Raise alert for falls in winter weather

Slips and falls are costly for hospitals

One of the greatest hazards at your hospital may be the pathway from the parking lot to the front door.

Slips and falls are one of the costliest injuries for hospitals, and they're more likely to occur in the winter than any other time of year. Plows may keep your pavements and parking lots clear of snow, but just a trickle of water that re-freezes can create treacherous black ice.

Hospitals have gone beyond salt and snowplows to keep employees from falling during the winter.

Hamot Medical Center in Erie, PA, uses temperature-sensitive Ice Alert reflective signs. (See editor's note for information about products to prevent winter slips and falls.) If the temperature is more than 32 degrees, they are white. If it is less than 32, they turn blue. "It's just a reminder that it's possible it could be icy and slippery in the parking lot," says Brian Hammer, CHEM, manager of safety and regulatory compliance.

Stickers on the windows of the hospital's exits remind employees that "blue indicates freezing temperatures."The reminders are especially helpful in this city on a lake, where it can be sunny one minute and snowy the next. "We have continual weather changes through the day. Erie's slogan is, 'If you don't like the weather, wait 15 minutes, it will change,'" says Beverly Smith, RN, COHN, employee health nurse manager.

In addition to the signs, the hospital has launched an awareness campaign, with reminders in employee newsletters and information at the fall flu vaccine fair.

Facilities and maintenance workers have been encouraged to wear proper footwear that has a tread. A few years ago, a worker wearing shoes with no tread fell on a patch of ice that was covered by a thin dusting of snow; he was seriously injured and unable to return to work.

It's important for employees not to become complacent about the winter weather, Smith says. "We're trying to continually make sure people are aware," she says.

Route to safe STEPS

In an awareness campaign at Western Pennsylvania Hospital in Pittsburgh, employees are asked to watch their STEPS. The Safe STEPS program urges them to: stay alert, take your time, evaluate your environment, proceed with caution, and have success in your travels.

A safety fair focused on slips and falls provided specific information geared toward the units that experience the most injuries of that type: engineering, environmental services, dietary, home care, and the operating room.

For example, dietary workers need to wear slip-resistant shoe covers. Engineering workers need to check for faulty ladders. Home health workers are especially at risk for falls in the wintry weather or tripping on cords in the patient's home.

Door prizes and refreshments enticed employees to participate in the fair and answer safety questions.

Employee health coordinator MaryAnn Gruden, MSN, CRNP, NP-C, COHN-S/CM, also has focused her accident investigation on slips and falls. When an injury is reported, she accompanies the employee to the site of the accident and looks for hazards that could be abated.

"Slips, trips, and falls can be so significant for the employee," she says. "We're hoping with the increased awareness we will see a decrease in [those injuries]."

[Editor's note: More information about the IceAlert system is available at www.icealert.com or from IceAlert/Blue Star Inc., (800) 831-4551. Slip-resistant shoes are available from Shoes For Crews at www.shoesforcrews.com. YakTrax (www.yaktrax.com) are traction devices that can be placed on the outside of shoes.]