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Why Construction Workers Should Know About Suspension Trauma

 Even seasoned roofers or construction workers can misstep and lose their footing when working above ground.  Falling can spell disaster.  Wearing a fall-arrest device or safety harness may prevent death from a fall, but it carries risks as well.  Hanging from the harness waiting to be rescued can lead to a condition called "orthostatic intolerance", or "suspension trauma."

Depending on the length of time the worker is suspended, blood can pool (called "venous pooling"), resulting in reduced blood flow and circulation problems. When that happens, the heart starts to beat faster to provide more blood to the brain. Blood pressure may drop and fainting can occur. Being immobilized in a fall-arrest device for more than 30 minutes can lead to severe trauma, kidney failure and even death. 

What Does Suspension Trauma Look Like?

Warning symptoms of suspension trauma include:

  • Faintness or breathlessness
  • Nausea or dizziness
  • Profuse sweating
  • Low heart rate or accelerated heart rate
  • Low blood pressure
  • Paleness
  • Hot flashes
  • Loss of vision

Without prompt rescue, a suspended worker can face serious damage to the brain, kidneys, or other organs that have been deprived of oxygen, according to the U.S. Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Some of the health risks associated with suspension trauma include:

  • Kidney or other organ failure
  • Leg injuries
  • Brain injury
  • Fatigue
  • Dehydration
  • Hypothermia
  • Shock
  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Respiratory disease
  • Blood loss
  • Death

Workers injured in a construction accident may be entitled to sue and be compensated for pain and suffering, future medical costs and lost wages. Failing to provide the proper safety equipment and lack of training may increase the employer's liability. 

Training Is Important

It's critical that employers provide safety training to prevent worker falls. This training should include instructions on wearing and fitting a safety harness, and the urgency of rescuing a worker that has fallen. OSHA recommendations include training on how to provide continuous monitoring of the suspended worker for signs of trauma, first aid procedures, and how to keep the worker's air passages open. In addition, OSHA says it's critical to have the victim assessed by a medical profession as some health issues aren't readily visible.

Specifically, OSHA recommends employers train workers in several areas:

  • The urgent need to rescue suspended workers as quickly as possible
  • Awareness that suspended workers are at risk of orthostatic intolerance and suspension trauma
  • Awareness of signs and symptoms of orthostatic intolerance
  • Awareness that suspension trauma is potentially life-threatening.
  • Awareness of factors that can increase the risk of suspension trauma, such as head trauma

Injured workers may be able to take legal action after an accident if employers haven't properly instructed them on use of a fall-arrest device or rescue procedures. Even workers that have been saved by the safety harness may experience after-effects of suspension trauma and be eligible for compensation.

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