The Pacific Northwest is an interesting place.  Recently, some Greenpeace activists suspended themselves from the St. John's Bridge in Portland, Oregon.  They were trying to prevent a Shell Oil icebreaker from leaving port.  Many joined the protest on kayaks and on land, and many more came to watch the spectacle.  I took the family down to the river for a different reason.  I think it's likely I was the only one there with a unique concern.

I wanted to know HOW they were suspended from the bridge.  Orthostatic intolerance, commonly known as suspension trauma, is an important but often overlooked hazard of working at heights.  This hazard can be deadly if not addressed.

What is Suspension Trauma?

As a military veteran, I am quite familiar with orthostatic intolerance.  They seem to take joy in having sailors and soldiers stand for very long periods of time at attention or parade rest.  OSHA actually defines orthostatic intolerance as:

"the development of symptoms such as light-headedness, palpitations, tremulousness, poor concentration, fatigue, nausea, dizziness, headache, sweating, weakness and occasionally fainting during upright standing."

When a worker is suspended in a harness, a similar effect may occur when the harness causes blood to accumulate in the legs.  Symptoms of suspension trauma include:

  • Faintness
  • Nausea
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Paleness
  • High heart rate
  • Low blood pressure
  • Graying or loss of vision
  • Sweating

How to Protect Yourself from Suspension Trauma

  • Have a rescue plan to retrieve fallen employees as soon as possible.
  • Train employees about the hazards and signs of suspension trauma
  • Pump your legs frequently to prevent venous pooling.
  • Use fall arrest harnesses with suspension straps.
  • Get a platform to the victim, or someway to take the weight off the legs.


So were the protesters aware of suspension trauma?  Let's take a look at a few setups:

The setup on this is not ideal for suspension trauma.  She is not just suspended in a harness, but is in a prolonged sitting position.  She's going to need to be able to cycle her legs and take the weight off her legs and bottom to keep good blood flow going.

 This setup is much better.  He is seated on a platform, and can adjust his weight, move his legs, and shift around to maintain good blood flow.

Suspension Trauma References

OSHA Suspension Trauma Safety and Health Bulletin

Fall protectionSuspension trauma

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