Safety Harnesses Key to Prevent Falls while Deer Hunting

URMC neurosurgeons stress education to avoid life-threatening accidents

October 17, 2012

Tree stands give hunters a bird’s-eye view of wild game, but some hunters continue to suffer serious injuries after failing to wear a safety harness, according to doctors at University of Rochester Medical Center.

“We are still seeing hunters who have taken unnecessary risks by not wearing the safety belt or harness and endure significant injuries from a fall,” according to Jason Huang, M.D., URMC neurosurgeon specializing in head and spine injuries. “Compared to a decade ago, we have made no progress in preventing these neurological injuries, despite safety advances – which is unacceptable.”

In a review of 54 hunting accidents or falls that resulted in neurologic injuries, doctors found that two hunters suffered paralysis. The most common reasons for the falls were poor tree-stand construction or maintenance, loss of balance, alcohol use, fatigue and dizziness. Most of the accidents were preventable if hunters, who were all men between the ages of 15 and 69, had worn a safety harness, Huang said. He is chief of Neurosurgery at URMC’s Highland Hospital.

The tree stands are typically attached to trees 15 to 30 feet above ground. A fall from that height allowed hunters to reach a velocity of up to 30 miles per hour as they plummeted. Many times they struck tree branches, causing bone fractures and bruising.

Neurosurgeons studied cases that occurred between 2003 and 2011. It was not an assessment of all hunting accidents, but only falls that resulted in brain or spine injuries, which included one man who was immediately quadriplegic and another who suffered paraplegia.  

Half of the hunters suffered cervical spine fractures, requiring surgery or fusions to repair, and 20 percent experienced traumatic brain injuries. Seven of the men lost consciousness as a result of the fall. In addition, some experienced collapsed lungs, fractured ribs, pelvis or collar bones and lacerations to the liver, spleen or kidney. The average time spent in the hospital was six days.

Nationally, experts estimate 10 percent of hunters who use tree stands are injured each year. That does not include the vast number of accidents go unreported because injuries were not serious enough to come to a hospital or academic medical center, like URMC, the region’s trauma center.  

This study was presented at the Congress of Neurological Surgeons conference Oct. 9 and included preparation by Neurosurgery residents Anthony Petraglia, M.D., and Vasisht Srinivasan, M.D.; and Benjamin Plog, an M.D./Ph.D. student.

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