Few things are worse than watching employees or co-workers stranded in places so high up that they can’t be helped within a few seconds. What’s the best way to be ready? By learning what to do before it happens and then acting quickly and calmly.

Few people know how to get ready for rescues at high elevations better than Winton Wilcox, president of ComTrain, LLC, a Monroe, Wis.-based company that specializes in training for "high-angle" rescues, especially in communications towers that are as high as 2,000 ft. Many of the safety principles are the same no matter what the height.

How to Save a Life
Be aware that brain damage can occur after only three or four minutes once a victim has lost consciousness and stopped breathing.
Check safety-related equipment daily.
Be aware of harness-induced injuries.

A crew needs a good job plan, says Wilcox. Briefings before every shift should cover hazards and proper use of safety equipment, which should be checked daily.

Keeping your head is the first principle in a high-angle rescue. Hurt workers are probably already panicked. So even when someone is dangling 100 ft in the air, or has sustained a severe electrical shock, don’t lose your cool because even more things can go wrong, says Wilcox.

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Still, every second counts. Once someone loses consciousness or goes into respiratory arrest following an electrical shock, there are only three or four minutes in which to bring the victim to the ground to perform cardio-pulmonary resuscitation before permanent brain damage occurs. And workers dangling in harnesses are subject to injuries caused by restricted blood flow. Have medical personnel ready on the ground to begin treatment, says Reed Thorne, vice president of Ropes that Rescue, a training firm in Sedona, Ariz.

Rusty White, a Fort Worth, Texas-based former lineman, prefers Labor Dept.-approved safety instruction, but it isn’t required. Many contractors provide only training required by federal rules.

Splitting the Line

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Rescuing an injured worker from a pole top resembles the process a tree surgeon uses to lower a severed tree limb. The rescuer climbs the pole, or goes up in a bucket, and splits the injured worker’s hand-line, which is used to send up tools, explains Byron Dunn, a recently retired lineman based in Longmont, Colo. The co-worker takes one end of the rope and drops it, then takes the other end and wraps twice it around the crossarm. That end of the rope is then tied around the injured worker’s chest under his arms, usually with a knot made of three half-hitches, to avoid crushing the worker with the rope. The co-worker then cuts the injured lineman’s "scare strap," the line from the harness attached to the pole, and lowers him down the rope, says Dunn, adding that it’s important to make sure the slack is out before lowering.

Rescuing a worker who has collapsed from a bucket truck requires an entirely different approach, says Victor Kraker, safety supervisor for Duquesne Light, a Pennsylvania electrical utility.

"It’s nearly impossible to get that worker out of the bucket while it’s still up high," Kraker says. "We get the boom down, pointing at the ground and close to it. Then we use an assembly of ropes and pulleys on the boom and attach the worker’s harness to it, and pull the worker out of the bucket and lower him to the ground."