By Adrienne Jones
As a safety professional, one of the most disturbing things I’ve seen is a video of an employee who was looking down at their phone while walking, slipped off a curb and ended up being hit by a vehicle. Thankfully, that employee fully recovered and returned to work, but this incident was a stark reminder of the ongoing pattern of distracted walking that needs attention. Slip, trip and fall occurrences have much to do with the human elements of distraction, complacency and stress, just to name a few.
Distractions are anything that draws a person’s attention away from the task at hand; and in the modern world, our devices top the list. These devices can make us vulnerable to hazards around us, especially when engaged in activities such as texting, talking on the phone or listening to music through headphones.
It can be easy to forget how much our senses have to do with slips, trips and fall occurrences. When it comes to walking, auditory cues can often be more important than visual cues; something as simple as hearing our footsteps can significantly contribute to our balance and walking safety.
Other human factors such as distractions, stress, fatigue and rushing play important roles in the slip, trip and fall incidents our industries see so often. The role of inattention is huge.
According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), 18% of the 1,176,340 nonfatal work injuries resulting in days away from work in 2020 were related to slips, trips and falls.
Our organization promotes proper footwear, addresses physical hazards, highlights weather conditions, and so on, but it’s important to look at the human element — the emotions and mental state we’re in that also contribute to distracted walking.
A study on non-fatal occupation falls conducted by Yeoh, Lockhart, and Wu looked at the relationship between employees’ length of service and the rate of accidents. The results showed employees with more than a year of employment “experienced more than 70% of fall accidents,” while employees with less than a year of employment experienced “considerably less (~28.8%).”
The takeaway? Human factors such as complacency can be combated by implementing annual training programs that reinforce fall-safety awareness.
Going back to the start
When looking beyond physical hazards, the mental state of employees is in direct correlation with slip, trip and fall incidents. In just seconds, a person can become hyper-focused on a task — whether they’re looking up for conductors and trees, searching for meters, or trying to locate an address.
It’s easy to mentally “check out” during the task of walking. ACRT Operations Manager Jerry Staton reflects on “highway hypnosis” in a previous T&D World article — but this phenomenon isn’t limited to just driving. It can take place just as often when we’re walking. Most people have been walking from such a young age that it’s a natural task we’ve become complacent with and take for granted.
Think about it; most individuals in the green industry walk more than they drive every single day.
When a person’s attention is focused elsewhere, they are less likely to participate in active safe walking — an awareness focusing on where you are walking, every step you take. Taking the time to scan your surroundings for hazards, focusing on the immediate terrain, and being conscious of potential risks in your path can prevent costly incidents. These daily tips for safe walking practices can improve our overall awareness and create safe, consistent habits:
- Walk at appropriate speeds.
- Take your time. Practice mindfulness and focus on the present.
- Test footing before committing weight.
- Use your arms to keep you balanced.
- Eliminate distractions such as mobile devices.
- Avoid carrying large objects.
- Avoid wearing headphones.
- Avoid wearing sunglasses in low-light areas.
- Use railings on stairs and mirrors at corners.
- Reduce over-striding when walking.
- Always choose the safest route over the shortest.
Safety versus convenience
It’s always best to take the safest route over the shortest. That can be a difficult thing to balance when there’s work to be done within a set number of hours. Even in my own life, I find myself wanting to take shortcuts. We have a natural instinct to be efficient, but that should never come at the cost of safety.
It’s common for field employees to work in dangerous, hard-to-navigate, uneven terrain with tree roots and rocks. When the target destination is identified, there are often two choices presented: the shortest route that helps you arrive quickly or the option to get back into your vehicle, drive to a different location, and access the location differently — adding on additional time.
Employees are frequently inclined to take that short route. As humans, we do this a lot in our daily lives. We tell ourselves, “No, I can do it. I’ll be careful,” and convince ourselves because of those external pressures. As humans, we’re good at convincing ourselves of our choices.
As individuals, we must hold ourselves accountable by being aware of our surroundings and avoiding unnecessary distractions. Active safe walking sharply reduces the chances of being involved in a painful and costly incident. By increasing our awareness and improving our daily habits, we can prevent the occurrence of slips, trips and falls.
Adrienne Jones is a safety manager at ACRT and ACRT Services. She has two years of industry experience and is a Tree Care Industry Association (TCIA) Certified Treecare Safety Professional (CTSP) and a National Safety Council-certified Defensive Driving Course Instructor. Jones also serves as a First Aid/CPR/AED Instructor and is a member of the Utility Arborist Association Safety Committee. She holds a bachelor’s degree from DePaul University, located in Chicago.