The bottom line is that safety managers need to plan ahead for how they will address winter slip and fall hazards. They also need to understand there is no one-size-fits-all solution.

Plan Ahead to Prevent Slips and Falls

There are three ways to prevent them –- eliminating access, housekeeping, and improved traction -– but the first two aren't possible in all cases.

Falls from height and same-level falls are costly throughout the year. Both types occur frequently in winter, and as a rule OSHA and other safety authorities issue reminders about these hazards and best practices -– including diligent housekeeping and better lighting.

For example, OSHA has reported on its investigations of incidents where workers fell while removing snow or ice from roofs or decks. The workers may be standing on the elevated surface to clear it or may be using an aerial lift. They "may have little experience or training on the hazards of such operations or work," according to the agency, which warns of the hazards of falling over roof edges, through skylights, and from ladders and aerial lifts.

Same-level falls in winter are the chief concern of Winter Walking, a Jordan David company, which is located in Horsham, Pa., but its executive vice president of sales and product development, Jordan Bell, said safety managers should be preparing for the ice and snow before the first cold winds of the season arrive.

"Not enough of them think of them ahead of time. And we try to make the case that you need to have slips and falls on your mind all year round," Bell said during an August interview. "You don't necessarily need to pay as much attention in the spring and summer as you do in the winter, but if all you're doing it waiting for the slips and falls to occur to then start paying attention to it, you have no chance to actually sustain a reduction in slips and falls. You might throw a solution at it, and it might get better for that winter, but once the snow melts, it's out of sight, out of mind, and once winter comes back, you say, 'Oh yeah, what was that product we bought? Let's get a couple more of those.' And what happens is you have the same amount of slips and falls."

"A slip and fall occurs when there's not enough traction between the shoe and the surface," Bell added. "There are only three ways to prevent that from happening: You can eliminate access to that walking surface, you can improve the walking surface through housekeeping, or you can improve the traction under your foot. In most cases, you need a combination of all three of these things. You can't do just one of them and assume you’re going to be fine."

The first two options, eliminating access and housekeeping, may not be possible in some cases, he said, such as when utility workers are called out to repair a downed power line during a winter storm.

"It's not in your power to remove the ice, and you can't possibly improve the housekeeping because it's not your property," said Bell. "Whose job is it to remove the ice? It comes down to, the only thing you can do is improve the traction under their foot. The one thing I always say to people when there is a slip and fall: You know there are two feet there. And you can improve the traction of those feet."

How Many Falls Occur, and How Costly Are They?
The National Safety Council's Injury Facts 2009 edition estimated the average cost of a lost-time injury was about $43,000. Russell J. Kendzior cited NSC in his 2010 book, "Falls Aren't Funny: America's Multi-Billion-Dollar Slip-and-Fall Crisis," as the source for an estimate that unintentional slips, trips, and falls in the United States cost nearly $80 billion a year.

Asked how many same-level occupational falls are occurring, Bell answered, "I would say there are too many numbers out there. The truth is that it varies from company to company, and for the most part the numbers kind of get blurred into the cost of a lost-time injury. So the question really is, how high do slips and falls rank in the list of things that cause those injuries? I would say what we hear is, it's no lower than the number three problem. It's often number one."

"There is not an OSHA standard for traction footwear," he continued. "There's coefficient of friction testing, and you can get rated higher than this or you can rank on a scale higher or lower than that, but there is no absolute standard that says, like dielectric footwear or steel toe, it has to pass these criteria in order for it to be safe. And all of these [outdoor winter] job tasks require you to use this bit of PPE.

"It's kind of the wild West because it's not regulated," Bell said. "It takes a proactive safety manager or safety unit to recognize that this is a problem, and not only do I need to find a solution, but I need to find a solution on my own, because there's not a regulation that I can follow. The problem is that there are so many variables with the walking surfaces. With dielectric or steel toe, you can eliminate a lot of variables so that you focus on the specific issue. It's a lot harder to say, on this type of ice or this type of terrain, you need to have this type of traction. It's always a moving target."

The bottom line is that safety managers need to plan ahead for how they'll address winter slip and fall hazards. They also need to understand there is no one-size-fits-all solution, said Bell.

"For any of these slips and falls, there is no silver bullet solution. There is not one product that anyone can say, 'Just put this on, just wear this product, you'll be fine for slips and falls.' It doesn't work like that," he explained. "Jobs vary too much, terrains vary too much, geographically the weather changes. There is no single silver bullet solution that you can hand somebody to solve slips and falls. It takes a very good, proactive safety manager or team to work through the clutter, and we pride ourselves on helping people do that. There's homework to do there."

According to OSHA, workers engaged in snow removal may face these significant hazards in addition to falls:

  • Amputations, eye injuries, and other injuries associated with the use of snow blowers and other mechanized equipment
  • Collapses or tip-overs when using aerial lifts
  • Entrapment and suffocation under falling snow drifts or snow piles
  • Shock/electrocution hazards from contacting power lines or damaged extension cords
  • Frostbite or hypothermia
  • Musculoskeletal injuries from overexertion

This article originally appeared in the October 2012 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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