Slips, trips, and falls can be funny in movies, but in real life, not so much. We all laugh at the classic film gag of someone slipping on a banana peel. There is something oddly funny about seeing someone fall. Unfortunately for us in the real world, falls lead to pain, injuries, or worse.
Falls are consistently the leading cause of death in construction followed by electrocution, struck by objects and caught in-between accidents (collectively known as OSHA's Fatal Four). Furthermore, falls are one of the primary causes of lost days from work and the leading cause of worker compensation claims according to the National Floor Safety Institute. It is also the number one injury for emergency room visits. According to the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety, 42,000 workers get injured annually due to fall accidents.
Slips, trips and falls should be on the list of concerns for any active safety program. The only way to prevent them is through a proactive approach. This is done by focusing on the unsafe conditions and unsafe behaviors that lead to slips, trips, and falls.
Identify All Unsafe Conditions
The largest percentages of injuries are from same surface falls attributed to slips and trips. Let’s look at these first before addressing falls from elevated levels. Slipping occurs when there is not sufficient traction between the foot and the walking surface. The most common causes of slipping include:
- Wet or oily surfaces
- Loose or unfastened mats or rugs
- Smooth walking surfaces (insufficient traction)
- Gravel or sand (these equate to a moving walking surface)
- Improper footwear (smooth, slick shoe bottoms)
Tripping is caused by interruption to walking by striking an object. Common causes for tripping include:
- Obstructed view
- Poor lighting
- Objects in the walking path
- Un-level carpet or rug, flooring, etc.
- Cords/cables in walking path
- Uneven steps
Looking for these conditions is no different than any other potential hazard. It requires specific attention on a regular basis. I recommend inspecting a work area for these types of hazards during each shift. This needs to be part of worker standard practices. Safety concerns such as this are one reason why standard work instructions are vital to any work environment.
Like a pre-flight checklist for an airplane pilot, you are having workers look over their work area for abnormal conditions. This is assuming their work area is normally free of exposed dangers such as slip, trip and fall hazards. Creating simple safety checkoff lists makes it a snap to uncover a potential slip/trip hazard before an accident occurs.
Most safety management systems require documented safety inspections. Like the old proverb "How do you eat an elephant?… A bite at a time." Break up your safety inspections into easy, bite-sized pieces.
By involving all workers in daily safety inspections of their work areas, you reinforce safety with them (learn more about Creating a Workplace Safety Culture). This may also help reduce unsafe behaviors by a daily focus on safety. Rotating the safety inspection between employees can be effective for uncovering unsafe conditions while sharing the workload and responsibility. Employees that work in the area being inspected will notice discrepancies fast, because it is a change to what they normally see and experience.
Another way to prevent slips is to ensure workers are only allowed to wear shoes that provide good traction and protection for their work environment.
Address Unsafe Behaviors
We all look for shortcuts at work and home. The conservation of energy is always at work in our minds. Standing on a chair to change a lightbulb is common, even though a step ladder can be retrieved from a room down the hall. Safety often requires extra effort and we must encourage that effort. Safety should be rewarded and reinforced at every opportunity (see Your Incentives Are Compromising Safety Culture for advice on rewarding safety the right way).
Work leaders also need to be on the lookout for unsafe practices and address them quickly, yet politely. It sends a mixed signal when you get angry at someone while you’re concerned about their safety.
The best way to control behaviors that impact safety is by creating standard work procedures. This means taking the time to outline the safest, most efficient way to perform all identified work tasks. If you can’t or don’t want to take the time to write down each step of a process to make work instructions, just shoot a video of the correct procedure. Save these as video files and use for reference and training.
Once the area is free of identified hazards, standard work instructions and check lists help keep workers from inadvertently recreating them. By having the workers monitor and inspect their work area daily for safety, you help instill a safety mindset. This can help reduce all unsafe behaviors.
Falls from Elevated Levels
A proactive approach for preventing falls from elevated levels still centers on controlling unsafe conditions and unsafe behaviors. However, just as elevated levels can increase the hazard potential, we need to increase our attention and efforts. We must make sure we are compliant with all safety regulations for elevated work.
To protect from falls involving elevated levels, the same activities of hazard identification are used. A simple checklist and standard work instructions can flush out danger. Elevated surfaces need to meet safety regulation guidelines for proper railing, steps, ladders, scaffolding, and so on (find out whether you can use scaffold cross bracing instead of guard rails).
Personal fall arrest systems must be used for fall protection when deemed necessary by OSHA or other regulatory agencies (learn more in Arrest or Protect: Your Guide to Choosing the Right Fall Protection System).
This is still nothing more than identifying a potential fall hazard and making sure a control measure is in place. This requires attention that may not be given if safety is not valued.
Unsafe conditions and behaviors will not be an issue with elevated level working as long as all regulatory rules for elevated work are followed. Like buckling a seat belt in your car, the proper behavior is to insist all workers have the correct equipment and obey safety rules for elevated work.
In 2013, there were 291 fatal falls to a lower level out of 828 total fatalities in construction. These deaths are preventable.
We Must Do Better
Why is this type of accident so common if identifying fall hazards is so easy? There are many factors that lead to slips, trips, and falls, including multi-tasking, rushing, and lack of preparation.
Walking is what we do as we carry out routine activities. When we climb ladders, use steps, or work from scaffolding, we are focused on getting work tasks done.
After performing many accident investigations involving falls, I noticed a pattern: every slip, trip, or fall accident I have ever investigated included a chain of events. The worker was typically in a hurry or focused on the needed task and did not see the hazard that led to their fall until it was too late.
This pattern or "chain of events" is common for leading to falls. Workers are paid to perform tasks and activities. This is where their focus will be. Now throw in a little added burden such as:
- Being stressed due to deadlines, work targets, or meeting incentives
- Working short handed
- Reacting to a fast pace job where falling behind is not an option
You get the idea. We care about our work and want to do a good job. For that purpose, management needs to have a strong proactive safety focus. Without a safety focus you will have no counter balance. Safety may become an afterthought.
We know that slips, trips, and falls are at the top of the list for injuries that impact workers. So, what are we doing about it? How proactive is your company? Are there efforts to control these hazards such as checklists in place? Do you have standard work instructions?
It is up to us safety professionals, managers, and work leaders to protect workers by providing a safe work environment. This includes proactively seeking unsafe conditions and behaviors that can lead to slips, trips, and falls.
Try These Tips From OSHA for Helping Prevent Injuries Associated With Falls:
- Plan ahead to get work done safely (make sure supplies and tools are delivered in a safe manner and in good shape—this is extremely important when working in jobs involving elevated levels)
- Provide the right equipment, including proper ladders and harnesses
- Train employees to use equipment and perform work safely
OSHA says it in three easy to remember words: Plan - Provide - Train.
Launch a fall prevention campaign to heighten awareness. Promote the Plan - Provide - Train formula. Set your goal for worker injuries from falls to be ZERO (see The Journey to Zero! for tips on reaching zero workplace accidents).
The next time I see a movie scene involving a fall from a banana peel, I will most likely still laugh. And I hope that this is the only place I will see a fall—on the movie screen, where it belongs.