Underestimating Slips and Falls: The "Simple" Slip and Fall Turns out to Be a Complex Safety Issue That Needs Greater Attention from Industry

By Minter, Stephen G. | Occupational Hazards, October 2004 | Go to article overview

Underestimating Slips and Falls: The "Simple" Slip and Fall Turns out to Be a Complex Safety Issue That Needs Greater Attention from Industry


Minter, Stephen G., Occupational Hazards


They are so prevalent and so costly that you would think employers would be on constant guard against them. Slips and falls are the second leading cause of workplace injuries and a $5.7 billion problem, according to Liberty Mutual Research Institute for Safety. "In most industries, same level falls are the number one or two injury behind back injuries," noted Wayne S. Maynard, Liberty Mutual's director of ergonomics and tribology.

Moreover, said Maynard, the slip and fall injuries reported are a "small piece of what is really happening out there." He said if you follow Heinrich's accident model, then hundreds of slips and falls may be happening in organizations that are never reported.

"Slips, trips and falls are not considered a major problem because people are not looking at it," said Robert Pater, managing director of Strategic Safety Associates. "We've heard that minor slips and trips are rarely reported. People are embarrassed and they accept the fact they are falling. Often when people fall, they pop up right away and hope nobody saw them." They don't report the incident and so nothing is done to correct the problem.

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This inattention to slips and falls was underscored by a study conducted by Liberty Mutual in 2001 to determine the gap between actual injury causes and perceptions. Company executives ranked slips and falls seventh, though they were actually the second leading cause of injury. "It validated what I knew, that slips and falls really are not on the radar screen," said Maynard.

Contributing Factors

"People think slips and falls are not preventable, they just happen," said Steven Di Pilla, a loss control expert with ESIS Inc. They often ignore slips and falls, he added, choosing to "focus efforts on what they think they can do something about."

Ironically, company officials can take a variety of very effective steps to reduce or eliminate slips and falls. Experts say a good first step is to stop blaming the victims. Many managers jump to the conclusion that slips and falls are the employee's fault, the result of horseplay or not paying attention. In reality, slips and falls can arise from a complex set of causes that may have much more to do with management practices than employee behavior.

For example, Di Pilla said an employee tripping over an electrical cord may on the surface appear to be just a matter of carelessness. But a closer examination could reveal that building managers were doing a poor job of maintaining electrical systems. As a result, electrical outlets did not work and employees began running extension cords from the remaining outlets. By tracing the incident back to the root cause, said Di Pilla, "You find out it is a maintenance issue and it was preventable."

According to Pater, slips occur because a person's upper body is not positioned over their lower body. "In a slip, people are walking forward with a certain amount of momentum and they suddenly reach ground which does not have the same purchase or coefficient of friction," he explained. "Their lower body then goes ahead of their upper body so they slip backward."

Contributing to the slip occurring may be a variety of factors in addition to simply a slippery walking surface. Those factors can include environmental factors such as worn flooring or shoes with worn-down soles, or the presence of grease, oil or water on a floor.

"When you perceive a slippery condition, you change your gait and you prepare accordingly. Slips and falls happen when you least expect it," said Maynard. "You don't see that spot on the floor, or you're on a carpeted floor and then you step onto a vinyl-composition tile floor. It's polished and waxed, there's a little water on it, you don't see it and there you go."

Human factors such as inattention, carrying objects, poor vision, bifocals and the use of over-the-counter medications can all contribute to slips and falls.

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