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AMERICAN ALBUM

Researcher hopes facts on accidents will fall into place.

February 19, 1990|J. MICHAEL KENNEDY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LUBBOCK, Tex. — Tom Leamon wants to find out why people fall down. Seriously.

Thus graduate students here at Texas Tech University, where Leamon chairs the Industrial Engineering Department, are regularly strapped into a harness for a slippery walk on a floor coated with vegetable oil.

They walk. They slip. They slide. Often they would land on their duffs were it not for the harness. And Leamon, with the help of a $300,000 federal grant, studies what happens to them.

This is no idle academic exercise. Falling is second only to auto accidents as a cause of injury in the United States. Each year about 4,000 people die from falling in public places.

"That's like a jumbo jet going down every month for 12 months," Leamon said of the statistics.

More than double that number of people annually die from falling in their homes, and an estimated 12 million people a year suffer some sort of injury from falling. According to the National Council on Aging, falls among those 65 and older each year cause an estimated 200,000 hip fractures, which often lead to long hospital stays and permanent disabilities.

Falling, according to government statistics, is the most frequent cause of death among people 65 and older.

As Leamon put it: "The numbers started blowing my mind."

He began looking at those numbers a couple of years ago, while trying to carve a grant for himself out of the U. S. Department of Health and Human Service's Injury in America program. He found that there had never been a study of exactly how people fall--knowledge that, presumably, would be a tool in preventing such accidents.

"No one knows how anyone falls," Leamon said. "There's nothing that's been done on it at all. What we're trying to do is find out the basics of what makes people fall."

With the grant money Leamon went about refurbishing the basement of the university's industrial engineering building. His colleagues in the mechanical engineering department helped him design a 12-foot-tall contraption, which looks very much like an oil rig, atop which is attached a movable arm, to which are attached people who are paid $10 an hour for their slipping and sliding.

Using high-speed photography and a computer, Leamon analyzes just what people go through on their way to the ground. At first he had hoped for some fast answers on how to prevent falls, but the research so far has been much more basic. He has found, for instance, that people are constantly having what he terms "micro-slips" from which they are able to recover and which they may barely notice. He has yet to discover what will turn one of those into a fall.

Leamon admits that, at first blush, his research might evoke a chuckle or two. But he said that when he explains what he does, people generally respond positively. Almost everyone, he said, has a friend or a relative who has been incapacitated by a fall.

In the end, Leamon said, he hopes to find answers to a lot of questions about falling, and to figure out ways to prevent them.

He said, for instance, that many older people fall as they are getting up from a chair, but no one knows exactly why. Miners often fall as they emerge from a dark, cramped shaft, also for reasons unknown.

He said he would be looking into questions such as what makes people walk carefully. A glossy floor, one that looks very slippery, might cause people to walk more gingerly than one that looks less so, for example. Color might contribute to a slippery appearance; ditto strategically placed lighting.

Leamon wants to find out if long hallways painted a single color somehow have an effect on balance. And he will try to determine which shoe materials are the best ones for avoiding slipping.

He said that research like this was justified because history has shown that just because something seems apparent, it is not always so.

"Maybe the answers are a lot different than the first principles," he said.

Meanwhile, he has received a fair amount of advice about falling and what to do about it. One suggestion was that elderly people be taught judo so that they can avoid injury by rolling if they fall.

"I think teaching judo to 75-year-olds might do more harm than good," Leamon said.

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