What could be more simple than a floor? Among engineered systems and ergonomic furniture, among lighting controls and building automation systems, slip-resistant flooring seems like a relatively simple choice. Yet is it a simple question?
According to the 1999 National Safety Council Report, over 500,000 injuries from falling on the job or in public spaces were directly related to flooring. Workplace accidents are a major concern and facilities managers are increasing their focus on safety flooring as a part of preventing injuries.
Stepping Up Safety
Interest in slip-resistant flooring from the commercial building market was sparked in 1990 with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The high cost of litigation has continued to fuel concerns regarding slip-and-fall injuries, as well as the growing elderly population.
While anyone can be a victim of a slip-and-fall injury, the aging population is at a greater risk for severe injury. Sixty percent of fall-related deaths occur among people who are age 65 years and older, according to the National Safety Council, Itasca, IL.
"I am fast becoming one of the members of the changing demographics in America; one of the gray guys. And one of the main reasons for the increase in the specification of safety flooring is that there are a lot more senior citizens out there," says Thomas C. Erisman, research scientist, installation and technical services, Armstrong Floor Products, Innovation Center, Lancaster, PA. In the last 15 years, there has also been an explosion of retirement and assisted-living facilities.
Another consideration driving the need for safety flooring is the growing number of senior citizens in the workplace. Adds Erisman, "I call it 'rehirement,' not retirement. There are many elderly people who are very active in the workforce or traveling, and they are in potential slip-and-fall situations."
The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) sets the guidelines to measure the coefficient of friction - the slip resistance - of safety floors. OSHA is also becoming more involved with maintenance issues, especially in nursing homes. In addition to slips and falls, OSHA has been focusing on the key issues of ergonomics related to patient handling, exposure to blood and infectious agents, and exposure to tuberculosis. The agency's goal is to address high injury and illness rates among nursing home employees.
Health and safety concerns are critical issues in food preparation facilities, as well as in healthcare facilities. "In the last 2 years, waterproofing has become a mainstay and a focus during pre-construction meetings," says Chett Walsh, director of project services, Shawmut Design and Construction, Boston.
Shawmut Design and Construction has more than 20 years of experience in consulting and construction, with a focus on kitchens, restaurants, laboratories, and other extreme environment projects. Walsh values a close relationship between the construction team and the building owner to make sure the building owner's expectations are met.
In a typical commercial kitchen, the flooring is usually covered in brown or red 6- by 6-inch quarry tile and pitched. After the waterproofing sealant is applied, the floor is then built up to be approximately 3 inches thick. The flooring is sloped down toward drains to facilitate heavy-duty washing and to collect kitchen waste. The waterproofing is applied to the doorways and up the walls, as well as to the floors.
"We know that the moisture is going to get in, but if you do not provide a relief point for the water, it can saturate the mud. And instead of the floor lasting 10 years, the mud has started to decay inside of 2 years," says Walsh. The penetration of the walls is done before the walls are closed up with heavy-duty, mold-resistant sheetrock.
According to Walsh, the industry has also become more proactive in the last 2 years regarding mold-related health issues. "They are saying, 'Let's eliminate the source [of the] problem by building [the project] as waterproof as possible,' " says Walsh. "When you are standing in that kitchen, you basically want to build a swimming pool: It must hold water."
Restaurant kitchens generally have much heavier usage than kitchen facilities in schools. The maintenance of educational facilities also tends to be more thorough and systematic, according to Walsh, because there are not the time constraints of a restaurant. "Typically, restaurant cleaning crews show up at 1:30 a.m. and have a small window of time to work in the kitchen," explains Walsh. He urges facilities managers to consider their facilities' usage and maintenance approaches when selecting flooring options.
With wood floors where the concrete slab is in contact with the dirt, Walsh urges building owners to consider whether there is a high water table at the building site. If the water happens to migrate up from below to the wood, this is an excellent environment for mold growth.
Many facilities managers of commercial kitchens are turning to epoxy flooring because of costs and the ability to add a slip-resistant texture. Walsh urges building owners to remember the importance of the floor having pitch to push the water toward the drain. "Remember: If there is any standing water, a lot of health departments will walk out the door!" says Walsh. Consider also whether kitchen equipment will be bolted to the floor, as this can compromise the waterproofing capability of epoxy coatings.
The Next Level
"Everyone is concerned about the liability side of flooring, and that drives a lot of people to use safety floors," says Bill Imhoff, president and chief executive officer, Intertech Flooring, Austin, TX, a founding member of StarNet Commercial Flooring Cooperative (an alliance of independent flooring dealers). "We have seen a big growth in people's awareness of all kinds of safety; not only safety floor, but also peripheral products. When it comes to safety, I really believe architects are following facilities managers' direction."
Over the years, there has been a greater interaction between the boardroom and the management of the facilities. "[Facilities professionals] want to troubleshoot areas of potential hazards and seek out potential products," says Imhoff.
Recently, Imhoff worked with a major university to evaluate different types of resilient flooring, and together, the top-level decision-makers and the maintenance team discussed maintenance costs. "This gave the university the ability to really know what their long-term costs were," explains Imhoff. With greater frequency, upper management is considering input from maintenance employees when it comes to flooring product selection.
Imhoff also urges facilities managers to consider cleanability. "Sometimes too much texture can create a maintenance problem - a facility nightmare with dirt in the cracks," says Imhoff. Adds Armstrong's Erisman, "A single grape or water from a mister can get on a good flooring product at a supermarket and make it dangerous; that is why maintenance is critical." Along with implementing a conscientious maintenance program, Erisman urges facilities managers to use walk-off mats to ease cleaning and to prevent damage to flooring from sand, salt, and dirt.
Initially, safety flooring applications focused on functionality only. However, aesthetics are now becoming a more important factor. Brilliant colors and fresh patterns are enlivening the safety flooring arena. "There are more choices these days, both in format whether sheet or tile, design variation, pattern, color, [or] texture," says Erisman.
More facilities are also being accented by custom-colored, slip-resistant flooring and design coordination between safety and traditional flooring options. Instead of being used primarily in backstage applications, safety flooring is, in a sense, coming out of the closet and showing up in high-visibility areas. With so many questions to consider, choosing the right slip-resistant floor can be daunting. With so many choices, however, finding the right solution has never been easier.
Regina Raiford Babcock (firstname.lastname@example.org) is senior editor at Buildings magazine and lead editor for BI-Buildings Interiors.