Slipping in the shower, tripping down the stairs, taking a tumble in the supermarket – falls kill over 420,000 people per year and hospitalise millions more. We can't eliminate all falls, says Neil Steinberg. So we must to learn to fall better.
Alcides Moreno and his brother Edgar were window washers in New York City. The two Ecuadorian immigrants worked for City Wide Window Cleaning, suspended high above the congested streets, dragging wet squeegees across the acres of glass that make up the skyline of Manhattan.
On 7 December 2007, the brothers took an elevator to the roof of Solow Tower, a 47-storey apartment building on the Upper East Side. They stepped onto the 16-foot-long, three-foot-wide aluminium scaffolding designed to slowly lower them down the black glass of the building.
But the anchors holding the 1,250-pound platform instead gave way, plunging it and them 472 feet to the alley below. The fall lasted six seconds.
Edgar, at 30 the younger brother, tumbled off the scaffolding, hit the top of a wooden fence and was killed instantly. Part of his body was later discovered under the tangle of crushed aluminium in the alley next to the building.
But rescuers found Alcides alive, sitting up amid the wreckage, breathing and conscious when paramedics performed a "scoop and run" – a tactic used when a hospital is near and injuries so severe that any field treatment isn't worth the time required to do it. Alcides was rushed to NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center, four blocks away.
Falls are one of life's great overlooked perils. We fear terror attacks, shark bites, Ebola outbreaks and other minutely remote dangers, yet over 420,000 people die worldwide each year after falling. Falls are the second leading cause of death by injury, after car accidents. In the United States, falls cause 32,000 fatalities a year (more than four times the number caused by drowning or fires combined). Nearly three times as many people die in the US after falling as are murdered by firearms.
Falls are even more significant as a cause of injury. More patients go to emergency rooms in the US after falling than from any other form of mishap, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), nearly triple the number injured by car accidents. The cost is enormous. As well as taking up more than a third of ER budgets, fall-related injuries often lead to expensive personal injury claims. In one case in an Irish supermarket, a woman was awarded 1.4 million euros compensation when she slipped on grapes inside the store.
It makes sense that falls dwarf most other hazards. To be shot or get in a car accident, you first need to be in the vicinity of a gun or a car. But falls can happen anywhere at any time to anyone.
Spectacular falls from great heights outdoors like the plunge of the Moreno brothers are extremely rare. The most dangerous spots for falls are not rooftops or cliffs, but the low-level, interior settings of everyday life: shower stalls, supermarket aisles and stairways. Despite illusions otherwise, we have become an overwhelmingly indoor species: Americans spend less than 7 per cent of the day outside but 87 per cent inside buildings (the other 6 per cent is spent sitting in cars and other vehicles). Any fall, even a tumble out of bed, can change life profoundly, taking someone from robust health to grave disability in less than one second.