By Steve Greenwald
Colder weather is fast approaching, and with it comes ice and snow. Each year slips on ice account for over 30% of all slip work-injury claims. These lawsuits can be very costly, aside from the fact you are also dealing with an injured employee.
Explaining it broadly, injured parties win work-injury claims when they prove their employer did not fulfill his or her duty in supplying a safe workplace environment. As a result, the best way to avoid liability is to keep your employees safe. Here is a list of tips put together by Gaia Enterprises to help keep your employees safe and reduce liability this winter.
1. Check your local state laws and regulations.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) contains an extensive list of regulations employers must follow when setting up a safe work space environment. Additionally, state courts take into account different levels of responsibility required of employers when looking over workplace injuries. Employers should look at their local state’s requirements for injuries of this nature.
If the employer has facilities in different states, he or she should consider establishing a forum selection clause for workplace injuries. The forum selection clause states litigation for particular causes must happen in the state court decided upon by the written agreement. In other words, if the contract states workplace injuries will be settled in California court (because the headquarters are there) and an employee gets injured in Idaho, the lawsuit would have to take place in California under California rules.
Generally, states take public policy into consideration when deciding whether to demand the lawsuit take place in the location required by the forum selection clause. Because of this, attention should still be given to the rules of each particular state.
2. Check for existing leaks.
Water forms ice. The less water an employer has to deal with, the less chance there will be of ice. It is a good idea to check for leaks before there is snow and ice, but remember water expands when it freezes and there is a chance of bursts once the winter season has come in.
If there are areas with leaks, try to fix them as soon as possible. If there is no way to fix a leak immediately or if it will take a while to fix, make sure to mark off the area as potentially slippery. If an employee knows a certain area is slippery before actually slipping, the employer has a better defense of contributory negligence or that the employee assumed the risk.
3. Invest in caution signs.
Similar to “slippery when wet” signs, it is a good idea to have similar signs on pathways likely to be used by people entering and exiting the building. The signs should encourage employees to be alert when using the pathway so as to prevent slips on ice. Make sure employees can easily see the signs, so they should not be in areas where they can get covered up by snow. Use bright colors and large signs to help make them more noticeable.
4. Remember ice melts.
People will track snow and ice in with them as they enter the facilities. Make sure there are rugs covering the entrances for employees to wipe their shoes and absorb any melting ice. “Slippery when wet” signs are also a good idea to have near these areas.
It is important to note pressure also causes ice to melt. Carrying something heavy increases the pressure of a person on ice, thus melting the ice more than normal and increasing the chances of slipping. At a larger scale, moving heavy items or heavy vehicles have a larger chance of making the ice slippery and are also more likely to have an accident.
5. Educate your employees.
Liability cases also deal with whether the injured party had sufficient knowledge of the risk or dangerous situation. Educating his or her employees not only keeps the employees safe, but also reduces the employer’s liability.
At the beginning of the season send out a newsletter going over the basics of winter safety. Go over where accidents are most likely to occur. Encourage employees to report icy patches to facilitate keeping the area safe. If there are several locations to take care of, make it into a competition: have a no-slip goal for the season and encourage employees to be careful. Some employees might consider it a bother to attend one orientation, or “corny” to have a competition with another group to see who slips the least, but if in the end the employer is limiting injuries then everyone wins.
6. Take care of any ice.
This almost goes without saying: After clearing up snow, make sure to check regularly on high risk areas to ensure there is no ice. Arguably, it may be more cost-efficient to invest a little more in maintenance than to have to manage a lawsuit.
Consider your options for dealing with the ice. While salt is has always been the number-one option standard, it takes a lot of time to melt the ice. In the meantime, as the ice melts, it becomes even more slippery because water on the ice surface is the layer that you slip on. Therefore, managing ice the old fashioned way by melting it creates greater slippage problems until all the ice is gone. Gaia Enterprises’ product Traction Magic addresses this problem and transforms the slippery, icy surface instantly into one that you can walk on without slipping, thereby eliminating the need to melt the ice while still being absolutely safe to people, pets, property, and the environment.
7. Be prepared for a lawsuit.
As a last line of defense, be prepared for an accident. Have an accident report form addressing the issues likely to arise in a workplace accident suit. The injured party and witnesses should answer questions about the location of the accident, the time, whether the patch had been reported, whether there was a “caution sign,” and other information. The goal is to have enough information to prove the employer did everything possible to follow his or her duty of keeping employees safe.
While an employer might not be able to prevent all accidents from happening, this list of tips is a good start in limiting them. The tips address the issue generally: Use best judgment in keeping employees safe and always consult legal help in issues of law specifically referring to your situation.
Steve Greenwald is President of Gaia Enterprises, manufacturer of Traction Magic and other products specializing in environmentally-friendly ice management solutions.