Protecting New Jersey Workers Against Slips, Trips, and Falls
Employers need to take responsibility for worker safety
Falls may seem like minor incidents, but they’re serious business. Nationally, falls are among the leading causes of injury-related deaths, behind motor vehicle accidents, and in some industries, they are the leading cause of on-the-job deaths. They can also cause permanent injuries, including traumatic brain injury (TBI), and account for thousands of lost days of work every year.
In short, employers need to make fall prevention a top workplace safety priority – and injured workers need to know their rights if they’re hurt in an accident on the job.
Key slip, trip, and fall hazards in New Jersey workplaces
While some work environments are more dangerous than others, the risk of slip, trip, and falls is real in any workplace. Employers need to be aware of these key hazards and take proactive measures to protect workers.
Slippery substances on the floor
Water, grease, oil, food, and other slippery materials can pose a hazard to workers in any setting. The risk of slip hazards is particularly high in food service areas (such as kitchens and cafeterias), restrooms, and near drinking fountains, as well as industrial settings that use liquid materials or wet equipment. During inclement weather, building entrances can also become slip and fall hazards as rain and snow are tracked in from outside.
To prevent such hazards from accumulating, employers need to create written housekeeping programs to ensure that employees know what to do about a spill. Workers should be encouraged to report or address spills promptly. In areas where spills are anticipated, preventive measures like paper towel holders, spill pads, and wet floor signs should be stored nearby, and employees who work in those areas should wear slip-resistant shoes.
Another key issue in many work environments is a lack of drainage. A clogged drain can cause water to back up onto the floor, and a damaged or improperly aligned pipe can cause liquid to spill onto the floor. Slip and falls are one of the many reasons it’s so important for workplaces to be properly and proactively maintained.
Uneven walking surfaces and trip hazards
When flooring becomes damaged, warped, buckled, or uneven, workers are at risk of trip and falls. Often, uneven flooring is a result of a maintenance problem – loose or buckled carpeting, cracks in the floor surface, indented or blistered tile, and so on.
Trip hazards over ¼ inch in height need to be eliminated to maintain a safe work environment. Cracks greater than ½ inch wide should be patched or filled in. Trash, debris, and clutter need to be promptly removed from walking surfaces as well.
Intentionally uneven walking surfaces, such as near entrances or curbs, need to be highlighted with visual cues. Yellow warning paint and appropriate signage can warn workers of the trip hazard and prevent incidents. Likewise, cords need to be bundled, taped to the floor, or covered with protective covers, and anything that needs to be on the floor should be placed as out of the way as possible, such as in corners or under desks.
Ice and snow
During the winter months, snow and ice are a fact of life in New Jersey, and employers need to be prepared to protect workers from slip and fall hazards. This means putting a plan in place to promptly remove ice and snow from sidewalks, parking lots, and other outdoor areas near the workplace. Melting snow that accumulates on the roof can also create a slip hazard as water drips down onto the entryway.
Planning for slippery conditions also includes the decision of whether to require employees to come to the office in inclement weather at all. In many workplaces, this is unavoidable, but for work that can be done remotely, employers should consider minimizing the number of workers who have to come in on snow days.
Dim lighting significantly increases the risk of a slip and fall or trip and fall, especially among older and disabled workers. Workers need to be able to see their surroundings in order to navigate around hazards – and flag them for the employer to address.
Employers need to take stock of poorly lit areas, often including hallways, stairwells, and storage areas, and ensure that all light bulbs have appropriate brightness.
Stairs and ladders
When workers have to move vertically, not just horizontally, the risk of a fall increases. Stairs need to be properly marked with appropriate visual cues to highlight the edge of each step. They also need to be kept free of slippery substances, such as water. All handrails need to be appropriate height (34 to 38 inches above the stepping surface) and kept properly maintained for safety.
Likewise, stepstools and ladders used to work from heights need to be used appropriately, with training for employees on proper usage. They need to be placed on level surfaces and fully opened before climbing. Employees who use ladders, stepstools, and stepladders need to use appropriate footwear: shoes with a closed back and enough tread to prevent slipping.
Legal options for workers injured in slip, trip, and falls
Workers’ compensation for on-the-job falls
When an employee falls on the job, they can file for workers’ compensation benefits to pay for their medical bills, a percentage of lost wages, and additional benefits if there is a permanent injury. Workers’ comp is a no-fault system, which means there is no need to prove liability on the part of the employer to get compensation. It doesn’t matter whether the cause of the accident was poor maintenance and cleaning by the employer or just the worker tripping over their own feet; the injury is covered either way.
To get workers’ compensation benefits, the injured worker needs to report the injury to their employer promptly – sometimes within 48 hours depending on the applicable laws – and get prompt medical attention from a pre-approved medical provider. The employer (or the workers’ compensation insurance carrier) must file a First Report of Injury with the New Jersey Division of Workers’ Compensation within 21 days. If the claim is approved, workers’ comp will pay for the full cost of reasonable and necessary medical care for the injuries sustained, plus 70% of the worker’s average weekly wage (AWW) for the time they are out of work due to the injury, and additional disability benefits if the injury turns out to be permanent.
Third-party personal injury claims
Sometimes, slip, trip, and falls are caused by an organization other than the direct employer. For instance, suppose a worker falls due to hazardous conditions created by a contractor or vendor, while on another company’s or customer’s premises, or due to defective safety equipment. While workers’ compensation immunity prevents employees from suing their direct employer for an injury that was the employer’s fault, they can file a third-party personal injury claim against any other person or organization that caused the injury through negligence.
To recover compensation in a third-party claim, the injured worker needs to prove that the third party owed them a duty of care; that is, a legal responsibility for their safety, and that the third party’s negligent action or inaction caused or contributed to the accident. When employees slip and fall on premises owned or managed by someone other than their employer (for instance, at an off-site meeting or house call), their claims fall under premises liability law, which concerns the responsibility of property owners for people on their premises. Someone who is on the premises for work purposes is generally considered an “invitee,” meaning they are owed the highest duty of care under premises liability law, although that can vary depending on the circumstances.
Even so, this is a higher bar to clear than workers’ compensation, which only requires that the worker be on the job when the accident happens. However, a third-party claim can provide compensation for losses not covered by workers’ comp, such as pain and suffering, excess wage loss, loss of consortium, and loss of quality and enjoyment of life.
An experienced attorney can guide you through the process
Employees injured in slip and falls at work have a legal right to compensation, but exercising that right can be tricky. The insurance companies look for every excuse to downplay injuries and deny legitimate claims. They understand the seriousness of falls because a serious injury threatens their bottom line. Injured workers need their own advocate to stand up for their interests.
If you’ve been hurt in a slip and fall or trip and fall at work, we strongly encourage you to contact Shebell & Shebell, LLC immediately. We can discuss your legal options, advise you of your rights, and advocate for your interests throughout the process. Schedule your free, confidential consultation today.
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