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A Clearer Understanding of Slips and Falls
Managers of industrial locations have likely had their share of unfortunate experiences with slip-and-fall accidents. And they probably have a pretty good idea of what types of conditions and situations are most likely to cause such accidents. This includes anything from obstacles such as cords or partially folded mats on the floor to spills and wet floor conditions.
They also likely know what an investigator will look into should someone be injured as a result of a slip-and-fall accident in their facility. If the reason for the slip and fall is obvious, such as an obstacle on the floor, then the cause is quite clear. However, when the cause is not clear, further investigation is necessary.
This investigation could include testing the coefficient of friction (COF) or the static coefficient of friction (SCOF), which indicates essentially how slip resistant the floor is. The investigator will want to know what steps have been taken—along with what types of cleaning solutions have been used— to clean and maintain the floor area on a daily, interim, and restorative basis.1 And to back all this up, the investigator will invariably also ask to see any type of ongoing audit or documentation that proves the floor has been cleaned and maintained regularly and with safety in mind.
And in the process of conducting an investigation into exactly what might have caused the slip and fall accident, the investigator will likely try to decipher one more thing: exactly what type of slip and fall accident occurred. What industrial building administrators might not know is that not all slip-and-fall accidents are the same. Being aware of this can be a crucial step in helping to minimize if not eliminate many types of slips and falls from occurring.
The Mechanics of a Slip and Fall Accident
Before we discuss the different types of slips, trips, and falls that can occur, we need to understand a bit more about how we walk. Please note, this is a simplified version of the complex mechanics of walking but provides enough information so we can understand the basics and how it relates to a slip-and-fall accident.
When we walk, the muscles and tendons in our legs expand and contract, controlled by the joints and bones in our legs. While walking, we are transferring our weight from one foot to the other. This causes our bodies to gently swing back and forth. We can see the impact of this in our arms, which move forward and backward during the walking process.
Our center of gravity (COG), essentially the center of the body, is our balance point. This is what keeps us standing up straight with forward movement. However, as our weight is transferred from foot to foot, there is actually a brief second or two—and that’s all it takes—when we are off balance and are vulnerable to a fall. If there is an unexpected change in the floor surface and, say, a foot slips or is caught on an obstacle during this brief period, our COG can be impacted, we can lose our balance, and, if we cannot quickly right ourselves, we fall.2
Four Types of Falls
Now that you know what happens with the body to cause a fall, let’s look at the four key types of slips, trips, and falls:
- Trip and fall. This type of fall occurs when we unknowingly encounter a foreign object in our path, such as a power cord, a child’s toy, or a step.
- Stump and fall. This kind of fall happens when we encounter an unseen impediment or obstruction on the walking surface, such as an uneven floor area, a bump on a rug, or a significantly tacky area on the floor.
- Step and fall. Falls of this type occur when the surface we are walking on unexpectedly changes height, such as in the case of a hole or dip in the surface.
- Slip and fall. This type of fall happens when our COG is disrupted because we lose secure foot contact with the floor.
This last type, slip and fall, tends to be the most common and thus incur the most injuries; often we can recover our balance with the other types of slips, trips, and falls. And if we do experience a slip and fall and land on a fleshy part of the body, we often can escape serious injury. However, if we land on a bony part of the body or the fall is relatively violent in nature, the injury can be serious, even deadly.
There are scores of different ways to prevent all types of slips, trips, and falls. Many industrial facilities have their own slip and fall prevention programs. Typically, proper cleaning using the right tools, chemicals, and equipment is at the top of the list. Additionally, industrial locations are installing a variety of matting systems—such as mats that allow moisture and soils to collect under the surface of the mat—to help prevent slip and fall accidents.
However, there are two things that should also be included in a slip and fall prevention program: proper footwear and proper signage. If you were to look out at your warehouse or factory floor, what types of shoes are your workers wearing? If they are wearing everyday shoes, even sneakers, this is not proper work footwear. Instead, workers should be wearing such safety shoes as the following:
- Treads: Treads cover most types of shoes up to the ankle; some are 100 percent waterproof, made of natural rubber, and are designed to be skid resistant.
- Safety slippers: Similar to treads but lighter and water resistant (not necessarily waterproof), safety slippers are often made of polyethylene and provide anti-slip protection; be sure to select slippers that have a "heavy" machine stitch because they will last longer.
- Boots: If workers must walk on floors where water, oil, or grease is often on the floor, wearing PVC (vinyl) boots should be considered; the boot should be at least 16 inches above the sock to protect the foot and leg from splatter and should comply with ASTM performance requirements.
As to proper signage, we could just leave a safety or warning sign up wherever there is a potential slip, trip, and fall hazard. However, the problem with this is that, if a safety sign is always in place, it soon loses its meaning and may be ignored. Because of this, administrators must stay on top of floor conditions and install safety signs only when a potential hazard exists.
Additionally, remember that not all safety signs are the same. For instance, a sign indicating serious "danger" is in red and should be placed wherever serious injury can happen if the walker is not careful. A "warning" sign is in orange and should be placed when a hazardous situation might exist. A "caution" sign in yellow is more of a notice and should be placed in situations where care must be taken.
We've covered a lot of issues here regarding slips, trips, and falls, but there is even more that can be learned. Industrial facility administrators should educate themselves as much as they can about slip-and-fall accidents. The more you know, the better prepared you will be to help prevent them and the injuries that often accompany them.
1. Daily floor care includes activities such as general cleaning of the floor with a mop or an automatic scrubber. Interim cleaning is generally performed every two to three months to deep scrub the floor. Restorative care involves stripping off any finish or sealant from the floor, cleaning the floor, and then refinishing and sealing it; depending on foot traffic and how the floor is used, restorative care could be performed as frequently as every few months or as infrequently as every couple of years.
2. Source: Clayne R. Jensen, Applied Kinesiology and Biomechanics (1983), and other sources.
This article originally appeared in the November 2017 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.