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Combating Industry’s Costly Slips
Falls in the workplace are the No. 1 preventable loss type, and slips are the leading cause of falls. Our experts explain why slips occur, why there are so many and how they can be prevented.
by James L. Nash
In slapstick movies, as in real life, a slip and a fall often makes us chuckle – at least when it’s happening to somebody else. But slips and falls in the workplace are no laughing matter, not unless you think spending $7 billion is funny.
That’s the estimated annual direct cost to U.S. businesses for slips and falls in the workplace, according to research by Liberty Mutual, the Boston-based insurance company that specializes in workers’ compensation insurance. The figure rises to as high as $35 billion if you include indirect costs, such as lost productivity and the time it takes to investigate incidents, yet, there are a number of ways to cut slip hazards, and many of these methods are relatively inexpensive, especially if you consider that the average cost of a worker’s fall is $12,470.
Why Do Slips Happen?
At the most basic level, a slip occurs because of “inadequate slip resistance between the shoe and the walking surface,” according to consultant John Cockrell, Ph.D., who has been working in this area for 31 years. slips are generally caused by the interaction of any or all of three factors:
- Flooring, and
- Contaminants that may come between the floor and the shoe.
Lee Batzel is the corporate safety manager for Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Co. (A&P), a supermarket chain with approximately 750 stores, discovered the company spends more than $8 million each year on slips, trips and falls.
“Slips and falls are a big problem, one that receives too little attention when you consider the costs involved,” said Wayne Maynard, product director for ergonomics and tribology at the Liberty Mutual Research Center. “We hear a lot about machine guarding and ergonomics, but very little about slips and falls. It’s a huge area and one that needs to be managed just like other safety and health hazards.”
Steps To Prevention
The consensus among slip experts is that successful prevention programs address all the controllable factors.
For Steven Di Pilla, director of product development for Philadelphia-based ESIS Risk Control Services… “We look at flooring more than footwear and contaminants,” he said.
Short of replacing the entire walking surface, there are cost-effective options for increasing a floor’s slip resistance:
- Paint with abrasive material;
- Etch the surface with acids, such as hydrofluoric acid; or
- Place slip-resistant mats in the most dangerous areas.
The floor treatment that is most appropriate for a particular work environment will depend on the nature of the floor and the hazards that are present. This means a formal, written program that specifies the proper cleaners for each contaminant, the use of barricades and warnings, and the training of employees on the proper procedures. Far too many workplaces lack a “floor cleaning protocol.”. “You need to do more than mop. That just spreads the problem around,”… “You need to agitate and actually remove the contaminant.”
Regular, frequent inspections of high traffic areas, and keeping a written log of each inspection, can be a critical element in defending against a lawsuit, a real danger should a non-employee slip in your facility.
OSHA official who is familiar with general industry enforcement – “I know that slips, trips and falls are probably the biggest cause of accidents in this country,” the official said. “We’re always looking for anything that can cause a slip whenever we do an inspection.”
Of more immediate interest to employers concerned about slips is the new ANSI voluntary standard (A1264.2). It is designed to help any safety manager develop a proactive slip resistance program – “I see it every day. People don’t address slip hazards until somebody gets hurt”
“My recommendation is to be proactive.”
An article summary from http://www.occupationalhazards.com , the premier online resource for safety, health and
industrial hygiene professionals where you can get the latest news about OSHA, EPA, NIOSH, ergonomics and other EHS developments.
According to Health Canada:
- Unintentional injuries cost Canadians about $8.7 billion per year.
- Falls account for about 40 per cent and motor vehicle crashes about 20 per cent of the total cost.
- The remaining 40 per cent can be attributed to drowning, poisoning, fires, and other injuries.
- On average, each injury in Canada generates $4,000 in direct and indirect costs.
The Economic Burden of Unintentional Injury in Canada
Canadians working in injury prevention and control have long been frustrated by the lack of detailed information on the costs of injury in this country. To address this important information gap, Health Canada and several external partners supported a project to examine the real costs of injury in Canada. The Hygeia Group carried out this research.
The Cost Of Unintentional Injuries
This study assesses the following injury and death figures* to determine overall annual costs.
|Injuries Resulting in Partial Permanent Disability||43,892|
|Injuries Resulting in Total Permanent Disability||3,300|
|Total Annual Cost||$8.7 Billion|
The most costly injuries were falls, totaling almost $2.4 billion or 57 per cent of total direct costs.
Please Note: The United States statistics are virtually the same, except the figures quoted here are at least 10 times greater in the U.S.
A.D.A. Accessibility Guidelines (Appendix 4.5.1)
Pertaining to Ground and Floor Surfaces People who have difficulty walking or maintaining balance or who use crutches, canes, or walkers, and those with restricted gaits are particularly sensitive to slipping and tripping hazards. For such people, a stable and regular surface is necessary for safe walking, particularly on stairs. Wheelchairs can be propelled most easily on surfaces that are hard, stable, and regular. Soft loose surfaces such as shag carpet, loose sand or gravel, wet clay, and irregular surfaces such as cobblestones can significantly impede wheelchair movement.
Slip-resistance is based on the frictional force necessary to keep a shoe heel or crutch tip from slipping on a walking surface under conditions likely to be found on the surface. While the dynamic coefficient of friction during walking varies in a complex and non-uniform way, the static coefficient of friction, which can be measured in several ways, provides a close approximation of the slip resistance of a surface. Contrary to popular belief, some slippage is necessary to walking, especially for persons with restricted gaits; a truly “non-slip” surface could not be negotiated.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration recommends that walking surfaces have a static coefficient of friction of 0.5. A research project sponsored by the Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board (Access Board) conducted tests with persons with disabilities and concluded that a higher ‘coefficient of friction’ was needed by such persons. A static coefficient of friction of 0.6 is recommended for accessible routes and 0.8 for ramps.
It is recognized that the coefficient of friction varies considerably due to the presence of contaminants, water, floor finishes, and other factors not under the control of the designer or builder and not subject to design and construction guidelines and that compliance would be difficult to measure on the building site. Nevertheless, many common building materials suitable for flooring are now labeled with information on the static coefficient of friction. While it may not be possible to compare one product directly with another, or to guarantee a constant measure, builders and designers are encouraged to specify materials with appropriate values.
As more products include information on slip-resistance, improved uniformity in measurement and specification is likely. The Access Board’s advisory guidelines on Slip Resistant Surfaces provides additional information on this subject.
International Sanitary Supply Association:
Confronting The Age-Old Problem
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, a century from now the United States will look very different than it does today. There will be twice as many people. Today’s minorities will collectively be in the majority. And the young will no longer outnumber the old. Look closer at our aging population, and you will find even more startling facts: Again, the Bureau reports that today, nearly 35 million Americans are over the age of 65, and this number will swell to more than 77 million by the end of this decade as baby boomers approach retirement. By the year 2100, it is estimated that more than 131 million Americans will be over the age of 65 (see Exhibit 1). In fact, one of the fastest growing age groups is that of the centenarians. Today, approximately 65,000 Americans are 100 years or older, and by the year 2100, this number is expected to jump to 5 million. With this explosive growth of our nation’s elderly will come another explosion, an increase in slip-and-fall accidents.
Statistically speaking, the older one gets, the more likely s/he is to suffer a serious fall. According to the National Safety Council, people age 80 or older are more likely to die from an accidental fall than any other type of accident. Further, it estimates that 40 percent of all nursing home admissions are due to accidental falls and that 40 percent of those in nursing home care will experience a fall. According to the nursing home industry, falls are the leading cause of medical malpractice insurance costs.
So why are so many elderly people slipping and falling? Part of the answer lies in the way we age and the symptoms of aging. As we grow older, our bodies change, and the way we perceive our environment also changes. Often with age comes reduced vision, poor balance, and medical conditions that may require prescription medication. When these physiological and social factors of aging are combined with environmental conditions like slippery floors caused by wetness, poor lighting conditions, and improper use of cautionary signage, the end result is frequently catastrophic.
When an elderly person slips and falls, the resulting injury is significantly more serious than that of a younger victim. Generally, if you are 16 and fall, you are quick to your feet; you may feel a little sore and even take a day or two off from school. But when you are 70 and slip and fall, you usually don’t get up without assistance and are more likely to suffer serious injury, the most common being a broken hip.
Current trends in social security eligibility and reduced cost-of-living increases have forced many elderly Americans to re-enter the workforce. Due to the shrinking job pool, many retailers and quick-service restaurant chains are hiring seniors in record numbers. Statistics show that hiring seniors makes good business sense. Seniors prefer part-time work with flexible schedules, are punctual, exhibit strong work ethics, and generally experience fewer on-the-job injuries than younger workers. However, when an older worker is injured, the cost can be 10 times that of a younger worker.
Whether seniors are employees or customers, slip-and-fall accidents pose a serious problem for business owners. And unless a strong prevention strategy is employed, the problem threatens to become a future crisis. Just how big a crisis? Many insurance industry analysts predict that unless current accident trends begin to level off, it could grow into a US$100-billion-a-year problem.
The National Floor Safety Institute, in conjunction with the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), conducted a study on slip-and-fall accidents. Using hospital emergency room treatment data collected through the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System (a nationwide sample of 100 hospitals and emergency rooms that provide injury data electronically to CPSC) it was found that for each year since 1996, more than 1 million people sought emergency room treatment for an accidental fall. Most of the victims were people over the age of 65.
Ask any large retailer about their slip-and-fall problem, and they will tell you it is their leading cause of customer accidents. The supermarket industry is one of the hardest hit by slip-and-fall claims, in part because of their large and ever-increasing building sizes. In 1970, an average supermarket building was 20,000 square feet. Today, that average has jumped to 37,200 square feet, an 86 percent increase. With the current wave of jumbo-sized supermarkets topping 100,000 square feet, slip-and-fall accidents will increase accordingly. The more steps people take, the greater the likelihood that one of those steps will result in a slip. And with more elderly people shopping than ever before, slip-and-fall accidents will continue to grow.
For one large discount retailer, slip-and-falls have already reached crisis levels. With annual slip-and-fall costs of nearly $50 million, his CEO tracks each week’s number of slip-and-fall accidents by posting them on his office wall, and he’s running out of space. He is not the only retail executive keeping an eye on slip-and-fall claims.
Today, managing safety costs has become a new profit center. Yet not every business is eager to share information when it comes to improving profits by cutting losses. For example, I recently had a conversation with a senior risk manager from a major grocery store chain. He claimed that the money the chain saved over a two-year period on reduced slip-and-fall accidents was enough to build and fully stock a new store. But he also related that the chain does not like to discuss how it has reduced its accident costs; reducing slip-and-fall accident costs has given the chain a competitive edge. And in a market where net profit margins range between 1 percent and 3 percent, savings of this size make a huge difference.
If voluntary prevention measures are not taken and slips and falls continue their upward trend, there’s a good chance the government will intervene by mandating higher safety requirements to which businesses must conform. In fact, there is a grassroots effort by a New Jersey Youth and Government program to do just that – pass legislation mandating that public places use more slip-resistant surfaces in an effort to protect pedestrians. If such a bill is passed, the floodgates may open to more pedestrian safety legislation.For businesses, this translates into potentially higher compliance and liability costs as well as penalty fees for noncompliance.
While business owners, insurance companies, and government officials all see slip-and-fall accidents and their related costs as a growing problem, none of them ‘to date’ has moved toward a solution. Instead, the insurance industry continues to pass the expense down to their clients by way of increased premiums. They, in turn, pass this cost down to the consumer through price increases. And through it all, our elderly continue to get hurt, costing the government billions of dollars in increased medicare, medicaid, and social security benefits. These factors, combined with pressure from the plaintiff’s bar, legal advocacy groups, and labor unions will inevitably force a change in the way slip-and-fall accidents are viewed in the future.
Prevention will soon overtake complacency. For the business owner who is slow to buy into slip-and-fall prevention, reduced profits will result.
But there is hope. Current technology has produced a number of promising solutions. Recent developments in high-traction floorcare products, slip-resistant footwear, and improved training have all made significant advances in prevention. More business owners are changing the way they care for their floors and monitoring results. No longer do retailers simply want floors to look clean and shiny. Today the bar for floorcare has been raised. Safety is the new standard, and an increasing number of retailers are expecting their floors to be safer than in the past. To address this need, manufacturers of flooring materials have created entirely new lines of high-traction flooring products. These ‘slip-retardant’ floors have found their way into numerous grocery store and many retail chains in the past five years, not because they are easier to maintain or have a better appearance, but for the safety benefits they offer. In fact, slip-retardant floors generally require specific maintenance procedures, which differ from those of conventional floor coverings. Many of these floorcare products cost property owners more money. But the increased cost of maintenance is offset by savings in reduced accident claims because the cost of slip-and-fall accidents has overtaken the cost of floorcare chemicals. For every US$1 spent on floorcare chemicals, businesses spend $3 on slip-and-fall claims.
Commercial floorcare manufacturers are also focusing their R&D budgets on developing safety-enhancing floorcare chemicals. Each year since 1994, floor safety cleaning agents and high-traction floor finishes have seen double-digit sales growth, which today is estimated to be a $50 million industry. The consumer response to these products has been overwhelming. One high-traction floor-finish manufacturer that introduced its patented formula six years ago has paved the way for others to follow.
With clinical studies showing slip-and-fall accident reductions up to 85 percent, floorcare has given way to floor safety and the products that promote it. Now more than ever, retailers, grocery store owners, and building service contractors are focusing on floor safety. By the end of this decade, I predict that most existing commercial floorcare manufacturers will begin offering floor safety products. Regardless of your position in the floorcare chain (manufacturer, distributor, flooring contractor, or property owner), you will all benefit by reducing slip-and-fall accidents.
With advancements in medical technology coupled with better eating habits and exercise regimes, more Americans than ever are living longer, more productive lives. With this longevity comes increased accidents – accidents that in many cases can be prevented. If you are prepared and understand how such trends in aging will affect your business, you will not only survive the crisis, you may prosper from it. Improved accident data collection along with a strong prevention strategy will allow business owners to better manage slip-and-fall accidents. After all… you’re not getting any younger!
National Floor Safety Founder and Executive Director Russ Kendzior is among those working with ISSA to develop a voluntary floor care product labeling system.