I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but action movies have lied to us.
Watch enough of them and you’ll see people throwing themselves out of windows, jumping off rooftops, and free falling from high ledges.
After landing, they’ll somehow manage to get back on their feet and hobble away. They’re so tough, they don’t even need immediate medical attention.
And look, I’m not going to say that it’s absolutely impossible. Stranger things have happened.
But it sure as heck is unlikely.
In reality, falling half as high as an action hero could put you in traction. Your next destination after jumping out a window will probably be the back of an ambulance.
And those high ledges – well, let’s just say you really don’t want to plummet from those.
But that raises an important question for anyone who has to deal with workplace safety: what about the heights in between?
We know working at ground level is safe – well, usually anyway.
We know that free falling off an eighth story roof is a death sentence.
But where’s the cut off? At what heights do falls stop being painful and start being deadly?
When Does a Fall Turn Deadly?
This is actually a difficult question to answer. There are simply too many factors that determine whether a fall will be fatal, including:
- Ground conditions (landing on soft snow vs. landing on hard pavement)
- Obstructions (falling on flat ground vs. falling onto a fence)
- How the person lands (landing on their feet vs. landing head first)
- Physical condition (some people’s bodies can handle the force of a fall better than others)
Still, we’ll do our best to boil it down to a specific number.
First, let’s look at the results of a survey on fall incidents in 2020 conducted by The Center for Construction Research and Training. Based on the information gathered from their respondents, fatal falls occurred at the following heights:
- Less than 6 feet: 5.3%
- 6 – 10 feet: 11.3%
- 11 – 20 feet: 22.6%
- 21 – 30 feet: 17.3%
- 31 – 40 feet: 12.0%
- 41 feet or higher: 31.6%
What can we learn from this?
Well, first notice that 5.3% of all fatal falls happened at less than 6 feet of elevation. That highlights the fact that a fall has the potential to be deadly at any height. You might have the good fortune of surviving a four-foot fall, but that same drop could be fatal to someone else. And of course, where and how you land after a short fall makes all the difference.
We also see that more fatalities occur at higher elevations. Which makes perfect sense – the longer the fall, the more force will impact the body when it lands.
However, you might have noticed a bit of an anomaly. If falls get deadlier the higher you go, then why have there been more fatal falls from 11 – 20 feet of elevation than there have been at 21 – 30 feet or 31 – 40 feet?
It’s certainly not because falls from those heights are any less deadly. Rather, it’s simply because more construction work takes place at an 11 – 20 foot elevation (about the height of a house) than at 31 – 40 feet.
Working at those heights can also make the risks more obvious and make workers take fall protection more seriously. It’s unfortunately not uncommon to see residential roofers without any fall protection gear. But few people working 60 feet off the ground would be so cavalier about their safety.
Want to know more about fall protection? Check out our free whitepaper, When Your Job Takes You to the Edge!
No, Really – At What Height Does a Fall Become Deadly?
Alright, alright. I know that’s not the answer you wanted.
You didn’t just want to be told that higher falls are more likely to be deadly. You knew that before you even read the first paragraph of this article.
What you really want to know is how high a fall has to be before a fatality is likely.
In other words, what’s the height cutoff between a fall you can recover from – and one that will be the very last thing you experience.
For that, let’s look at an analysis of fall injuries published in the World Journal of Emergency Medicine. The authors of the study found that:
- The mortality rate of falls from 9 meters (29 feet) or less was 23.5%
- The mortality rate of falls from 12 meters (39 feet) or higher was 50%
- The mortality rate of falls from 18 meters (59 feet) or higher was 100%
This is probably as close to a clear answer as you’ll get.
Falling from a height of under 30 feet gives you about a 3 out of 4 chance of survival.
Fall from 40 feet or so and it’s a coin toss.
Fall from 60 feet or more and it’s time to pray for a miracle.
What’s the Lesson Here?
If there’s one big takeaway from this data, it’s that you should never take chances with fall hazards.
If you fall from 18 feet, there’s a chance you’ll live to tell the tale. But as we saw above, about one fifth of construction fall fatalities happen at that elevation. Many workers who fell from those heights haven’t been so lucky – and you might not be, either.
Even if you do survive, that’s a partial victory at best. Non-fatal falls can still result in serious injuries and permanent disabilities.
So, it’s up to every employer to make sure that they have a comprehensive and effective fall protection program in place. OSHA requires fall protection equipment for any work that takes place at a 4-foot elevation (or 5 feet in shipyards, 6 feet in construction, and 8 feet for longshoring operations), but even a 2 foot drop is a hazard that should be addressed. Depending on the specifics of the work environment, that may involve guardrails, safety nets, or personal fall arrest systems. The plan should cover not only fall prevention but also include procedures for rescuing fallen workers.
And it’s up to workers to take their safety seriously. When you look down at a 4 foot drop, you might imagine yourself the action hero who could land on their back and jump right up to their feet. But you could also be one of the many fatalities that take place at that elevation. So, follow your workplace’s safety procedures, use the fall protection equipment you’ve been given, and exercise your right to refuse unsafe work if you’re asked to do a job at heights without being given the right protection.
Falls can be deadly at any height. We’ll all be a whole lot safer if we start acting on that knowledge.
Ready to learn more? Check out our free webinar on Overlooked Fall Protection Fundamentals!
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