Preventing slips, falls during plant design process
Slips and falls are a major source for workplace injuries, but companies can get ahead by putting plant floor safety up front and picking a walking surface that can withstand tough conditions as well as wear and tear.
- Understand that many of the worst workplace injuries occur due to slips and falls, which is the most common type of workplace injury.
- Learn about the different types of walking surfaces and what the differences are and why coefficient of friction (COF) matters.
Slips and falls are common and dangerous, causing more than 33% of the most debilitating workplace injuries, according to the 2021 Liberty Mutual Workplace Safety Index. They also are quite expensive. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports these accidents cost businesses around $19 billion per year, which is why creating a plant design with safety in mind is so crucial
Companies must prevent slips and falls to ensure worker safety, but there’s also a productivity cost to consider. Workers take time away from their normal jobs to remediate hazards, such as drying walkways. To complicate matters, people move differently on slippery surfaces, adopting a flat-footed, slower-moving gait. As a result, employees can spend more time worrying about safety and less time thinking about the job itself.
A risky workplace is costly for everyone. Seeing these dangers, more companies are looking for ways to prevent them. Ideally, the best time to mitigate slip and fall risks is before they happen, particularly during facility design and construction. Building safety into a plant’s design is much less expensive than retrofitting a risky environment, reducing construction costs, lost production, and potential liability.
Understanding physics, floor design considerations
In many cases, flooring professionals are often called in after an accident to prevent future problems. Unfortunately, retrofitting is often more expensive than installing the right materials during the initial build.
From a design perspective, the first step is understanding the physics behind these accidents. People slip and fall when they move from a high-friction surface to a low-friction one. This often happens when floors, stairs, crossovers, mezzanines and other areas become wet or oily.
From there, plant designers need to consider how the plant will be used. Anticipate where employees work, stand and walk. What is the foot traffic like, and is it going both ways? Is an area likely to become wet or greasy given the work being done?
Water and oils are a critical consideration because they can make normally safe surfaces incredibly slippery. Designers should factor in where any liquids will be used and include high-traction flooring materials that retain their anti-slip properties even when wet. Anticipate spills and pay close attention to the areas around drain covers, processing lines, scales and washdown areas.
In addition, plant designers should pay close attention to elevated areas, such as stairways, platforms, crossovers, mezzanines, ladders and railings. Elevation means employees can fall far and fast, leading to more severe injuries.
Be sure to provide good lighting. If people can see a hazard, they can avoid it and fix it. What people can’t see can hurt them.
Three factors to consider when choosing a walking surface
Having identified risky areas, it’s time to incorporate material science into the design process. The accepted metric for slip and fall safety is coefficient of friction (COF), which measures the amount of resistance between two surfaces, such as a shoe and the floor.
COF is measured on a 0-1 scale, with 1 being excellent for slip and fall safety. According to Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) guidelines, the acceptable COF for a walking surface is 0.5. or higher, but this is the minimum, and there are many different standards.
The National Floor Safety Institute’s (NFSI) certification process has determined 0.4 or less is unsafe. The COF must equal or exceed 0.6 for the walking surface to be safe. In addition, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) mandates a COF of 0.6 or higher, calling for 0.8 or higher on inclined walkways.
In addition to COF, there are several factors organizations should consider before choosing a walking surface:
Durability is always important. Some materials lose their slip resistance as they wear down, forcing costly retrofits.
Materials should be grit-free. Grit can get into machinery, causing maintenance issues and production delays.
Flooring surfaces must retain their slip resistance when wet or oily.
Floor material pros and cons for plant design
One option is fiberglass, which is light and relatively easy to lay down in the field. Unfortunately, its COF drops when wet. In addition, fiberglass also produces toxic gases when it burns and has durability issues.
Diamond plate, which is raised diamonds on a metal plate, is commonly used because it’s durable and inexpensive and has been around for decades, making it a known commodity. However, like fiberglass, diamond plate is slippery when wet. Diamond plate’s design also makes it less safe because the raised diamonds decrease the number of contact points. COF increases with more contact points between two surfaces. This only gets compounded when the surface becomes wet or greasy, reducing COF below acceptable limits.
Serrated metal grating has good COF, even when wet, though that tends to decline as the material wears. Like diamond plate, the raised parts can decrease COF. In addition, those raised areas are quite sharp. If someone does fall on them, the risk for lacerations increases.
Bonded metal is a surface that meets COF and other safety considerations. It uses high pressure to bond the metal to the surface, which increases durability. Even as the surface wears, the high-traction surface technologies do not lose their slip resistance because bonded metal creates thousands of microscopic peaks and valleys. The peaks act as contact points to increase COF. Because there are so many peaks, at different heights, as one wears down, another takes its place. The valleys also funnel away slippery liquids.
Long-term benefits of safe floor in plant design
Too often, companies put safety issues front and center after an accident. They learn through bad experience how expensive these incidents can be, particularly for employees.
However, even if nobody gets hurt, the costs of running a facility with high slip and fall risks is unsustainable. Slippery surfaces reduce productivity and plant morale.
Some plants resort to temporary solutions, such as non-slip tape or neoprene mats, but these can worsen problems because they can be trip hazards. They also require frequent maintenance, distracting workers from their primary jobs.
Choosing the right non-slip surface materials helps avoid these issues, as well as potential civil and legal liability and the possibility of expensive retrofits. In the long-term, durable, non-slip flooring materials provide the best solution for a company’s safety and return on investment (ROI).