Guidelines for seating prescribers

Guidelines for Prescribers
Prepared by The Victorian
Harness Safety Industry
Working Group
Supported by
Department of
Human Services
This document has been prepared by the Victorian Harness Safety Industry Working
Group, at the request of the Department of Human Services. The group is made up of
the following representatives:
Sue Betheras
Occupational Therapist, Occupational Therapy Australia and
Bill Contoyannis
Rehabilitation Engineer, Monash University (Faculty of
Yvonne Duncan
Physiotherapist, Australian Physiotherapy Association and
Austin Health Care
Melanie Gibbs
Physiotherapist, Royal Children’s Hospital
Robyn Heesh
Occupational Therapist, Yooralla Society of Victoria
Brian Hoare
Occupational Therapist, Monash Medical Centre
Kelli Nicola-Richmond Physiotherapy Advisor, Scope
Julia Symons
Health Support, Department of Human Services – Disability
Representation was also sought from the Multiple Sclerosis Society, Association for
Children with a Disability and Department of Human Services - Community Health.
For more information on this project please contact DHS – Disability Services or Kelli
Nicola-Richmond 0438 093 010, [email protected]
The Working Group gratefully acknowledges the work of the Spastic Centre of NSW,
“Best Practice Guidelines for Promoting Airway Safety when Prescribing Seating
Supports” and in particular Iona Novak, Manager Research and Education, Cerebral
Palsy Institute, who has provided the working group with much input and expertise.
Copies of this document and a Safe Use of A Chest Harness brochure can be accessed
Glossary of Terms
How Does a Harness Cause Injury or Death?
Harness Prescription
Instructing Carers in the Safe Use of Harnesses
Review and Evaluation
In 1999, the incorrect use of a postural harness attached to a wheelchair resulted in the
death of a child in NSW. The coroner found that the harness caused compression of the
child’s neck. Two therapists who were involved with the child were found to have
contributed to the death. An investigation by the relevant health complaints body found
that “…lack of adequate communication contributed to the tragic outcome in this case.
There was inadequate communication between the two therapists… and between the
school occupational therapist and the child’s teacher”. It was also found that “… the
child’s parents were not adequately informed or involved in decision making about the
seating aids used for their daughter and were unaware of the dangers”. (ausotnews
2002). Issues relating to the training and accreditation of therapists prescribing seating
systems and therapists making straps and seating systems were also identified.
The correct prescription and application of seating supports is vital if prescribers are to
ensure that the people who use them are seated for optimum function and utmost
safety. If seating supports are not prescribed or applied correctly it is possible that
airway safety may be compromised.
This document aims to provide an overview of the issues and safety considerations
relating to the safe use of postural harnesses for Victorian therapists and other seating
prescribers. The document outlines the risks associated with the use of harnesses and
details how to best minimise these risks.
Pelvic Strap
A strap prescribed for the purpose of maintaining the pelvis in
optimal alignment. This is usually set at a particular angle to
hold the pelvis in position. It may have two or four points of
Postural Harness
A device that is applied to the trunk to assist in supporting a
person to remain in an optimal sitting position.
The pipe that runs from the mouth and nose down the front
aspect of the neck/throat to the lungs. It transports air to the
lungs and is also known as the windpipe.
The act of getting air in to and out of the lungs.
Therapeutic Goods
Administration (TGA)
Postural Supports
The TGA carries out a range of assessment and monitoring
activities to ensure that therapeutic goods available in
Australia are of an acceptable standard.
Any device that is prescribed to enhance or promote
improvement in posture. These can include, but are not
limited to, trunk supports, pelvic supports, head supports and
foot supports.
There are three ways in which a harness can cause mechanical asphyxiation or
Strangulation occurs when there is excessive constriction or compression of the airway
that interrupts its ability to act as a passage.
Strangulation may result if:
• The harness rides up – The point at which the harness joins centrally travels up,
blocking the airway and causing strangulation.
The person slides down – The person slips down in the chair, the harness makes
contact with the neck, blocking the airway and causing strangulation.
Mechanical asphyxiation occurs when the chest and abdomen becomes so compressed
that they cannot expand and the lungs cannot fill with air. The position of the person’s
body in relation to the surroundings prevents thoracic relaxation and lung aeration.
Mechanical Asphyxiation occurs when:
• The harness is applied or fits too tightly – The chest is compressed limiting
adequate ventilation.
These three situations result due to one or a combination of the following:
Inappropriate Prescription
The prescribed harness does not work with other prescribed supports to provide suitable
postural support. When prescribing a harness it is essential to consider what other
postural supports will be used, how the harness will attach to the chair and how tightly
the harness might fit.
NB: A small number of people will continually slip down in their wheelchair despite the
prescription of a range of postural supports. This may be due to challenging behaviours
or physical shape. These people will be at significant risk of injury if a harness is
prescribed, alternatives to a chest harness should be considered for these individuals.
Faulty Equipment Design
The design of the harness itself may increase the risk. This is the case for butterfly and
vest harnesses where the central anterior point of joining for the harness is high
increasing the risk of strangulation if the harness rides up or the person slides down.
Central Anterior Point
Upper Strap
Lower Strap
Product Wear and Tear
The prescribed harness, other postural supports or their attachments to the chair
experience deterioration over time that is not identified and repaired.
Carer Monitoring and Maintenance
The application of the harness or other postural supports is not correct, (eg. the harness
is applied upside down or the straps are not correctly tightened.) Or maintenance of the
harness and other postural supports does not occur in a timely manner.
NB. This can be a significant issue when the person who uses the harness has a large
number of carers or changes in carer/s. Instruction about how to correctly use
the harness and other seating supports is essential. Reducing the adjustability
of the lower harness straps can also assist in preventing incorrect application.
NOTE: The Harness Safety Industry Working Group recommends that
therapists and other prescribers do not manufacture harnesses. We
recommend that all harnesses used by prescribers are produced by
companies who are registered under the Therapeutic Goods
Specialist seating requires expert prescription. When seating systems and postural
supports are being prescribed it is important that the prescribers are people who have
skills, experience and education in the field.
The use of postural harnesses cannot be considered in isolation. The harness should
be viewed as part of the overall postural support system along with supports such as lap
belts, foot supports, trunk supports, thigh straps, tilt in space and reclining backrests.
Effective support of the pelvis, feet, trunk and shoulders and the use of tilt may eliminate
the need for harness prescription.
Close consideration should be given to:
• Ensuring the person cannot fall forwards, slide down or lift their pelvis. (note people
will still require the ability to relieve pressure by weight shifting)
• The effects of recline, tilt in space or built in fixed tilt as a change in tilt can limit the
effectiveness of straps and supports.
• The use of trunk or side supports. If a person has poor lateral trunk control, trunk or
side supports will limit sideways movement, which can lead to the harness cutting
into the neck.
A firm fitting pelvic strap must be prescribed every time a
harness is prescribed
A harness is not considered an approved safety restraint
for travel in a vehicle
A harness should not be used in addition to a harness
system that is already in place on a car seat. If
prescription of a harness is required for a car seat the
following standards and guidelines should be consulted.
• Australian standard for restraint of children with
disabilities in motor vehicles AS/NZS 4370:1996
• Australian standard for child restraint systems for use
in motor vehicles AS/NZ 1754:2004
• Vic Roads guidelines for restraints and fitting must be
observed. Refer to
Which Harnesses Are Most Safe?
There are many different designs and styles of harnesses that are available
commercially in Victoria. The choice of harness style will be dependent on the needs of
each individual and the people who support them.
Features of a Harness that Reduce Risk
The features of a harness that result in a reduced risk of strangulation or asphyxiation
1. Upper straps that join at a central anterior point which is low down (see below). This
means that a person has to slip a long way down or a harness has to ride a long way
up for injury to occur.
Upper straps
Central anterior point
Lower straps
2. The ability to un-clip or un-buckle at a central anterior point. This means that the
lower straps of the harness can remain in place whilst the person exits their chair. It
also allows the lower straps of the harness to be of fixed length. They may be
attached via clips or buckles to the chair frame making them non-adjustable. This
reduces the risks associated with incorrect harness application and the risk of the
harness riding up. The upper straps can be adjustable for growth. Straps should be
secured with buckles in preference to hook and loop (velcro) or D-ring fastening.
3. A horizontal strap that sits lower than the bottom of the rib cage. The horizontal strap
stops the upper straps from sliding off the shoulders. It should be secured to the
upper straps to prevent it from sliding upwards onto the airways.
4. Harness styles that can not be applied upside down. This can be achieved by the
use of different buckles or attachments on the upper and lower straps. Clearly
marking the harness top and bottom will also reduce the risk of incorrect application.
Examples of Harnesses with Reduced Risk
Boomerang Harness
H- Harness
Features of a Harness which May Increase Risk
There may be some instances in which a prescriber/s find that a harness with the
features outlined above cannot provide the type of postural support that an individual
needs. Alternatively a family or individual may have a strong desire to use another type
of harness.
Harness features that pose a greater risk to an individual of strangulation or
asphyxiation include:
1. A central anterior point that is higher, thus increasing the risk of asphyxiation if the
person slips down in their chair or the harness rides up.
Upper Strap
Central Anterior Point
Lower Strap
2. An inability to un-fasten at a central point. This means that the lower straps cannot
be of a fixed length, increasing the risk of the harness being inappropriately applied
(i.e. upside down or placed at the wrong level).
3. The ability of the harness to be applied too tightly, resulting in a greater risk of
asphyxiation due to compression of the chest wall.
Examples of Harnesses That Pose an Increased Risk
Butterfly Harness
Vest Harness
If the decision is made to prescribe a harness that poses an increased risk it is important
to consider the following:
• Ensure that the decision is a collaborative one involving your peers and the
• Check that a harness that is less risky is not appropriate (trialing one of these prior to
making a final decision is highly recommended).
• Ensure that the decision is based on sound clinical reasoning and DOCUMENT this
reasoning process.
• Develop and clearly document a plan for ensuring adequate education for all people
who might apply and remove the harness.
NOTE: When a harness is fitted to a chair it is important that
manufacturers guidelines for fitting are followed
A harness can be marked using stitching or permanent
marker to indicate top and bottom, front and back. The straps
may also be marked to indicate the point at which they should
be fastened.
It is important that therapists, and others who prescribe a harness as part of a seating
system, ensure that carers receive adequate instruction about how to safely apply,
remove and maintain the harness.
People with a disability may have multiple and frequently changing carers and the
prescriber may have very little to do with the person between seating reviews.
The following guidelines are recommended:
• The risks associated with harness use should be discussed with the person with a
disability and at least one primary carer.
• The person with a disability and the primary carer should be encouraged to share
this information in both written and verbal formats with other carers.
• The person with a disability and/or the primary carer should be provided with a copy
of the “Safe Use of a Chest Harness” brochure. For copies of this brochure go to:
• If the person lives in supported accommodation or attends other services, they
and/or their carers should be encouraged to provide a copy of the brochure to the
The use of photographs that show the person wearing a
correctly applied harness can assist in instruction.
It is essential to ensure that documentation relating to harness prescription is adequate.
The clinical reasoning, discussions and collaborations that led to the prescription and
the instruction that accompanies the prescription of seating supports must be recorded
in the appropriate place.
In particular, it is necessary to document the following:
• A collaborative decision making process
• Adequate instruction of carers
• Time frames and the process for review
If a person with a disability or those that support them choose to make a decision other
than that recommended by the prescriber this must be reflected in the documentation.
It is strongly recommended that all harnesses, other postural supports and seating
systems be regularly reviewed to ensure that they are safe and effective. This may be
difficult in situations where a therapist or prescriber does not have regular contact with
the harness user, however strategies for ensuring that review occurs must be
NOTE: Discussion regarding the process for reviewing the harness
should occur at the time of prescription.
NOTE: The Victorian Aids and Equipment Program guidelines
recommend regular follow up and review for equipment See for more information.
Australian Occupational Therapy News, (2002) Health Complaints Body Raises Issues
for OT Profession. Ausotnews, 9(6): 7
Chan, T., Vike, G., Neuman T., & Clausen, J. (1997). Restraint Position and Positional
Asphyxia. Annals of Emergency Medicine 30(5): 578-586
Dube, A. & Mitchell, E. (1986). Accidental Strangulation from Vest Restraints. The
Journal of American Medical Association. 256 (19): 2725-2726
Howard, J & Reay, D. (1998). Positional Asphyxia. Annals of Emergency Medicine
32(19): 116-117
Lange, M. (1998). Anterior Trunk Supports. OT Practice Dec: 41-43
Miles, S. (1996). A Case Study of Death by Physical Restraint: New Lessons from a
Photograph. The Journal of American Geriatric Society. 44(3): 291-292
Novak, I., Farrelly, C. & Adderley, M. (2002). Best Practice Guidelines for Promoting
Airway Safety when Prescribing Postural Supports. The Spastic Centre of NSW.
Novak, I. & Watson, E. (2003). Seating and Positioning. The Practical Guide to
Assessment and Prescription. CD-ROM. Cerebral Palsy Institute. NSW
Perr, A. (1998). Elements of Seating and Wheeled Mobility Intervention. O.T. Practice,
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