Hunting Safety Full-body Harnesses
JERROLD J. SCHARNINGHAUSEN, Ph.D.
Workplace Safety Division
Directorate of Assessments and Prevention
U.S. Army Combat Readiness Center
Fort Rucker, Alabama
Most tree stand accidents involve falls from heights. One of the consistent top 10 OSHA violations is lack of fall protection. What do these two things have in common? Falls at work or during recreational activities can be easily prevented by following a few safety rules.
One of the major innovations developed over the past several years to prevent tree stand injury is the full body harness (FBH). The concept was borrowed from the construction industry, where it has been very effective at preventing injuries and death. An FBH is not the same thing as a safety belt. An FBH fits snugly, allowing freedom of movement so it is not in your way when shooting.
Safety belts were developed decades earlier. While they did prevent impacts with the ground, they caused other medical problems. Studies examining falls that occurred using a safety belt indicate that you only have a few minutes before loss of consciousness. It is also possible that the constriction around your waist could kill you, as blood flow is restricted and cannot get to vital organs. While it is possible to have circulation problems with an FBH, it won’t happen as quickly, giving you more time to extricate yourself from the situation.
To properly put on a safety harness, first put your arms through the shoulder straps and secure the chest strap. Next, secure and tighten the thigh straps. Your harness is then ready to go. The FBH straps must be tight, but they should not bind or restrict movement. Most tree stand manufacturers provide an FBH with the stand, but more comfortable harnesses can be purchased separately. These improved harnesses include features like padding, quick-release buckles and pockets for storing smaller items.
An FBH secures the hunter to the tree or lifeline with a tether located on the back of the harness just below the neck. The harness straps around the thighs and chest, which distributes pressure throughout the body. This prevents you from being folded in half during a fall, which often occurred with a safety belt. A lifeline, or “safe line,” is a rope that attaches at the bottom and top of the tree. The FBH is attached by a tether to the lifeline using a carabiner or similar system. The tether easily slides up and down the lifeline, providing fall protection from the ground to your stand. When used properly, a tether and harness keeps you from falling more than a foot to 18 inches.
Secure the tether on the FBH to the tree a few feet above your head when sitting in your stand. Hunters often don’t attach the strap high enough in the tree. If a fall occurs, they are hanging too far below the platform to climb back into the stand, leaving them dangling. When anchoring the FBH tether to the tree, place it around the trunk above your head, adjusting the height to leave only sufficient slack so you can sit down. If a fall occurs, this ensures a short drop, allowing you to climb back into the stand without much difficulty.
While wearing an FBH will prevent major injuries, you must act quickly to get back onto the security of the tree, your stand or the ground to prevent further injury. Hanging for long periods of time, even in an FBH, can cause serious complications. Suspension trauma is caused by being upright and immobile, which can occur if you fall while wearing an FBH. Because the victim is suspended in an upright position with their legs hanging, blood begins to accumulate in the lower extremities. This reduces the flow of oxygenated blood to the heart and brain. After a fall, the leg straps on the FBH can also exert pressure on veins in the legs, compressing them and further reducing blood flow back to the heart. One of the primary ways to slow the progression of suspension trauma is to stand up. Standing causes the leg muscles to contract, which improves circulation.
If you fall and cannot immediately return to your stand or ladder, act quickly to relieve pressure from your legs with the harness’s suspension relief strap. Suspension relief straps are attached to each side of the harness, creating a loop that you can put your feet into and press against to simulate standing up. If your FBH does not have one incorporated into its design, one can be inexpensively added to the harness. Other methods to avoid suspension trauma include placing your feet against the tree while bending and straightening your legs or carrying a screw-in step. Screwing a step into the tree and stepping up on it several times a minute can relieve the pressure created by the straps in the groin area, improving blood flow. Carrying a cellphone is also important so hunters can call for help.
Proper use of an FBH can reduce the chance of serious injury. Unfortunately, many hunters don’t realize the value of an FBH or using fall protection as they climb into their stand until they are lying on their back on the ground or in a hospital bed.
Following these simple precautions can reduce your chances of injury or death when hunting from an elevated position.
- Always use a full-body harness (FBH) in accordance with the manufacturer’s instruction.
- Never leave the ground without wearing an FBH.
- Do not use a safety-belt-type harness, which can cause loss of consciousness after a fall.
- Use the FBH during ascent and descent from your tree stand. Most falls occur when hunters step onto or from their tree stands.
- Prolonged suspension can result in trauma or death, so ensure suspension relief straps are attached to your FBH.
- Always carry a cellphone or other means of emergency communication.
- Inspect your tree stand and harness for signs of wear or damage before each use. The harness should be replaced after a fall has occurred.
- Never climb while carrying gear, which could affect your balance. Use a haul line to pull up and lower your gear.
- Let others know in advance your exact hunting location and when you plan to return.