Fall From A Balcony

How do you reconstruct an accident where the only witness, the injured party, does not remember what happened?

This is the type of question S-E-A’s biomechanical engineers are asked on a daily basis.  In this case, an artist that had been painting a residential ceiling was found severely injured on the first floor by another worker. She had no memory of what had taken place. Multiple theories and questions were put forth. One fundamental question was whether she fell from scaffolding situated above a staircase or tripped while descending the staircase. Of secondary interest was whether safety railings would have prevented the accident.

Case Study – Using Injuries and Physics to Reconstruct a Serious Fall

The incident took place in a house under construction. The artist was working on scaffolding erected above a landing and staircase leading from the second floor to the first. The house, under construction at the time, was complete except for finishing-work.  No safety railing had been installed along the landing or on the staircase. 

When S-E-A began the investigation and analysis to determine the answers to these questions, the house had been completed and the finished railings installed. The accident could not be recreated at the original scene, a private residence. 

Assigned Task: 

Evaluate the possible ways the person could have fallen and determine the most likely scenario, answering the question of whether the proper safety codes were being observed and whether safety railings would have prevented or minimized the person's injuries. 

S-E-A used the following methodologies and tests to reveal the answers: 

A detailed study of the house, plans, photographs and documents from the time of the accident was completed. 

A detailed study of the person’s injuries from photographs, x-rays and medical records was performed.

A motion capture study was conducted using a similar sized volunteer and scaffolding. 

The captured falls were used along with all other information to create computer simulations and animations to replicate multiple fall scenarios, with and without safety railings.  The scenarios were evaluated relative to the injuries sustained.

Test evidence was evaluated resulting in the following findings:

  • The person’s injuries could not have been caused by falling down the stairs alone.
  • It was determined that in order to cause the injuries sustained, the person must have fallen from the scaffolding above the stairs.
  • It was also determined that had safety railings been installed, the fall would not have been prevented.

While several sophisticated technologies played a part in S-E-A’s investigation and analysis of this case, the ability to use them effectively requires our in-depth understanding of biomechanics and how humans interact with the physical world around them.

Decades of experience with determining how injuries are both caused and prevented are invaluable in reconstructing a series of events in an accident. This, along with our ability to accurately simulate alternatives in order to eliminate those which do not match the evidence, proved to be quite a powerful combination in this case and others.

S-E-A’s multi-disciplinary teams are a large part of the reason why we have been able to help so many clients. Our scientific methodologies cross all disciplines and our wealth of experience solving a wide range of problems is invaluable in assuring broad perspective and thinking unfettered by familiarity and repetition.

For more information about using biomechanics to reconstruct accidents, contact:

Douglas R. Morr, P.E.
Senior Project Engineer