A lot of fall protection training mentions or highlights the term
"suspension trauma". I find a good number of field personnel
and safety directors have misconceptions about the hazard; many
jobsites are not properly prepared for post fall procedures.
Suspension trauma is a natural reaction which occurs when the
body is held in an upright position following a fall. The worker
is saved through the use of the PFAS, but continues to hang in
the harness, suspended off of the ground.
Once a worker falls and begins hanging in the air, gravity pulls
blood into the tissues of the legs and the heart cannot retrieve
it back. If enough blood pools in the legs and is not able to
circulate through the body, the worker will faint due to lack
of blood in the brain.
The situation is exacerbated if the worker becomes unconscious
and continues to hang in the harness. The movement of the legs
is key for blood circulating back through the heart. The natural
reaction when a person faints is to fall over. This allows the
blood to start pumping through the body again, staving off any
further circulation issues. However, if an unconscious worker
continues to hang in an upright position, the brain receives no
oxygen and begins to die.
The time frame it takes to cause a fatality from suspension trauma
is dependent greatly on the particular circumstances and the individual
involved in the fall. The time line can be anywhere from 10 minutes
to over an hour. In short, there is no way to know how long you
have until it's too late.
How do you prevent suspension trauma? You must make every effort
to get to the suspended worker and proceed with the rescue efforts.
It is key to make sure your company and jobsites have detailed
rescue plans in place. Rescue protocol is a big part of the ANSI
standards adopted in 2007. Simply calling and waiting for emergency
services to respond, is a poor plan.
Sometimes quick rescue is not easy or not possible. In these situations,
it's a good idea that each worker has the ability to "self
rescue" or at the very least keep blood flowing to avoid
blood pooling. This can be done easily with "trauma relief"
straps or "steps" that can be worn at all times by a
worker. In the event of a fall, the worker can use the strap to
"step in" and keep the legs moving. However, when dealing
with any safety hazard, products are not a substitute for proper
training and planning.