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Fall-arrest systems can put workers at risk for suspension trauma

For construction workers, fall-arrest systems are vital for workplace safety. These harnesses are designed to save workers' lives during falls - and they do just that on countless occasions.

But the risk of severe injury or death doesn't end there. In some cases, workers can develop orthostatic intolerance, commonly known as suspension trauma. This condition can quickly develop if a worker is suspended too long in the safety harness before being rescued. In these situations, it is important to act quickly and follow established rescue procedures.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) describes suspension trauma as "the development of symptoms such as light-headedness, poor concentration, palpitations, tremulousness, fatigue, nausea, dizziness, headache, sweating, weakness and occasionally fainting during upright standing." This type of sustained immobility can lead to unconsciousness, organ failure and eventually death. This is due to "venous pooling," or the accumulation of blood, occurring in the legs.

It is important to have proper rescue procedures in place at every worksite - and for construction workers to be trained in them. OSHA suggests the following as a starting point:

  • Rescue suspended workers as soon as possible, as suspension trauma can occur in less than 30 minutes.
  • Monitor the suspended worker for signs and symptoms of suspension trauma.
  • If workers cannot be rescued immediately, they should "pump" their legs to increase blood circulation and prevent venous pooling.
  • Once workers are rescued, make sure they receive standard trauma resuscitation and first aid. If they are unconscious, keep their air passages open.
  • After the rescue, make sure workers are examined by a health care professional or hospitalized to monitor for delayed symptoms, such as kidney failure.

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