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What happens to you when you fall ... and don't hit the ground?

Falls from heights are among the most common causes of serious injuries on construction sites. Unfortunately, many construction workers aren't provided with, or choose not to wear, their fall protection PPE. But did you know that you can be injured even if the PPE works perfectly?

What we're talking about is the situation in which the worker is wearing a full fall-arrest system. When he or she slips off a roof, scaffolding or another high area on a work site, the fall-arrest system kicks into gear and keeps the worker from plummeting to the ground.

In the shock and relief of a fall stopped by protective equipment, many construction workers may think the danger is over. It is not. The person in that harness is still at serious risk for unconsciousness or even death. The reason is orthostatic intolerance, also known as suspension trauma.

Wearing fall protection is crucial to prevent serious injuries such as head trauma, spinal cord injury and death, but these harnesses pose a serious risk on their own.

Suspension trauma can be fatal in 30 minutes or less

The problem is that the person in the harness is being held fully immobile. Without the ability to move their large muscles, "venous pooling" begins to occur right away. Blood pools in the lowest-hanging area, usually the legs, reducing circulation overall.

The body's response to venous pooling is to speed up the heart rate in an effort to maintain blood flow to the brain. However, against gravity and without the assistance of the large muscles, that effort will be futile. Next, the body will attempt to abruptly slow down the heart rate, decreasing blood pressure. This phenomenon can cause symptoms including:

  • Light-headedness
  • Tremulousness, nausea and dizziness
  • Fatigue/ weakness
  • Headache
  • Heart palpitations
  • Sweating
  • Fainting
  • Kidney failure, which can be fatal

If a person is left in a fall-arrest harness for 30 minutes, they risk death. As a boss or co-worker, you can be prepared by learning how fall protection PPE is properly fitted and worn, the signs and symptoms of suspension trauma, and the appropriate ways to minimize the risk and rescue the injured person.

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