Precursors to a Fall

Slips, trips and stumbles can lead to serious injury

Falls may not sound like a serious topic, but they cost billions each year. They account for 15 percent of workplace injuries and one-third of construction fatalities. In response, an electrical contractor might invoke safety precautions such as guardrails and personal fall arrest systems. Unfortunately, this focuses on falls from an elevation. An analysis of electrical contractor injuries reveals that a third of the fall injuries comes from a fall on the same level. Concentrating on the elevation also overlooks the underlying cause. Falls begin with a slip, trip, stumble or other event. Many injuries such as a sprain or strain may occur even if the employee doesn’t actually fall to the ground. Understanding what occurs when a simple step is taken and what can go wrong is essential to taking action to prevent falls.

The table below identifies the various events that can lead to a fall or an injury. Slips occur when the ratio between the horizontal and vertical forces decreases. In contrast a stumble, is when the friction increases and the foot is caught. Trips or missteps occur when the foot is placed improperly in relation to the surface. Loss of support relates to the ability of the surface to bear the load of the employee. Postural overexertion is as stated. The individual fell due to reaching or positioning their body to a point at which they fell.

Table Extracted from work under NIOSH Contract 210-76-0150.

Different factors affect each event. Slip and stumble potential is linked to the type and condition of the walking surface, footwear and stride. Slips usually occur on wet, icy, oily or muddy surfaces. Only 5 percent of slips occur on dry surfaces. Footwear that fits properly and has soles made of a rubber-like material reduces the potential for slipping. Short steps as opposed to large steps can reduce slippage. Trips and missteps are related to the inability to judge foot placement. Poor lighting or bad housekeeping can make it difficult to determine how high to lift one’s foot or where to place the next step.

However, no single factor is associated with one event. It is usually multiple factors that result in a fall. For example, an individual wearing rubber-soled footwear in a well-lit ice rink could safely navigate across the surface by taking small steps. The same individual encountering an isolated icy patch while walking in the dark would be hard pressed not to fall. Therefore, the best approach to preventing a fall is to address combinations of activities and conditions.

Entrance and exists are one area where multiple factors come into play. The area often becomes wet from traffic. Employees need to push or pull on the door and may sidestep to make way for other entrants. The lighting may be poor. If possible, improve the lighting. Use mats to absorb moisture and increase clean up frequency as needed during bad weather. Use cautions signs to increase awareness of changing surface conditions.

Loading docks are another area where conditions change. Employees must exert pushing and pulling forces when loading or unloading vehicles. The surface becomes slippery when it rains or oil from vehicles is not cleaned up. The area must be maintained and a secure footing established when moving materials.

Many injuries occur during the act of dismounting. When an employee exits a vehicle or steps off a ladder or scaffold they generally step backwards. If the surface has depressions, oil, or other variations, it is easy to misstep. The area should be kept clean and clear of equipment and materials. Employees need to check the area before dismounting.

Another activity that often involves backward motion is handling wire, hoses or other coiled objects. As the employee pulls backward, the unchecked surface and added forces from the puling action lead to potential tripping and misstepping. Employees need to check the area frequently as they move.

From a regulatory perspective, there are several Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) standards on fall prevention. They range from Stairways and Ladders and Scaffolding targeting falls from elevations to the basic Walking and Working Surfaces standard. Each should be consulted for specific requirements. However, many of the basic actions required are common sense precautions. Selection of the proper footwear and good housekeeping are essential. Observing load limits and providing railings are helpful. But, the greatest control is training. Employees must be taught that falls are avoidable. Increasing their awareness of conditions and making sure they take simple precautions can do much to preventing a slip, trip or fall accident. EC

O’CONNOR is with Intec, a safety consulting, training and publishing firm that offers on-site assistance and produces manuals, training videos and software for contractors. Based in Waverly, Pa., he can be reached at 607.624.7159 or


About the Author

Joe O'Connor

Freelance Writer
Joe O'Connor is with Intec, a safety consulting, training and publishing firm that offers on-site assistance and produces manuals, training videos and software for contractors. Based in Waverly, Pa., he can be reached at 607.624.7159 or joconnor@inte...

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