Slips and Falls: Are You Taking The Risks Seriously?

A jury verdict came in this week in a slip and fall case at a Popeyes restaurant. Looking at the published details of the case, it was interesting how much of the contesting of the case focused on the level of damages. This highlights a few things that restaurant operators need to keep in mind when planning their prevention efforts:

1. Any given slip and fall can result in a wide range of outcomes. The level of injuries isn’t always predictable by the nature of the fall itself. 

2. Minor falls can be just as instructive to hazard recognition and prevention efforts as major ones. We need good systems to use the information that comes our way.

3. It’s a combination of the way a facility is designed, the way it’s managed,and  how issues are identified and addressed that makes up the risk picture someone using a given walkway faces.

When was the last time you reviewed your procedures and practices?

Selecting Slip-Resistant Footwear for General Purpose Use

Slip and Fall Risks Get Personal

A former colleague of mine who is a commercial real estate appraiser related to me that he slipped and fell a couple of weeks ago as he was on a high-rise condominium tower walk-through. He related that the steel diamond plate decking on one of the exit stairways was damp, and his shoes were very worn. He went out the exit hallway door, took two steps onto the landing, and experienced a heel-slip leading to a fall.  He went down hard on his tailbone, and also hit his elbow on the ground as he fell. Thankfully, he was not seriously hurt. He called me today, recounting his incident and speculating that his poor footwear was the primary cause of his slip and fall. He asked me for advice on how to select shoes that would give him more confidence in the varied environments where he walked on the job.

Shoes that Help Keep You on Your Feet

I have done a lot of slip and fall prevention work with restaurant, hotel, manufacturing, and construction operations, all environments where there is generally  an understanding that footwear needs to perform for the job. My friend’s request, though opens up some broader considerations.  What about professionals who need to walk in varied environments and conditions, but need a business-casual look and a high degree of comfort as well. Here are some of the characteristics I told him to look for:

1. A good sole tread pattern. One of the most important things for good footwear traction on wet, contaminated, or loose surfaces is a good tread pattern. Look for mid-size tread blocks with many leading edges, with channels between the blocks wide enough to channel away liquids. Avoid smooth soles, lightly textured or patterned soles, or protruding ridges that run lengthwise along the sole.

2. A good sole compound. This is harder to discern when you are shopping, but an important factor that affects the ability of the shoe to provide good traction when wet or greasy. This is one area where some less reputable shoe brands have copied the tread pattern of industry-leading soles but have much harder sole material that exhibits poor slip resistance. A soft sole isn’t automatically going to have good slip resistance, but hard soles seldom do.

3. Good sole geometry. You want to make sure that there is a slight rise at the front of the shoe (known as “toe spring”) to prevent tripping over small changes in level, as well as good relationship between the angle of the sole and heel. Any shoe that angles the foot downward excessively may make it hard to maintain your balance in some situations.

Here are some examples from real-world shoe soles:

This sole has very good channels, both wide and narrow, that make for great performance on wet and greasy surfaces.

This sole has some large flat areas with a fairly shallow pattern, which are not great for slip resistance, but does have some good tread blocks on the perimeter of the sole. A good sole compound helps this shoe perform fairly well given its limitations.

This shoe has some good tread blocks and a good sole material, but lacks smaller channels for optimized performance on wet surfaces.  This particular shoe does have a very good sole material which makes for solid performance. 

This sole has a good lug design with good performance both on smooth surfaces and on loose dirt and gravel. It can be difficult to find a shoe sole well for both outdoor and indoor environments, but this one is very good in both environments.

This sole has very good cylindrical tread elements integral smaller channels, but has a relatively smooth surface on the critical heel-strike zone at the rear of the shoe. Balancing that out, though, is a good sole material compound, and the good grooves in the rear section. Also noteworthy is the consideration for wear patterns built into the sole, with extra material along the quick-wearing heel area, and a flexible section in the forefoot.

An example of a great all-around shoe for my colleague’s application. Good sole geometry, great tread pattern and material, and a stylistic fit for the application in question. If he was going to be walking on a lot of dirt and gravel, another choice would be better, but for his travels in and around various properties, these fit the bill nicely.

Every occupation and application has its own challenges and constraints, but hopefully these examples will provide some guidance about general factors.

Snow and Ice Removal: The Details Matter

Snow Season Isn’t Over

In the realm of slip and fall prevention, attending to snow and ice control is a given in regions where cold winter temperatures are the norm. At the moment, with spring officially here and warm temperatures in many places, some operators have put snow and ice out of their minds. Yet the season is not fully over; for example, much of the Metro Denver area experienced 3-5 inches of snow this morning and it’s not likely the last snow of the season. I encountered a spot in a parking area this morning that is instructive for those charged with maintaining the safety of parking areas and exterior walkways. Here are two photos of the spot in question. I’ll outline the issues below.

Metal Walkway Plate with Snow and Ice

Metal Walkway Plate with Snow and Ice

Walkway metal plate

Side View Showing Drainage Channel

Why Does This Condition Exist?

First, you’ll notice the strip of snow across the walkway, in a localized spot, surrounded by clear sidewalk. The strip of snow if there because the walkway has a drainage channel across that spot, covered by a steel diamond plate cover. Because the steel cover is exposed to air on the bottom, it freezes much sooner than the regular walkway. This phenomenon is the same as what occurs on highway bridges and overpasses. Takeaway: Have you identified spots of special concern in your walking areas and do you know the factors in play?

What About the Cone?

Next, notice that there is a cone in place. It turns out this was placed there a few hours before the photos above were taken. The maintenance person who placed it there put it in place because the steel cover underneath was slippery due a layer of ice on its surface, under the snow. When the cone was placed, the whole walkway was covered with snow. This cone is beneficial because it helps alert pedestrians to the hazard. It is also not ideal because there are several preventative measures that could have been put in place, perhaps removing the need for a cone. Takeaway: Eliminate or reduce hazards first, then deploy warnings.

Possible Corrective Actions

Here is a round-up of possible preventative measures that could have been employed here:

  • Use a different material for the cover that would not function as a heat sink and be as prone to freezing.
  • Put a textured coating or finish on the cover so it would have better traction when wet or covered in snow.
  • Remove the snow from this cover after any snow accumulation, not just after the trigger level of 2-3 inches that prompts full-scale parking lot snow removal.

There may be other solutions as well, but this should give you a good glimpse of how effective risk control requires specific attention to the real-world details of your situation. The sidewalk and cover in question met building code requirements, which is a good start, but in this case prudent risk control takes more than that.

Auto Repair Shop Carbon Monoxide Control: A False Sense of Security?

Car dealer service department

Large auto repair operations often have vehicles running inside.

That was the reading on the handheld carbon monoxide detector brought along on a follow-up safety consultation visit to the service department of a large automobile dealership. The conditions were typical for the the early part of their service day – several vehicles running at once inside their 20,000 square foot service area, with one of the six large overhead doors fully open to the outside and the others closed. A discussion with the service manager revealed that this was typical in the morning, when cars would be brought in to be checked out and run briefly for diagnosis.

Exposure With Consequences

The spot reading of 400ppm of CO does not tell the whole story related to exposure in the garage. Just a few minutes before, the shop was closed and the reading was effectively zero. And a few minutes later the reading began dropping from the peak. But the 400ppm number was definitely cause for concern. That level is enough to approach short-term exposure issues (see the CDC data on that risk) with exposed workers, and if it is sustained for long it could cause serious issues.

Why Was This Occurring

Even though the facility was equipped with good means of ventilation and a dedicated exhaust removal system, neither of these controls were helping much. The early spring moderate temperatures meant that the ventilation system wasn’t running in the morning, and not one of the running vehicles were hooked up to the exhaust removal system. When asked about this, one of the mechanics said that they will use the system if running a car for a while. When he and others were queried further as to just how long that meant, the answer was far from definite. “More than five minutes.”  “Any extended time.” “Ten minutes or more…” It was clear that this wasn’t well defined, and also was not based on any actual determination of what level was an issue. It was much more about convenience, an informal determination on each technician’s part about if it was worth the trouble of hooking a car or truck up.

Learning from Other Environments

Some of the work I’ve done recently that centers on parking lot and parking garage safety has highlighted the usefulness of carbon monoxide monitoring systems. Though I was focusing on pedestrian safety and vehicle-into-building crashes, many elements of parking safety were looked at to some degree. It became clear that the issue of carbon monoxide in parking structures had been given a lot of attention and had subsequently become the focus of regulatory activity. This set the stage for some great technological options for reduction, monitoring, and exhaust of carbon monoxide that could be applied. In the case of the auto dealership service department, it was monitoring that was a glaring omission from their arrangement.

Industrial Carbon Monoxide Detector

Industrial Carbon Monoxide Detector

Appropriate Detection

A survey of some other auto repair environments showed that some were employing consumer/household style carbon monoxide detectors. The rise of UL standard 2034 and its inclusion in many building codes has led to good availability of simple consumer style detectors. Many more homes are protected today than just a few years ago, but the problem with using a UL2034 detector in a commercial setting such as a garage is that the standard for these residential detectors places a great deal of importance on avoiding false alarms, which means that these detectors are not nearly as sensitive as  most commercial models. The right solution for a garage environment typically requires some analysis by an industrial hygienist, and would include an appropriate advanced detector along with both alerts and possibly automatic activation of  ventilation.

What About Procedures?

Note that the engineered solution is the right place to begin controlling this hazard. The service manager’s suggestion that they begin with a procedural response, including a shorter timeframe to attach the exhaust removal system, and more overhead doors open was not a sufficient solution. The way the shop operated, the longstanding practices employed, and the difficulty in determining action triggers in the existing environment all pointed toward not accepting an administrative-only solution. Naturally, every situation is different, and this case does not indicate that all similar operations should employ the same controls, but it does show that the right factors need to be considered, and any controls employed should have a good expectation of actually being effective!

Vehicle-Into-Building Crash Risk Control: Developing an Evaluation Framework

The issue of vehicle-into-building crashes, also known as storefront crashes, is gaining attention as an emerging concern. Some good work has been done in the last several years to better collect and interpret data from these crashes, and also to outline some technical aspects of prevention and protection. Still, more work has been done in relation to protection from the deliberate crashing/ramming of vehicles into structures than for such crashes from accidents. Continue reading

Policy vs Reality: Sick Restaurant Employees

Restaruant worker with stuffy nose

“I’m Kayla and I’ll (cough) be your (cough) server today.”

An Awkward Moment

I knew I needed to ask the question, and I was quick with it when the server returned to my table. “Do you have a cold?” She had a look on her face like she’d been caught red-handed in something as she paused before answering. “Why, uh, no, no, I just have …allergies.” Unfortunately her obvious stuffy nose, and very productive-sounding throat clearing moments earlier at the waitress station (which was in easy hearing range for me, even though she might have thought otherwise) told a very different story. I acknowledged her answer with a nod, and watched as she set my beverage down and made a rapid retreat deep into the kitchen. About two minutes later she came back to the table and was barely there when she reinforced her earlier answer, in the least scratchy voice she could muster. “Allergies, I have allergies, not a cold, no, just allergies,” before rushing away again quickly.

Indications and Realities

Of course it is possible that she was indeed suffering from allergies, and not a cold, but given both her symptoms and her reactions, I wasn’t exactly reassured. The establishment that I was dining at that morning already had a few weak spots evident in the area of food safety and sanitation, which only contributed to my ultimate feeling of unease.  I had noticed the manager off in a different section of the counter area, busy discussing someone’s break coverage, but not really circulating around. I also noticed that my server seemed to be steering clear of the manager as much as possible.

Getting Serious

Most chain restaurant establishments have a policy about not coming to work sick. Hotels, retail establishments, institutional food service, and other public-contact jobs usually include this policy as well. It’s typically documented somewhere in the new hire materials or the employee handbook. I’d expect that the restaurant that I was in that morning had a similar policy. The issue comes down to whether it is taken seriously or not. If you’d like your guests to have confidence in the sanitation of your establishment, consider the following points:

  • When new hires are trained, how is your “not working sick” policy explained and emphasized?
    Aside from your handbook or training materials, what sort of visible reminders such as job aids or posters are present?
  • Do managers make a point of spending some time with each crew member each shift? (Note that this serves a much broader purpose that just understanding if someone is healthy or not!)
  • How serious are you about your policy? Are you unwilling to compromise on it when staffing is tight for other reasons?

And perhaps most significantly, how complete and effective is your policy about calling in sick? It is not an easy balance to strike to set a policy that considers the importance of good attendance and holds people accountable for that, while at the same time conveying an understanding that it is expected that you will not come to work sick.

Your Attendance Policy

I recall years ago, at one facility I was managing, having an employee call in sick, pleading for some consideration for his eclipsing the allotted number of absences and lates. His plea: “Yes, I’ve called in sick a bunch of times already this quarter, but this time I’m really sick!”

Setting and enforcing an attendance policy can be an involved and tricky discussion, but one thing you can do today is to consider just how clear you are on one non-negotiable in any business with public contact: “We don’t want you to come to work when you are sick. It is important for our customers that everyone understands and acts on that.” Training is important, but noticing what’s going on, and offering reminders and guidance is even more important.

Confined Spaces: Regulations and Incident Prevention

Cave shaft confined space

Do you think this qualifies as a confined space?

Confined Spaces: Regulations, Injury Prevention, and Safety Management

Confined Spaces. One of the prime compliance-related topics that employers across industries need to be concerned with. An area where many tragic fatalities and serious injuries have occurred over the years. Not just limited to work access of underground vaults, tanks, storage bins, manholes, pits, silos, process vessels, and pipelines, confined spaces may be found in a multitude of forms. This is an area here you need to consider your exposures and controls on several levels. Those levels include regulatory concerns, safety management concerns, and incident prevention concerns. Continue reading