slips and falls at work

Discarding Paradigms that Limit Our Ability to Prevent Slip, Trip and Fall Injuries

What are the accepted paradigms that limit our effectiveness for preventing slip and trip injuries?

Let’s start with a reminder why we are here, why our profession matters. Our overarching purpose is to prevent suffering and through that purpose, contribute to the success of our companies, our organizations or for our services. This is an important launching point when we address beliefs, patterns that limit our effectiveness and paradigms that we have accepted and adopted as fact. Perhaps Pogo, an iconic comic character of the mid to late 1900’s by Walt Kelly, said it best… “We have seen the enemy and it is us.”

What are the accepted paradigms that limit our effectiveness for preventing slip-and-trip injuries? Here’s a quick list of widely-held paradigms that have limited our ability to prevent slip and trip injuries for years.

  • Personal awareness is primary to prevention.
  • Look to shoes first for preventing slip injuries.
  • Using signage is an effective preventative strategy.
  • Preventing slip-and-trip injuries is easy.

The simple fact is that none of these widely accepted paradigms for preventing slip and trip injuries is true. Let me repeat… none. Let’s discuss why.

Personal awareness is primary to prevention.

You hear this paradigm in many forms. You may hear, “We’ve got to keep their heads in it.” Or you might hear, “What were they thinking?” Both these say the same thing: People are totally, or at least partially, responsible for watching out where they are walking. If they aren’t attentive and their awareness of walking surface hazards isn’t sufficient, they deserve to fall and get hurt.

The legal profession has a phrase for this paradigm that they have used countless times to remove clients totally or partially from liability from slip-and-trip injuries. They use the term “open and obvious,” which means the same thing: The injured party should have been more aware, should have seen the hazard and avoided it and avoided being injured. The sad point is that we, the profession that is supposed to prevent pain and suffering, also has climbed on board this paradigm. The attitude often is: What can we do when people simply don’t have their heads in the game?

We forget that many walking surface hazards can be invisible to people, especially when we consider the walking and working systems. People simply don’t walk on 100 percent conscious control. Doing that would be exhausting and it wouldn’t be normal. People walk almost all the time on autonomic control. It’s simply walking by reflex.

Further, the way we interface people with their work or even simple tasks, we draw conscious attention up and away from walking surface hazards. Those are facts.

So, what part does a person’s awareness play? Awareness isn’t a continuum. Awareness is a temporary and a short-termed dynamic, because face it, we have busy brains in our work and in our social lives. And if we adopt a new paradigm and we treat awareness as a short-term dynamic, it totally changes how we look at prevention and the tools we use.

Look to shoes first for preventing slip injuries.

When did we forget that going with personal protective equipment always is the last choice when controlling hazards? The reason we’ve forgotten has been two-fold, merely looking at shoes or the soles of the shoes that people wear is an easy fix but it places the burden of prevention back on the individual. Secondly, it is easier for us, the safety professionals, to specify special shoes. We don’t have to do the much more difficult job of removing the hazard by working across the aisle and partnering with other disciplines like engineering to improve the process or equipment.

By accepting shoes as “the fix,” we do damage to our companies and organizations by placing on-going costs, either directly in the current and future dollar allowances provided for purchasing shoes, but also indirectly as this is an administrative fix as well. We burden the effectiveness of our managers to oversee the effectiveness of “shoe safety.”

Why has this shoe paradigm failed? First, relying on shoes does nothing to remove the slip hazard. Those slip hazards continue to exist and we create an on-going visible – yet ignored – slipping probability (not possibility, probability). Second, we ignore the fact of wear. Shoe soles wear away so the slip-resistance provided when new diminishes with use, and this can be a critical factor when we depend on shoes as our fix.

Again, the responsibility for inspecting for wear is placed on the individual. We place the burden of staying safe by inspecting the shoes’ soles and replacing shoes when the soles degrade completely on the individual and abdicate our responsibility to remove the hazards. This becomes an extension of the personal responsibility for safety, the awareness paradigm.

Using signage is an effective prevention strategy.

There are many problems we ignore when we trust this common paradigm. The first is that whereas signage is designed to improve awareness, we must accept that awareness is a short-term dynamic. The word dynamic correctly is applied here because awareness is a pull-and-push, primary-then-secondary, here-then-there thing. Awareness is caught in the winds of everything else that constantly is coming at and being demanded of us.

Second, the term “familiarity breeds contempt,” should be rephrased for signage. It should read “familiarity breeds invisibility.” The fact is that the effectiveness of signs also is a short-term thing. When the signs are new, workers notice them, but when they’ve been there a while – even the next day – it’s like a spot on the wall. Signs quickly become part of the landscape and totally are missed.

Third, signs do nothing to remove the hazard. This alone should tell us the short-term nature of signage effectiveness. Yet, signs are put up everywhere and remain seemingly forever.

To rephrase this signage paradigm: “Using highly-visible cues is an effective, short-term injury prevention strategy.” Highly visible cues are an effective way to draw eyes to where hazards exist. They are effective at building awareness in the “now” timeframe, but they also must compete in this same dynamic with all the other cues, the concentration tasks, the landscape “noise” that hits us in a continuum. But cues are only short-term Band Aids and in no way should derail our efforts to remove walking surface hazards completely.

Preventing slip and trip injuries is easy.

In fact, this paradigm was created in our minds because we believe the other paradigms. If we blame lack of safety awareness or specify new shoes that must be worn or blame the people who let the soles of their safety shoes degrade or we simply put up a new sign… voila, easy solutions!

We then can move on and focus on more important safety things. Taiichi Ohno, the father of 20th century Japanese management told us that Americans “Dig an inch deep and a mile wide” when they should “Dig a mile deep and an inch wide” when it comes to solving problems.

His meaning was that we try to solve something too quickly, and don’t go deep enough into either the causes or the solutions. His point was that the Japanese way going a mile deep and an inch wide was much more effective at removing the problem from the universe of potential problems. The American way would only see the problem occurring again and again, so in the long run, we spend countless on-going time and effort chasing recurring problems rather than making them go away. We don’t understand the Japanese concept of poka-yoke.

So, is solving slip-and-trip injuries easy? Some can be if we focus on removing the hazard only; we clean it up, we grind away a slight rise in the pavement, we put yellow and black tape on an edge.

Dealing with the cause or causes of the hazard is never easy. Dealing with causes requires that we partner with others, that we fix process upsets, that we install new barriers or devices to remove slip hazards from reaching walkways, that we install gradual ramps instead of steps. Dealing with and resolving the causes, or applying the concepts of poka-yoke to make hazards disappear forever, isn’t easy. As preventers of human suffering, we can’t take the common American mile-wide-and-inch-deep problem-solving method for preventing slip and trip injuries.

We also should consider a new dynamic, a change in the American workforce that has been occurring over the past 20 years and has taken a statistical up-turn in the past 5 years. The percentage of workers who are older in our workforce rapidly is getting greater. The normal aging process should tell us that the risk of severe injuries from slip-and-trip-caused falls is greater in older workers and that will impact our bottom lines at an increasing cost, consistent with this increasing percentage of older workers.

This should be our wake-up call to discard these commonly held paradigms that have for years impeded our effectiveness as safety people to actually prevent slip-and-trip injuries. This is a call to action, a call to change our paradigms.

About the author: F. David Pierce holds a master’s degree in industrial hygiene from the University of Utah and multiple safety and health certifications. He has published five books on safety management and over 100 articles. He currently resides in Salt Lake City and in principle consultant in Leadership Solutions Consultants Inc.

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