Anyone working at height is putting themselves at odds with gravity. No matter how many protective measures are put in place, falling is always a possibility and needs to be taken seriously.

That's why it's so surprising and unfortunate that most employers don't make rescue procedures a part of their fall protection plans. Or, if they do, it's often only two or three sentences long, generic, and the resources needed for its execution are not included in the job planning.

Many employers still treat any kind of failure as something rare that doesn't always need to be planned for. In reality, our work plans are rarely executed as perfectly as we hoped them to be and every worker is always one step away from an accident. That's not because they work for negligent employers or because their workplace safety procedures were designed carelessly; it's because all the factors needed for an accident are already present in the workplace and are often an inherent part of the work. After all, there's no way to do work at height from the ground.

My point isn't to be pessimistic. It's simply that we need to acknowledge the fact that falls will happen and that the wisest thing we can do is create a contingency plan we can act on when a worker falls.

Fall Protection Systems Don't Eliminate the Need for a Fall Rescue Plan

Part of the problem is that some employers believe that a fall protection system will stop a fall and everything will be fine.

They're right on one point: the fall protection system will stop the fall if it is used properly. But stopping the fall doesn't mean no further interventions are required.

There are a few things that can still go wrong once the fall is arrested.

Fall-Related Injuries

Workers who fall while using fall protection equipment can still suffer injuries from the fall and require medical attention. They can only get that medical attention, however, once they've been rescued from the fall. And, obviously, the more serious the injuries, the more important it is to have a rescue plan in place to ensure a speedy and safe retrieval of the fallen worker.

Suspension Trauma

When workers are left suspended in their harness for a long period of time, their blood will begin to pool in the lower half of their bodies, especially the legs.

This is known as suspension trauma, and it's caused by the harness straps creating pressure points that prevent the blood from flowing. This is further aggravated by gravity, which will allow the blood to go down but will stop it from coming back up.

The problem with blood pooling to the legs is that not enough of it makes its way to the brain. This creates an oxygen deficit to the brain, which will cause the suspended employee to become unconscious in a matter of minutes. After five to 15 minutes, suspension trauma can cause irreversible damage to the brain, and after 30 minutes, it can be fatal (learn more about Suspension Trauma: The Danger of Fall Arrest Systems).

Panic and Distress

Even in the absence of injury, suspended workers might panic if they are not rescued quickly. The relief and elation that comes when a fallen worker just realizes that their fall arrest system prevented them from hitting the ground is often quickly replaced by a high level of panic and distress when they realize that there is no rescue plan in place and that they might be, quite literally, left hanging.

Other Hazards

Other hazards may be present and pose additional risks to the fallen worker. They might be suspended very close to a high-voltage line, for instance, or the weather may be very cold and they might suffer from frostbite unless rescued quickly.

Given these risks, it's obvious that every fall protection plan should have clear rescue procedures designed to safety extract fallen employees.

Fallen Workers Need to Be Rescued Quickly

Given everything that can happen to a worker after they've fallen, speed is an important consideration when rescuing fallen workers. But just how quick does the rescue need to be?

OSHA regulations only stipulate that employers must provide prompt rescue in the event of the fall. Unfortunately, they don't define what they consider prompt.

ANSI Z359.2 (2017) Minimum Requirements for a Comprehensive Fall Protection Program is a bit clearer on the matter. It also calls for a prompt rescue, but encourages at least verbal contact with the victim within six minutes of the fall.

Given the quick onset of suspension trauma, a rescue plan that allows five to ten minutes to perform a rescue is adequate. Some safety professionals recommend a 30-minute time frame, but considering how severe the outcomes could be for the fallen worker, you should design a system that can be deployed sooner than this.

Decide Who Should Perform the Rescue

You should ensure that workers can be rescued quickly, but who should perform the rescue?

There are a few options, so let's briefly look at the pros and cons of each.

Self-Rescue

Self-rescue means that a fallen worker is able to use their fall protection equipment to rescue themselves.

In theory, this is the ideal solution, since it cuts down the response time. The worker already has the fall protection equipment and rescue devices, knows the scenario and the hazards, and can directly proceed to ascend the two or three feet they have fallen or lower themselves to the ground (find out How to Inspect Your Fall Harness When Working Alone).

That sounds great, but it doesn't take into account the possibility that the employee might lose consciousness or be seriously injured and incapable of operating the rescue equipment.

For these reasons alone, self-rescue should only be considered in conjunction with an assisted rescue plan.

Emergency Services

Calling 9-1-1 is a convenient way to delegate your rescue operation. And if you work in an urban center or very close to an emergency response facility, it might do the job.

For most workplaces, however, relying on emergency services is simply no quick enough. The 9-1-1 dispatcher probably won't be able to dispatch and organize a team on site within your five- to ten-minute window.

Moreover, once they arrive at the site, the rescue team might discover that they don't have the equipment or even the right training for the situation they are confronted with.

In remote locations, you also need to consider that your phone coverage may be spotty, which will limit your access to these services.

Third-Party Services

Specialized third-party teams can develop and execute a plan in case of an emergency.

They are probably better trained at fall rescue than your workers ever will be. But because you will seldom use their services, the cost per rescue can end up being quite high.

Your Team

Unless your employees working at heights are lone workers, they will have others working at their side. Training your workers to assist each other in the event of a fall can give you a response time that's just as fast as a self-assisted rescue.

Another advantage is that the other employee present know the hazards on site, the fall protection plan, and the rescue procedure. Sure, they might not have the same level of training as a third-party specialized team, but they should still be able to respond efficiently.

Making Fall Rescue a Part of Your Fall Protection Plan

OSHA makes it clear that employers should develop a fall protection plan for each job site where employees might fall from heights. Every fall protection plan should include provisions for the rescue of a fallen worker. While individual plans will differ, they should all contain the following elements:

  • What rescue system will be employed
  • Location and capacity of anchors (if needed)
  • Equipment needed to perform the rescue
  • How to connect the fallen worker with the system (attachments on the harness)

The rescue system you will use depends strictly on the nature of the emergency and the resources already available on site. A good rule of thumb is that, given equal levels of efficiency, you should go with the simplest one. People don't perform well under pressure, so a complicated plan has greater chances of failing. So, before enlisting the help of a helicopter, consider whether it would not be easier to get to the fallen employee with a ladder, an aerial work platform already available on site, or maybe a retrieval or lowering system incorporated into the fall protection system.

Test Your Rescue Plan Before You Need It

Last but not least, a rescue plan needs to be tested.

You need to train your employees on how to execute a rescue specifically for the type of work they perform. During these drills, you will have the opportunity to discover potential deficiencies in your rescue plan and address them. That way, you won't have to discover your blind spots during a real-life scenario.

A fall is not a matter of "if" but "when." Having a rescue plan that works is not something you can hope for, but something you need to rely on.