Much of what we do as rescuers involves sitting in harness, either in a confined space rescue scenario or on a structure several feet in the air. Your employees may also likely be in a harness at some point while on the job site. With today’s newer harnesses, many may find them surprisingly comfortable, which could be very deceiving. Dangling in a harness for an extended period of time could be deadly for your workers. Understanding the concept of Suspension Trauma is crucial to saving lives.
Issue 56 of the Nylon Highway publication contains an article first published by my friend Roger Mortimer, MD, titled Risks and Management of Prolonged Suspension in an Alpine Harness. This was first published in Wilderness & Environmental Medicine, 22, 77–86 (2011), along with the illustration below.
While there is some new data over the past year, this older review is still considered good for most audiences and we recommend reading it. For a more recent review of the subject, watch the video recording of Dr. Mortimer’s presentation at the 2012 National Cave Rescue Commission (NCRC) Seminar.
This is a rather long video at almost one hour, but well worth the time, as Dr. Mortimer is a subject matter expert on suspension syndrome.
Dr. Mortimer’s study and the new study to be published later in 2020 focuses on an alpine style seat harness or front attachment at the waist. Obviously, someone hanging in a fall arrest style harness or a harness using the dorsal connection will experience something different than what these studies reveal, but the concepts are similar.
Safety harnesses save many lives and injuries. However, continual vigilance is needed to train and supervise workers to ensure harnesses are used safely. Workers and emergency response personnel must be trained to recognize the risks of suspension trauma. The best advice for victims, if physically able to move, is to “peddle your feet” so that moving the legs gets blood flowing. Understanding that your harness could harm you is the core of saving a life, including yours.