Preventing slips, trips and falls: an Inspector’s viewpoint

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Looking at your incident statistics, it is likely you will find that slips, trips and falls (STF) is your top incident group. If so, you are not alone. STF cause nearly 1/3rd of non fatal accidents across the board, and as a result UK employers are spending over £73 Milion each year for employees being away from work. This is a serious world wide problem in all industries.

STF are also some of the easiest incidents to prevent. So why are we still suffering?

There have been many articles written about slips, trips and falls. Here we add an additional perpective sharing advice from STF expert, Rob Shaw. Rob was the Technical Lead in STF at the UK regulator the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), where he spent over 14 years investigating incidents, conducting research and advising on STF prevention. We will share his advice given to the IOSH Swiss Network in his webinar earlier this year.You can also listen to the whole thing online. Details at the end of this post.

Rob starts by explaining that one of the biggest problems is that STF are not perceived as serious – it can be seen as embarrassing or even funny to fall (we have all been there!) The message is often ‘pay more attention because we can’t do anything’. Whilst human factors have a part to play, there are usually quite simple and inexpensive solutions that could be put in place. Almost all STF are preventable but often consideration is given too late. “the biggest problem is that companies focus on slips, trips and falls after an incident rather than being proactive” says Rob.

Slips

Slips happen when you don’t have enough grip under your feet, causing them to slide. They are more common and often more difficult to prevent than trips. Effective control should consider the hierarchy:

  1. Level of grip of the flooring (the co-efficient of friction). The important question is “how slippery is my floor when a person walks on it?” Rob describes how the portable pendulum test can replicate footsteps and measure your floor. Though many other tests are used to assess how slippery floors are, few are actually relevant to pedestrian walking. This leads to inappropriate flooring being installed in challenging environments.
  2. Preventing contamination getting on the floor. Very few slips happen on clean dry floors.
  3. The effectiveness of cleaning in removing contamination. This depends on the technique as much as the chemicals and equipment used. Usually a wet process, poorly planned cleaning can introduce significant hazards. Minimise this by avoiding busy times, leaving a dry, safe walkway and barriers around the wet area. Signs are overused and often ineffective. Importantly, think about risks to the cleaner who is often a lone worker walking on the wet floor. To protect the cleaner from slipping, slip resistant footwear may be the only control available. Rob explains how just reading the label on the cleaning chemical for dilution, removing and rinsing methods can make a huge difference in how much grease is left on a floor after cleaning.
  4. Slip resistance of footwear. As this only protects the individual wearing it, this personal protective equipment (PPE) is at the bottom of the hierarchy. Slip resistant footwear can be a very effective control and may be the only solution for certain workers. There is an ISO standard for slip resistance but it does not challenge the footwear being tested, making reliable selection very difficult. Rob recommends the GRIP rating scheme developed by HSE which uses a more demanding test. Slip resistant rubber overshoes (rather than the common plastic bags) can be very effective. One energy company reduced the number of lost time incidents during winter working from 74 a year to 1 a year by improving footwear, with massive benefits for individuals and very short payback period.

Winter working in icy conditions brings slip hazards. Organisations often worry that if they clear areas and someone still falls the company will be liable. When questioned about a specific incident of walking from the car park before work starts in personal shoes, Rob advices: “Plan ahead. Prioritise the most used car parks and traffic routes for clearing and gritting. When I was with HSE, it was the opinion of the Regulator that you should do what you can. It is difficult to completely eliminate this risk, make sure access and egress of well used routes are gritted.”

Trips

Trips are when you catch your footing on something. Here we usually think of the trailing cables, boxes in the corridor and other housekeeping or maintenance issues.
Tripping on an uneven surface doesn’t take much – anything over 10mm should be seen as a hazard, and the bigger the change is, the more likely the trip. When deciding if action needs to be taken, consider the level of risk looking at factors such as how busy the walkway is.

Falls – Stairs

Falling down stairs is where most serious injuries occur. They are often under reported. Rob says that in 2009/2010, UK statistics showed 2 fatal accidents reported from falls on stairs where as he personally investigated 6, making at least 4 wrongly reported. When asked to try to quantify the problem, Rob reports that the relevant British Standard in 2010 reported over 500 domestic deaths and 100,000 injuries in leisure environments resulting from stair accidents.

Whilst human error is always involved at some point, you can reduce the risk by considering:

  • The step dimensions including steepness and tread area. The more of your foot that is on the step, the more stable you will be. Of particular risk are uneven steps which can play tricks on the mind when you make an ‘air step’ expecting the step to be there…but it isn’t
  • The visibility of the edge of the step
  • The position and visibility of the handrail. If people are to grab a handrail to stop them falling, it needs to be obvious and easy to reach. Make sure there is a visual contrast so it is easy to see, it is at a predictable height (generally 900-1000mm above the pitch line of the stair), with enough clearance from the mounting wall, and a diameter where you can get a power grip with fingers and thumb meeting around the rail (32-50mm diameter circular rail is ideal).

A common question is: does a ‘hold the handrail’ rule work? This is increasingly in popularity, with information at reception and posters on the stairs, although the effectiveness is much debated. Does it work?

Rob thinks that: “A well designed handrail has about a 80% success rate of preventing a fall whether you were holding it before falling or not. However, holding the handrail prevents you holding things with both hands, and this lets a falling person grab the rail and save themselves rather than cling tighter onto the object they are carrying. So ‘hold the handrail’ is a good thing”

Human factors

Rob’s top tip on addressing behavioural safety is to focus on what is relevant and make it personal with the message that STF can be serious. He has seen good examples of companies using previous accidents as lessons learnt. When someone slipped in a toilet, a poster was displayed showing the injured hand and with the message of how long that person was off work (no names given). From then on the toilet was immaculate.

To listen to Rob’s full message, watch the webinar here: Slips trips and falls webinar for IOSH Swiss Network on YouTube

You can find a hazard spotting checklist at the HSE

To find out more about preventing slips, trips and falls please do contact Rob Shaw at rob@robshawassociates.com or visit his web site: https://www.robshawassociates.com

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