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Building design focused on safety can help mitigate injuries and comp claims

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With slips, trips and falls remaining one of the top causes of workers compensation claims, safety experts say more emphasis must be placed on the ergonomic design of workplaces if companies hope to reduce the prevalence of such injuries.

While safety professionals have done a good job of promoting clean floors, appropriate footwear and other strategies to reduce slip and fall risks, sources say there is a need for architects and engineers to be included in safety conversations that could change the way buildings are developed.

“The safety and health professionals (and the) insurance industry, we all get it. We all talk the same language,” said Donna Heidel, Edison, N.J.-based senior industrial hygiene manager with safety consultancy Bureau Veritas S.A. “The trick is going to be to teach our design engineers to include worker health and safety issues.”

Such accidents need particular attention in nonindustrial workplaces, where employers tend to install terrazzo or marble floors that can become dangerous for workers to walk on in certain conditions, said Wayne Maynard, product director of workers compensation, ergonomics and tribology for Liberty Mutual Group Inc. in Hopkinton, Mass.

“We have a growing ... office industry where we don't think of those as being potentially risky areas of slips, trips and falls, but they really are,” Mr. Maynard said.

Slips, trips and falls on the same level — where workers slip and fall on the surface on which they're standing — accounted for 134,580 injuries involving days away from work in 2011, according to the latest data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Such accidents also resulted in 108 worker deaths in 2012 and 111 deaths in 2011, the data showed.

Slips and falls are a prominent cause of concern for employers, said Jennifer Bell, Morgantown, W.Va.-based research epidemiologist with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, a division of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “The fact that businesses often reach out to us and ask for help with their slip and fall problems is an indicator that companies in a variety of industries are interested in ways to reduce this type of injury,” said Ms. Bell, who noted that slips and falls were the leading cause of lost-time injuries in the finance and insurance sector in 2011.

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Meanwhile, the cost of such incidents is significant, according to data from Liberty Mutual. Falls on the same level represented $8.61 billion in workers comp costs in 2010, the insurer said in its 2012 Workplace Safety Index.

The number of same-level falls increased by 42.3% from 1998 to 2010, the largest increase of any accident type during that time, according to Liberty Mutual. Bodily reaction accidents — which include injuries caused by slipping or tripping without falling — saw the second largest increase of 17.6% during that period.

Liberty's Mr. Maynard said employers have implemented effective safety measures to deal with workplace slips and falls. That includes placing floor mats to help workers track moisture off their shoes when entering a foyer with smooth floors, or cleaning spilled liquids.

Those precautions have prevented many accidents, Mr. Maynard said. However, he said he strongly believes fall prevention will remain at a plateau until employers work with design professionals to create buildings that are ergonomically friendly and equipped with safer walking surfaces.

“I think we're getting better, but I would like to see this become more prevalent and more common in the architect community that they look to slip and fall prevention,” said Mr. Maynard, who noted that such design considerations were used for a new Liberty Mutual office building that recently was constructed in Boston.

While designers typically follow building codes and industry standards for slip-resistant flooring, such protocols don't necessarily account for everyday wear and tear of floors, or how such surfaces are affected by liquids, debris or contaminants, said Keith Vidal, president of St. Louis-based safety consulting firm Vidal Engineering L.C.

He and other experts note that marble and other smooth flooring materials qualify as being slip-resistant when dry.

“People love to throw in floors that are beautiful,” Mr. Vidal said. “But they're ... hard, smooth floors that, once they get wet, pose a serious threat of people falling on them.”

Additionally, floor mats intended to mitigate risks after a building has been designed can sometimes develop curled edges or bumps that trip people, Mr. Vidal said.

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Ergonomic building design is a key component of reducing slips and falls in the future, Mr. Vidal said. “Our priorities are essentially to design out the problem, if we can design it out,” he said.

NIOSH launched a Prevention Through Design initiative a few years ago to address ways that architects and engineers can get involved to create safer workplaces. Bureau Veritas' Ms. Heidel, who previously worked at NIOSH and helped develop the prevention initiative, said the agency has worked to create greater understanding between safety and design professionals.

That includes a push to train engineering and architecture students early in their college educations about safety and ergonomic considerations, Ms. Heidel said.

Experts say employers can take several steps to reduce slips and falls outside of changing their building designs. NIOSH's Ms. Bell recommends that companies review their workers comp claims and injury records to look for workplace slip and fall trends that can be targeted for intervention.

Mr. Maynard and Mr. Vidal note that flooring treatments and coatings can increase the abrasiveness of marble and other smooth flooring materials, making them more slip-resistant. And they note that companies can look to buy high-quality mats that remove water and dirt from shoes without creating walking hazards.

The cost of replacing floors that create slipping hazards can be significant for companies, experts note. Still, they say such strategies could be worth the money saved in workers comp liabilities.

“To replace a floor, especially in entrance ways where these problems typically occur ... can be relatively inexpensive compared to the expense of going through litigation,” Mr. Vidal said.