Don't Trip Over the Basics

Understanding the fundamentals of falls.

In 2017, there were 5,147 work-related fatalities in the United States, 971 of which were due to falls. Broken down further, 151 of those fatalities were the result of falls on the same level, and the remaining 820 were falls to a lower level. Falls accounted for 39.2 percent of work-related fatalities in the construction industry in 2018. OSHA requires employers to provide protection for each employee exposed to falls and falling object hazards in 29 CFR 1910.28. This article will not discuss the requirements for fall arrest systems.

General Causes of Falls

Trips. Most people have experienced a stumble or trip for no apparent reason. What they tripped over was not evident or even visible at times. Falls on the same level are generally caused when the foot or lower extremity strikes a fixed or semi-immobile object, structure or equipment, and suddenly stops. When the body is in motion and the lower extremity stops, the upper body continues the momentum and the person falls.

When a person walks, they will only pick their foot up approximately half an inch. As a result, any protrusion that extends vertically half an inch above the walking surface is considered a source of falls. Protrusions may include sidewalk cracks, rail systems in a manufacturing facility, dips in a walkway, cables or hoses in the walkway, thresholds and curled edges of floor mats. Other causes of trips can include obstructed vision, clutter, holes in walking surfaces, uneven steps on ladders and stairs, and poor lighting.

Slips. Falls due to slips also represent a significant amount of injuries and fatalities. Injuries from slips include muscle strains, broken bones, and head injuries. Slips are caused when the friction between the walking surface and the footwear is too little. Common causes include poor housekeeping, wet surfaces, oily surfaces, loose materials or debris on the surface, and poor friction rating on walking surfaces.

Prevention of Slips and Trips

Housekeeping. OSHA requires employers to specifically maintain a housekeeping program in many of its standards, including 29 CFR 1910.28. Good housekeeping procedures include:

  • Barricading areas where the potential of slips and trips can occur
  • Cleaning up spills immediately
  • Covering or hanging cables and hoses
  • Posting signage to warn others of potential slips and trips until they can be mitigated
  • Securing rugs, mats and carpets
  • Sweeping floors frequently

Lighting. Installing and maintaining lighting to ensure adequate visibility is another key factor in the prevention of falls. The definition of “adequate” is very vague. OSHA has outlined specific standards for the construction industry in 1926.56—Illumination. The following are the required minimum standards:

  • Concrete placement, access ways, active storage areas, etc.: 3 foot-candles
  • First aid stations, infirmaries and offices: 30 foot-candles
  • General construction: 5 foot-candles
  • General construction plants and shops: 10 foot-candles
  • Indoors (warehouses, corridors, hallways, and exits): 5 foot-candles
  • Tunnels, shafts and general underground work areas: 5 foot-candles

A foot-candle is a unit of measurement based on the amount of light generated by a single candle one foot from the candle. Note: 1 foot-candle = 1 lumen per square foot = 10.764 lux.

Floor Friction. Floor friction is measured in terms of “coefficient of friction.” The coefficient of friction is a unitless measurement that defines the ratio between the force necessary to move one surface horizontally over another and the pressure between the two surfaces. The higher the coefficient, the more friction between the surfaces. OSHA does not have a defined standard for a coefficient of friction of flooring; however, it does have a minimum slip resistance recommendation (measured as coefficient of friction) of 0.5. This is a non-mandatory standard that has been identified in OSHA’s Letters of Interpretations.

Ladders. Ladders pose a significant threat in the home and workplace. Injuries and fatalities have occurred from the use of a common stepladder. OSHA outlines the requirements of a ladder safety program in 29 CFR 1910.23. Ladders include step ladders, extension ladders, and fixed ladders. Ladders are classified into use categories described below:

  • Special Duty: Up to 375 pounds
  • Extra Heavy Duty: Up to 300 pounds
  • Heavy Duty: Up to 250 pounds
  • Medium Duty: Up to 225 pounds
  • Light Duty: Up to 200 pounds

The load capacities are a combination weight among the user, tools and any equipment. Labels on the side rails indicate the rating. Don’t Trip Over the Basics Understanding the fundamentals of falls.

Step Ladders. A step ladder is a self-supporting, portable ladder that has a fixed height, flat steps, and a hinged back. It is constructed of wood, metal or fiberglass. Each type has advantages and disadvantages.

Wooden ladders do not conduct electricity, but they are heavier than the other portable ladders. In addition, wooden ladders tend to decay or rot when wet and are easily damaged. Metal ladders, especially those constructed of aluminum, are lighter to carry; however, metal ladders are conductors of electricity and therefore pose a safety risk if they come into contact with a source of electricity. Fiberglass step ladders are lightweight and do not conduct electricity. They can also be damaged if not properly stored and maintained.

Extension Ladders. An extension ladder is a non-self-supporting portable ladder that is adjustable in length. Extension ladders are typically used in exterior environments to reach roofs or interior areas to reach platforms where stepladders cannot be used. OSHA requires that extension ladders extend three feet beyond the landing point of the top of the extension ladder. In addition, the base of the ladder should be 1/4th of the distance of the height from the wall. For example, if the height of the wall is 12 feet, then the base of the ladder should be three feet from the base of the wall.

Fixed Ladders. A fixed ladder is one with rails or individual rungs that are permanently attached to a structure, building or equipment. Fixed ladders include individual-rung ladders but do not include ship stairs, step bolts, or manhole steps. Fixed ladders must extend 42 inches above the top of the access level or landing platform. A fixed ladder that is 20 feet or greater in length from the next level must be guarded by a cage. If required, the cage must begin at seven feet.

In summary, falls represent a significant threat to the health and safety of employees both at work and in the home. Simple precautions, including training, pre-use inspections, frequent audits and awareness of working conditions, can help prevent injuries and fatalities. It never hurts to remind employees of the requirements in the walking and working standards, fall protection and prevention.

This article originally appeared in the November/December 2019 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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