Deaths from Falls in Construction, 1997

| |
CPWR - The Center for Construction Research and Training

Summary Statement

Describes a study of falls during 1997, analyzed by type of fall, type of construction and trade.
Oct 2000

Poster Session Presentation

National Occupational Injury Research Symposium
Pittsburgh, October 2000

This research was made possible by CPWR – Center for Construction Research and Training (CPWR) as part of a research agreement with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, NIOSH (NIOSH grant CCU310982). The research is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of NIOSH. CPWR — the research and development arm of the Building and Construction Trades Department, AFL-CIO — is uniquely situated to serve workers, contractors, and the scientific community. A major CPWR activity is to improve safety and health in the U.S. construction industry.

Copies of this report may be obtained from Publications, CPWR – Center for Construction Research and Training, Suite 1000, 8484 Georgia Ave., Silver Spring, MD 20910, 301-578-8500. (Report D2-00) for $5 postpaid.


BLS US Bureau of Labor Statistics


Conclusions and Recommendations
End Notes


Several studies point to falls as the leading cause of death of construction workers. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), falls from roofs, ladders, and scaffolds account for about 28% of work-related deaths from injuries in construction (BLS 1996).

Although BLS data show that death rates from falls are much higher for ironworkers and roofers compared with other construction trades 1 , a detailed breakdown of data on fatal falls has not been provided.

This report details fatal falls to a lower level by reported cause, construction type, occupation, and employment status for 1997 using data from the BLS Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries. Rates are not presented, because hours worked data cannot be broken down by the hazard categories (such as roof or ladder). Because of potential technical statistical problems, the numbers in this report should be used only to identify the main problems – such as, that most of the falls from roofs were from a roof edge (see fig. 2).


The Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries for 1997 contained 373 deaths from falls to a lower level2. From that number, the authors eliminated nine case records involving falls that occurred before 1997. So, 364 records of falls to a lower level were analyzed using a Microsoft Access 97 database.

The 364 fatal falls were classified as follows, using the Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries event code variable and case narratives:

    Roof edge
    Roof opening
    Through roof surface
    Roof, other
    Floor or wall opening
    Building, other
    Aerial lift
    Girder or other structural steel
    Non-moving vehicle

A fall from a roof edge was identified when the event code was "fall from roof edge" or the source code variable was the ground, the narrative stated "fall off roof" or "fall from roof," and there was no indication of other circumstances.

This study focused on two types of construction:
  • Single-family home or townhouse
  • Other buildings (commercial, industrial, public, etc.)
This analysis classifies a fall as occurring in a "single-family home" if the industry field was classified as "General Building Contractors-single-family houses" (and the narrative didn't indicate another type of construction), if the location field was classified as home, or if a key word in the narrative indicated a single-family home (for instance, home, house, attic). A classification of "other building" was used if the industry code variable was "General Building Contractors-nonresidential," "General Building Contractors-industrial buildings and warehouses," or "General Contractors-nonresidential buildings, other than industrial." A location code variable with the classification "apartment, industrial place and premises, public building, parking lot," enabled the construction type to be classified as "other building." Keywords in the narrative fields that helped eliminate the category of single-family home included elevator, restroom, suspended scaffold, and warehouse.

The employee status code variable was used to determine whether a worker was self-employed.


Fatal Falls by Type of Fall
  • One-third of fatal falls were from roofs (fig. 1). Most tower falls involved communications towers.
  • Half of the roof falls were from the roof edge, and one-third were through roof holes or skylights (fig. 2).
Figure 1. Fatal falls by cause, construction, United States, 1997

Figure 1 Graph

Source: US Bureau of Labor Statistics data.

Figure 2. Subcategories of falls from roofs, construction, United States, 1997

Figure 2 Graph

Note: 122 total fatal falls from roofs.
Source: US Bureau of Labor Statistics data.

Fatal Falls by Type of Construction
  • The proportion of fatal falls from roofs was similar for single-family homes and other types of buildings, accounting for about 40% of falls (table 1). Falls from roof edges accounted for two-thirds of roof falls during single-family home construction, but only half of the falls from roofs during other building construction.
  • For both types of building construction, about one-sixth of the falls were from scaffolds.
  • Falls from ladders accounted for almost one-third of fatal falls during single-family home construction, compared with one-sixth for other building construction falls.
Table 1. Number of fatal falls from buildings by type of building and cause, United States, 1997

  Single-family homes Other buildings
Falls from roof
  Roof edge
  Roof opening
  Through roof surface
  Roof, other
  Total roof falls


Falls from ladder 20 40
Falls from scaffold 10 43
Falls from girders or structural steel - 29
Falls from aerial lifts - 14
Falls through wall or floor openings 7 10
Falls from building, other - 5
Falls, other - 6
Falls, unknown - -
Total falls 65 248
% of total falls 18% 68%

– Does not meet BLS publication criteria.
Note: Table includes only falls to a lower level.
Source: US Bureau of Labor Statistics data

Fatal Falls by Age Group
  • Although falls from roofs are one-third of the total, they accounted for half of the fatal falls for workers under age 25 (table 2).
  • Ladder falls accounted for 28% of all fatal falls for workers over age 44, but 17% of all fatal falls. About 60% of ladder falls are in the over-44 age group. 3
Table 2. Fatal falls by age group, construction, United States, 1997

Age group Other falls (years) Total falls From roof From ladder From scaffold Other falls to Lower Levels
  No. % No. % No. % No. % No. %
Under 25 45 12% 23 19% - 5% 7 11% 12 10%
25-44 186 51% 63 52% 23 37% 33 54% 67 57%
Older than 44 133 37% 36 30% 37 59% 21 34% 39 33%
Total 364 100% 122 101% 63 101% 61 99% 118 100%

Fatal Falls by Occupation
  • Single-family home construction, with 18% of fatal falls, accounted for one-third of the total falls among carpenters and painters, and half of all falls among managers and administrators (fig. 3) (The BLS data for residential construction categorize a remarkably high proportion of self-employed workers as "managers and administrators.")
  • Roof falls caused 37/98 (38%) of construction laborer fall deaths, followed by 23 scaffold falls (23%), and 15 ladder falls (15%).
  • Falls from girders or structural steel caused 22/39 (56%) of ironworker fall deaths, followed by 8 roof falls (21%) and six scaffolds falls (15%).
  • Roof falls cause 31/39 (79%) of roofer fall deaths, followed by 6 ladder deaths (15%); roofers had almost half of all skylight falls.
  • Roof falls caused 11/36 (31%) of carpenter fall deaths, followed by 7 ladder deaths (20%), 6 floor or wall opening deaths (17%), and 5 scaffold deaths (14%).
  • Ladder falls caused 9/19 (47%) of painter fall deaths.
Figure 3. Fatal falls by occupation, single-family home and all construction, United States, 1997

Figure 3 Graph

Note: Data include only falls to a lower level. Ironworkers and electricians had fewer than 5 such deaths in 1997.

Fatal Falls of Self-employed Workers
  • Self-employed workers accounted for 44% of fatal falls during single-family home construction (fig. 4).
Figure 4. Distribution of fatal falls among self-employed construction workers, by occupation, single-family and all construction, United States, 1997

Figure 4 Graph
: Falls to a lower level. "Other occupations" had fewer than 5 deaths in 1997 .
Source: US Bureau of Labor Statistics data.


Causes of Fatal Falls to a Lower Level
  • This analysis is consistent with previous findings that falls from roofs, scaffolds, and ladders are the main causes of deaths from falls.
  • The large percentage of falls from roof edges among roofers points out the need for targeted prevention efforts. Most of these falls were associated with a lack of fall protection.
  • Falls from aerial lifts and towers need investigation.
Type of Construction
  • One-fifth of all construction falls occurred during single-family home construction.
  • Ladder-related falls in single-family home construction account for about one-third of all ladder falls and double that for other building construction. Scaffold falls in single-family home construction account for one-sixth of all scaffold falls. These numbers focus attention on the hazards of single-family home construction.
  • Specific hazards vary in severity among different types of construction probably because of the different tasks and methods required. Assessment of contractor and worker knowledge and attitudes toward safety should be conducted.
Victims' Ages
  • Workers under 25 years experienced more fatal roof falls than other types of falls.
  • Most falls from ladders were among workers older than 44.

    • Balance is critical on ladders and could be a possible factor in falls from ladders for older workers.
    • Body weight and ladder stability should also be further explored, given that weight tends to increase with age.
Construction Occupations and Falls
  • The patterns of falls for the occupations suggest a need for task-specific approaches to fall interventions. For instance, ladder training might be warranted for painters.
  • Falls from roof edges and skylights should be addressed for roofers.
  • The numbers of fatal falls of managers and administrators was surprising. Half of these managers and administrators were self-employed, but appeared to be acting as craft workers in many instances. This also suggests the importance of conducting safety training for all workers on construction sites.

Conclusions and Recommendations

This study found differences in the distribution of fatal falls depending on the type of construction, occupation, age and employment status. This descriptive analysis of fatal falls to a lower level can help with selecting further research and possible interventions to reduce fall-related deaths. Recommendations include:
  • Fall safety training for all workers at risk of falling, including self-employed workers.

    • Self-employed workers should be targeted for safety and health programs; their actions can endanger other workers.

  • Evaluation of safety monitor and safety line systems
  • Development of task-specific interventions

    • For roof work, additional studies are needed to determine the effectiveness of safety monitors and warning lines.

  • Development of interventions for single-family home construction
  • Research into why older workers have a high proportion of falls from ladders.


BLS, Bureau of Labor Statistics. 1996. Fatal Workplace injuries in 1994: A Collection of Data and Analysis. (BLS Publication No. 908). Washington, D.C.: US Government Printing Office.

CPWR, CPWR – Center for Construction Research and Training. 1998. The Construction Chart Book: The US Construction Industry and Its Workers. Washington, DC: Report D1-98. Tables 19b, 21a, and 32a.

Kisner, Suzanne and David Fosbroke. 1994. Industry Hazards in the Construction Industry. Journal of Occupational Medicine, 36(2): 137-43.

NAHB. 1998. Fatal Falls in the Residential Construction Industry. Washington, DC: National Association of Home Builders.

NIOSH, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. 1993. Fatal Injuries to Workers in the United States, 1980-89: A Decade of Surveillance. (DHHS Publication NO. 93-108S). Washington, DC, US Government Printing Office.

Suruda, Anthony, David Fosbroke, and Richard Braddee. 1995. Fatal Work-Related Falls from Roofs. Journal of Safety Research, 26(1): 1-8.

End Notes

For instance, in 1995, death rates from falls per 100,000 full-time equivalent workers were 51.7 for ironworkers, 26.4 for roofers, 12.7 for laborers and helpers, and 5.0 for painters. See CPWR – Center for Construction Research and Training 1998, 34a.
2. That number was updated to 377 in a more recent BLS report.
3. Chi-square tests confirm that statistically significant differences exist in age distributions of roof versus ladder falls (p-value << .05), as well as of scaffold versus ladder falls (p-value < .05).