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Even though high- level discussions of slip-and-fall accidents has dropped off among risk managers in recent years, employees continue to fall down on the job.
Workplace slip-and-fall injuries "have continued without huge deviation, because everyone is concentrating on the hot issues" such as cumulative trauma disorder and ergonomics, said Lance J. Ewing, director-insurance and loss prevention for GES Exposition Services Inc. in Las Vegas, Nev.
As a recent loss control administrator for the School District of Philadelphia, Mr. Ewing saw plenty of slip-and-fall accidents, and as a leader of the Risk & Insurance Management Society Inc.'s External Affairs Team, he plans to draw more attention to the losses at the society's meetings, he said.
"I'm not going to raise it as a cause celebre, but I'm certainly going to reintroduce it to RIMS members to say we need to be on the lookout on slip-and-fall injuries," Mr. Ewing said.
He is not alone in his belief that the issue could use more attention.
Worker slip-and-fall incidents are second only to lower back pain and lifting injuries in the number of claims filed, said Tom Leamon, executive director of Liberty Mutual Insurance Co.'s Research Center for Safety and Health in Hopkinton, Mass. Some claims filed as back pain injuries actually may be caused by slips, he added.
In terms of total claims payouts, slip-and-fall injuries roughly equal those from lifting injuries, classified as "manual materials handling," Mr. Leamon said. His observations are based on analysis of claims filed with Liberty Mutual, the nation's largest workers compensation insurer.
The problem has not abated in the past decade, he said. About 4,000 Americans die annually from ground-level falls on and off the job.
"That's a jumbo jet a month," Mr. Leamon added. "And yet, who cares? Apparently, not a lot of people, because it happens one at a time."
In 1995, employees' work-related falls racked up 343,929 injuries resulting in at least one day away from work, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.
More sophisticated claims analysis methods and the trend toward allocating workers comp costs back to production units could reduce slip-and-fall injuries "with a little bit of luck," said Mr. Leamon.
"People in fast-food business, people in trucking, people in construction are now paying attention," he said.
Another source of help in reducing such accidents may be on the way.
The American Society for Testing & Materials, based in Conshohocken, Pa., has two current projects that could make a difference. The standards development organization is about a year from concluding work on an analysis method for testing floor safety in specific work environments, said George Widas, chairman of the ASTM task group developing the analysis method.
Currently, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration requires that workplace floors meet a slip-resistant standard measured at a 0.5 coefficient of friction. Many employers and floor manufacturers strive to meet that number, Mr. Widas said. The number is widely used in a general sense, with many employers installing flooring that meets that standard in a laboratory setting. But the material actually could be deadly under the specific conditions of some workplaces, he said.
"In order to say 0.5 slip resistance is safe enough, you have to say under what conditions and for who, doing what," Mr. Widas said. "It's now subjective and varies from industry to industry."
"The reason that many people believe that we still have 8 million to 10 million fall injuries a year in the United States is because people are not following a safety recipe for their installation," Mr. Widas continued. "They are looking for some representation of what is safe universally, and there is no such thing."
To improve matters, Mr. Widas' ASTM task group is developing an analysis method that will allow an employer to determine what constitutes a safe floor under its specific conditions. The committee is also looking at a similar process for footwear.
"You implement these proposed standards when they are developed and approved, and your loss ratio will go down," Mr. Widas promises. "This is a formula for success in safety of footwear and flooring."
Attorneys and other professionals involved with workers compensation eagerly are awaiting the conclusion of ASTM's new work, Mr. Ewing said.
However, Mr. Widas conceded, the new analysis methods could help plaintiffs, as well as employers, if plaintiffs are able to use them to show that employers have not done everything possible to make their floors safe.
Floor and shoe manufacturers that specialize in work safety products say employer interest has intensified, and there is plenty of new competition aimed at feeding a growing market.
Indeed, there is a preoccupation with floor treatments, cleaning products and slip-resistant tiles and shoes, several experts said.
But companies are learning that even a light coat of dust, water, grease or metal shavings can reduce the effectiveness of these various safety products.
Regardless of the industry or safety materials in place, floor cleaning is the most effective action an employer can take, said Mr. Leamon of Liberty Mutual's Research Center.
"One of the things we have found in our research is contaminations on shoes and floors almost immediately reduce the slip resistance of every floor we have looked at," he said. "Whatever the floor manufacturer tells you, he is testing in a lab where he cleans the floor tiles. . .and takes an ideal circumstance. We are pretty certain they don't predict performance very well."
But, challenged by volume buyers, floor and shoe product manufacturers have made improvements, said Christopher E. Mandel, senior director-worldwide risk management for Tricon Global Restaurants Inc., based in Louis-ville, Ky.
Tricon restaurants, which include Pizza Hut, Taco Bell and Kentucky Fried Chicken, have reduced slip-and-fall accidents in recent years, though they continue to be a frequent concern requiring vigilance, Mr. Mandel said.
There is likely no one product that will be effective for every industry or even for every restaurant, Mr. Mandel said. With many available products, the best advice is for companies to test them at a small number of facilities, Mr. Mandel said.
For example, Tricon recently tested a microbial cleaner that produces live organisms purported to eat the grease splattered on floors.
"It seemed to work, but when we tested it against other standard floor cleaners and what it took to get the team to use it correctly, we ended up concluding it was too new technology," Mr. Mandel said. Perhaps with improvements it will be of more use to Tricon in the future, he said.
Floor safety products can also produce their own workers compensation hazards. That happened at one California quick-service restaurant when workers mixed a floor etching product with another chemical stored in the facility.
The floor etching product, when mopped on and left to stand for 20 minutes, creates tiny peaks and valleys in floor tiles. But when mixed with the other chemical, it produced noxious fumes, said the restaurant chain's risk manager, who asked not to be identified.
To avoid similar problems, the restaurant company ordered its line managers to rid all of its facilities of the remaining etching solution, the risk manager said. However, some of the managers at individual restaurants continued to horde the etching product because it seemed effective for reducing their restaurants' slip-and-fall losses. Those losses currently are the No. 3 cause of accidents in the restaurant company, but they account for the most dollars spent on workers comp injuries.
Yet even the prized etching substance required good cleaning practices to keep grease from filling in the etched-out surface. Regardless of the product, the real challenge is ensuring that workers regularly mop and brush the floors, the risk manager said. "It's all about training and local management and making sure it's happening.'