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Safety Footwear [Feb 2011]

Published: 01st Feb 2011

In this article Darren Taylor, founder and owner of UK-based safety product supplier www.theuksafetystore.com, outlines how the issue of slips and trips in the workplace continues to cause significant problems for employers, as well as looking at some of the practical steps businesses can take to reduce the risks by adopting tried and tested examples of good practice, and where necessary, providing staff with the appropriate safety footwear.

Whenever I start to discuss health and safety risks and suitable strategies to overcome them with clients and potential customers, it is always the usual ‘worst case scenario’ hazards and dangers that are immediately brought up into the conversation.

Construction companies are concerned with the risks posed by their plant and heavy machinery; manufacturers want to know how they can manage the dangers presented by chemicals and other harmful materials, while a whole host of other industries have fears about issues relating to equipment, transportation or dangerous workplace environments.

While all these concerns obviously need to be carefully considered and controlled, it continues to surprise me - especially in such an increasingly litigious world - how little importance is paid to dealing with slips and trips in the workplace. Wherever a business is based and whatever sector they operate in, slips, trips and falls remain one of the major causes of workplace accidents, leading to numerous injuries each year and posing a constant challenge for health and safety managers.

This article looks to shed some light on the subject of slips, trips and falls within the workplace, as well as outlining a few simple steps employers can take to reduce the risk of accidents occurring in their workplace.

Slips, trips and falls

In the UK alone, there are approximately 1,000 serious workplace injuries caused every month by slipping and tripping. These sorts of incidents are responsible for more than a third of all work-based injuries, and that’s not even factoring in the reality that slips and trips contribute to nearly half the accidents suffered by the general public.

As well as the incalculable price paid by unfortunate individuals who suffer a work-related accident, it is estimated that slips and trips cost UK businesses more than £500 million a year. Not only are there potentially expensive compensation payouts and fines to face for negligent employers, but a whole host of other hidden costs for them to consider, such as damage to pricey equipment, having to pay overtime or recruit temporary labour to deal with the ongoing absence of key personnel, and the time and resources needed to investigate on site accidents. Disruptions and extra costs such as these are hard for businesses to bear at the best of times, but it’s even more of an issue during a global economic crisis.

And it’s not just the economic cost to industry that can quickly add up - dealing with slips and trips costs the UK health service nearly £150million a year, plus millions more in sickness benefits and social security. To put the problem into some sort of context, back in 2002-03 slips, trips and falls accounted for almost 700,000 bed days, compared with motor-related incidents, which accounted for 82,395, almost a tenth less.

Poor working practices

Of course, slips and trips aren’t just an issue in the UK - businesses across the world have to face up to the threat on a daily basis. And even though climates and working environments may differ greatly - here in the UK we have to deal with snow, rain and ice, whereas the Middle East, for example, has to tackle oil and dust - the main causes of slips and trips tend to be the same: wet floors, contamination and spillages, uneven surfaces, and hazards or obstacles being left lying around due to poor working practices.

Taking all this into account, it is, of course, impossible to completely eliminate the risk of slips and trips in the workplace. Spillages in industrial, manufacturing and processing environments, among others, are inevitable. And accidents are just that - things will go wrong from time to time, and we can’t predict when they will occur. But while we can’t eliminate the risk of slips and trips, we can certainly take steps to reduce and minimise this risk. According to the UK’s Health and Safety Executive (HSE), approximately half of all slips and trips in the workplace can be attributed to what they describe as ‘bad housekeeping’, from not cleaning up spillages properly or leaving obstacles lying around, to general distractions or a lack of staff training.

Simply put, this means that a vast number of these incidents could actually be prevented if employers put a little bit of thought into their policies and procedures and ensure effective plans are in place and adhered to. We’ve already seen how accidents can cost companies huge sums of money in fines, compensation and other related costs, but in many cases these problems could be avoided altogether by encouraging better, more health and safety savvy working practices.

In the health and safety sector, we abide by guidelines known as the Hierarchy of Controls, a series of practical measures that can help to reduce the risk of slips and trips. These steps are prioritised as follows:

• Ensure that workplace lighting is appropriate. Too much light could lead to glare and prevent workers from seeing potential hazards. On the other hand, of course, having a poorly lit warehouse or factory can have a similar impact

• Pull out all the stops to ensure floors don’t get wet or contaminated in the first place

• Try to keep water, liquids or any other potential contaminants away from any walkways

• Implement an effective cleaning regime so that any spillage or contamination is identified and cleaned up as quickly as possible. Only use warning signs, such as ‘Caution Wet Floor’, where and when it is actually applicable - if notices like these are displayed at all times, or when floors aren’t wet, their message becomes diluted and workers are likely to ignore them

• Make sure the floor surface is suitable for the work environment and has enough grip. Grip is measured using a system called the Coefficient of Friction, with a rating of 0.36 or above the minimum recommended level for safe pedestrian walking. Bear in mind that the Coefficient of Friction rating should correlate to when the floor is in a contaminated condition - it’s no use testing a spotless, dry floor then presuming it will be just as slip resistant once wet

• Only use cleaning methods and substances suitable for the floor’s surface to ensure grip is maintained

• If there are any areas in the workplace with steps or slopes, check that there are appropriate foot and hand-holds in place

• Carry out a wide-scale assessment of the floor surface, and if necessary replace it with a more suitable product with better grip

• Carry out a full risk assessment, and if necessary, provide members of staff with appropriate protective footwear

Controls

This final phase in the Hierarchy of Controls brings us back to my earlier point - good housekeeping can eliminate many of the risks of slips and trips, but not all of them, and for certain jobs and industries it will be appropriate to provide safety footwear as a form of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). Like most aspects of society, safety footwear has undergone a radical transformation over the past couple of decades, with major advances in technology, design and materials all leading to a much wider range of products being available for consumers and employers to buy. But all these extra choices can cause a problem in itself - how to choose the most appropriate product for the environment you are in?

In such a highly competitive market, footwear suppliers bandy about phrases such as ‘non-slip’, ‘anti-slip’ and ‘improved grip’ to catch a potential customer’s eye, and more and more now publish Coefficient of Friction ratings and other measurables to encourage informed comparisons between products.

Products are tested against European Standards, such as EN ISO 20344:2004 (A1:2007), and those which pass rigorous slip resistance tests are marked with codes including: SRA (tested on ceramic tile wetted with soap); SRB (tested on smooth steel with glycerol) and SRC (tested under both of the two previous conditions).

But all this additional information is practically useless without taking into account the particular needs and requirements of the workplace environment which the safety footwear will be used in.

Sadly, there isn’t one uniform standard to measure slip resistance and a safety shoe’s overall effectiveness - footwear that works well in some conditions, for example wet weather, might not perform as satisfactorily in a different environment. That is why it’s absolutely essential for employers that need to provide safety footwear for their members of staff to carefully consider a wide range of factors and work closely with suppliers to choose the products that are most appropriate for their exact requirements.

To begin with, the employer should identify the main surfaces and contaminants that pose an accident risk in their workplace and get professional advice on which types of footwear would be the most appropriate for their particular environment.

While it’s great that many suppliers provide in-depth brochures describing their products and the laboratory tests that they have been put through, it makes more sense to see how any potential safety shoes will actually perform before you actually commit to buying.

It’s fairly common practice these days for companies to commission additional testing by the manufacturer, where they can specify the surfaces and conditions that they would like to see the product tested on. Potential purchasers can take advantage of this ‘try before you buy’ principle by arranging full-blown trials, where various alternatives can be tested on-site over a period of a few weeks to see which are the most effective.

Suitable PPE

While selecting footwear to match the conditions and associated risks of the environment they will be worn in is obviously the key factor to take into account when choosing a product, comfort and durability also need to be considered. After all, in many jobs the individual will be wearing the shoes or boots for a full shift or working day. If the footwear doesn’t fit properly or have the appropriate shock absorbers for the task at hand, there’s a real possibility that employees could sustain micro traumatic shock injuries, particularly musculoskeletal problems to backs, knees, muscles, tendons and joints. Although these sorts of ailments tend to accumulate over time and aren’t as immediate as a slip or trip causing, say, a broken leg or twisted ankle, they can still lead to workers having to take considerable time off to recover, and even compensation claims if the employer was supplied unsuitable PPE.

Despite the evidence regarding the prevalence of slips and trips in the?workplace, there’s still very much a problem of perception among employers, with a failure to bring the issue to the forefront of their main health and safety agendas.

HSE surveys in the UK show that less than half of workers receive any safety training about slips and trips, while joint research from the HSE and the Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH) back in 2006-07 revealed that only 13% of IOSH members felt their organisation was effective at controlling incidents of slips and trips.

Perhaps just as worrying was the revelation that less than one in ten members believed workers themselves were fully committed to reducing the risk of such incidents.

We can clearly see the consequences of slips and trips in the workplace, not just in terms of physical injury but also the economic impact for the relevant business or employer. Hopefully, we now also know a little bit more about how to reduce the risk of accidents by adopting good housekeeping and choosing the correct safety footwear.

However, these are only the first steps that need to be taken to reduce the risks. In many cases, the most dangerous workplace environments are the ones that actually appear to be the safest. Where workers are aware of potential hazards, such as dangerous equipment, they pay greater attention to the possible consequences, whereas where the threat of slipping and tripping is concerned, complacency can tend to creep in and employees don’t treat the risk seriously.

To bring about a real step change in these attitudes, management should embrace a ‘see it, sort it’ culture, where all staff are fully aware of any potential risks, such as a spillage in the workplace, and know the appropriate measures to deal with them.

By implementing more effective staff training regimes, adopting good housekeeping practices, and of equal importance, providing staff with the suitable footwear for their working environment, employers can go a long way towards putting their best foot forward and minimising the risk that their business will become another slip and trip statistic.

Author

Darren Taylor is the founder and owner of www.theuksafetystore.com, an online supplier of health and safety related products based in the United Kingdom. He has almost 20 years’ experience of working in the health and safety sector, initially as a manufacturer and distributor of bespoke safety signs. He has subsequently diversified and expanded the business to become a leading supplier of a wide range of health and safety equipment, including first aid kits, fire extinguishers, protective clothing and footwear.

Over the years, Darren has supplied safety signage and equipment to a variety of clients, from major construction companies such as Carillion and Taylor Woodrow, to a number of UK based schools, local authorities and Housing Associations. The company has also provided bespoke signage for the Williams Formula 1 motor racing team and the British Army in Afghanistan, and even manufactured a CCTV sign that was installed on the road outside Buckingham Palace in London. www.osedirectory.com/health-and-safety.php

Published: 01st Feb 2011 in Health and Safety Middle East

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