Alcides Moreno and his brother Edgar Moreno were window washers in New York City. On December 7, 2007, the brothers took an elevator to the roof of a 47-story apartment building. They stepped onto the 16-foot-long, 3-foot-wide aluminum scaffolding designed to slowly lower them down the black glass of the building. But the anchors holding the platform gave way, plunging it and them 472 feet to the alley below. The fall lasted mere seconds.
Edgar tumbled off the scaffolding, hit the top of a wooden fence, and was killed instantly. But rescuers found Alcides alive, crouching amid a tangle of crushed aluminum in the alley next to the building, breathing and conscious.
Falls are one of life’s great overlooked perils. We fear terror attacks, shark bites, Ebola outbreaks, and other remote dangers, yet each year, an estimated 646,000 people die worldwide after falling. Falls are the second-leading cause of death by injury, after car accidents. In the United States, falls caused more than 33,000 fatalities in 2015.
Falls are even more significant as a cause of injury. More patients go to emergency rooms in the United States after falling than for any other form of injury, including car accidents, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And while elderly people with fragile bones certainly need to be careful, they may not be the group at the biggest risk of injuring themselves in a fall. In a study published last year in PLOS One, nearly 18 percent of men ages 18 to 44 had reported a fall-related injury in the prior three months, more than double the percentage of men 65 and older.
Falls can happen anywhere at any time to anyone. Spectacular falls from great heights outdoors, such as the plunge of the Moreno brothers, are actually 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. Look out for these other common hazards you haven’t thought of.
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. It’s no wonder that scientists are now encouraging people of all ages to learn how to fall to minimize injury, to view falling not so much as an unexpected hazard to be avoided as an inevitability to be prepared for.
Training may even have been a factor determining the outcome of the Moreno brothers’ fall to earth. One theory was that Alcides lived because when the scaffolding gave way, he lay flat and clung to the platform, as professional window washers are taught to do. As the scaffolding fell into the narrow alley, air resistance may have built up against the platform, slowing it down. Deceleration is the key to surviving falls and reducing injuries. As the joke goes, “It’s not the fall that gets you; it’s the sudden stop at the bottom.” Alcides ultimately underwent 16 surgeries and was in a coma for weeks. But after a long regimen of physical and occupational therapy to strengthen his legs and restore his balance, he can walk again. “I keep asking myself why I lived,” Alcides told the BBC. “I have a new baby—he must be the reason, to raise this kid and tell him my history.”
Given the tremendous cost of falls to individuals and society and the increasing knowledge of how and why falls occur, it pays to learn how to prevent them—and what you can do to lessen harm in the split second after you start to fall. Some of the following tips are just common sense—and too easily brushed aside until the oversight has caused an accident. A few suggestions might require a bit of training, or at least some practice. They’re all worth thinking about, no matter how steady you may feel on your feet.
Prepare your environment
Secure loose rugs or get rid of them. Make sure the tops and bottoms of staircases are lit. Clean up spills immediately. Install safety bars and put down traction strips in showers, and treat slick surfaces such as smooth marble floors with anti-slip coatings. If there’s ice outside your home, clear it and put down salt. Here are 15 more hidden home dangers you should never ignore.
Be careful, even in the most ordinary places
Watch where you are going. Don’t walk while reading or using your phone. Always hold handrails—most people using stairways do not. Don’t have your hands in your pockets, as this reduces your ability to regain your balance when you stumble. Remember that your balance can also be thrown off by a heavy suitcase or backpack.
Improve your gear
Wear good shoes with treads. On ice, do not wear high heels. Wear a helmet when bicycling, skiing, and skateboarding. Use a cane or a walker if required. Hike with a walking stick. And get a hearing aid if you need one. “Individuals with hearing loss had more difficulty with balance and gait and showed significant improvement when they had a hearing aid,” says Linda Thibodeau, a professor at the University of Texas at Dallas’s Advanced Hearing Research Center, summarizing a recent pilot study.
Listen to your body
Drugs, alcohol, and even sleep deprivation can affect balance and coordination, making them a factor in falls. If you feel light-headed or faint, sit down immediately. Don’t worry that someone might think you are weak or that you are being rude; you can get back up once you’ve established you are not going to lose consciousness. Eat a balanced diet to support bone density and muscle strength, especially if you are older, so that you are less likely to be injured if you do fall. A study of more than 12,000 elderly French people in 2015 found connections between poor nutrition, falling, and fractures. Strength training helps too. Lower body strength is important for recovering from slips; upper body strength, for surviving falls.
If you fall, roll
Scientists studying falls are developing “safe landing responses” to help limit damage. If you are falling, first protect your head. Fight trainers and parachute jump coaches encourage people not to fall straight forward or backward. The key is to roll and try to let the fleshy side parts of your body absorb the impact.
“Don’t reach back for the floor with your hands,” says Chuck Coyl, fight director at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, describing how he tells actors to fall onstage. “Distribute the weight on the calf, thigh, into the glutes, rolling on the outside of your leg as opposed to falling straight back.”
Next, find out if you’re really prepared for the worst with these 8 signs you can handle a medical emergency.