Safety Harness Trauma
Inside the Outdoors, October 24
, 2014

As many hunters embark to new heights hoping to spot deer from treestands, there is more to keep in mind than just the platform on which one will be elevated. Wearing a safety harness and knowing exactly how to use it in case one falls should be of utmost concern.

There are two from which to choose. First, is the front-attached work harness similar to an Alpine, climbing or an Arborist sit harness, and second, the rear-attached safety harness that is used in construction and hunting from treestands. The second will be the one to be discussed today. Used improperly, the results could be fatal. It is imperative that hunters who hunt and utilize this equipment read the following information.

First of all, “What happens when one falls from his stand and finds himself suspended thanks to the strapped-on harness he is wearing? How long can he remain there?” may be two questions.

“A rear-attached safety harness commonly used in construction and by treestand hunters is not intended to provide long term suspension,” stated Norman Wood, DO, in a study he published in 2012. “Its sole purpose is to provide a fall stop and then one must remove himself from the harness as soon as possible. When suspended in a rear-attached harness, there is direct pressured placed on the femoral vein and nerves from the leg straps, and the legs hanging in a vertical position allowing for an increase of the gravitational pull on the blood,” he said.

Yes, one will be happy he wore a harness instead of falling, preventing bodily injury or even death. But there is one thing he may have overlooked. If not rescued immediately, Suspension Trauma may set in.

What occurs is this. “While suspended in a safety harness,” Wood said, “the leg straps cause a tourniquet effect on the femoral vein and pressure on it, causing blood to pool in the lower extremities, and considerable discomfort and pain. The venous return from the legs has very little pressure behind it, approximately one-fifth of the arterial pressure going into the legs. During ambulation, the normal venous pressure in the feet can be increased in just a few minutes due to gravitational pull on the blood and immobility.”

Continuing, he stated, “To assist the body in movement of blood against gravity, the venous return from the legs has one-way valves to help the transfer of blood back to the heart. To provide the pressure needed to overcome the gravitational pull on the blood, active leg muscle contractions must be used…which force the blood through the one-way valves back to the heart. Unfortunately, while suspended in a harness, the ‘muscle pumps’ of the legs may be inadequate to overcome the compressive forces…,” he stated. Thus the Suspension Trauma takes place resulting in injury, confusion, physical and emotional exhaustion, pain, hypoglycemia, muscle failure due to hypoxia and aesthesia of legs, progressing to the point of unconsciousness.”

Wood pointed out that the Suspension Trauma can happen so suddenly that “the suspended victim may have little opportunity to respond in an effective manner. One of the earliest symptoms is cognitive impairment or confusion which makes the suspended victim much less likely to be able to assist in his own self rescue.”

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration requires that a suspended worker be rescued “As quickly as possible, presumably within 10 minutes.” Latrobe’s Amel Langford of Langford Chiropractic recommends six minutes. He concurred with Wood’s conclusions that if left suspended without rescue, a hunter could be dead in 30 minutes.

Wood made reference to the Second International Conference of Mountain Rescue Doctors in 1972. From this report, it was disclosed that in Austria “10 climbers had become suspended and had to be rescued. Some were using foot loops for suspension relief straps. The rescues took anywhere from 30 minutes to eight hours.” All died.

Wood recommends that if one is going to use a full body harness while hunting on a treestand, always have available a suspension relief strap on it. It will take the pressure off the femoral vein. “Always keep it on your body…and deploy it immediately if recovery back to a standing position is not possible. Do Not Wait!!! If one has not already recovered to a standing position in 30 seconds, one will probably not be able to, he said.”

Here are some tips Wood recommended:

  • Tell someone one’s destination;
  • After dangling from one’s stand, immediately lower oneself to the ground. Suspension Trauma can cause one to lose consciousness in less than 30 minutes and death will follow unconsciousness;
  • After standing, loosen leg straps;
  • Get help as soon as possible
  • Stay in a seated position for at least 45 minutes;
  • And last, go to a hospital.

Log onto www.elevated for additional information.

- Paul J. Volkmann
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