Although it’s a very serious issue, we often make light of the fact that OSHA’s guidance on fall protection rescue is that a fallen worker should be rescued “promptly.” And, when pushed for a more specific definition of promptly, OSHA responded with, “quickly enough to avoid injury.”
Because the guidance is so limited, our clients often ask us, “How long can someone safely suspend in a harness?”
I recently read a research study that provides new information on this subject and the body’s reaction to hanging in a harness. The article, “Risks and Management of Prolonged Suspension in an Alpine Harness,” (Robert B. Mortimer, MD) was written for Wilderness and Environmental Medicine and obviously focused on sporting-related activities. However, the results provide three important points that pertain to occupational fall protection rescue.
- Passive hanging in a harness can lead to unconsciousness in a matter of minutes. For me, this reinforces the importance of making contact with a fallen worker within six minutes, as required in the ANSI Z359.2 standard. By doing this, you can better understand the cause of the fall, the status of the worker’s health, and the first aid steps that need to be set in motion.
- An occupational full-body harness (with attachments in the back) delays suspension trauma, but does not prevent it. This research confirms that a full-body harness minimizes the effects of suspension trauma for most people. This is in line with LJB’s recommendations against body belts and chest harnesses, which we have promoted for decades.
- The risk of “rescue death” has been challenged, debunking the idea of keeping a rescued victim upright. Due to a series of deaths after rescue, some sources have recommended keeping rescued workers upright or in a squatted position for 30 minutes prior to laying them down. This article’s author suggests that those who died after rescue, died despite being rescued, not because of it. The research suggests that laying a person down as soon as possible is important to restore flow of oxygenated blood. As Dr. Mortimor reports in the article, “Keeping a suspension survivor upright will simply worsen muscle damage and worsen shock in a patient already in shock.”
Rescue is one of the most overlooked aspects of fall protection. But, as this research reminds us, the risk of injury or death from suspension trauma is very real. I encourage you to learn more about this topic and to make sure your fall protection procedures always include a plan for rescue.