Fall protection systems may prevent a serious injury or fatality. However, if a worker wearing fall protection gear falls and is suspended in a static upright position for an extended period of time, too much blood can accumulate in the veins and blood flow cannot normalize. According to OSHA, both the force of gravity and the lack of movement may lead to orthostatic intolerance – also known as suspension trauma.
OSHA states that a worker who is approaching suspension trauma may experience faintness, breathlessness, nausea, hot flashes, an increased heart rate, dizziness, sweating, paleness, an unusually low heart rate, unusually low blood pressure or loss of vision.
Suspension trauma can be exacerbated by other circumstances related to the fall. For instance, shock or the psychological state of the worker may increase the onset and severity of the pooling of the blood. According to OSHA, these factors also may affect the degree of risk of suspension trauma:
- Inability to move
- Injuries sustained during the fall
- Fit of the harness
- Environmental conditions
- Cardiovascular or respiratory disease
- Blood loss
Workers who fall must be promptly rescued. A person suspended in a fall arrest device can become unconscious and die in less than 30 minutes if the brain, kidneys and other organs become deprived of oxygen. If self-rescue is not possible, or a suspended worker cannot be rescued immediately, the worker should pump his or her legs frequently to maintain blood flow and prevent pooling, and – if possible – use footholds to alleviate pressure and delay symptoms until he or she is rescued. Medical treatment should be sought immediately.