Organizations of every size and shape are largely influenced by one type of corporate culture or another. Within that culture, whatever it may be, a strong emphasis on safety is a must. Why? The answer is obvious, but well worth repeating:

Each year, a staggering number of workplace injuries are reported in this country. Many thousands of those injuries are due to slips and falls, a fact that building and store owners and facility managers have to face.

A number of tasks put custodians and customers at risk of injury. Simple but important activities, such as mopping a floor, taking out the trash, vacuuming or operating floor equipment such as auto-scrubbers or auto-burnishers, have the potential to cause injuries.

Many of these injuries can keep workers off the job for a period of time; lost time means lost production, higher overhead and lower profits. And injuries to individuals caused by falls can not only hurt the pained party, but bruise a retail organization’s image, not to mention its pocketbook. Furthermore, government inspectors tend to closely scrutinize a facility’s safety procedures, and the facility faces stiff fines if found at fault. OSHA is more than just a four-letter word.

In the past, insurance companies were the ones concerned about safety — the concept didn’t seem to filter down to the worksite. However, as building and company owners and facility managers become aware of the human and monetary costs of accidents, they’re recognizing that prevention is a lot less expensive than intervention. They’re realizing that safety becomes a money-saving and natural part of their routine business operations.

“It’s the job of building owners and managers to make their facilities safe and aesthetically pleasing,” says Tim Enright, vice president of sales for the Belson Co., Green Bay, Wis. “They must be aware of how to do that — what procedures and products to use, and what equipment they need to maintain a safe, clean floor.”

Careful Guidance
Sanitary supply distributors can play an important role in helping their customers prevent slips and falls by offering their expertise on this important subject. And effective consultative selling of this type can result in more revenues for them by highlighting floor treatment products, anti-slip treads, and safety signs, cones or banners.

“Obviously, when they think about it everybody shudders at the thought of accidents,” says Michael Kaplan, owner of Certified Cleaning Supplies & Equipment in Denver. “But people don’t usually worry about it because they’ve got insurance,” he says. “However, if you get involved in a lawsuit, the experience can be numbing, frustrating, costly and certainly time-consuming.”

Kaplan, whose 91-year-old company serves the metropolitan Denver area, recalls the time a janitor at a restaurant purchased a spray bucket compound from him and a floor finish from a competitor.

“The janitor used the products on the floors and they looked nice. But it was a restaurant — and a little bit of salad oil got on the floor. Anybody could slip on that and that’s just what happened. A restaurant patron hurt her wrist. Like most businesses, the restaurant didn’t admit liability but offered to pay her medical bills. It’s the prudent thing to do.”

But when the woman’s insurance company limited her coverage, Kaplan continues, she turned around and sued everyone in sight, including his company, his competitor, the polish manufacturer, the restaurant, and the janitor. “It was ludicrous. I got reams of paper in the mail from her lawyer, and a day before the trial, my lawyer phoned and said the woman wanted to settle for $1,500 from each of us. I agreed because it would have cost more just to go to court. The woman was entitled to something, but it went too far.”

Customers should know that proper floor care procedures and quality products will go a long way in preventing slips and falls, says Kaplan.

“Any good floor finish should meet all of the federal safety specifications. They’re not the problem,” he says. “After the product is laid down, problems are caused by improper floor maintenance. Cleaning people need to dust mop and damp mop clean their floors regularly. And they need to burnish floors, because a highly polished floor is actually less slippery than a dirty floor. We’ve done tests to demonstrate that and have amazed people with that fact.”

Ron Harper, operations manager for the 16-year-old Ritz Safety Equipment Co. in Pompano Beach, Fla., agrees that preventing accidents is important from a liability, manpower and customer relations standpoint. He believes the three most important safety factors in floor care are cleanliness, proper finish and constant maintenance. “If these are let to slide, chances are increased for accidents,” he quips.

Using the wrong type of floor wax could cause someone to go “bottoms up” in a matter of seconds, says Harper. Floor tiles that separate or chip can also create a tripping hazard, he adds, and suggests caution when selecting tile cleaners since certain types can eat into the tiles.

“Floor mats are important in preventing falls, too,” he adds. “There are mats for all types of surfaces — some for bars, for restaurants, for homes, for light traffic offices and for heavy traffic entrance ways.”

Walk-off matting, proper signage — whether it be caution signs or stickers that say “watch your step” — and the right floor care procedures and equipment are important in preventing slips and falls, says Belson’s Enright.

“We system-sell floor matting,” he explains. “That means including an outdoor scraper mat, an absorbent scraper mat inside — maybe in a vestibule area — and a nylon or Decalon mat as the third type of matting as you enter the building — to make sure that the visitors’ feet are dry. Mats, of course, collect dirt so it doesn’t get tracked into a building and cause falls. A lot of our customers like the idea of these mats as a safety system.”

Enright’s company, which has been in business for almost 70 years, recommends that its customers use the right equipment to keep their floors safe and looking good, whether they are carpeted or hard surfaced. “They should use ‘wet floor’ caution signs and keep mop buckets handy for easy and fast use if necessary. We suggest they keep small carpet extractors or automatic scrubbers close by so they can be used to clean areas that get a lot of heavy traffic.”

According to Darryl Koutecky, account manager for the 100-plus-year-old Krantz Inc., Wauwatosa and Racine, Wis., slips and falls are everybody’s biggest concern. “In the health care area, we get requests from people who want a clean floor but one that doesn’t have too high of a gloss. They want a satin finish because in Alzheimer’s areas, for example, patients who see a floor that’s too shiny think it’s wet and start walking awkwardly — and sometimes fall.

“Kitchens with grease and oil on the floor and wet, slippery floors are obviously accidents waiting to happen,” he says.

Koutecky has run across these things many times in the past and cautions his customers, especially cleaning contractors, not to overspray with furniture polish or glass cleaner because those can get on the floor and cause hazards. Furniture polish is usually silicone-based, which can give a floor a skating rink effect.
“Treated dust mops, if they’re treated improperly, especially with an oil base dust mop treatment, can leave a residue on the floor that can create problems. And in cold climates, ice melting compounds drying on a floor can also make a floor slippery,” he says.

It’s also important to advise customers to use the proper amount of cleaning chemicals on floors, according to Koutecky. “If they use too much water in their mixture and not enough chemical they’re not cleaning the floor — just moving the dirt around and that tends to leave the floor slippery.

“And the right type of floor finish for the right type of floor is critical. If it’s a terrazzo or rubberized floor, they must use the appropriate finish,” he says. “And burnishing and spray buffing floors adequately and often are important factors in good maintenance.”

Head for the Door
Floor areas in and around a building that pose the most risks for falling include entryways and bathrooms, Koutecky believes. “Washing one’s hands in a bathroom and then moving to the towel cabinet can leave water on the floor. That’s a concern that we communicate to our customers from time to time,” he reveals.

Entryways and hallways in retail establishments are prone to slips and falls — especially in winter when things get slippery and dangerous, says Enright. “It’s up to facility managers and housekeeping supervisors — anyone who’s responsible — to keep those areas consistently clean and navigable.”

The main problem with slips and falls doesn’t lie with floor products, he adds. If there is a problem, it’s generally due to a mechanical or application failure, he suggests.

Ritz Safety’s Harper adds stairways to the list of potential hazards. “Falls here can be quite serious and we emphasize that cleaning people be very careful in working on these areas.”

Certified Cleaning Supplies’ Kaplan agrees that main entrances to facilities are risky areas because of the heavy traffic. “That’s where the floors will get the wettest and dirtiest. You can’t make the world entirely safe, but when I deal with my customers I stress accident prevention and recommend good procedures and products, including safety signs and safety cones with chains that will keep those areas clean and safe. Yet you practically have to stand and guard those areas because some people just ignore them.”

Because of the growing public awareness of safety and the big monetary awards to accident victims granted by courts in recent years, the business growth potential for sanitary supply distributors is significant for obvious reasons, according Kaplan.

Enright also sees a greater emphasis on floor safety these days that could mean more sales for the sanitary supply distributors. “There are safety products coming out that our customers are asking about. They’re so new that we haven’t had a real chance to promote them. I’m referring to anti-slip chemicals for restaurants, hospitals, nursing homes and other institutions. I was at a nursing home recently, and not only were they interested in purchasing a small automatic scrubber, they also wanted a chemical that makes the quarry tile in their kitchens more slip-resistant.”

Harper, Kaplan, Koutecky and Enright all agree that the most important things in keeping a building’s floor safe include cleanliness, proper finish, constant maintenance, walk-off matting and proper signage. And they each place a high priority on training and communicating the importance of floor safety to their clientele.

They also agree that many opportunities are present for them in the world of slips and falls. Distributors should highlight products that help prevent accidents, they say. Developing a comprehensive training program that will introduce their sales staff to the importance of the problem, and communicating awareness of the problems and the solutions to the end users are also recommended. Training, too, is important for cleaning contractor customers because of a high turnover rate among their employees. Contractors have to be committed to training. The best antidote for slips and falls, they say, is customer education.

Jordan Fox is a Milwaukee-based writer and editor.