Elevating Floor Care to Floor Safety

Each year thousands of Americans will injure themselves as a result of a slip-and-fall accident. Many of these accidents are often the result of a floor-borne hazard, usually a wet floor, and wind up costing business owners and building service contractors millions of dollars in paid claims.

Business owners, as well as cleaning contractors, often see the problem differently from that of the victim. Many businesses view slips and falls as a cost of doing business and historically pay little attention to prevention techniques. After all, one store manager once told me, “That’s why we have insurance.” The victim, on the other hand, sees the problem quite differently.

It is commonly believed that a wet floor is a slippery floor. For most slip-and-fall victims, they see unsafe floors and poor maintenance as the sole cause of their accident. How often have you heard an injured victim of a slip and fall blame himself for the accident? Rarely. But wet floors are not the only cause of slips and falls. In some cases, a wet floor can actually be less slippery than when dry! Our research has shown that on average, hazardous floors are a direct cause of approximately 50% of most slip and fall claims while the other 50% is broken down into four different categories including footwear, improper hazard identification, poor training, and fraud.

Most commercial tile and floor finish manufacturers rate their products’ slip resistance or Coefficient of Friction (C.O.F.) on a scale of 0 to 1 where a value of 0 is very slippery and a value of 1 offers superior traction. The tile industry, like that of the floor polish industry, has agreed to meet a voluntary performance standard that says a C.O.F. value of 0.5 or greater is adequate to prevent slippage and use the term “slip resistant” to describe their products’ safety margin. To many business owners, slip resistant means slip-proof and if they are buying these products, then they are satisfied they are doing their part in preventing slip-and-fall accidents. Slip resistant finishes do not contribute (cause) slip-and-fall accidents, but are not claiming to prevent such accidents either. If this was true, then why are so many people slipping and falling on these slip-resistant surfaces?

According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, each year more than 1 million people seek medical attention from an emergency room for a slip-and-fall accident. These accidents cost business owners millions of dollars in paid claims, medical expenses, litigation costs, and insurance rate increases. According to CNA Insurance, a major underwriter to the building service contractor industry, 65% of a building service contractor’s general liability insurance costs goes to pay slip-and-fall accidents.

The building service contractor’s clients see a similar problem. Shopping centers and office building owners see 57% of their general liability insurance dollars going to pay for slip-and-fall accidents. And because of this growing expense, more shopping center retailers are requiring the building service contractor to bear this cost by indemnifying the property owner against slip-and-fall claims. This trend has been in place since the early 90s and has forced building service contractors to take a second look at how they run their business. According to CNA Insurance, building service contractor’s pay on average $6,300 per slip-and-fall claim while their clients, the shopping center and office building property owners, pay $3,000, less than half that of the companies maintaining their floors.

What may surprise you is that the causes of such accidents are not complex and most can be prevented easily and without major expense. Having spent more than a decade studying the increasing rate of such accidents and their associated causes, I have found that the majority affects a narrow range of our population, the elderly. The most likely victim is an elderly woman, age 60 or greater. Often times the onset of menopause, osteoporosis, or other health effects further increase the likelihood that a person will be a victim of a slip and fall. Statistically, it is the elderly pedestrian who is most likely to be a victim, and because of the increase in the 65 and older age group, slip-and-fall claims have risen accordingly.

With this in mind, how can business owners prepare themselves for the risk associated with slip and falls? For starters, it’s helpful to understand the contributing factors of slip-and-fall accidents.

Three components best describe the formula for slips and falls. They include: Physiological factors, environmental conditions, and social influences. Please note that two of the three contributing factors are beyond the control of the property owner. Only environmental conditions can be controlled by the property owner.

Today more than 35 million Americans are age 65 or older; this number will double by the year 2010 when 77 million baby boomers reach retirement. With this doubling of the “at risk” group will come significant increases in slip-and-fall accidents. And few businesses are prepared to deal with the impending crisis.

Unfortunately, many building service contractors and their clients see these accidents one dimensionally. This “cookie cutter” approach provides little insight into the real problem and yields poor long term results in claims management and prevention. If for no other reason, it’s important for businesses to understand the three components of slips and falls to better predict future claims.

For example, if your client’s business caters to an elderly clientele (and whose doesn’t), it helps to understand the dynamics of slip-and-fall accidents as they apply to an elderly person. As we age, many of our physiological abilities deteriorate (poor eyesight, hearing loss and reduced gait). These physiological problems often become compounded by environmental conditions like poor lighting, walkway slope, or in some cases the floor’s gloss being so shinny, it is difficult to distinguish it from a wet floor.

Using this example, let’s assume an individual slips and falls on your client’s property and, as the floor cleaning contractor, you are called to address the problem. What do you do? Since you were not a witness to the accident, you cannot speak first hand to what actually happened. And because neither you nor a member of your company was on-site to oversee the floor’s condition the day of the accident, you were not in the position to correct a problem if one existed. But your client expects you to “do something” and if you are underwriting their slip-and-fall accidents, you will wind up paying one way or another. So what can you do?

This scenario has become commonplace for most cleaning contractors and is forcing many contractors to change the way they do business.

One solution that has been gaining wide spread attention in the risk management and safety industry is that of high-traction floor care products (See sidebar on Predicting Slips on Slip Resistant Surfaces). These high-tech cleaning products actually raise the slip resistance of most floors while they clean. One company has electrified the maintenance industry by their introduction of a high-traction floor finish that has been clinically proven to reduce wet surface slips and falls by as much as 85% (Occupational Health and Safety Magazine, August 1999). High-traction floor finishes offer up to a 40% increase in slip resistance than conventional floor polishes by adding millions of microscopic crystals to their product. One national drug store chain saw a 50% reduction in its claims when their floor-cleaning contractor began using a high-traction floor finish in their stores.

However, the reality is that the building service contractor is often told by their client which floor finish they want to be applied to their floors leaving the contractor powerless in the floor care product selection. But as more and more contractors are expected to cover the cost of slips and falls, this reality will change. In fact, many commercial floor care manufacturers are developing floor care products that offer better wet surface traction which many believe within a few years will set a new benchmark for floor care in the future.

Elevating floor care to floor safety will be the trend in the new millennium. Business owners who position themselves on the front end of this new technology will reap great rewards. Many large and even smaller retailers employ a professional staff of safety and risk management people whose job it is to address slip-and-fall accidents. Don’t be afraid to discuss possible solutions with these people. Be a consultant to your client. For most retailers, this is a serious problem they need to solve and if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem!

SIDEBAR Predicting Slips on Slip Resistant Surfaces

Several years ago, I had attended a committee meeting for an international standards organization whereby the chairman of the sub-committee on “Slip Resistance” suggested that the mathematical probability of an individual slipping on a flooring surface that had been coated with a commercial “slip resistant” floor polish (one with a coefficient of friction of 0.5, the minimal criteria for a floor polish to be classified as “slip resistant”) was one in a billion (1 in 1,000,000,000). That is to say that an individual would have to take one billion steps before they would slip on a “slip resistant” floor finish given that no other conditions exists (i.e.: water, etc.). After a brief pause, most of the committee members (most of which were representing floor finish manufacturers) nodded in agreement. After all, with the odds being so high, few if any people will actually slip, right?

Having earned my undergraduate degree in mathematics, I looked upon this estimate with suspicion. After all, what the chairman was saying is that the odds of someone slipping was less than that same person’s odds of winning the lottery (1 in 15 million), getting hit by lightning (1 in 30,000), or being infected with flesh eating bacteria (1 in 1 million). How could this be? How many of us have won the lottery and compare that to the number of times we have each slipped on a polished floor. Can the chairman and the members of this prestigious committee be right? Are the odds really that high?

To better understand the scope of the problem, I took a minute to “crunch the numbers.” I started by contacting the American Podiatric Association (APA) to find out how many steps a person takes each day. And according to the APA, each American will take between 8,000-10,000 steps each day. With an estimated U.S. population of 248 million people (each taking 8,000 to 10,000 steps each day), I was surprised to learn that if the Chairman was right, the floor polish industry is predicting that more than 912,000 Americans will experience a slip on a “slip resistant” surface each year. Even under the safest walking conditions, nearly a million people will experience a slip on a slip-resistant floor, which concurs with the data collected by the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) study of hospital emergency room treatment for slips and falls.

What the chairman did not know is that the mathematical equation consists of both constants and variables. The job of solving the mathematical equation will rest with the mathematician; however, the real world equation can be solved by educating property owners and building service contractors to the causes and solutions to preventing slip-and-fall accidents.

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