Slips and falls are not only the largest source of injuries in the home; they also occupy the lion’s share of reported injuries in public venues like grocery stores, shopping malls and restaurants. They are also prominent in the construction trades. More important, they are most often reported in relation to day workers, temporary workers, or seasonal workers, who are at best semi-skilled.
Slips, trips and falls, notes OSHA (the Occupational Health and Safety Administration, a division of the Department of Labor), comprise the majority of general industry accidents as well; “general industry” meaning all the across-the-board enterprises which make, refine, or ship and deliver industrial, consumer and business products around the nation.
Workers slipping, tripping or falling while in the workplace performing a salaried or by-the-hour job contribute 15 percent to the total of all accidental deaths in the United States. This is true in spite of OSHA standards which dictate the quality and nature of walking or working surfaces, excluding only domestic care, mining, and agricultural labor, where application of such safety standards would be difficult or impossible.
The most common injuries from slip-and-fall scenarios are:
- Broken bones, particularly leg and foot bones, and secondarily hip bones in older individuals
- Cuts, if the slip causes an individual to fall on a sharp object
- Contusions, or bruises, which can be both disfiguring and quite painful, but rarely lethal unless the contusion involves the head
- Head injuries, which can lead to confusion, neurological disturbances, concussions, comas or complete amnesia for a certain period
- Death, which comprises 20,000 of the fatalities reported in the United States each year
These standards, besides being specific for overall industrial production under OSHA’s rulemaking standard, 29 CFR 1910, also define proper walking or working surfaces at ship yards and ports where marine passengers or cargo deliveries debark or disembark. Longshoremen, or workers who remove or load cargo containers from ships, are provided the same safety standards, as are construction workers.
In addition to federal standards, 25 states plus Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands have their own, OSHA-approved requirements, and one would think this dual layer of protection for workers would cut slip, trip and fall accidents to the bare minimum.
This is simply not so, especially in the construction trades, largely because the range of hazards – starting with general clutter and including damaged ladder steps; faulty scaffolding; dangling or foot-grabbing electrical cords; substandard cords; grease, water or ice on the floor; loose tile or carpeting; open desk drawers, filing cabinet drawers and other access doors; and heavily polished floors or uneven flooring surfaces (including floors that abruptly change levels via a single step, for example) – is so much greater and more complex than any agency’s ability to elucidate them or any individual’s ability to remedy them.
For example, in cold climates the possibility of snow or ice, hail, or snowstorms rapidly followed by sunlight and temperatures warm enough to melt snow (which re-freezes again after nightfall) are an unremitting, 24-hours-per-day job. For small companies with only one or two maintenance workers, or for large companies with many properties, it is inevitable that some slippery surfaces will not be remedied before someone falls.
At construction sites, that someone is likely to be underskilled, ESL (English as a Second Language), and likely from a much warmer climate. Thus even when things like substandard extension cords – often rated by Underwriters Laboratories (UL) for nothing more than 120-volt service yet used to operate heavy equipment – are labeled “peligro (danger)!”, the danger is not defined, so workmen ignore it.
Additional dangers, according to OSHA, involve cutouts in the floor for plumbing connections, electrical connections or other building service elements. When these are left open instead of being covered with the industry-standard toe-board (a cause of trips in itself), the result is inevitable.
A lack of toe-boards and guard rails to protect workers from hazardous machinery or equipment – even where said equipment is taller than the average male – is another commonly overlooked safety hazard. Final hazards include the failure of companies, managers or crew bosses to hand out essential safety equipment like anchored safety harnesses, nets, or railings. The other hazard is workmen failing to ask for them.
Some employers, supervisors and job foremen do their best to educate workers about job dangers, but many don’t speak Spanish or any Asian or African dialects, which means the workers who are most vulnerable don’t get any instruction, including printed materials.
If you (or a friend) are aware of existing safety violations, or if someone you know has been injured as a result of the company failing to observe even minimal safety standards, you can contact OSHA and a representative will visit your place of work.
The downside for you, the worker, is that if you sign the complaint form, an angry boss or foreman may fire you, whereas if you don’t, the agency may not take you seriously and fail to send anyone. There are remedies for getting fired under these “whistleblower” circumstances, but they take time, so be sure you are ready to go the distance before you mail or fax your written and signed complaint. In the end, your best bet may be to consult a lawyer, who will handle the more subtle nuances of personal injury law.