Most people today understand that when working at heights they must wear a fall arrest harness.

They know that if they go over the edge, the harness will arrest their fall and save them from the near certain death of hitting the ground. What they don’t consider, however, is what happens next.

Failing to plan for how to quickly rescue a person suspended in a harness can be lethal. Did you know that death from suspension can occur in less than 15 minutes?

Suspension trauma or orthostatic intolerance is defined as “a natural human reaction to being upright and immobile, where a complex combination of blood pooling in the legs and cardio respiratory restriction leads to unconsciousness,” according to Dynamic Rescue Systems’ blog.

The most commonly seen form of this is soldiers fainting during parade. Whenever the body is kept in a vertical position with no or little movement for more than a couple of minutes, the blood begins to pool in the legs. This can then cause a person to faint in less than three minutes. As long as they have not sustained any injuries from the fall, once horizontal they will quickly regain consciousness.

However if the person is kept in an upright position as they would be while suspended in a harness, they can die within as little as five minutes after becoming unconscious.

As the blood pools in the legs, the heart begins to beat faster in an attempt to provide more blood to the brain. As less and less blood is returned to the heart, blood pressure quickly drops and the heart slows. Death is now only minutes away.

This is exactly what occurred to an electrician who was lowered into a pit to work on an electrical board situated on the wall. He was suspended in a harness while working. He became unconscious within five minutes. Unfortunately, his work colleagues did not realise this, and after 15 minutes, they pulled a dead body from the pit.

Rescue after a fall

Even a short fall of only 500 millimetres will cause tremendous force to be exerted back through the body. This will no doubt cause the person to go into shock. Therefore it is imperative that the victim be rescued as quickly as possible.

Managing the Risk of Falls at Workplaces Code of Practice 2011 states that the person should be rescued in less than five minutes. Section 80 of the Work Health and Safety Regulation 2011 requires that the owner of a fall arrest system “must establish emergency procedures, including rescue procedures, in relation to the use of the system”. (Section 80(2))

Section 3 goes on to state, “The person [system owner] must ensure that the emergency procedures are tested so that they are effective.”

The rescue plan and equipment must be tested in a real life scenario.

Section 4 requires that the workers using the system must also be adequately trained so that in the event of a fall all personnel are well drilled in how to safely conduct the rescue. Section 4 states that “The person [system owner] must provide relevant workers with suitable and adequate information, training and instruction in relation to the emergency procedures.”

It is not just a “good idea” or “best practice” to have a rescue plan for a fall arrest system and training for those involved in how to use the rescue equipment. It is a legal requirement. In the panic of seeing a fellow worker fall and then hang over the edge of a building time will go very quickly. Only well drilled and trained workers will be able to bring the victim to the ground safely in less than five minutes. The consequences of a rescue taking too long are deadly.

Click here to learn more about your legal duties in regards to rescue.