Assessing Elevated Surfaces for Slip, Trip and Fall Risks

Assessing Elevated Surfaces for Slip, Trip and Fall Risks

The responsibility to ensure a safe work environment lies with company management.

Slips, trips, and falls are, unfortunately, quite common. According to the National Safety Council, in 2020, more than 800 workers died from falls and more than 210,000 were injured so badly they had to miss work.1 

While falls on the same level are often quite serious, falling from an elevated surface, such as stairs or a platform, only increases the risk of traumatic injury. This can be a serious problem in industrial and manufacturing plants, which often contain catwalks, crossovers, ladders, mezzanines and other elevated structures. Age also plays a role in the frequency and severity of injury. The severity of an injury increases as a person ages. With an ageing workforce this is becoming a much greater concern.  

According to Liberty Mutual’s most recent Workplace Safety Index, falls to a lower-level cost $6.2 billion in 2018. There are many factors that increase fall risk, such as a lack of warning signage, inadequate footwear and poor training. However, according to the National Floor Safety Institute (NFSI), a problematic walking surface is the most impactful factor leading to 55 percent of slips, trips and falls. 

The manufacturing type can also increase danger. Workers in food processing, for example, must contend with water, grease and animal fats, all of which can make walking surfaces slippery and challenging.  

Ultimately, the responsibility to ensure a safe work environment lies with company management. To fully understand the safety profile of a facility managers can: 

  • Begin a rigorous safety audit to identify dangers in the plant. 
  • Learn about the many available options to mitigate slip, trip and fall risks 
  • Adopting common sense approaches, like making sure warning signage points both ways on a set of stairs. 
  • Install walking and climbing surfaces that protect workers, whether the area is high-traffic, wet, dry, indoors or outdoors.  

Adhering to the Highest Safety Standards 

Many organizations rely on guidance from OSHA to ensure worker safety. While OSHA safety standards to prevent slips, trips and falls are a great starting point, they should not be considered the last word. 

OSHA guidelines are designed to inform safety measures in numerous industries, which can potentially undercut the specific risks in food processing, chemical, wet manufacturing environments and other service industries. Not all workplaces are created equal, and some workers must regularly contend with wet or greasy surfaces that increase their risk of falling. 

These environmental conditions play a major role in whether a flooring, platform or stair tread is safe or not. Consider the difference between driving on a dry road or an icy one. The same is true of surfaces in manufacturing and industrial plants. 

For example, OSHA guidelines say that ladders must have textured surfaces to make them slip and fall resistant. Rebar qualifies under these rules and is inexpensive and readily available. Under dry conditions, a rebar ladder might be a safe solution. However, in many industrial environments, ladders are rarely dry, and wet rebar can create a serious fall hazard.  

The same is true of diamond plate, which is ubiquitous and a reasonably slip-resistant walking surface—when it’s dry. But again, when it is wet, diamond plate becomes quite slippery. 

This is where planning comes in. By thoroughly inspecting a facility and understanding which options are most appropriate for that environment, company leaders can mitigate risks, protect their employees, and ultimately save money. 

How to Assess Surface Safety to Prevent Slips, Trips and Falls 

The best way to fully identify the safety issues in an industrial or manufacturing facility is to conduct a safety audit. Sometimes called a gemba walk (adapted from the Japanese word gemba, which means “the actual place”), an audit is a focused tour of a facility to understand what is happening on the walkways and other surfaces. Gemba walks can uncover any number of issues, but in this case, it’s a great way to assess slip, trip and fall hazards. 

OSHA expects companies to make regular inspections by qualified people. According to the agency, a qualified person must be knowledgeable about the manufacturers’ specifications and recommendations and trained to make these inspections and identify both existing and potential hazards. There are several certifications available, such as the Certified Safety Manager or Certified Safety Professional. 

While there are certainly technical specifications to consider, these inspections are quite often focused on simply being observant. If an inspector’s foot slides in a particular spot, that area should be noted and remediated.  

Pay close attention. During the walk, inspect ladder rungs, stair treads, railings and other potentially problematic areas for slip and fall hazards.  

Follow the liquids. Because wet surfaces are often more dangerous, it’s important to track where all the plant’s water, fats and other fluids are coming from and going. 

Walk all stairways and elevated platforms. Because they increase the risk of a worker falling far and fast, pay close attention to stairs and any elevated platforms.  

Check poorly lit areas. What people don’t see can hurt them. It’s not enough to see the obvious, inspectors should locate the obscure. 

It’s also important to remember that safety is a team effort—lean on the employees on the floor for additional information. Workers will gladly show an inspector where they may be slipping. Also, ask them about near misses, which may not be reflected in a company’s safety statistics but are just as important to acknowledge as actual falls. In addition, workers may simply avoid certain areas, knowing they are unsafe. This first-hand knowledge is invaluable to identify problem areas. 

The best way to objectively test a surface for slip and fall safety is to note coefficient of friction (COF), which measures the resistance between two surfaces. COF has a 0-1 scale, with 1 being the ideal for slip and fall resistance. OSHA maintains that the COF for a walking surface should be .5 or higher, but again, this is merely the minimum standard. The Americans with Disabilities Act recommends a COF of .6 for flat surfaces and .8 for inclines. 

To get the most detailed readings, companies can buy or rent a tribometer, an important tool to measure COF. Tribometers read the interactions between surfaces under different conditions, such as wet, dry, greasy and they can provide true measures of the fall risk in the plant. Another option is to bring in safety consultants who already have this sophisticated equipment.  

What Constitutes a Safe Surface? 

After completing the audit, inspectors may identify a number of areas that need to be retrofitted to eliminate slips, trips and falls. Here’s where COF becomes especially important. Not all non-slip materials are created equally and the best way to choose the right one is to assess their durability and COF under different conditions. 

As noted, diamond plate may be adequate in dry conditions but loses COF when it is wet or oily. This risk can be compounded because workers can have misplaced faith in the material’s ability to keep them safe. When people believe a surface is slip-resistant, they may take less care when walking across it.  

There can also be indirect risks. While serrated, anti-slip stair treads meet a higher standard for slip resistance, that doesn’t mean they are actually safe. Should someone fall on this surface, they can get cut and severely injured by the serrated edges, possibly even losing a finger. 

Metal bonded surface technologies, which have thousands of tiny, random surface peaks and valleys, are hard, durable and have a high COF. These structural peaks retain their anti-slip properties over time, even when wet from water or oils, and maintain anti-slip properties after years of wear, providing effective slip and fall prevention and long-term durability. 

Fortunately, determining COF for any commercial surface is easy. The NFSI certifies high-traction floors, providing handy ratings for comparison.  

Preventing slips and falls requires a significant investment in time, effort and resources, but the payoff is quite high. According to the National Safety Council, from 2018 through 2019, companies spent around $47,000 per slip or fall on workers’ compensation.2  

Ultimately, making the extra effort to ensure safety is a good business decision. Companies reduce their liability, avoid costly retrofits, show good faith with their employees and, in turn, can improve their ability to retain and recruit workers.  

This article originally appeared in the July/August 2022 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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