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Here’s Why Safety Pros Don’t Stop More Slips, Trips and Falls from Happening at Work

Paying attention sign

Slips, trips and falls are a major safety concern in almost every industry. Based on data gathered by the National Safety Council:

  • Falls are the third-most common cause of off-the-job deaths among workers.
  • Slips, trips and falls account for 26% of all injury-related visits to the emergency department for people ages 25 and up.
  • In 2013 nearly 31,000 people died at home and in our communities because of a fall.

In fact, this is such a huge issue that it’s one of the most common safety challenges faced by EHS professionals.

So it’s no surprise that over 95% of safety professionals say that their organization has some type of plan to address slips, trips and falls in the workplace. However, despite it being on almost everyone’s radar, only 2% of respondents in that same survey have actually eliminated this problem in the workplace.

This raises a question that has enormous implications for worker safety: why can’t over 90% of safety folks find a long-term solution to this common issue?

An online presentation attempts to answer that exact question. (You can watch it here.)

It’s an interesting webinar that comes to some compelling conclusions. It notes that most companies have zeroed in on the physical factors that cause slip, trip and fall injuries. However, most workplace safety programs have one or two missing elements that prevent them from properly dealing with this problem.

What actually causes slips, trips and falls

EHS Safety Daily Advisor conducted research that found three major contributors of slips, trips and falls. And while poor lighting, stairs and ladders seem to be prime candidates to cause these types of incidents, they didn’t make the list because, as it turns out, they’re the primary factor 5% of the time.

The big three causes are:

  • 16% – housekeeping issues (lack of tidiness, when things are left out for people to trip on)
  • 25% – wet or slippery surfaces
  • 54% – human factors

This means that effectively dealing with slips, trips and falls requires safety professionals to juggle both physical factors like wet walking surfaces or work areas and human factors, which are consistently overlooked in most safety management systems.

See the webinar itself (it’s titled Balancing Act: Addressing the Physical Causes and Human Factors in Slips, Trips and Falls) for more details on the types of human factors that lead to slips and trips. There is a number of them and they can’t all be covered in detail in this post—but one human factor in particular is such a major safety concern when it comes to these incidents that it’s worth it to take a closer look here.

5,000 steps to injury

When it comes to fall prevention, complacency is usually the biggest mental factor that can cause people to get hurt. As the webinar says, complacency is difficult to prevent because it sets in one step at a time, without us ever noticing it:

The average American takes over 5,000 steps a day, and if you ask any adult whether they think they’re likely to fall on any given step then, of course, they’d say “No.”

But think about what it means to take 5,000 steps a day, every day. At over 5,000 steps a day that’s a lot of practice and over the years, people become so good at it that walking feels like one of the most natural things to do.

The odds of slipping or tripping must be incredibly small, like one in a million.

But, 5,000 steps a day is 35,000 steps per week or 1.8 million a year. And that’s just for one person. For every 100 workers, that’s 182 million steps every year. That’s for 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, but even if you boil it down to a 40-hour work week then that’s still around 90 million steps.

There’s a lot more to it than just this quote, of course, including several different degrees of complacency. But suffice to say that physical slip hazards like spills wouldn’t be a problem if everyone was aware of their surroundings 100% of the time—we’d just see them and walk around them.

Slipping into distraction

We’ve all seen real-life versions of that scene from The Terminal where people slip on a freshly polished floor despite the half-dozen wet floors signs that are all within arm’s reach.

It’s because of a phenomenon called inattention blindness that literally makes us blind to familiar objects that they’re not looking for. Because wet floor signs are such common features of our daily lives, it becomes easy for people to tune them out and stop recognizing them for what they are—important warnings that a hazard is present.

Because distraction compounds with wet floors and items that can cause people to trip, there’s a very real need to deal with both the hazards and the human factors (and especially complacency) that limit the effectiveness of wet floor signs and other potential solutions.

A two-headed problem with a few solutions

Clearly, distraction conspires with physical hazards to elevate the risk of slips, trips and falls. The problem is bigger than simply wet floors, and that means the solution needs to be more comprehensive than simply putting out signs and running the same old training.

Because if wet floor signs and following OSHA’s regulations were enough then the problem would already be solved by now.

After all, OSHA has the problem covered with a comprehensive set of rules like the following:

  • The floor of every workroom shall be maintained in a clean and, so far as possible, a dry condition. (1910.22)
  • Where wet processes are used, drainage shall be maintained, and false floors, platforms, mats, or other dry standing places should be provided where practicable.(1910.22)
  • Aisles and passageways must be kept clear and in good repairs. (1910.23)
  • There should be no obstruction across or in aisles that could create a hazard. (1910.23)

There are even incredibly specific standards that regulate the height and surface of railings on stairs.

But despite these and other important rules, OSHA and other attempts to counteract physical hazards (like using anti-slip/slip resistant floor mats) can only solve half the problem.

Beating human error and distraction

There’s a lot that physical solutions can prevent, but there are a lot of gaps too. We’ve already noted that distraction is half of the problem of slips, trips and falls.  And that means finding ways to beat distraction and other forms of human error (like rushing) should be half of the solution.

There are a few big needs that any human error solution must address, from a constantly changing environment to what should go into a proper human error training program.

You should really sign up for this webinar for a comprehensive (and useful) look at doing something about the distraction and other factors that cause slips and falls.

The last third of the webinar is dedicated to solutions for the human component of slip, trip and fall incidents. It’s probably the most efficient way to really get a good understanding of the issue and to start sorting through your options for how you can stop this problem.

The webinar is called Balancing Act: Addressing the Physical Causes and Human Factors in Slips, Trips and Falls and it’s available on-demand. It’s about half an hour and is well worth the time. You can sign up here to watch it now or later.

Slips, Trips and Falls Guide

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