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Safety's No Game - and Slips Aren't Funny if they Land in Court

Imagine the legal ramifications if an up-and-coming Ian Thorpe or Pat Rafter was to be seriously hurt or even disabled in a slip and fall accident in a changing room.

If it could be proven that the floor surface had poor slip resistance, the financial consequences could stretch out into the multiple millions.

It could send those responsible broke – in exactly the same way that an employer or building owner can be sent broke if they neglect their responsibilities in public and workplace facilities (such as change rooms, bathrooms, kitchens, canteens, hallways, production areas and workshop areas).

I came across the sportsman analogy recently when studying a paper by Standards Australia spokesman Richard Bowman in which he alerts people to the availability of the Standards Australia Handbook 197 guide for specifying slip resistance.

Such articles really should be compulsory reading for all employers, in my experience as an expert witness appearing in cases where business owners are being sued for taking insufficient care in ensuring their floors are safe in foreseeable situations.

Because figures from the National Occupational Health and Safety Commission (NOHSC) show Australian industry now has well over 20,000 new workers compensation cases a year where falls, slips and trips result in death, permanent disability or a temporary disability resulting in an absence from work of more than a week.

The cost of these new claims is hundreds of millions of dollars a year – and absolutely certain to rise as courts find that many of the incidents are preventable. Once the level of awareness in Australian courts reaches the level of awareness in the US system, then all local employers (of whom I am one) should be very aware of their responsibilities.

Because workplace safety is a concern to everyone. Employees, employers, risk managers, insurers and even visitors are impacted by the level of commitment to safety at your physical facility. As long as businesses have existed, one of the most common and costly threats to a workplace safety program has been the slip and fall accident.

To understand this, let’s get technical for a moment. Friction, also referred to as traction, is the relationship of object to surface; foot to floor. In terms of slip resistance, it is the resistance to lateral (forward) movement caused by the foot touching the ground.

To determine the slip resistance of any surface, you must determine the Coefficient of Friction (COF) on the surface. The COF is the horizontal force divided by the vertical force. The higher the coefficient of friction reading, the less slippery a surface.

Coefficient of Friction has become an important measure of performance for floor surfaces and to the anti-fatigue and safety matting industry. To guard against slip and fall accidents, the American OSHA recommends a static coefficient of friction of .5. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) specifies a coefficient of friction of .6 on flat surfaces and .8 on ramps.

With these recommendations in place, the concept of slip resistance has basically been elevated to a civil right. Right now, the static coefficient of friction of .5 is seen as legal and enforceable benchmark for slip-resistant pedestrian walkways. Similar standards of protection will ultimately arrive in Australia.

We can spend as much as we like on protective clothing, eyeglasses, earmuffs, helmets and the like, but if the floor under our employees’ feet isn’t safe then - literally and legally - we haven’t got a leg to stand on.

Nor will a helmet or safety clothing benefit you much if workers suffer a sprain or strain of the joints or adjacent muscles – and these types of injuries account for fully 50 per cent of new workers compensation cases.

Yet employers can do a lot to address the problem by undertaking a little homework to direct their safety investment.

SAFETY CHECKLIST

Mr Siegle suggests a basic checklist should include the following steps to help keep the workplace safe:

1. Investigate accidents

Find out where accidents and near-accidents occur. Often minor incidents precede major ones, so treat even small accidents as clues to identifying troublesome areas that need attention. Employees should report all incidents. Pay particular attention to the following:

  • Doorways and other transitional areas
  • Ramps
  • Cluttered hallways
  • Areas with heavy traffic
  • Uneven surfaces
  • Areas that are prone to wetness or spills

2. Implement environmental controls

Such controls typically include slip-resistant floors and safety, ergonomic and anti-fatigue mats. These should have a minimal static coefficient of at least 0.5.

When assessing the types of flooring that should be used, bear in mind that not only should the flooring be chosen according to the floor’s use (naturally), but also that some rooms may require more than one type of floor surface (something planners sometimes overlook, and a factor where special-purpose matting can be used in, for example, fatty, wet or metal working areas).

While it is possible to design floors with subtle and safe slopes to improve drainage, companies may find it more cost-efficient to use different tiles or mats in areas of heavy traffic. Some of the criteria to consider in choosing flooring include:

  • What kind of spills are likely?
  • What are the sanitary requirements?
  • Is noise a concern?
  • Will the area have heavy traffic?
  • What equipment must the floor hold?
  • How will the floor be cleaned?
  • Are aesthetic effects a concern?

Non-skid coatings can improve traction, but mats constructed with securely anchorage surfaces have the advantage of being able to be applied immediately and comparatively inexpensively. They can also be moved as production and traffic needs change.

Mats provide added protection in spots where spills are likely and in areas with heavy traffic, where customers and employees may track in water and dirt. Some specialist manufacturers (such as Waterhog, a world leader in its field) produce aesthetically highly refined mats especially designed to extract dirt and water before it is tracked into other areas, causing problems there.

3. Where mats are chosen, specify the following qualities:

  • Easy to clean
  • Rubber surfaces
  • Recessed or bevelled edges
  • Thicknesses of 125-160mm
  • Perforated surfaces to drain spills

It is sensible also to ensure that footwear complements the mats’ safety and ergonomic performance by having slip-resistant soles and a high co-efficient of friction, while being comfortable and durable.

4. Take control with training people to stay on the lookout for hazards that could cause slips, trips or falls.

  • If you drop it, pick it up
  • If you spill it, wipe it up.
  • Go where you’re looking, and look where you’re going
  • Check that aisles are clear
  • Be sure floors are clean
  • Watch guests or customers to give them any assistance they might need
  • Make cleaning implements accessible to any employee

As long as people move, fatigue and slips will occur. But a variety of products can reduce the chances that the hazards will result in a painful and costly experience.

5. Where you have invested in mats, keep them clean

Always be sure floors are clean – and also watch employees, guests or customers to give them any assistance they might need during inclement conditions, such as spillages, flooding or rain. Make sure cleaning implements are accessible to any employee.

For best results – both in terms of durability and safety - mats should receive scheduled cleanings. Quality carpet and entrance mats are designed to lower your maintenance costs and still be easily maintained. Simply follow these instructions to keep your mats looking great and functioning effectively.

Carpet and Entrance Mats
Take the mats outside and shake them to remove excess dirt and debris. If necessary, use a hose (avoid extremely high-pressure or high temperatures) to was them off. Allow carpeted mats to dry before bringing them back inside. Carpet mats can be cleaned the same way you maintain your carpeting. Vacuum them daily, and extract or shampoo them when dirt builds up.

Moulded Rubber and PVC Anti-fatigue Mats (Those designed for wet areas)
Use a high-pressure hose (not to exceed 1800 psi) and hot water (max 160 degrees F) to rid the mats of oils. For best results, use a mild soap or detergent like Ivory Liquid with a ph between 4.0 - 9.0 to clean the mats. Do not use steam, degreasers or caustic chemicals. Do not machine wash or mechanically scrub the mats.

SpongeCote™ Mats, PVC Sponges and Urethane Mats (Dry area mats)
Sweep regularly or dry mop the surface. These mats can be wet mopped with mild soap or detergent. For best results use a detergent like Ivory Liquid with a ph between 4.0 - 9.0.

Runner Mats
Simply sweep the surface with a broom or vacuum. Our runners can also be wet mopped with mild soap.

If in any doubt, consult a matting expert. We have invested our future in your business and have a vested interest in protecting you.

(Note: A COF of higher than .8 does not significantly add to slip resistance. However, a COF of much over 1.0 can impede a person’s ability to walk)