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With winter weather comes a heightened risk for slips, trips, and falls in your facility. These incidents can happen year-round, but snow, ice, and slush can raise the risks for building occupants and guests.
“I would contend that well over 80% of our claim counts for commercial or industrial properties are related to a slip, trip, and fall incident, though it doesn’t equate to 80% of our claims dollars,” says Brian Gerritsen, senior director of casualty product management/general liability for Fireman’s Fund Insurance Company. “You’d be surprised how many claims we see where a spill of water went unnoticed by the facilities manager or maintenance crew and someone slipped on it.”
Protect your organization and assets year-round with a smart approach to safety.
Sources of Slips, Trips, and Falls
The best defense against claims is making sure accidents never happen in the first place. Common causes include:
Uneven or cluttered walkways: The mats you use to prevent slips on smooth floors can become a trip hazard if they curl or buckle, says Russell Kendzior, president of the National Floor Safety Institute (NFSI), a not-for-profit organization dedicated to preventing slips and falls through education, research, and standards development. Chipped or elevated tiles also present a problem, as do cracked or uneven sidewalks and parking lots.
Stairs and steps: Stairs without railings are accidents waiting to happen, and the lack of railings means there’s no way to stop a fall in progress, says Kendzior, who has served as an expert witness in over 500 slip, trip, and fall cases. Areas with just one or two steps, like elevated or lowered dining areas in restaurants, can also cause trips if the small steps aren’t clearly visible.
“If there is a step down, put a sign there that says ‘Warning: Step Down,’” advises Beth Milito, senior executive counsel for the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB), an advocacy organization for small and independently-owned businesses. “Putting mats on different steps keeps the steps from blending together, so the eyes register the need to step down. Generally, mark wherever there are steps or uneven surfaces.”
Poorly calibrated elevators: “If an elevator is not calibrated perfectly, when the door opens there may be a lip between the elevator and the floor level. The tenant or guest may not see that and could trip and fall coming out of the elevator,” notes Gerritsen. “Believe it or not, sometimes elevator doors open and there’s no elevator. That falls under shock claims or losses – things we don’t see very often, but when we do, they’re large payouts.”
Slippery surfaces: Whether the cause is inclement weather, a spill, or simply the wrong type of flooring for the application, poor traction is a common cause of falls. Simply putting out a “wet floor” sign during a storm or after mopping won’t cut it, Kendzior says.
Consider mats or runners to catch tracked-in moisture. However, a saturated mat can become a slip hazard too, so be vigilant.
“A lot of property owners think ‘I put the wet floor sign out, so I did my due diligence.’ Wet floor signs are a temporary solution and they’re only to be put out while the problem is remediated,” Kendzior explains. “Put in the right type of floor or make sure it does not remain wet.”
In some cases, the flooring itself might be the problem, Kendzior adds. A surface like marble or terrazzo that becomes extremely slippery when wet isn’t the best choice for a building entrance, for example. Switching to a cleaning product that’s NFSI-certified to increase the coefficient of friction can help cut down on the likelihood of falls, as can a partial flooring replacement if that’s an option.
“I’m a big proponent of walkoff tile – it’s carpet, so you don’t have to worry about the mat coupling, cracking, or moving,” says Kendzior. “ANSI B101.6 for floor entranceway mats outlines the proper choices, selection, maintenance, and inspection to make sure you use the mat the right way.”
Also beware of factors that can contribute to the likelihood of an accident occurring or add to its severity, such as inadequate lighting that makes it hard to see two steps leading up to an elevated dining area, Gerritsen says.PageBreak
Understand Your Occupants
To spot and address potential hazards, take a look at who is on your property, Gerritsen explains.
“The complicating factor is the demographic of the injured party. An 18-year-old who slips and falls in your parking lot is probably going to bounce back pretty quickly,” says Gerritsen. “If that individual is 70, you could be looking at a completely different scenario.”
Legally, you’re responsible if your neglected spill or sidewalk injures someone, regardless of whether they’re your employee, a vendor, or a customer. However, each of these groups interacts differently with your building, so it’s important to understand typical behavior in order to understand where hypervigilance is warranted.
“Let’s say you manage a Class A office building with a parking lot adjacent or underneath. The building tenants are professionals who are familiar with the property because they’re there every day. They know where the slippery spots are in the parking lot,” explains Gerritsen. “At a shopping mall, the guests are the general public, who may be there for the first time and may not know what to look for. The law doesn’t distinguish between them in duty of care, but it’s important to be aware.”
Know the Possible Consequences
The result of a fall could be as simple as a stubbed toe or as serious as death, and the amount for which your insurance company will settle varies accordingly. Whether it’s a personal injury claim from a customer or a worker’s compensation claim from an employee, both can result in significant expense, either from out-of-pocket costs to cover an injured party’s medical treatment or from higher insurance premiums, Milito says.
“In one case here in Texas, a woman was leaving a grocery store chain,” adds Kendzior. “It had been raining since she entered the grocery store, and there were no mats in the entrance way, just polished concrete. She slipped, hit her head, and broke a blood vessel in her brain, and the jury awarded her over $5 million. Property owners face a huge problem when it comes to the causes of slips and falls – it’s estimated that these incidents cost about $80 billion per year.”
Consult with your insurance provider to make sure your coverage is adequate. Insurance limits are typically determined by your organization’s assets, Gerritsen notes.
“Imagine the injuries that could happen if someone fell one or more stories in an elevator shaft or off a loading dock or balcony. Generally, that results in traumatic injury, and those damages and the expense to defend will be in the seven figures,” adds Gerritsen. “Building operators generally carry both liability and an excess or umbrella policy, so they’re buying the right coverage. They just need to make sure they’re buying the right limits. You want to protect yourself from the rare catastrophic loss that could endanger your business’s assets.”
The involvement of third-party FM providers further complicates the question of who is responsible for injuries. If your in-house crew handles everything, you have a greater opportunity to get your safety protocol up to speed.
“It starts with who you’re hiring to service your facility. If your in-house team maintains the facility, one of the things you can control is regular inspections throughout the facility,” Gerritsen says. “Documenting inspections is first and foremost in defending yourself against a lawsuit.”
It’s also vital to have policies in place to prevent as many accidents as possible.
“For example, if you’re doing your own snow removal in-house, what protocols are in place in response to changing weather conditions?” explains Gerritsen. “In harsh winter climate zones, best practice is to immediately clear any sort of hazardous conditions, so that could mean a little ice in the parking lot or on the front walkway or half an inch of snow outside the front door. The key is what standards you had in place and whether you adhered to them.”
If you outsource any facility work, Gerritsen recommends having an attorney review your contracts with vendors to ensure that your business is protected against the third party’s negligence.
“Do you allow snow and ice to accumulate, or do you have a snow removal contractor on call? Do you have a contract with the snow removal contractor so that they’re there when the snow reaches half an inch? Are they there within the next three to four hours?” Gerritsen asks. “That’s where FMs and owners can work with their attorney to make sure their interests are protected.”
This extra attention may even save you money down the road by keeping your premiums from rising, Kendzior notes.
“Too many business owners look at falls as the cost of doing business. How’s this as an answer? Prevent the falls and your premiums won’t rise,” says Kendzior. “Every slip and fall costs someone, whether it’s your insurance company or you. Grab hold of it and start managing your money.”
Janelle Penny email@example.com is senior editor of BUILDINGS.