According to Liberty Mutual Research Institute for Safety, slips, trips, and falls are a top cause of workplace injuries as well as the leading cause of workers' comp claims. In a report titled Pace Yourself: What You Should Know About Slips, Trips, & Falls, the Institute places the annual direct cost of disabling occupational injuries due to slip, trips, and falls at more than $11 billion and states that in 2005, workplace falls alone accounted for over 200,000 injuries involving more than two days away from work and more than 700 deaths.
About Slips, Trips, and Falls
Preventing workplace injuries begins with a clear understanding of the risk factors behind these incidents in the workplace. So what are the most frequent causes? According to Liberty Mutual's report, the vast majority of these incidents are same-level falls, which typically result from slipping on wet or otherwise hazardous surfaces, tripping over objects, or missteps due to uneven surfaces. The most common types of injuries from same-level falls are lower back strains and sprains of the hand, wrist, or ankle. Falls to a lower level – from ladders, vehicles, equipment, loading docks, or on stairways, for example – occur less frequently than same-level falls, but often result in much more severe injuries, including fractures and death.
Tips For Preventing Slips, Trips, and Falls in the Workplace
Preventing workplace injuries from slips, trips, and falls starts with an examination of the workplace environment in order to identify and address the hazards that can increase the risk of these incidents.
- Slip Hazards – The chief culprits are spills, with wet, oily, or powdery spills presenting the highest risk followed by low-friction flooring materials or freshly waxed or polished floors. Tips for addressing these hazards include a policy requiring employees to clean up spills or report them to designated maintenance staff immediately, warning signs in potentially slippery areas, and treatment or replacement of slippery flooring. Additionally, requiring that workers wear appropriate, high-traction footwear in the workplace can help.
- Trip Hazards – The most common cause of trips are obstructions in walkways. Risk reduction tactics include ensuring that electrical cables are not routed through walkways, and when that cannot be avoided, using cable guards when they are, keeping walkways clear and conducting periodic inspections to ensure follow-through. Rugs, mats, and similar objects should be eliminated when possible and be firmly fixed to the floor when they can't be. Uneven surfaces should be repaired where possible and clearly marked and well-lighted when eliminating them isn't feasible.
- Falls to a Lower Level – The best way to minimize these incidents is comprehensive safety standards and training for employees combined with job-appropriate safety equipment and effective workplace supervision. Adequate levels of physical fitness among workers who are at risk – especially those who use ladders or other equipment or who work on loading docks – can go a long way toward reducing injuries as well.
Eliminating environmental hazards is a great way to reduce these incidents, but it is important to realize the first principle of risk management: risks can be reduced, but they can never be eliminated. This is especially true in industries like construction, food processing, health care, and housekeeping, where workers can't perform the essential functions of their jobs without being exposed to some slip, trip, and fall hazards. So if you can't remove the hazard, what can you do to reduce the risk? You can start by taking measures to help ensure the people you hire are up to the challenge of the job they're being asked to do, such as instituting a post-offer, pre-employment physical ability testing program in your workplace.
How can these assessments help in preventing workplace injuries? By measuring physical factors that can affect balance, which in turn can increase the risk of slips, trips, and falls. For instance, studies have shown that workers who are obese are at higher risk of injury due to these types of incidents, since obesity may cause changes in the person's center of gravity that can lead to poor stability and balance. Age also affects the risk of slips, trips, and falls, which can be attributed to factors like age-related declines in muscle strength, coordination, cardiovascular health, and vision, as well as slower reflexes and higher likelihood of conditions like vertigo. Age-related conditions such as arthritis, diabetes, and osteoporosis also make older workers more prone to serious injury when these incidents occur. Other physical factors that can affect balance and increase risk include poor posture and/or gait, certain medications, and previous injuries – especially traumatic brain injuries.
Those examples, of course, don't mean that all job applicants who are obese, have health issues, prior injuries, or are older than 25 will have balance deficits that will interfere with work. However, job-specific physical ability testing of all workers/candidates can help ensure that those who do have balance problems and whose abilities do not match the balance requirements of the job are not placed in positions that are beyond their physical capabilities, protecting the applicant as well as the safety of others.
While preventing workplace injuries due to slips, trips, and falls altogether isn't possible, these measures significantly reduce them. In fact, a recent case study conducted for a flat bed trucking company showed a 62% decline in work comp costs for slips, trips, and falls within the first year of initiating a pre-hire physical abilities testing program.
If you have done a thorough workplace assessment and have addressed the hazards you've identified, yet still have more of these incidents than you'd like, a pre-employment screening program that includes balance testing may be the intervention that allows you to avoid that slip, trip, or fall that's just an accident waiting to happen.