For professionals who regularly work at height, the risk of falling is an inherent aspect of work life. That’s why people who work on towers, on construction sites, on platforms and the like typically wear fall protection gear. But fall protection alone may not be enough. In effect, when someone falls, even wearing fall protection, they still need to be rescued from the fall protection gear.
In this series, we look at the OSHA requirement for prompt rescue, the value of self-rescue, and the properties that make for the best self-rescue solutions.
OSHA’s Fall Protection Guideline on Prompt Rescue
For workers at height, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requires the use of fall protection, under standard 1926.502 (Construction Fall Protect Criteria and Practices). One aspect of the fall protection guidelines that is worth noting is described in standard 1926.502(d)(20):
The employer shall provide for prompt rescue of employees in the event of a fall or shall assure that employees are able to rescue themselves.
The implication of this is simple – it is not enough for employers to provide their workers with fall protection equipment. They must also ensure that the worker who does fall, even with fall protection, has the opportunity to be rescued quickly.
It’s easy to understand why you would need to protect workers from falling. Among all construction fields, 34% of all fatalities in 2009 were from falls. Industries from utilities (24% of fatalities) to administrative and waste services (22% of fatalities) also experienced a significant impact (U.S. Department of Labor, 2010). But, why is expediency of rescue or self-rescue after a fall so important as to be called out by OSHA?
Let’s find out…
Fall protection is a standard component of personal safety for workers at height...but it only represents half the equation. Getting workers down after they fall - and FAST - is still an important aspect of ensuring safety.
Danger After the Fall
Fall arrest systems provide protection from the immediate trauma of hitting the ground after a fall. However, a worker hanging from his harness faces serious injury if not rescued swiftly from something called orthostatic intolerance or, more commonly, suspension trauma.
While an individual is immobile, blood that would normally be moved about by muscular contractions can cease moving and pool in the veins. This pooling has a number of effects, including reduced oxygen content in the blood. The immobility associated with suspension in a harness can lead to this condition and, on rare occasions, even to fatalities. This, in a nutshell, is suspension trauma.
How Fast is “Prompt”?
The OSHA requirement for rapid rescue of workers is not specific. It merely states that rescue must be “prompt”. But regardless of regulatory guidelines, we can define “prompt” by virtue of how long it takes for a fallen worker to experience suspension trauma.
As it turns out, it’s probably less time than you think.
Research indicates that suspension in a fall arrest device can result in unconsciousness, followed by death, in less than 30 minutes.
Did you get that? Less than 30 minutes!
So when OSHA says employers need to ensure prompt rescue, they aren’t kidding. You literally have minutes to act.
In our next post in this series, we will look at the benefits of self-rescue in ensuring prompt rescue.