Emergency Preparedness and Response

Post-Fall Rescue: Have a Plan and Be Ready to Act Fast

An employee who falls from a height wearing personal fall protection may be saved from instant death or terrible injury. But that employee is still at risk until rescued. Here’s what our Safety Training Tips editor advises that you do to be ready to act quickly.

Be aware of the hazards. An employee who falls from a height wearing personal fall protection may be saved from instant death or terrible injury. But that employee is still at risk until he or she is rescued.

That’s because prolonged suspension in an upright position can be a serious hazard to health. Unless the worker is rescued promptly, says OSHA, venous pooling and orthostatic intolerance could result—and that could mean a serious or fatal injury. When a person is suspended for too long in an upright position, the brain, kidneys, and other organs are deprived of oxygen. In addition, injuries suffered during the fall or the shock resulting from the experience of the fall can increase the onset and severity of venous pooling and orthostatic intolerance, as can factors such as fatigue, dehydration, hypothermia, cardiovascular disease, respiratory disease, and blood loss.

Understand OSHA requirements. In 29 CFR 1926.502, OSHA requires employers to provide for “prompt” rescue of employees in the event of a fall. 

What’s “prompt”? OSHA points to research indicating that suspension in a fall arrest device can result in unconsciousness followed by death in less than 30 minutes. An Air Force study shows that volunteers suspended in harnesses experienced adverse health effects in as little as 12 to 15 minutes. Some safety experts say damage can be done in as little as 5 or 6 minutes.

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Have a plan. One thing OSHA and all safety experts agree on is that, in order to make successful post-fall rescues, you have to have a well-organized and fully implemented rescue plan. The rescue plan is an essential part of your overall fall protection program. 

OSHA encourages development of a rescue plan that can help prevent prolonged suspension, can identify symptoms of orthostatic intolerance, and can ensure prompt rescue and emergency medical treatment. Without a practical and well-practiced rescue plan, the likelihood of making successful rescues is not good. Remember, when an accident happens, you have only minutes to respond and rescue the fallen worker. That doesn’t leave even a second for trying to figure out what to do. You only have time for action, based on a carefully developed and immediately operational rescue plan.

Be prepared to monitor fall victims during the rescue. OSHA recommends continuous monitoring of fall victims to check for signs and symptoms of venous pooling and orthostatic intolerance. Symptoms include faintness, nausea, breathlessness, dizziness, sweating, low heart rate and low blood pressure, paleness, and loss of vision.

Care must be taken when rescuing someone exhibiting symptoms not to move the worker into a horizontal position too quickly, which could cause a large volume of low-oxygen blood to move rapidly to the heart and lead to a heart attack. Safety experts recommend that while awaiting rescue, suspended workers keep their legs moving to keep their blood moving and avoid venous pooling, thereby reducing the risk of heart attack when rescued.

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Have reliable rescue capability. OSHA recommends either an in-house rescue team or a reliable rescue service qualified to perform high-angle rescues.

An in-house rescue team should have a minimum of six members and be trained by competent and experienced rescue trainers. Teams must be properly equipped to perform all types of rescues even under extreme conditions. The other option is to contract with a rescue service such as the local fire department. If you’re located in a large metropolitan area, your fire department might be well prepared and equipped to handle high-angle rescues. But if you’re in a suburban or rural area, the chances of finding a qualified rescue service may not be so good. In that case, you’ll have to train and equip your own team—and make sure they get plenty of practice conducting simulated rescues before they have to handle the real thing. 

Why It Matters…

• OSHA fall protection regulations require you to be prepared for a prompt and successful rescue in the event an employee falls. 
• Unless a suspended employee is rescued quickly, the worker could suffer serious or fatal injuries. 
• You might have as little as 15 minutes before adverse health effects begin.
• Without a rescue plan and without trained, equipped, and well-practiced rescuers, the chances of making a successful rescue are severely impaired.