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How to save medical office staff from slips, trips and falls

A column about keeping your practice in good health

By Victoria Stagg Elliott is a longtime staff member. She covered practice management issues and wrote the "Practice Management" column from 2009 to 2013. She also covered public health and science from 2000 to 2009. Posted Dec. 17, 2012.

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The need for speed when responding to health crises at medical practices and the hard, uncarpeted floors common in those settings to reduce the risk of infectious diseases mean staff sometimes stumble and injure themselves.

“These can be some hard falls,” said T. Warner Hudson, MD, immediate past president of the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine. “And people can get really hurt.”

Not much can be done when urgency calls for a quick reaction. But those who work with medical practices say the risk of a slip, trip or fall can be minimized — without much expense — by following certain steps.

Reducing the risk is important, say occupational medicine experts, because an unsafe work environment can lower employee morale, lead to missed work days and trigger expensive lawsuits. Practices also may run afoul of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration or state regulations and have to pay higher workers' compensation premiums.

Injury prevention “doesn't have to be a long, drawn-out or expensive process, but workplaces that are safer and healthier yield a lot of benefits,” said Robert L. Goldberg, MD, a professor of medicine in the Division of Occupational Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco. “Most practices cannot afford to lose a valued employee for a day or longer, and employees who are comfortable and not dealing with pain are happier and more productive.”

Solutions don't need to be high-tech. For instance, occupational medicine physicians say the first step is to talk to staffers about potential problems they see.

“You have to listen to employees if you're going to fix the problem,” said Siddiq A. Faisal, MD, medical director of the Occupational Health Dept. at Princeton HealthCare System in Plainsboro, N.J. “Ask them what they see. They know when something is wrong.”

The second step is for someone to walk through the office looking for potential hazards. This person may be a physician or medical practice manager. The practice's liability insurer can assist with a hazard assessment.

“You need to take a good look at your workplace,” Dr. Goldberg said.

Common hazards that can lead to falls include water and other substances accumulating on bare floors near sinks and hand gel dispensers. Electrical cords can snake into the space where people walk. Floors may be uneven, and small steps may not be clearly marked.

Decorations, particularly temporary for holidays, have the potential to fall and get in the way. Rain and snow can be tracked in, making linoleum and other smooth surfaces slick. Spilled coffee and other liquids may worsen the situation.

“You need to ask: 'What are the things that people will bump into? What will make them fall?' ” Dr. Goldberg said.

Warning signs prevent hazards

The next step is for medical practices to decide how to address the identified hazards. This may require additional warning signs and employee education, although in some situations hazards will need to be addressed more directly.

Electrical cords may need to be bundled, covered or removed. Steps and uneven floors can be painted bright colors.

“You want them brightly colored — red or yellow,” Dr. Hudson said. “You don't want them to blend into the background.”

Supplies to clean up beverage spills should be on hand, and warning cones or slip-resistant absorbent mats can be placed in areas that tend to get wet in bad weather. “You want something for people to stamp their feet on so the water doesn't get all over the office,” Dr. Hudson said.

Occupational medicine physicians say the problem of slips, trips and falls in the workplace never can be completely eliminated, but the hazard can be reduced.

In 2011, 2,600 employees of physician offices, including physicians, missed at least one day of work because of strains, sprains or fractures due to slips, trips or falls at work, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data released Nov. 8. Occupational medicine experts believe these numbers most likely underestimate the scope of the problem, because minor incidents often go unreported.

Victoria Stagg Elliott is a longtime staff member. She covered practice management issues and wrote the "Practice Management" column from 2009 to 2013. She also covered public health and science from 2000 to 2009.

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