Combating Industry's Costly Slips

Falls in the workplace are the No. 1 preventable loss type, and slips are the leading cause of falls. Our experts explain why slips occur, why there are so many and how they can be prevented.

In slapstick movies, as in real life, a slip and a fall often makes us chuckle &endash; at least when it's happening to somebody else. But slips and falls in the workplace are no laughing matter, not unless you think spending $7 billion is funny.

That's the estimated annual direct cost to U.S. businesses for slips and falls in the workplace, according to research by Liberty Mutual, the Boston-based insurance company that specializes in workers' compensation insurance. The figure rises to as high as $35 billion if you include indirect costs, such as lost productivity and the time it takes to investigate incidents. Falls on the same level are the third most frequent type of nonfatal occupational injury, representing almost 14 percent of all losses.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) does not keep separate records for slips and resulting falls, lumping them together with trips and falls that are caused by other factors. BLS data show that total numbers and incidence rates for slips, trips and falls have declined only slightly over the past three years (see "Slips Keep Happening" on page 45).

Yet, there are a number of ways to cut slip hazards, and many of these methods are relatively inexpensive, especially if you consider that the average cost of a worker's fall is $12,470.

Why Do Slips Happen?

At the most basic level, a slip occurs because of "inadequate slip resistance between the shoe and the walking surface," according to consultant John Cockrell, Ph.D., who has been working in this area for 31 years.

Consultant Robert Brungraber is an emeritus professor at Bucknell University and the creator of a well-known slipmeter, or tribometer, a device that measures the slip resistance of floors and footwear (see "Why You Might Need a Slipmeter" on page 46). Brungraber explained that slips are generally caused by the interaction of any or all of three factors:

  • Footwear,
  • Flooring, and
  • Contaminants that may come between the floor and the shoe.

In addition to these three material factors, some experts point to a fourth, more immaterial, cause. The element of surprise is the root cause of many slips, according to consultant Keith Vidal. Vidal, who works out of St. Louis, is chairman of the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) subcommittee that in August approved a new standard titled "Provision of Slip Resistance on Walking-Working Surfaces," or ANSI A1264.2.

"Slips occur primarily when you unexpectedly encounter some localized spot that has a decreased level of slip resistance," he said. "I call it the 'theory of expectations.'"

People expect consistent frictional qualities on the floors they walk on, he noted. At some point, however, they may strike an area where water, oil or floor wear has reduced slip resistance. This causes the heel to slip out, resulting in a fall.

Finally, slips may be caused by inattention by employees or by employers or building owners.

Lee Batzel is the corporate safety manager for Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Co. (A&P), a supermarket chain with approximately 750 stores and headquarters in Montvale, N.J. Batzel has some advice for safety managers: Examine your accident numbers to determine if you have a problem with slips. If so, look at where and how slips and falls are occurring.

When he began doing so recently, Batzel discovered the company spends more than $8 million each year on slips, trips and falls. When compared to other serious hazards that, unlike slips, have tough OSHA standards, it may often be difficult for overworked safety professionals to take slips and falls seriously. The continuing high incidence of this preventable accident may be a result of the low priority it often receives.

"Slips and falls are a big problem, one that receives too little attention when you consider the costs involved," said Wayne Maynard, product director for ergonomics and tribology at the Liberty Mutual Research Center. "We hear a lot about machine guarding and ergonomics, but very little about slips and falls. It's a huge area and one that needs to be managed just like other safety and health hazards."

Steps To Prevention

The consensus among slip experts is that successful prevention programs address all the controllable factors.

For Steven Di Pilla, director of product development for Philadelphia-based ESIS Risk Control Services, this means that slip-resistant shoes are specified, slip-resistant walking surfaces are installed, and the presence of contaminants is managed through good design, appropriate prevention strategies and prompt response measures.

Having said that, Di Pilla also believes one of these hazards is "more equal" than the others. "We look at flooring more than footwear and contaminants," he said.

Bill English, CSP, a consultant specializing in slips and falls since 1985 and the creator of the English XL slipmeter, agreed. "Factors affecting fall occurrence include floor surface, shoe type, and surface contaminants, in that order," he said. "But fall safety programs that achieve the best results attack all three of those areas."

Short of replacing the entire walking surface, there are cost-effective options for increasing a floor's slip resistance:

  • Paint with abrasive material;
  • Etch the surface with acids, such as hydrofluoric acid; or
  • Place slip-resistant mats in the most dangerous areas.

The floor treatment that is most appropriate for a particular work environment will depend on the nature of the floor and the hazards that are present.

If you determine you have a problem with slips, experts say, the floor's slip resistance should be tested and measured with slipmeters. Such a test will help you determine if you have a slippery floor and if your efforts to improve the situation have been successful.

Batzel said his effort has focused on the use of flooring mats. "The mat program has greatly reduced slips and falls for us," he said. Batzel has learned it is important to test the mats to be sure they cannot be kicked or bunched up easily. "Otherwise, you're taking care of one hazard &endash; slips &endash; but creating another &endash; trips."

A&P worked with a company and developed mats made of plastic and rubber that do not move. In the company's newer stores, these mats are installed as part of the floor.

Because of his theory of expectations, Vidal emphasizes the proper management of a thorough housekeeping program. This means a formal, written program that specifies the proper cleaners for each contaminant, the use of barricades and warnings, and the training of employees on the proper procedures.

"It's almost like an emergency plan," Vidal said.

Maynard echoed this point, contending that far too many workplaces lack a "floor cleaning protocol." A crucial component of such a protocol is to prescribe the appropriate solvent and method of removal for each contaminant present.

It is important to clean up spills quickly and correctly, not only to remove the immediate hazard, but also because dirt, grease or whatever has spilled will reduce the floor's slip resistance over time. The manufacturer of the cleaning solution is one resource for determining how to match solvent with contaminant.

"This program can't stay in a three-ring binder on a shelf," Maynard said. "It's got to be managed."

Batzel said that, through slipmeter testing, he is learning how important it is to clean floors often and well. "You need to do more than mop. That just spreads the problem around," he said. "You need to agitate and actually remove the contaminant."

Regular, frequent inspections of high traffic areas, and keeping a written log of each inspection, can be a critical element in defending against a lawsuit, a real danger should a nonemployee slip in your facility.

"A good preventive maintenance program is not enough to protect you from legal liability. Writing it down is essential," according to Vidal, who said he has taken the stand hundreds of times as an expert witness in such cases.

Litigation of slips and falls in North America is a growing problem, according to Leon Altman, vice president of technical services at No Skidding Products, a manufacturer of a variety of slip prevention floor products that has its headquarters in Toronto.

"When people fall, first they shout, 'Where's my lawyer?'"Altman said. "They ask for their doctor later."

Altman said No Skidding's customers include not just the large hotel and restaurant chains you would expect to take slip hazards seriously, but also a variety of manufacturers. "Most of the Fortune 500 deal with us," he said.

Test Your Rubber Sole

The biggest problem confronting the consumer who wants to buy slip-resistant footwear is determining how the product will perform in a particular work environment.

"The rubber chemistry of the shoe sole must be specially designed for slip resistance and then matched to the contaminant," Cockrell said. "It is a myth that just because it has a rubber sole and a cool-looking tread pattern, it will be slip-resistant."

English emphasized the importance of matching the shoe to the contaminant. He said slipmeter tests have revealed that shoes that performed the worst on kitchen grease did quite well on engine oil. "The point isn't whether a shoe is slip-resistant or not. You tell me the contaminant, and after I test it, I'll tell you how well it performs."

For those without access to a slipmeter, the best recourse is trial and error. Buy a small number of shoes and test them in your work environment. After you have determined which ones perform the best, you are in a position to place your order.

As with the floor surface, one cannot simply buy a good product and forget about it. Over time, wear will gradually reduce a shoe's slip resistance, another reason why constant monitoring of floors and footwear is the hallmark of a proactive slip program.

Slipping Standards: Stay Tuned

Several experts stated that one reason slips in the workplace may not receive the attention they deserve is the lack of an OSHA standard with specific and enforceable slip resistance requirements. This situation may, or may not, be about to change.

In the construction arena, OSHA has issued a new steel erection standard, 29 CFR 1926.754(c)(3) Subpart R, requiring that workers not be permitted to walk on top of any structural steel member coated with paint unless the coating has been tested to have at least a 0.50 slip resistance when measured by the English XL tribometer or an equivalent tester. The enforcement date of the steel erection standard is Jan. 19, 2002.

Before construction companies rush out to test all of their painted steel, they need to know that the enforcement date of this particular provision of the new standard is Jan. 19, 2007. Moreover, OSHA is being sued because of the specific slip resistance requirement, casting further doubt on when or whether the provision will be enforced.

In a background interview, one OSHA official in the construction directorate said that last year OSHA investigated 251 fatalities related to slips, trips and falls, representing one-third of all construction fatalities. Although it is difficult to find specific slip data, the official did say that "anecdotally, slips are a major problem in the construction industry."

Another OSHA official who is familiar with general industry enforcement contended that even without specific slip resistance requirements, the agency enforces the walking-working surfaces rule (Part 1910 Subpart D) quite aggressively.

"I know that slips, trips and falls are probably the biggest cause of accidents in this country," the official said. "We're always looking for anything that can cause a slip whenever we do an inspection."

From Oct. 1, 1998, to midyear 2001, employers were cited for the provision of Subpart D most germane to slips (1910.22) 3,745 times and fined $1.152 million, after adjustments.

Among other things, this part of the OSHA standard requires that "the floor of every workroom shall be maintained in a clean and, so far as possible, a dry condition. Where wet processes are used, drainage shall be maintained, and gratings, mats or raised platforms shall be provided."

Employers should stay tuned: This OSHA standard soon may be revised. In 1990, the agency completed a number of revisions to the rule, but they have been on hold ever since. At press time, OSHA was in the process of determining whether to go ahead with any of these changes to the rule.

Of more immediate interest to employers concerned about slips is the new ANSI voluntary standard (A1264.2), soon to be published by the American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE). The purpose of the standard is to establish provisions for reasonably safe working and walking environments. It is intended to apply primarily to industrial and workplace situations.

"This is a standard for everybody's file," said Vidal, the chair of the subcommittee that produced the standard. It is designed to help any safety manager develop a proactive slip resistance program. "If you don't have a program, this will help you develop one, and if you do have one, this will help you identify gaps in it," he added.

Di Pilla also praised the standard as "a good document that is relevant for safety professionals in the manufacturing sector."

Among other things, ANSI/ASSE A1264.2 recommends a slip resistance level of 0.5 or better for all dry surfaces. It remains to be seen if this specific requirement finds its way into the revisions to OSHA's rule that are under consideration.

To purchase a copy of A1264.2, call ASSE at (847) 699-2929.

Whether or not you buy the new ANSI standard, Vidal has some simple advice for all safety managers, culled from a dozen years of specializing in slips and falls.

"I see it every day. People don't address slip hazards until somebody gets hurt," he said. "My recommendation is: Be proactive."

Why You Might Need a Slipmeter

Slipmeters, or tribometers, measure the slip resistance of a floor or shoe. The measures range from 1.0 (very slip-resistant) to 0.0 (icy conditions).

According to Steven Di Pilla of ESIS Risk Control Services, there are a number of reasons why safety managers might determine that a slipmeter is needed to address slip hazards in the workplace:

  • Accident investigation, for workers' compensation or legal liability claims;
  • Evaluation of floor treatment/cleaning products and methods;
  • Problem identification and pre-vention; and
  • Claims defense and documentation, as documenting regular slip testing can help minimize claim occurrences and costs.

According to consultant Keith Vidal and Di Pilla, there are only two devices with an American Standard for Testing and Materials F-13 standard for testing wet surfaces. One is the Portable Inclinable Articulated Strut Tribometer (PIAST, or Brungraber Mark II). The other is the Variable Incidence Tribometer (VIT, or English XL).

A tribometer that cannot test wet surfaces is of little use, because it is precisely the slipperiness of a floor, or the performance of a shoe, when a specific contaminant is present that is of most interest in the effort to address slip hazards. A number of independent tests have confirmed the reliability of these two devices for wet testing.

Because of the time required to learn how to use slipmeters and their cost (between $3,000 and $4,000), they have, until now, been sold primarily to consultants or large companies with big slip problems.

Lee Batzel, corporate safety manager for A&P, says he finds the English XL "very useful." He uses the slipmeter to test floor types to determine what to use in new stores, to select floor care products, and to develop best practices and protocols for cleaning floors.

To learn more about the Brungraber Mark II, call Robert Brungraber at (732) 449-1789.

The best place to go for information on the English XL also happens to be one of the best sources for information on slips: www.EnglishXL.com .

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