Imagine you are the supervisor of a construction site, and one of your newest employees is wearing a fall arrest harness while moving roofing materials on top of a building. Unable to clearly see equipment lying on the roof in front of him, he trips, falls off the roof, and is suspended in the air by the harness.

The harness has stopped the worker’s fall, but immediate rescue is critical. Being suspended can cause suspension trauma, which could result in serious injury. Death can occur in as little as 10-to-15 minutes.

Fall protection harness with foot straps. Photo courtesy of Honeywell Safety Products.

Suspension trauma includes these symptoms:

  • Losing consciousness within three to five minutes.
  • Dizziness, nausea, paleness, or narrowing of vision.

Does your employee know what to do next? Do his coworkers know how to rescue him?

What your employees need to know when using a fall arrest harness

If you are suspended in a fall arrest harness, you need to be rescued immediately. But, there are some things you can do to keep your blood circulating while your coworkers rescue you.

  • Deploy the foot straps.
  • Once deployed, push feet against the foot straps.
  • Pump legs to activate the muscles – this keeps blood circulating.
  • Push off against the building, if it’s nearby. As the worker swings away from the building, he will eventually swing back toward it, and can push off again.
  • If foot straps are not available, the suspended worker should continuously pump his legs and push off the building.

What your employees need to do to initiate a rescue

You should have a plan specific to the challenges of each job site. You will need to hold a fall protection planning meeting before you start work at any specific location.

Flexible safety ladder

When a fall occurs, call 9-1-1 right away. One person does this, while the other workers immediately begin rescue procedures according to your fall protection plan.

Rescue must be quick to prevent the suspended worker from losing consciousness. Maintain regular communication and encourage him to continue moving his legs. Find out if he is experiencing any symptoms such as faintness, dizziness, nausea, paleness, or narrowing of vision.

Depending on the height of the building, you can use stepladders as long as they extend from the ground to the roof of the building. If someone falls and is suspended in the harness, co-workers can move the ladder to a position where the worker can access it and make their way to safety. For taller buildings, an aerial lift can be used to retrieve a worker. You can also mount a flexible safety ladder to the top of the building and throw it to a suspended worker, who can then grab hold of it and climb to safety.

After completing the rescue, follow these steps until emergency crews arrive:

  • Stay with your injured colleague and keep him in a seated position with legs out in front.
  • Do not lay him flat in a horizontal position.
  • Keep him calm and quiet.
  • If the worker is unconscious, keep his air passages open.
  • Follow any instructions given by the 9-1-1 operator.

What to cover at your safety meeting

Talk to your employees about suspension trauma, and address any concerns they might have about working from heights:

  • Do they know how to recognize the symptoms of suspension trauma?
  • Do they understand how the harness is supposed to fit?
  • Do they know how to adjust the harness for the particular job to minimize the fall height and the swing?
  • Do they know how to deploy the foot straps?
  • Do they know how to use the stepladder or safety ladder?
  • Do they understand your rescue plan?
  • If you have an aerial lift on site, do your employees know how to use it?
  • Have you practiced your rescue plan?

Reinforce that time is of the essence and how regular movement and use of the foot straps can provide more time for the rescue operation. You might also consider holding a safety demonstration at your worksite and practice your emergency response plan.

When working at heights, employees are at a greater risk for serious or fatal injury. The additional steps you take to prepare for a fall can literally be the difference between life and death.

Investing in a quality harness and the foot straps along with the time to conduct safety demonstrations, makes a statement to your employees that you are serious about their safety.


RESOURCES Preventing Suspension Trauma
Cal/OSHA: Personal Fall Arrest Systems, Personal Fall Restraint Systems and Positioning Devices
OSHA: Suspension Trauma/Suspensión Trauma

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The above evaluations and/or recommendations are for general guidance only and should not be relied upon for medical advice or legal compliance purposes. They are based solely on the information provided to us and relate only to those conditions specifically discussed. We do not make any warranty, expressed or implied, that your workplace is safe or healthful or that it complies with all laws, regulations or standards.

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