How many times have you stubbed your toe, lost your footing or taken a tumble and either berated yourself for clumsiness or cursed your coworkers for dishevelled work areas, and then simply walked away? If you can count more than once, you’re not alone but you’re not in good company either.
Sadly, this is a common practice and has led to slips, trips and falls (STFs) becoming one of the leading causes of lost-time workplace injuries in Canada. Aside from awkward embarrassment, STF incidents produce a hefty number of serious injuries every year across many industrial sectors.
So, what do the statistics say?
Association of Workers’ Compensation Boards of Canada – 2017 Data
- There were 48,891 lost-time injury claims related to workplace falls across Canada.
- 63 workers died as a result of falls at work.
- Falls accounted for the third most reported lost-time claim, behind Contact with objects and equipment and Bodily reaction and exertion.
US National Safety Council Injury Facts – 2017 Data
- Following highway crashes, falls to a lower level is the second leading preventable fatal workplace event and the third leading event resulting in cases with days away from work. In 2017, 713 workers died and 47,180 were injured. The median days lost was 19, compared to 8 days lost for all events or exposures.
- Following overexertion injuries, falls on the same level is the second leading preventable workplace injury event resulting in cases with days away from work. In 2017, 151 workers died and 142,770 were injured. The median days lost was 10, compared to 8 days lost for all events or exposures.
US Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) – 2017 Data
- Most general industry incidents involve slips, trips, and falls. They cause 15% of all accidental deaths and are second only to motor vehicles as a cause of fatalities.
- Out of 4,674 worker fatalities in private industry, 971 or 20.7% were in construction — that is, one in five worker deaths last year were in construction. The leading causes of private sector worker deaths (excluding highway collisions) in the construction industry were falls.
What does this mean to your workplace?
The frequency of STFs and severity of resulting injuries at your worksite depends on the types of hazards present, worker awareness of those hazards, follow up to incidents that occur as a result of those hazards and how seriously your workforce takes the simple task of housekeeping. Another key element is worker perception of STFs. If they see them as insignificant, then chances are you have a potentially big problem just waiting to happen.
Common STF hazards – who’s paying attention?
Here’s a list of common STF hazards at worksites. How may of them have you or your workers and co-workers overlooked or worked around in the last year?
- Seasonal hazards (e.g., snow and ice)
- Slippery substances (e.g., oil, grease, organic matter that grows on damp surfaces)
- Debris or obstructions in walkways
- Improperly maintained equipment (e.g., ladders and scaffolds)
- Unguarded beds of trucks, trailers or loads
- Dirty work areas and surfaces
- Smoke, steam or dust obstructing vision
- Improper use of ladders
- Cords across walkways
- Unsecured mats
- Poor lighting
- Changes in walkway levels and slopes
The consequences to your workers who suffer STFs can range from minor bruises and scrapes, to debilitating injuries and even fatalities. For your company, that can mean full-blown incident investigations, findings of regulatory noncompliance and legal action, as well as lost productivity, fines and poor morale.
Put your best (most secure) foot forward
As with all incidents, the best way to deal with STFs is to prevent them from occurring in the first place. The first step is to take them seriously at every level of your company. That means engaging managers, supervisors and front-line workers in the conversation so that they look for STF hazards and take measures to eliminate them.
The process looks like this:
- Agree that STF hazards are as important as any other hazard.
- Identify and discuss common and job specific STF hazards with your workforce.
- Create practices and procedures for managing STF hazards.
- Require workers to report STF hazards.
- Implement a user-friendly system for recording hazards and assigning and tracking corrective actions related to STFs.
- Ensure that all workers have access to the system for reporting hazards.
- Assess the risk of each STF hazard found and share the information with your workforce.
- Follow up to ensure assigned corrective actions are completed and effective.
- Include STFs as part of daily, pre-job, and tailgate meetings.
- Set targets for STFs and monitor progress towards those targets.
Here is some advice on how to ensure STF hazards don’t result in incidents.
Seasonal hazards (e.g., snow and ice)
Depending on the time of year, snow, ice and other materials can quickly accumulate from day to day and shift to shift. Entering and exiting buildings and vehicles can also present significant STF hazards, as these transition zones take the worker from stable to potentially slippery surfaces in a single step. Freeze-thaw conditions also create major STF hazards because they can present a mix of snow, ice, wet and dry surfaces together.
Your best defense is to identify areas on your worksite where snow, ice and other slippery conditions may occur, like walkways, stairs and transition zones. Check those areas daily and clear them as necessary to eliminate STF risks. Make sure you have enough ice melt on hand, particularly toward the end of winter or during the spring thaw when weather is unpredictable. If you work in a damp climate, watch for and control the growth of molds and algae on walkways and stairs.
Ensure every spill is cleaned up as quickly as possible and according to safe work practices for the material spilled. If the material is hazardous and requires greater caution and effort for the clean up, take your time but make sure the area is properly barricaded to prevent access.
Flooring and mats
Encourage workers to report any worn, ripped or damaged flooring to supervisors or the maintenance department. Complete the fix as soon as possible and make sure that damaged flooring is marked and barricaded until maintenance and repair is done.
Evaluate slipping hazards on worksites and determine what type of footwear is most appropriate for the site. Ensure that workers wear the kind of footwear that is appropriate for potential slipping areas on the site.
Housekeeping is not just cleanliness. Effective housekeeping is an ongoing process designed to address STF hazards. and not a hit-and-miss cleanup
Require workers to use handrails when climbing and descending stairs. Check and maintain stairs on a regular basis to ensure they are always in good condition. Repair damaged areas as soon as they are identified and do not allow the use stairs or landings for storage.
Ergonomics and balance
Ever tripped on your own two feet, or lost your balance while carrying something? If you took a look at your own movements, you’d probably find that a few minor adjustments would have prevented the outcome. Assess your workspaces and the activities performed within them to ensure workers have enough room to move around without twisting and bending into awkward postures. Whenever possible, use mechanical equipment for lifting and carrying heavy or awkward loads. When workers are required to lift loads without mechanical assistance, ensure they use proper lifting techniques and verify their path is clear of hazards before they move.
Without proper lighting, it’s pretty much impossible to know where STF hazards exist. Lighting at worksites must be sufficient to allow work to be done safely and be compliant with regulatory requirements for the specific activity. Check lighting and light fixtures as part of hazard assessments, and repair damaged or ineffective lighting as soon as it is found. Do not allow work to continue in areas with insufficient lighting.
Ensure every worksite is equipped with emergency lighting that allows workers to:
- leave the worksite safely
- start necessary emergency shut-down procedures
- restore normal lighting
Schedule and assign regular maintenance for all lighting fixtures.
To err is human but many STFs can be avoided simply by paying attention and following safe work practices and procedures. Use tools and equipment, PPE and other safety equipment properly, always, no short cuts. Make sure workers are completely trained to perform their work safely and that they know emergency response procedures inside, out and backwards. Ensure that supervisors work with individuals under their control and ensure that feedback is given to workers after inspections and job observations.
It is essential that your company, from the top through to the front line, share understanding and acknowledgement of STF hazards and their risks. If middle and senior management believe that STFs are a high priority and require that workers address them as a serious issue, then they will be managed as they should be. If management doesn’t understand or support the need to manage hazards related to STFs, the hazards will not be controlled, and additional incidents and injuries will occur.
Small mindful steps get big results
Look around you for STF hazards, be mindful of your activities and step into your work with caution and competence. If conditions aren’t safe, then stop work and get them fixed. And clean up after yourself so you don’t leave STF hazards for the workers who follow you.
STFs are among the leading causes of serious injuries resulting in lost time. We all have loved ones waiting for us at the end of the shift; let’s make sure we get home in one piece.