Last reviewed 14 November 2012

Nigel Bryson reviews the precautions your company can take to avoid slips and trips.

In the chemical sector the key health and safety issues tend to relate to the nature of the hazards associated with the substances being manufactured. For example, with highly flammable liquids, fire or explosions may concern a manager; with corrosive materials, accidental release can cause skin burns or material damage. Much of the legislation dealing directly with hazardous substances relates to the properties of the chemicals themselves.

Yet in the chemical sector, manual handling and slips and trips are a significant cause of injury to workers. So in this article both manual handling and slips and trips are considered.

Don’t slip up!

Many chemicals are liquids or powders. Leaks from pipes, spillages or dropping materials can all add a slipping hazard to the floor. Then add the nature of the floor surface and what people are wearing on their feet and it becomes clear why these incident causations are so common.

Using figures from the HSE covering 2010/11, there were 120 major injuries recorded in the chemical manufacturing sector. Of these, 46 (38%) were slips, trips or falls on the same level, while 92 out of a total 461 (20%) “over 3 day” injuries were slips, trips or falls on the same level. That 38% of all the major injuries in 2010/11 were related to slips and trips indicates that this needs to be taken seriously.

It can appear to be difficult to reduce slips and trips because several factors need to be considered to reduce the risk of injury.

1. The floor or surface of the work area

The surface needs to be suitable for the work being done. If heavy tubs are being constantly moved, the floor needs to be robust or it could break up, causing tripping hazards. It needs to be even, with no holes that can cause a tripping hazard. If it is known that materials may drop on the floor, it needs to be rough enough to allow people a grip when walking on the surface.

Outside surfaces can be affected by rain, snow and other inclement weather.

2. Obstructions

According to the HSE, 50% of all slips and trips on the same level are caused by obstructions. It is critical, therefore that floor and ground surfaces are kept tidy and that tripping hazards are identified and promptly removed.

3. Contamination

While obstacles and obstructions can trip people up, contaminants on the floor or ground surface can be the source of slipping risks. Contaminants can be almost anything that ends up on the floor such as rain, solutions, viscous materials, powders, grit, etc. Even if the floor surface is quite rough, a material like oil can make a slip-resistant surface treacherous.

Where rain water is carried into a building, a canopy may be extended to help eliminate the problem at the entrance. Fixing leaking pipes or machinery leaking oil stops the problem of contamination at source. Should this not be possible, strict cleaning regimes can be introduced to quickly mop up any spillages.

However care needs to be taken when cleaning. In some incidents it was discovered that the cleaning techniques being used were not those recommended by the floor manufacturer. The floor surface was then slippery as a result. In many cleaning regimes, water or other solutions are used to clean floors. If they are not dried properly, the floor can remain slippery. Hence all cleaning regimes need to be reviewed to ensure they are appropriate and are not introducing additional risks.

4. Individual’s behaviour

How people behave can affect slips and trips. The organisation needs to develop a safety culture where people are encouraged to take safety seriously. Running up or down stairs, across floors, etc can increase the risk of slipping. Having appropriate footwear is important: high heels, for example, will increase the risk of falling.

People should be made aware of the causes of slip and trips. 38% of all the major injuries in the chemical sector — the most serious injuries apart from death — are related to slips and trips.

5. Environment

If the lighting in an area is poor, people may not see any obstructions; leaking roofs during rainfall can cause slipping; condensation may drip onto the floor causing a slipping hazard; glare from shinny floor surfaces can hide transparent contaminants.

6. Footwear

When people are considering safety footwear, they often think about materials dropping on their toes. Yet it is the soles of the shoes/boots that need to be considered as well. Where there is no requirement for safety footwear to protect the toes, the HSE recommends having a “sensible shoe” policy: “For slips and trips, sensible means: flat, with a sensible heel, with the sole and heel made in a softer material that provides some grip.”

For surfaces that will get wet, there needs to be an investigation into which slip-resistant sole offers most protection.

Alarm bells

In health and safety at work issues, slips and trips on the same level do not create the same dread as fires or explosions. Yet they are the cause of the largest single group of major injuries in the chemical sector. That the preventative solutions may be difficult to implement should not put managers off developing action programmes.

Avoiding the push and pull of injuries

In parts of the chemical sector, much of the plant processes are automated and do not involve a great deal of manual handling: yet other parts do. Shifting ingredients around a plant or into the process may require the movement of tubs/containers to feed into the system. Once a product has been made, it then needs to be fed into drums or containers or directly fed into tankers for distribution.

It follows that the drums or containers need to be stored or moved to be loaded onto vehicles for distribution. The materials in larger containers may need to be transferred into smaller vessels — such as bottles — which are then packed for distribution.

There were 120 major injuries recorded in the chemical manufacturing sector, 10 (8%) of which related to manual handling in 2010/11. However 166 of the 461 (36%) “over 3 day” injuries related to manual handling. Hence, it is a significant cause of injuries.

While this article is considering manual handling, there are essentially two main concerns.

  1. If a load is heavy or awkward to move and the operative strains to move it, one poor manoeuvre could be sufficient to cause injury. While many managers will recognise this as a cause of back injury, people can jam their hands between racks, walk into other equipment or walls or trip up while moving. Hence, when considering manual handling issues, it is not simply the weight of the loads that need to be considered, it is the tasks that are being undertaken that needs to be assessed.

    While much of the plant will be automated, maintenance and repairs may need to be undertaken periodically. Some components that may need replacing could be heavy or need to be fitted in areas of restricted space. It is important that in such work any manual handling is reduced to a minimum and control measures identified at the planning stage.

  2. Where operatives may be repetitively handling weights, such as packing containers, this can affect the shoulders, arms and hands, as well as the back if people have to stoop.

Injuries caused by manual handling or repetitive work are generally referred to as musculoskeletal disorders. In 2013 the European Commission is thought to be considering a Directive on Ergonomics at Work. This will combine the Manual Handling and Display Screen Equipment Directives.

Currently the Manual Handling Operations Regulations 1992 require employers to do the following.

  • Avoid the need for manual handling work that risks injuring employees, “as far as is reasonably practicable”.

  • Where such work cannot be avoided a “suitable and sufficient assessment’ needs to be undertaken of the risks associated with the operations. This has to take into account the tasks; the load; the working environment; individual capacity, and whether people’s movement may be hindered by Personal Protective Equipment, for example.

  • Take appropriate steps to reduce such risks “to the lowest level reasonably practicable”; and provide employees doing such work with general indications, and where it is reasonably practicable to do so, precise information on:

    • the weight of each load, and

    • the heaviest side of any load where the centre of gravity is not positioned centrally.

  • The assessment will be reviewed if there is any reason to suspect it is not valid or there has been a “significant change” to the manual handling operations to which the assessment applies. Where the review indicates that changes to the assessment are needed, employers must make them.

  • Take into account the physical suitability of employees to do the work; clothing, footwear, etc; the employees’ knowledge and training; the results of the general risk assessment required by the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations; whether the employees are in an “at risk” group, such as young workers or pregnant women; and any results from appropriate health surveillance.

While employees are generally required to look after themselves and others while working, the Regulations place additional requirements to use the system of work provided by the employer. This will include using equipment provided to reduce the risk of manual handling injuries.

Within the chemical sector, there may be many manual handling activities. For example, charging of reactors and mixing vessels with raw materials can cause risks of injury, particularly to the back. Managers need to identify the tasks that may cause injury and decide on what action will be needed to eliminate or adequately reduce the risks. In guidance on the chemical sector, the HSE identified the following measures:

  • reorganising the task to eliminate or reduce manual handling

  • automating or mechanising the task to eliminate or reduce manual handling

  • using lifting aids to minimise the amount of manual handling

  • ordering materials that have to be manually handled in packages of easily handled sizes

  • planning work breaks or introducing job rotation to avoid long periods of repetitive work

  • training your employees in good handling techniques.

After improvements have been made, these should be analysed to ensure that the manual handling risks have actually been reduced. Examples and case studies on reducing manual handling injuries can be found in the following HSE publications.

  • L23 Manual handling: Manual Handling Operations Regulations 1992. Guidance on Regulations

  • HSG115 Manual handling — solutions you can handle