A study conducted in 2005 by Liberty Mutual Workplace Safety found most business executives ranked workplace accidents involving slips, trips and falls as seventh on a list of the most common jobsite injuries. However, slips, trips and falls are actually the second-leading cause of workplace injury, and studies find the problem is growing.

These accidents account for nearly 14 percent of all costs — medical, legal and other — related to workplace injuries, and the National Safety Council estimates that these expenses total approximately $70 billion per year. And this does not include the impact — and expense — of reduced worker productivity when injured employees must take days, if not months, off from work.

Moreover, it is believed that the number of slip, trip and fall injuries reported is actually only a “small piece of what is happening,” according to Wayne Maynard of Liberty Mutual. “Hundreds of slips and falls that are simply never reported may be occurring in organizations.”

Maynard believes one reason for this is that workers are often embarrassed to report a slip or fall or may even believe it is their own fault if they are injured. The problem is that if they do not report the incident, nothing is done to correct the problem, and then the same thing can happen to someone else.

Anywhere, anytime

Slips, trips, and falls can occur just about anywhere: in an office setting, a school, a factory, a public building or a warehouse. However, they may be caused by a variety of reasons. For instance, slips usually occur as a result of too little friction or traction between footwear and the floor. Some of the most common reasons for this include:
  • wet or oily surfaces;
  • inappropriate footwear;
  • loose, unanchored carpets, rugs, mats or floor tiles.

Trips, on the other hand, happen when your foot strikes or hits an object, causing loss of balance. Common causes of tripping are:
  • an obstructed view;
  • poor lighting;
  • items cluttered on the floor;
  • wrinkled carpeting;
  • cables or cords laid across walkways.

Both slips and trips can affect your forward motion, causing your upper-body positioning to fall ahead of or behind your lower body. Either way, you lose your balance — and a fall is often the result.

Many variables

Addressing the causes of slips and falls has become a complicated issue. Some big retailers and other companies have been victims of insurance scams by customers and employees claiming they slipped and/or fell in the company’s facility and that the building owner was at fault. As a result, a “blame the victim” mentality has developed among many facility owners, managers and their legal teams, faulting the one injured instead of looking to see if a problem really exists.

Many times, upon closer investigation, managers find that someone may have connected an electrical cord over a walkway or that there was a preventable maintenance problem. Because of this, the first step in preventing slip and fall injuries is to stop blaming the victim or rushing to conclusions.

However, it cannot be denied there are human factors that contribute to these accidents. Some facility workers fail to pay proper attention while they are walking. Or they may carry objects that are too heavy or awkward, or these objects may block their view, causing a slip or fall. And some people have poorer vision than they realize. Even a common cold, which can affect ear canals, can cause balance problems.

Because there are many variables, organizations must continually focus on steps they can take to prevent slip, trip and fall injuries. Usually, especially in an industrial setting, this involves instituting a comprehensive safety program that includes incorporating building designs that minimize walking accidents, specifications for proper footwear, employee training, and proper floor maintenance to keep floors clean, attractive and safe.

Comprehensive safety program

A facility still in the planning stage presents an excellent opportunity for architects and developers to incorporate safety designs that help minimize walking accidents. Often this can be accomplished by selecting certain flooring types such as rubber flooring, not necessarily based on how they look or how much they cost, but on how well they help prevent accidents.

But whether the facility is under development or existing, a comprehensive safety program includes:
  • Developing a “safety culture” in the facility. A safety culture means everyone in a facility — supervisors, managers and workers — understands how slip and fall accidents can be prevented and takes responsibility for his or her actions. This includes taking steps to minimize potential hazards and encouraging workers to report potential problems and/or “close calls.”
  • Requiring slip-resistant footwear. In an industrial setting, the shoe’s sole should have a raised-tread pattern on the heel and sole, as well as a cross-hatch pattern. A softer rubber material is often more slip-resistant because it can better conform to the surface of the floor.
  • Installing a matting system at all building entries. Mats not only help keep soil out of a facility but also clean and remove oil, grease and debris from the bottoms of shoes. This improves traction.

Floor care and maintenance

Floor care and maintenance are very important. Almost all hard-surface flooring is slip-resistant when dry, but add water, soil or contaminants, and you are dealing with an entirely different situation.

Facility managers are advised to incorporate regularly scheduled strip, scrub and refinish programs to keep floors as clean as possible. This helps remove the contaminants that, once they build up, can cause a slip or fall.

Facility managers should also examine the type of floor equipment they use to scrub floors. Some conventional rotary floor machines may actually spread soils over the floor as the pad becomes dirty. An option to consider is a cylindrical floor machine that uses brushes and not pads (see “Cylindrical machines” sidebar). The brushes on a cylindrical machine penetrate the porous surfaces of a floor, helping to remove deeply embedded grit and soil and thus keeping the floor more slip-resistant.

Additionally, floors should be dust-mopped, or preferably vacuumed, and damp-mopped regularly, if not daily. The cleaning solution should be changed frequently when mopping floors. Once the solution is dirty, you’re no longer cleaning the floor but just spreading the soil around.

A final recommendation is so obvious and yet it is often overlooked. Warning and safety cones should be placed whenever and wherever there is a potential hazard. It is amazing how often a puddle or damp area on a floor is simply ignored — until it’s too late.

SIDEBAR: Cylindrical machines: a good option for structured floors.

If your facility includes structured floors, such as rubber-studded floors and uneven or stone floors, cylindrical floor machines, which feature roller brushes on each end, as compared to traditional rotary buffers with a single rotary disk, are a viable floor cleaning option. Cylindrical machines are multidirectional — they can be maneuvered side to side, forward and backward — at 1,000 to 1,400 rpm. For common floor care tasks, such as polishing, scrubbing or stripping, the cylindrical machine offers strong contact pressure on the floor and greater penetrating capabilities. This, along with the very high rpm, can enhance cleaning results.

Cylindrical machines utilize contra-rotating rollers that rotate inward, which prevents cleaning solution from splashing against walls or baseboards. In addition, because the machines have a square base, as opposed to a round one, they can line up directly against baseboards to facilitate edge and corner cleaning. With a cylindrical machine, a film of cleaning solution forms between the two parallel rollers to allow the machine to better and more evenly penetrate the floor with detergent.

— By Robert Kravitz, a former building service contractor, now a communications professional for the cleaning and buildings industries.

SIDEBAR: Steps to take

Organizations must continually focus on steps they can take to prevent slip, trip and fall injuries. This usually will involve instituting a comprehensive safety program, which should include:
  • incorporating building designs that minimize walking accidents;
  • specifications for proper footwear;
  • employee training; and
  • proper floor maintenance to keep floors clean, attractive and safe.