Watch Your Step!
By Robert Kravitz
Historically, federal, state, and local government entities managed to protect themselves from personal-injury lawsuits for injuries occurring on government property. Governments invoked sovereign immunity, which essentially means that the government cannot be sued.
But in 1948 sovereign immunity fell apart. Congress passed the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA), which effectively waived most of the government’s sovereign immunity rights. This action allowed people for the first time to sue government entities if people suffered an accident or injury on government property (or as the result of a government employee while on the job). Over time, this statute has filtered down to apply to state and local governments, as well as the facilities they operate, which would also apply to park and recreation centers.
Specifically, the FTCA applies to injuries such as the following:
- Slip-and-fall accidents suffered in government-owned or -operated buildings
- Injuries occurring in post offices, tax offices, and some federal buildings
- Falls in mass-transportation facilities operated by a government entity
- Drownings on government property
- Auto accidents due to poorly maintained highways or roads
With the passage of the FTCA, government entities realized they had to start taking precautions similar to those taken by privately owned facilities in order to prevent injuries. “When a government agency fails to keep the property it owns or controls safe from dangerous conditions, it’s considered negligent,” according to Judge Anthony Calisi (ret.). “When that negligence results in injuries, the government has to pay for the injured person’s damages.”
And while government entities still have rights that private-property owners do not have—such as caps on damages and the exclusion of punitive damages*—for the most part, they have become leaders in promoting safety at their facilities. However, one injury-related problem that government entities are still grappling with is slip-and-fall accidents.
Such accidents are also an issue at many park and recreation centers around the country, whether private or government-operated. Wet floors are often found in centers and are nothing less than an invitation for a slip-and-fall accident to occur. Because of this, managers must do two things:
- Develop a slip-and-fall prevention program.
- Have a program in place to clean up spills as quickly and effectively as possible.
Slip-And-Fall Prevention Program
In considering a school or an office building, a slip-and-fall prevention program would likely center on what is called the floor’s coefficient of friction (COF). COF is used to measure a floor’s slip resistance and is given a numeric value to help determine how safe a floor is to walk on. A floor with a higher COF is more slip-resistant than one with a lower COF.
While floors should be cleaned and cared for with COF in mind, what is likely the most helpful preventive step that managers can take in park and rec facilities, because of the ways the facilities are used, is finding and eliminating the more frequent causes of slip-and-fall accidents.
An effective prevention program in a park and rec facility might look something like the following:
1. Create safety teams. Teams are comprised of staff members who walk around the facility at regular intervals looking for problems, such as spills that can result in an accident. Some facilities call these “safety sweeps.”
2. Require users to be “shoe sensible.” Facility users should wear shoes with proper traction. Going barefoot is not recommended. Managers should recommend—if not require—that sensible shoes be worn at all times and in all areas of their facilities.
3. Look for damaged floor surfaces. Cracks and fractures in floors must be repaired as soon as detected. They typically get worse over time, and, as they do, they are just waiting for an accident to occur.
4. Concentrate on food-service areas. Spills around these areas and vending machines are common, especially in busy locations. Install mats, including “flow through” mats that allow liquids to go below the surface of the mat. This helps promote safety and prevents slippery substances from being tracked around the facility. Also, effective cleaning in these areas helps prevent accidents.
5. Focus on frequently wet floor surfaces. Around outdoor pool areas, the flooring selected typically helps prevent a slip-and-fall accident, but walk into a nearby locker room, restroom, or shower area and the opposite may be true. With moisture, traditional grout and tile floors can become slippery. These areas should be cleaned frequently, with warning signs installed to encourage walker safety.
Be careful when using warning signs. They tend to lose their safety impact if they are installed in the same areas all of the time. While “permanent” installation can make it easier for park and rec personnel, along with helping them meet legal safety requirements, often it is more effective to increase cleaning frequencies to ensure the floor remains clean and dry, and warning signs can be installed only as needed.
Slip-and-fall accidents in grocery stores, often the result of a spill, are very common in the United States. Because of these injuries and the ensuing legal implications, many stores are implementing a “spill-response program” to help identify spills and remove them as quickly as possible. The goal, of course, is to prevent an accident, and such a program can easily be implemented in a park and rec facility as well.
To better understand how such a program works, let’s look at the following scenario in a grocery store: As a result of a safety sweep, a store employee finds a spill in an aisle.
The employee notifies the store’s floor-safety team, which quickly goes to the storage area where floor-safety supplies, warning signs, cleaning tools, equipment, etc., are stored. (Time is of the essence in such situations; managers should have a specific area where these items are stored and can be easily accessed.)
Warning cones are installed to block the entire problem area; the team does not post signs around the specific area until the size of the spill has been thoroughly evaluated.
The team identifies the spill, which is precautionary; if the spill is the result of someone getting sick, for instance, other safety measures must be implemented. In this scenario, however, the spill is the result of a broken bottle of pickles. An “autovac”-type cleaning system is brought in to remove the spill and clean the floor area. Mops are not advised because they spread the spill over the area and usually leave the floor wet and slippery. This system is walked over the area, applies cleaning solution, agitates the area to loosen soils, and then vacuums the area clean and dry.
Warning signs are then placed around the immediate area; they are left in place for about 30 minutes until the floor has dried, and then the signs are removed.
These same steps can be taken in a park and rec center when a spill occurs or just to keep floors clean and dry. But key to a spill-response program is training. There is no time for staff to wonder how to respond, as delayed action risks serious injury. Along with the specific steps discussed here, an effective, ongoing floor-safety training program can help minimize—if not eliminate—slip-and-fall accidents at your facility.
Robert Kravitz is a frequent writer for the professional cleaning industry. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
*Punitive damages are amounts awarded to an injured party beyond the actual damages the injured may have incurred. Punitive damages are often used to punish a defendant in a civil lawsuit.
Quick Facts About Slip-And-Fall Accidents
1. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than one-million Americans suffer a slip, trip, or fall injury, and more than 17,000 people die in the United States annually because of these injuries.
2. The CDC estimates that up to 30 percent of the people who experience a slip-and-fall accident will suffer moderate to severe injuries, such as bruises, hip fractures, or head injuries.
3. According to the National Floor Safety Institute, more than one-million hospital emergency-room visits are due to slip-and-fall accidents.
4. Slips and falls are the second-leading cause of accidental death and disability, behind automobile accidents.
5. Falls represent the third-leading cause of death in children and are a leading cause of death in senior adults.