Fall protection, including a fall protection harness, can be a lifesaver if other, higher-controls fail and a worker falls while working from heights.
But while it seems that having a fall protection harness arrest your fall is nothing but good, there’s a not-so-obvious hazard that many people aren’t aware of: fall protection harness suspension syndrome. And it can lead to pretty rapid death (even after the harness might have just saved your life by stopping your fall). Harness suspension syndrome is known by some other names as well, including harness suspension trauma, simply suspension trauma, or orthostatic intolerance.
We’ll explain more in the short article below, which includes a nice video illustration from our Fall Prevention & Protection training course.
Fall Protection Harnesses & Harness Suspension Trauma
If a person has been suspended from a fall protection harness for too long (and by “too long” we really don’t mean a lot of time), the harness can cut off brain flow to parts of the body. In particular, blood flow to the person’s head may be significantly reduced and, as you probably guessed that’s not too good for the brain or for life itself. Death from suspension trauma is sometimes known as “harness-induced pathology.”
In some cases, suspension trauma can occur after only 2-3 minutes. In others, it may take 15-20 minutes. In still other cases, a person may be suspended from a harness for an hour or more without experiencing suspension trauma. So the take away is it’s unpredictable, variable, and can happen very quickly.
The best thing you can do is to avoid this. If there is a fall, and if someone is suspended from a fall protection harness, get him or her out of the harness and down to safety as quickly as possible.
Symptoms of Suspension Trauma/Syndrome
It’s helpful to know the symptoms a person may begin to manifest as he or she approaches suspension trauma. These include:
- Hot flashes
- Increased heart rate
- Low heart rate
- Low blood pressure
- A “graying” of vision or loss of vision
Factors that Contribute to Suspension Trauma
We’ve mentioned that suspension trauma is variable–it affects some people and not others; it occurs quickly sometimes and less quickly other times; and it may affect one person in one circumstance but not the next. The following factors contribute to the onset of suspension trauma:
- Injuries during the fall
- An inability to move the legs while in the harness
- Cardiovascular disease
- Respiratory disorder
- Blood loss
OSHA’s Recommendations for Suspension Trauma
Here’s what OSHA recommends:
- Know that a worker suspended from a fall protection harness is at risk of suspension trauma/syndrome
- Get the suspended worker out of the harness/suspension as soon as possible
- Know the signs and symptoms
- Know that this can lead to death
- Know the facts that can increase the risk of suspension trauma
A Video Illustration of Harness Suspension Syndrome
The video clip below from our Fall Prevention & Protection training course offers additional tips, including the importance of having an emergency action plan and knowing how to provide first aid to stimulate blood flow in the event of harness suspension syndrome.
Learn more about suspension syndrome at this OSHA Safety and Health Information Bulletin.
Don’t forget to download our free Fall Prevention Toolbox Talk Checklist before you go!
Free Download–Fall Prevention Toolbox Talk Checklist
Download this free checklist to help lead toolbox talks on fall prevention, including ladder safety, scaffolding safety, and roofing work safety.