Planning and behaviour-based approaches to preventing slips, trips and falls
Slips, trips and falls are a leading cause of accidents in the workplace. They cause the highest number of major injuries at work and can happen anywhere.
In 2011/12 there were 111,164 reported non fatal injuries to employees. Out of this 111,164, 22,433 were classified as major injuries, and slips or trips were the cause of 40%, or 8,973 of them.
The next greatest cause of major injuries is falls from height, which in the same year accounted for 14%, or 3,141, meaning slips, trips and falls accounted for 54%, or 12,114 of all major injuries in 2011/12.
After the major injuries, there were 88,731 ‘over three day’ injuries which were reported, meaning an injury had caused an absence from work of more than three days. In this instance, slips, trips and falls weren’t the main cause but the second, causing 24% of these injuries.
Fatal injuries don’t make for much better reading either. In the same year, slips, trips and falls on the same level caused two fatalities, while falls from heights caused 17 deaths, eight of which were in the construction industry alone. Out of 118 fatal injuries, 19 were caused by slips, trips and falls.
Breaking the statistics down like that really brings to your attention the massive problem which is caused by something which has the potential to occur anywhere. But the big question is what causes these accidents and how can they be stopped? Working on this will ensure that many fewer people suffer injuries caused by slips, trips and falls.
The biggest factor in both the cause and prevention of slips, trips and falls is the human factor. Firstly, how many times has someone walked past a spillage on the floor and left it for someone else to sort out? Would someone clean it up knowing it could potentially cause someone a major injury?
In another scenario, who hasn’t carried something which was just a little too big, meaning they couldn’t see directly in front of them, so they couldn’t see any obstacles or the condition of the floor? Or even worse, not be able to see as they carry their load down the stairs?
I bet a few people have been late for something and as such rush there without a single thought for anything other than the meeting they are running late for.
Finally, who has carried something, thought they’d just put it down at the side while they had a break, not realising they’ve caused a hazard on a walkway?
If we can change people’s perception of their actions and what the consequences may be, then injuries caused by slips, trips and falls could be reduced drastically. Get people to take ownership of any contamination of the floor they see, by either reporting it to cleaning staff or cleaning it up themselves.
Ask people to take their time and not rush from place to place without thinking about the environment they’re passing through, and train people in manual handling to ensure they don’t carry loads which obstruct their vision and could lead to a major injury.
These are all really small fixes which, if done correctly, could help ensure that the workforce has a greater understanding of the causes of slips, trips and falls. A simple solution can genuinely have a massive effect on the safety of the workplace.
Of course human factors aren’t the one and only cause of slips, trips and falls – the environment plays a huge part, as we will discuss in the next section.
The environment of a workplace has the potential to both increase and reduce the likelihood of slips, trips and falls occurring. In this context the environment applies to lighting – from natural or other sources – noise, the weather conditions, humidity and condensation.
For example, if a workplace is poorly lit then people will struggle to see obstacles which may be in their way, but if it is too well lit then the floor may reflect this into people’s eyes, meaning they miss hazards on the floor.
Noise can cause distraction to people, or if there is a sudden loud noise it can startle people, causing them to stumble over obstacles.
Then of course there is the weather. Rain can cause the surface outside to be slippery and similarly, people can walk rain water into the workplace and cause a hazard for people walking by after them. Icy conditions will mean that the floor surface is particularly slippery and sometimes this isn’t immediately evident.
It’s clear that the environment plays a huge part in the causation and solution of slips, trips and falls in the construction industry. When a building project is first started and the site is occupied, there is usually nothing protecting the workplace from the elements, meaning that rain can get everywhere and in the cold months, ice and frost can form throughout.
This in turn will reduce the friction on the floor and increase the likelihood of someone slipping and injuring themselves. The first option to be looked at to eliminate this hazard would be to try to eliminate it. This could be done in several different ways, but one of the most effective ways to eliminate it would be to provide some shelter to the workplace, with some temporary sheeting or boarding. Doing this will stop the ingress of rain water to where people will be working.
An effective method of eliminating the hazard posed by the frost and ice forming is to provide some portable heaters in the workplace, which would raise the temperature to a sufficient level to stop frost and ice from forming.
The preventative options described above aren’t always available, particularly if your work is going to take place outside more often than inside. Take, for example, people who undertake highway maintenance. Highway maintenance workers are always going to be mobile and the control measures for them will have to be dynamic, and adapt to the ever changing conditions.
This can be done through risk assessments conducted at the point of work as a first means, then deciding on the best course of action to ensure a worker’s safety. Another aspect to consider is the ground on which they are working, as this varies widely. Work can be done on good, flat, solid ground, or a steep grassy slope. This is an important factor when deciding upon appropriate control measures.
Another aspect to consider when working on grassy conditions is the condition of the ground underneath, as this can sometimes contain holes and other hazards for workers to trap their foot in, and cause them to fall.
The first control measure to eliminate the risk would be to do the work without people actually going up on the grass bank. As most work done here is grass cutting, could this be done using a tractor with an attachment to cut the grass and hedgerows? This would in turn eliminate the risk of a person injuring themselves from a slip, trip or a fall.
If this solution isn’t feasible, the next option is to look at reducing the number of workers who have to work on the grass bank, or the amount of time actually spent working on it. If the work has to be done, however, and the number of workers can’t be reduced, then the environment should be made sufficiently safe for them.
Lighting could cause an issue if conditions underfoot can’t be seen properly, and potential hazards aren’t easily identifiable. Works should therefore be undertaken during daylight hours, if possible, and if night time work can’t be avoided, then good lighting towers should be provided which make sure the work area is well lit.
The last course of action to be taken is to provide suitable and sufficient PPE which can either help prevent a slip, trip or fall, or protect the worker enough so that injury isn’t caused by them. Safety boots can be provided which offer good grip on the ground, as well as strong ankle support so that the foot is fully protected, especially if the worker’s foot goes down an unseen hole.
Another form of PPE, particularly useful in snow and ice, is the spikes, which simply fit over the safety boots and give a good level of grip on surfaces which have very low friction. This helps to prevent the worker from falling over in icy conditions.
Working at height
Falls from height are one of the greatest causes of fatalities in the construction industry, with eight workers losing their lives in the stats mentioned earlier. Providing better and more effective control measures for working at height will obviously increase the chance of workers going home safely at night.
Like slips, trips and falls on the same level, the control measures for working at height are simple and easily implemented, especially when compared to the consequences should someone fall from height. The hardest part sometimes is to convince the worker to take that little bit longer to erect an appropriate work platform, instead of getting the job done more quickly, but increasing the risk of injury by working off a set of ladders.
Also, the cost of either purchasing or hiring a work platform may seem expensive, but when compared to criminal and civil case costs, it is the much cheaper option. Changing these perceptions and behaviours are key to ensuring work at height is conducted safely – it’s also key to reducing the scope for harm.
When planning any work at height, the first thing that should be considered is whether the work actually needs to take place at height, because sometimes the work can be completed on the ground and then it can be lifted up using plant equipment. This option will therefore completely eliminate the risks caused from working at height and is the preferred method. A lot of the time, however, working at height simply can’t be avoided.
Like all hazards, if it can’t be eliminated completely then the next course of action should be to reduce either the time exposed to the hazard, or the number of people who are exposed to it. When this isn’t possible, then the control measures that are put in place should look to protect the collective workers, as opposed to individual protection.
This can be in the form of safety nets put up around the work area which protect everyone working there, or crash cushions which protect workers should they have a fall. These are the most effective measures and ensure that everyone in that area is safe should they have a fall, and they don’t rely on workers securing themselves to an anchor point with a lanyard and harness.
This individual means of protection is the next step to be taken to prevent harm to people who are working at height. While a lanyard and harness are effective control measures they do have their drawbacks, the first of which is the fact that a rescue plan needs to be in place should someone fall from height.
This can sometimes be overlooked with people assuming they are safe, not realising that if someone is not rescued quickly then the person can suffer from suspension trauma, the effects of which can sometimes be fatal.
The lanyard and harness also rely on a worker using equipment correctly to secure themselves to a suitable anchor point. Many a time you will see a scaffolder on an incomplete scaffold with their harness attached to themselves. It isn’t always done on purpose, though, as some people may just forget to attach their harness again once they have unclipped it to move to another work area.
The use of a lanyard and harness changes depends on what sort of work you are doing; for example, a person using a cherry picker and working over water, wouldn’t fix themselves to the cherry picker as they usually would when working over land. They instead have to attach their harness to a point outside of a cherry picker so they don’t get dragged under water should it tip over.
This is why communication and instruction are both important when you are telling people what work is being planned, and what PPE will be required to carry it out. It’s vital that workers realise the hazards that are present and how to use the PPE issued correctly. This will then reduce the likelihood of any injury occurring from a fall from height.
In conclusion, the issue caused by slips, trips and falls, both at height and on the same level should never be underestimated, as the figures show they are a very common occurrence.
With some simple yet effective control measures, however, the risks that they pose can be greatly reduced to such an extent that they are no longer a leading cause of injuries in the workplace.
These control measures will not be enough if only they alone are applied to the problem. To ensure that the control measures have a more positive outcome, the behaviour of people needs to be analysed and where flaws or unsafe behaviours are found, these should be worked on, and perceptions changed in line with the new control measures. Implementing control measures without changing behaviours and perceptions, or communicating the reason behind the control measures and the benefits they will bring, may bring a negative reaction from the workforce, and improvement attempts will be in vain.
Also, by ensuring that the workplace is a safe environment which offers good lighting, firm, level, slip resistant flooring free from obstructions and hazards means that the risks posed are again further reduced.
A proactive method of achieving this is by utilising safety by design, and aiming to eliminate all hazards from the workplace before it is even constructed, through correct lighting specifications, non slip flooring designated for all walkways, and adequate storage along them so that items aren’t stored in a way which causes an obstruction.
Published: 18th Oct 2013 in Health and Safety International