How Far of a Fall Is Fatal?

A study of construction accidents in India found that nearly half of all fatal falls happen at a height between 0 and 20 feet. The next largest group of fatal falls was between 21 and 40 feet. In other words, 20 feet is enough to be fatal, but fatal falls have occurred at even lower heights.

Fall accidents include:

At the same time, there is no height at which a fall is guaranteed to be fatal. While rare, people have survived falls from great heights, while some people have suffered fatal injuries falling from no height at all. There are other factors at play when it comes to fatal falls that we discuss below.

The Force of a Fall from a Height

OSHA’s annual report of the most common causes of workplace fatality often includes the same top four, which is why they’re called “the Fatal Four.” Leading among them is “falls from a height,” defined as a fall from a raised platform to a lower platform. Falls from a height are devastating injuries, causing about 36% of all Fatal Four incidents.

However, not all falls are fatal. Understanding what makes a fall fatal (or potentially fatal) is key to keeping workers safe. While there are numerous factors that determine if a fall is deadly or not, the most decisive factor is the height of the fall. While that might seem obvious, we should briefly touch on the physics of falling.

There’s an old joke that “it’s not the fall that kills you; it’s the sudden stop at the end.” In terms of actual physics, that’s the truth: as something falls, it accelerates according to gravity’s pull. The more time spent accelerating, the more potential energy generated in the fall. At the moment of impact, all of the force generated in the fall is exerted by the falling object into the ground, and then that force is reciprocated into the falling object at the point of contact. That reciprocated force is what inflicts serious injury or fatality on a human body.

Understanding the physics of the collision helps us understand why height is a key factor, but it helps us understand two other key factors: the rate of acceleration and the hardness of the ground.

Intrinsic & Extrinsic Factors for Fatal Falls

There are two categories of factors when it comes to a fall: 

  • Intrinsic factors are conditions or events that affect how someone lands, i.e. whether they land on their feet or on their head. This has a huge impact on how severe a fall is; after all, falling onto your neck and falling onto your legs would have vastly different outcomes.
  • Extrinsic factors affect how hard or soft a landing will be, which determines how force is distributed throughout the body.

Note that extrinsic factors (i.e. how soft the ground is) doesn’t affect how much force the body is subjected to. Whether you land on rubber or on cement, the amount of force you’ll endure is the same. What’s different is how quickly that force is reciprocated back at you.

For instance, if you fall 25 feet and land with your feet on cement or gravel, your feet will absorb all of the force of the fall all at once. This could result in foot, ankle, and leg fractures, or even injury to your hip and back (depending on your posture when you land). If you fall and land with the exact same height and posture into water or soft soil, the force will reciprocate more gradually, giving your body time to redistribute the force safely and evenly.

The physics of falls also shows why conditions apart from height are so important. Age, posture, and ground material can all affect whether a fall is ultimately fatal.

Gender, Occupation & Fatal Falls

In fall injury studies from Singapore, India, China, Canada, Denmark, and the US, researchers had the same findings: men were far more likely to suffer from fatal falls than women. The actual difference between fatal fall rates across gender differed from country to country, but they all had roughly the same cause: fatal falls occur most often in the construction industry, which is largely dominated by men.

The construction industry is one of the most dangerous in the world, with high-risk factors affecting the lives of carpenters, electricians, plumbers, window-washers, and anyone else involved in the building and maintenance of a construction project. Those risks are often the result of poor safety policy and the lack of fall prevention equipment, no matter where in the world you are. Part of the problem might be an unwillingness to spend funds on fall equipment: a study published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine found that the smaller a construction company, the more likely a worker was to suffer a serious or fatal fall.

Injured Construction Workers Turn to Arnold & Itkin LLP

Our construction injury lawyers have investigated some of the largest construction accidents in the nation. We’ve also won some of the largest verdicts and settlements for the survivors or victims of construction accidents, getting more than $20 billion total for our clients. That’s why injured construction workers turn to us whenever they need to hold an employer or manufacturer accountable after an accident.

If you’re injured, speak with us to discuss your options. Call (888) 493-1629 for a free consultation, or use our short online form.

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