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Safety Corner
Sure Footing
How to prevent winter slip-and-fall injuries
By Sean Dewalt

inter presents all sorts of fun activities to look forward to, but no one looks forward to slippery roads and sidewalks. From twelve-inch snowfalls to dreaded freezing rain, the risks of slip-and-fall injuries for visitors, tenants, and employees are a real concern for businesses. Since slips and falls can happen anywhere, injuries sustained in cases covered by premises liability insurance and workers’ compensation can be equally diverse and very costly.

The legal theory behind premises liability is that the owners and operators of a property need to exercise a reasonable amount of care to ensure that the property is safe for the people who use it. Tort allegations resulting from negligent care of a property can be very costly. The National Floor Safety Institute estimates that the average cost to defend against a slip-and-fall lawsuit is $50,000, and the average judgment awarded in cases that go to trial is $100,000.

Data from the National Safety Council shows that in workers’ compensation cases the average costs for an injured worker are nearly $50,000. About half of those costs are indemnity (lost time) payments for missed work. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, “In 2019, 2.8 million nonfatal workplace injuries and illnesses were reported by private industry employers. For nonfatal injuries and illnesses resulting in days away from work, 275,590 cases were caused by overexertion and bodily reaction. Slips and falls accounted for 27.5 percent of those cases.”

The Occupational Safety & Health Administration’s (OSHA) standard for walking/working surfaces, 29 CFR 1910.22, outlines requirements for ensuring that work surfaces are clean, dry (whenever possible), and properly maintained to ensure employee safety. Those rules tightened in 2017 with new language stating that employers must inspect walking/working surfaces regularly and as needed and correct, repair, or guard against hazardous conditions such as corrosion, leaks, spills, snow, and ice.

The often overlooked issue with lost time incidents is that since some of these injuries result in multiple days off or restricted work, they can be considered recordable OSHA incidents. Alaska Occupational Safety and Health (AKOSH) has a program directive called the High Hazard Target List. Employers are placed on that list when they have three or more lost time incidents, as reported through the Alaska Division of Workers’ Compensation database for the previous year, and lost time rates in excess of 90 percent of the overall average lost-time rates for all employers in Alaska. AKOSH then sends a letter to the employer, and there is a higher probability of enforcement inspections for the business. Inspections tend to result in citations. As of January 2022, OSHA citations deemed “serious” have a minimum penalty of $1,036 and a maximum of $14,502. This is worth noting.

Time of Sands
What are the solutions? A good safety professional, property manager, or risk manager will use a hierarchy of controls to eliminate or reduce risks. Companies with the most success in reducing risks use a combination of controls to deal with hazards. These include engineering controls, such as adequate snow and ice removal and management of safe walking and working surfaces using aggregates and/or ice inhibitors. There are also less effective administrative controls, such as daily property inspection reports and the use of personal protective equipment, including ice cleats and traction footwear.

The use of aggregates to increase traction on snow and ice is nothing new. Sanding parking lots at businesses has always been a good control against slips and falls in most cold climates. The effectiveness, however, depends on multiple variables. These include the weather, location, contractor experience, customer demands, availability of aggregate products, frequency of applications, and cost of the materials.

The National Floor Safety Institute estimates that the average cost to defend against a slip-and-fall lawsuit is $50,000, and the average judgment awarded in cases that go to trial is $100,000.
Aggregates need to remain on the surface of the snow and ice to work. Smaller sand-size grains tend to get pushed down into the surface or blown away, rendering the application less effective unless continually applied. By contrast, a 3/8 inch crushed and washed “traction sand” aggregate is faceted and can remain on the surface longer and will not slide away as easily as a round pea gravel would. Contractors in Alaska often use a “winter mix” in their sanding machines, which consists of multiple-sized aggregates designed for parking lots. Some even mix in rock salt to help melt the ice and keep aggregates in place. Regardless of the chosen application, the key to good sanding is ensuring the areas always have adequate, visible coverage of traction material. Monitoring the areas is paramount.

Contractors and customers should have a good line of communication during winter months to ensure sanding is done when it is needed. During freezing rain events, multiple applications of aggregates may be required as the ice builds on the surface. Bear in mind that expenses spent on safety on the front end are generally less costly than the insurance claim on the back end. Good risk control is all about being proactive—staying ahead of the exposures and not waiting until after an injury has occurred.

Bring on the Brine
Another risk reduction option, granular salt, was first used on roadways experimentally in New Hampshire in 1938 and is still widely used today. Salt brine, a liquid ice inhibitor, has proven to be a more effective and less corrosive option than rock salt. In fact, the liquid brine is 85 percent less corrosive than the granular product and is more manageable for applying evenly on surfaces. The key, according to Bret Kelly, president of A1 Landscaping, “is using an instrument to measure the salinity of a solution, not just guessing.” That tool is frequently a hydrometer that is specially calibrated to read out the percentage of salt in a solution. The exact salinity needs to be 23.3 percent. Kelly has been studying, experimenting, and applying salt brine for property owners in Southcentral Alaska since 2015. He states that additives, such as molasses and beet juice, can reduce the operating temperatures of the ice inhibitors to -40°F, which is perfect for those ultra-cold winters.

The process is simple: before a snow event, the liquid is applied to asphalt surfaces. As the snow falls, the brine inhibits the attachment of flakes to the cold asphalt. Snow is then removed as normal, and instead of leaving behind a layer of snow and ice on the asphalt, the pavement is just wet. A new layer of salt brine is then applied, and the process starts over. If enough time passes between snow events, the asphalt will dry and only a thin residual white layer of the sodium will remain. This process greatly reduces slips and falls as the snow and ice are wiped clean, creating a greater coefficient of friction for the walking surface.

Bear in mind that expenses spent on safety on the front end are generally less costly than the insurance claim on the back end. Good risk control is all about being proactive—staying ahead of the exposures and not waiting until after an injury has occurred.
While the cost of using salt brine compared to traditional aggregate and granular salt products can be higher, the soft costs narrow that expense gap. Annual sweeping of remaining aggregates from sanding—and the damage to plants and trees and cleaning of carpets from granulated salt—add costs to the equation. However, property owners can cut costs for salt brine by having a multi-year contract with a set price, like level-pay with the local utilities. Getting competitive bids before winter with different pricing and delivery options makes financial sense.

As important as proactive prevention can be, it is equally important to react properly after the fact. Investigate all incidents and near-misses. By assessing the causes of the occurrence, better countermeasures can be applied to help ensure another mishap is less likely to happen. Employees should have a way to report hazardous conditions, and the company must have personnel to ensure that action is taken to reduce the danger.

By diligently monitoring conditions, assessing significant weather events, and taking proactive precautions, businesses and employers can reduce the chances of a bad outcome. While there may be no one-size-fits-all solution to slips and falls, having a formal plan for snow and ice mitigation is the first step toward a winter season of incident-free days. And that is a plan that everyone in Alaska can agree on.

Sean Dewalt is a Senior Loss Control Consultant for Umialik Insurance Company in Anchorage. Dewalt has been working in safety and risk management in Alaska since 2000.
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