On the heels of safety

On the heels of safety
(This article originally appeared in the January/February 2009 edition of COS, and is being re-run as part of this month's editorial focus on foot safety). Don’t be surprised if cracking your skull after tripping over your toolbox doesn’t stop the presses. According to the Ontario Safety Service Alliance (OSSA), slips, trips and falls – most of which happen from the ground – are not as high on the workplace safety priority list as they should be. Martin Lesperance, an Edmonton-based firefighter, paramedic and safety speaker, believes it’s a matter of perception.
“Fall from a 20-foot tower and break your leg, you’ll make the 6:00 news,” he says. “But break your leg from a same level fall, that’s just not spectacular enough.”

Paramedics know differently. Lesperance has attended numerous same-level falls that were, unfortunately, spectacularly life-altering. He has turned these experiences into keynote safety talks, videos, and Small Falls Are a Big Deal, one of his many books. He drives home the safety message with candid examples of people who learned the hard way.

Like the woman who rushed to greet the pizza delivery guy. Her area rug, which wasn’t secured, slid beneath her. “She heard a loud snap and screamed,” Lesperance writes. It was the worst broken leg his crew had ever seen.

“Her leg was broken halfway between the knee and the ankle. The lower part of her leg was lying next to the part of her leg that was below the knee. The bottom of her foot was facing 180 degrees from where it should have been.”

Lesperance has seen countless other examples: the man who fell down four steps, broke his neck and became completely quadriplegic, or the man who was visiting his mother after his father’s funeral and tripped over the open dishwasher door, landing with a fork lodged fatally in his forehead.

Same level slips and trips are just as devastating in the workplace, where they account for 65 per cent of fall-related injuries in Ontario alone, according to the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB). The OSSA says same-level falls are the result of improper equipment and footwear, lack of information and understanding of the risk, and apathy.

Prevention methods are relatively simple. Keep the area clear of hazards. Ensure the ground is non-slippery. Wear slip-resistant footwear. Lesperance adds two other pieces of advice, which he repeats in all of his safety talks: “don’t rush” and “never walk or step where your eyes haven’t already been.”

Tread carefully
Anyone in food service knows the fast-paced, greasy-floored environment is hard to avoid. Richard Cunningham developed slip-resistant footwear programs for employers in Canada’s food and hospitality sector in the 1990s. He says Wendy’s was the first corporation to commit to the program, followed by Tim Hortons and others. Today, Cunningham is a marketing consultant for footwear products, representing Shoes for Crews and a few other brands, “only the ones I believe in.”

Cunningham has seen many companies mandate that everyone in the workplace should wear slip-resistant footwear, “but sometimes that’s as far as it goes,” he says. “Companies sometimes fail to make sure employees buy appropriate footwear from an accredited slip-resistant footwear provider.”

In restaurants and foodservice, he says, the standard orange, quarry-tiled floors get “inundated, coated, and basically impregnated with food grease.” Other slippery work environments include meat processing plants, where floors are typically covered with water, blood and animal viscera; industrial workplaces where machines or vehicles leak oil and grease; roofs; woodworking shops; and many more.

Reducing same-level falls requires awareness of the risk, employee safety training, and anti-slip matting in key work areas. Matting, however, doesn’t follow workers wherever they go. Appropriate footwear is essential, especially for workers who can’t control what’s on the ground.

(Next: Slickest workplace)

Slickest workplace
Picture hundreds of mailmen and mailwomen skidding on an ice rink. That was the scenario in July 2007, when Canada Post rented an arena to let its delivery personnel test a variety of slip-resistant footwear.

Our national mail service employs 72,000 people, the bulk of whom deliver letters or parcels. For them, the workplace floor covers much of populated Canada and consists primarily of sidewalks, driveways and steps. How safe these areas are – particularly in winter months – depends entirely on homeowners and business owners and whether or not they keep them clear, shoveled, and salted.

“In 2007, over 50% of our accidents were slips, trips and falls in the winter,” says Geeta Sharma, manager of workplace safety and health for Canada Post in the GTA. Canadian winters account for an unmanageable number of injuries outside of work hours as well. According to the Canada Safety Council, in 2002 close to 12,000 people in Ontario visited an emergency room because they fell on the ice.

Testing anti-slip devices in 2007 was part of Canada Post’s continually evolving slips, trips and falls program. Delivery personnel tried out several devices that attach to their shoes or boots. They chose their favourites, from which safety personnel created a shortlist of four products: detachable anti-skid safety soles by Icer’s Inc.; Grip-X ice grippers by D&B Safety Company Inc.; Get-A-Grip ice grippers by Sure Foot; and Yaktrax Pro traction devices by Yaktrax.

In the winter of 2007, Canada Post delivery personnel started using these devices, each worker having chosen from the four. In 2008, the employer sent out surveys to solicit feedback. The four anti-slip devices are now an official part of the uniform and are listed in the Canada Post safety guidelines, along with a list of pros and cons of each brand to help workers choose.

“The devices are great, but they are a very small component of our program,” says Sharma. “The other thing for us is quality of the boot they buy. It has to be a solid boot with a good tread and ankle protection, ideally with breathable material such as leather, and a solid sole.”

Besides making anti-slip devices part of the uniform, Canada Post conducts intensive safety training, including videos and weekly safety talks. To raise awareness of winter hazards, a supervisor accompanies each letter carrier annually on his/her route to identify and discuss hazards, such as a broken step or curb.

“Our intensive training covers things like falling safely, and not cutting through lawns but sticking to walkways,” says Sharma.

Letter carriers, like all Canadian workers, have a right to refuse dangerous work. If a walkway hasn’t been shoveled, salted or sanded and they can’t access a mailbox safely, they won’t deliver. As much as Canada Post can train its people and equip them with anti-slip devices, it relies on public service announcements to make Canada’s walkways a safe work environment. Sharma makes a plea to the people responsible (you and me):

“Please, please, to keep our letter carriers safe, clean the path to your mailbox. Please salt or sand it for us, and if there’s any stairwell or handrail, please make sure it’s clear, safe, not in disrepair.”

There is no one-size-fits-all solution to slips and trips. It depends on the work environment, what kind of ground you walk on, and what hazards clutter or coat it. Whatever your situation, falls from a negligible height can have catastrophic results. A fall prevention program should be a comprehensive, ongoing process. Don’t let it slip away.

“You implement something and it’s done collaboratively, but that’s not the end of it. You monitor it,” says Sharma. “I think that’s the mark of a good program.”

Michelle Morra is an award-winning journalist and a former COS editor. You can contact her at [email protected].