According to several sources such as insurance companies and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than two million Americans suffer a slip, trip, or fall every year. This represents about 15 percent of all accidental deaths in the country, second only to motor vehicle accidents, and many of these occur in retail stores.
Unfortunately when a slip and fall accident occurs in a retail setting – especially if it results in injuries – the retailer or his manager are tossed right into the hot seat. It is true – and been determined by judges and juries - that in some cases the injured party could have protected themselves and prevented their injury if they were more careful, used common sense, or in some cases, they may have caused their own accident as a result of some action they took while shopping.
But in many many cases, the retailer is found to be at fault and ends up paying a hefty settlement to avoid further litigation. To prevent this from happening, retailers must have a "standard of care" to help protect their customers and eliminate, as much as possible, any type of slip, trip, or fall happening in their stores. They likely should adopt a "safety mantra" as many attorneys call it, started by one of America's most famous trial attorneys, Harry Philo. A Detroit attorney, Philo was famous for saying "any risk of serious injury or death is always unreasonable if there are reasonable methods to minimize [or] prevent accidents which were not taken."
Many juries and judges have based their rulings in slip, trip, and fall accidents based on this mantra and in a nutshell it is why such accidents often put retailers in the uncomfortable hot seat we just mentioned. But it also suggests the best ways retailers can protect themselves by taking "reasonable measures to minimize or prevent accidents." And because Philo was a plaintiff attorney, often representing retailers as well as manufacturers and others in safety issues, he offered some basic advice and safety principles retailers can take to help prevent an slip and fall accident such as these:
Know your store. Philo referred to this as "environment of use" and found that in some cases, retailers simply were not as familiar with their store as they should be especially when it came to accident prone areas
Identify and inspect. This step further involves inspecting stores specifically for any areas that may present a reasonable or foreseeable risk resulting in a fall or injury
Recognized and eliminated. Once a problem area has been located, the risk must be minimized or eliminated by reasonable and feasible means as soon as possible
If minimizing or eliminating a risk is not feasible, the retailer is then obligated to reduce the risk by making it known. Because so many slip and fall accidents are floor related, Philo said retailers are obligated to install mats or floor runners to at least cover up the problem until it can be corrected.
In the worst case scenario and someone does have an accident in your store, is injured, and litigation results, lawyers will typically bring in their "go-to" experts, usually an engineer they have worked with in past situations. But what often happens is that while these engineers may be very good at explaining store hazards as well as developing safety manuals and protocols for retail employees, they may not be as familiar with the day-to-day operations of a store and practical ways the accident could have been averted in the first place.
For this they will turn to such people as the cleaning professionals and day porters* hired to clean and maintain the store. In many jurisdictions, these "shirtsleeve experts," are recognized as experts simply because of their job in the store, their training in doing this job, as well as experience. Here is where things can get dicey for retailers if for no other reason, there actually are scores of reasons someone may slip or fall on a store floor as a result of how it has been cleaned or maintained.
For instance, what if the cleaning professionals applied a coat of floor finish to the store early in the morning. Floor finish actually dries into stages: it is first dry to the touch and then it hardens, meaning the finish has thoroughly died. Let's say the finish has not hardened and the store is open. This can cause the floor to be "tacky" or sticky. If someone walks over this sticky area, they may lose their balance. The result is what is called a "stump and fall," and can be as serious as any other type of slip and fall accident as to possibly injuries.
However, in most cases, a slip and fall accident that is caused by a retailer's floors is the result of liquid or moisture that is on the floor, essentially waiting for an accident to occur. The best way to handle such situations is to have a spill response program in place, documented, and taught to day porters as well as employees in the store.
A Spill Response Program
The details of a spill response program are actually quite simple and the best way to prevent a floor-related slip and fall accident during business hours. At the heart of it are two key components:
- Cleaning equipment
While the day porter should have a programed routine to walk thru the store and look for possible dangers as well as inspect that preventive measures such as matting is in place, the reality is she cannot be in all places at all times. But the store employees, specifically sales people, are located throughout the store. They are the eyes and ears of the day porter. All employees should have some type of telephone or communication system – essentially a hotline - to call the day porter should they see a potential danger.
The second component is cleaning equipment. As soon as the day porter arrives at the seen, safety cones should be placed around the problem area. At this point, you most likely would expect the day porter to mop the floor and that would be the end of it. However, according to Tom Morrison, vice president of marketing for Kaivac, makers of spray-and-vac and floor care equipment, that is often the wrong thing to do. "The mop can leave the floor wet (and slippery) after cleaning. If the mop is soiled, as is often the case, it may actually spread more soils that could new safety concerns."
What Morrison suggests is the use of battery operated "autovacs" designed to clean floors quickly, without mops, and leave the floor dry immediately due to their vacuum system. The best way to describe these systems is to compare them to an automatic scrubber. However scrubbers are typically large, heavy machines and not practical in a spill response program. "You need equipment that is fast, has essentially one-bottom operation, requires minimal training so anyone can use the machine, and gets the job done with minimal disruption to store activities or customers."
There are more components involved in a spill response program and retailers should work with a floor care expert or janitorial distributor to develop such a program. If the best way to prevent accidents and injuries, along with the financial repercussions, is to prevent it in the first place, than a slip response program should be one of the first things all retail employees learn.
*Day porters is a term used for cleaning workers that work during business hours to handle cleaning needs as necessary
Robert Kravitz is a former building service contractor, having owned, operated, and then sold three contract cleaning companies in Northern California.
He is the author of two books about the industry and continues to be a frequent writer for the industry.
Robert is now president of AlturaSolutions Communications, which provides communications and marketing services for organizations in the professional cleaning and building industries.