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At what height do falls become deadly?

By Karoly Ban Matei | Last updated: April 11, 2022
Presented by AD Safety Network

Falls can be deadly at heights as low as six feet.

There is a saying in the safety world: "It's not the fall that kills you; it's the sudden stop at the end of it." The fall's impact on the body and the worker's collision with the point of impact are usually what causes a fall to become fatal.

Since higher falls have greater impact, they also have a higher potential to cause death or serious injury.


Major Sources of Fatal Falls

There are three major sources of fatal falls in the construction industry:

  • Roofs
  • Ladders
  • Scaffolds

Thankfully, the number of fatalities resulting from these falls has gone down significantly, according to data collected between 2016 and 2018. The largest reduction is to fatal falls involving scaffolds (-23.3%), followed by ladders (-15.4%) and roofs (-8.1%).

Fall Fatality Statistics

Despite these reductions, statistics from the CDC show that falls remained the leading cause of work-related deaths in the construction industry in 2019. This single incident category, in fact, accounts for more than one in three (36.4%) of the total number of fatalities across the industry, with 401 of the 991 construction fatalities recorded in 2019 attributed to falls to a lower level.

The fatality statistics vary from year to year, but the fatality rate significantly increases above the 10-foot threshold. The Center for Construction Research (2018) states that:

  • 11.7% of fall-related fatalities resulted from falls from heights between 6 and 10 feet
  • 19.7% from falls 11 to 15 feet
  • 17.4% from falls 16 to 20 feet

After that, the numbers start to decrease. But that doesn't mean that workers are more likely to survive a fall from a greater height. Rather, it is a reflection of the fact that work at height is typically carried out at elevations between 10 and 20 feet.

The Greater the Height, the Greater the Danger

Heights over 30 feet also account for a large percentage of fall fatalities and have a greater probability of resulting in serious injuries involving the spleen, liver, and lungs, along with blunt chest trauma and rib fractures.

Other trauma studies seem to indicate that a fall from a fourth-floor (about 48 feet) has a 50% survival rate, while a fall from a 7th floor (about 84 feet) has only a 10% survival rate.

Variables in Fall Fatality

Some of the variables that affect the outcome and severity of a fall include the following:

  • Surface – Falls that culimate on tilled soil and snow have a lower fatality rate than falls culminating against concrete. Landing on rebar from 6 feet could also be more dangerous than falling 20 feet onto a flat surface.
  • Age – Workers aged 65 or older are more likely to suffer serious injuries or be fatally injured as a result of a fall. Individuals under 15 years of age are the second-most vulnerable group, followed by those aged 15 to 24.
  • Gender – There is some evidence suggesting that men are more likely to die in a fall than women. However, this might be due to the fact that men are disproportionately represented in high-risk jobs.
  • Luck – While unquantifiable, there are individuals who beat the odds. There are reports of people falling from extreme heights (well over 100 feet in some cases) and surviving.

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Written by Karoly Ban Matei | HR and Safety Manager

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Karoly has worked at a senior level (both as an employee and a contractor) for organizations in the construction and manufacturing industries. He has a passion for developing and improving health and safety programs.

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