fall. This rescue device is contained within a small backpack attached to a full-body harness, and is designed to be used in conjunction with a fall protection system or anchor point.

Editor's note: This article represents the independent views of the author and should not be construed as a National Safety Council endorsement.

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