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Markland staff tries out new fall protection gear

Published April 29, 2015
John Cavenaugh, maintenance mechanic, practices using relief steps installed on his harness. The relief steps prevent suspension trauma after a fall.

John Cavenaugh, maintenance mechanic, practices using relief steps installed on his harness. The relief steps prevent suspension trauma after a fall.

Did you know that after surviving a fall you could die while hanging in your body harness after just seven minutes while waiting to be rescued?

On April 1, workers at Markland Locks and Dam, Warsaw, Kentucky, who use fall protection gear for their job took time out to train on a new piece of equipment that alleviates the effects of a little-known condition called “suspension trauma” or “orthostatic shock while suspended.”

When people fall, they are suspended in the fall protection harness and all their body weight presses against the webbing. They remain vertical and sedentary constricting the venous flow causing blood to pool in the veins of their legs. Restricted blood flow to the brain and other organs causes the orthostatic shock or pre-fainting condition. Most describe the feeling as lightheadedness, muscular weakness and blurred vision.

After about five minutes, the brain recognizes the blood pooling and as a last resort it decides the only way to survive is shut the body down. It causes fainting, at which point the body slumps over in the harness. Now, the person is at extreme risk for organ damage and eventually death. Death can occur in as little as 7-40 minutes.

It is hard to believe that someone would survive the initial fall with no injuries but suffer serious organ damage or death from the gear that just saved his or her life.

The good news is that the new USACE Safety and Health Manual, EM 385-1-1, Section 21.I.06 (3), now requires all full body harnesses be equipped with suspension trauma preventers such as stirrups or relief steps to provide short-term relief from the effects of orthostatic tolerance. USACE employees should not use any fall protection gear without suspension trauma preventers installed on their harnesses.

During a recent safety assistance visit to Markland Locks and Dam, Mark Ostbloom, Louisville District safety specialist, reviewed Markland’s fall protection program and equipment. They had just purchased relief steps and had not had an opportunity to put them into use. Ostbloom recommended to Gary Birge, lockmaster, that they take some time to do fall protection training in a controlled environment. They could safely practice tasks such as adjusting body harnesses, getting the feel of hanging in the harness and practicing deploying, adjusting and standing in the new relief steps. Being suspended in a harness is not as easy or fun as it may look.

The next day Birge organized his team and spent some worthwhile time putting their fall protection gear into use on the side of Markland’s operations building. All five of the team members spent time practicing their fall protection skills in a controlled environment that was only six inches off the ground but simulated the exact same conditions one would encounter 100 feet in the air. Birge’s maintenance team includes Allen Craigmyle, maintenance mechanic leader; and Shawn Riley, John Cavanaugh and Bill Meeks, maintenance mechanics.

“We all agreed that (the harness relief step training) was very beneficial,” said Birge. “It really drives home the importance of harness adjustment, relief step placement and how to adjust them in a controlled environment, before you really need them.”

All fall protection body harnesses should be equipped with suspension trauma preventers. It is up to each project to determine which type of straps works best for them. The project’s Competent Person for Fall Protection should install and inspect the straps, conduct academic and practical training with workers in accordance with manufacturer’s guidance. In addition, projects should review and update their fall protection rescue plan.