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November 29, 2006

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Slip and trips: health and safety in prisons

In 2005, the HSE approached the Prison Service with proposals to carry out an investigation into slips and trips to examine what could be done to reduce such accidents in prisons. Mary Guinness reports on some of the findings.

Slips and trips are among the most common causes of workplace accidents and often result in serious injuries and costs to the employer, and the victim. According to the HSE, slip and trip accidents:

– account for 33 per cent of all reported major injuries;

– account for 20 per cent of over three-day injuries;

– result in two fatalities per year;

– cost employers £512 million a year;

– cost the health service £133 million a year; and,

– result in incalculable human cost.1

These statistics are reflected in the slips and trips accidents sustained in public sector prisons in the UK. In 2005/2006, the number of accidents due to slips and trips was 2697. As well as the human consequences, the costs of sickness absence and compensation claims from both prisoners and staff generated by these accidents is considerable.

Public sector prisons employ 49,000 staff and house about 72,000 prisoners in custody. The range of functions required to keep prisoners safely in custody is considerable and includes laundries, kitchens, workshops, work departments, industries, gardens, gyms, health care, visitors’ centres, and educational and recreational facilities.

The UK prison estate is made up of a range of buildings – some dating back to the sixteenth century. A number of prisons are housed in accommodation that was initially built for very different purposes, including: RAF airbases; country mansions; army camps; hospitals; and a citadel fortress. A few are even listed buildings.

Other prisons have been purpose-built, but even some of these were constructed during the Victorian era when health and safety would have had little influence on the design. Thus, the amalgam of buildings that makes up the prison estate includes a range of design features that add to the risks of slips and trips, such as narrow, winding stairs, and uneven floors. Many of these can be very difficult to alter, so local measures must be implemented to reduce the risk of slips and trips.

The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 require employers to carry out an assessment of the risks to which employees and others are exposed while at work.2 The Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992 place an absolute duty on employers to ensure that floors – or the surface of a traffic route – are free from holes or slopes and not uneven or slippery.3

Employers are also required – so far as is reasonably practicable – to ensure that every floor in a workplace, and the surface of every traffic route, is kept free from obstructions and any article or substance that may cause a person to slip, trip, or fall.

Measures that can be taken include, selecting new walking surfaces that are designed to prevent slips or apply some form of remedial treatment to existing flooring if the resistance to slipping is low.

Slip sources

Slips occur when there is too little friction or traction between footwear and the walking surface, causing the foot to slide just as it makes contact with the floor. Common causes of slips are:

– wet floor surfaces;

– fats, oils or other contaminants on floor surfaces;

– loose, unanchored rugs and mats;

– flooring or other walking surfaces that do not have the same degree of traction in all areas;

– weather hazards; and

– inappropriate footwear.4

Trip triggers

Trips occur when the foot collides with an object, causing loss of balance. Common causes of trips are:

– obstructed view;

– poor lighting;

– clutter and poor housekeeping;

– trailing cables;

– uneven walking surfaces, e.g. steps, thresholds, etc; and

– uneven, loose floor surfaces.5

According to the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health (CIEH), most slips occur in wet or contaminated conditions, and most trips are due to poor housekeeping.6

Prison problems

In prisons, an additional factor in the causes of slips and trips in prisons arises because of the nature of some aspects of a prison officer’s role. Prisoners can be unpredictable and may be violent to staff or fellow prisoners, and create disturbances that put others at risk. This behaviour results in situations where alarm bells are sounded and staff move to the aid of colleagues involved in the incident. While staff are not supposed to run, it is difficult to enforce this in situations where officers feel that colleagues or prisoners may be in danger. Subsequently, responding to alarm bells results in a large number of slips and trips involving staff.

In 2005 the HSE approached the Prison Service with proposals to carry out an investigation into slips and trips in prisons and to examine what measures could be taken to reduce such accidents. The main aim of this work was to increase understanding of the underlying causes of slips and trips for employees in the Prison Service.

The HSE visited seven prisons and examined a range of issues, including footwear policy, maintenance work, cleaning regimes, compensation claims, and accident trends. It also carried out slipperiness assessments and measured the surface micro-roughness of flooring to provide an overall risk rating for surfaces. Analysis of the Prison Service data revealed that the majority of slip and trip accidents to employees were initiated by a slip. The main slip hazards were wet floors, food contamination, and ice. The main trip hazards were identified as temporary obstacles (e.g. food trays, entrance matting), uneven ground, and permanent obstacles (e.g. low walls and gate fixings).7

Footwear is another particular issue in the Prison Service, where shoes are considered as PPE in areas such as kitchens, works departments, workshops, etc. Staff in these areas are provided with appropriate safety shoes or boots. However, shoes are not considered as PPE for prison officers working on wings. Officers are given an annual allowance of £60 to purchase shoes. The only guidance given is that the shoes should be black and smart. As a result, the choice of footwear among officers varies considerably, with some being unsuitable for working on a prison wing and unlikely to provide adequate slip resistance in contaminated conditions.

One of the recommendations made by the HSE to the Prison Service was to conduct a large trial of slip-resistant footwear for prison officers. This is now in progress and early reports suggest that the number of slip accidents has fallen in areas where the shoes are being trialled.

Prisoners are subjected to the same risks from slips and trips as staff and, under section 3 of the HSWA, the Prison Service has a duty to ensure their health and safety.8 Where prisoners work in areas such as workshops or kitchens they are provided with suitable footwear. Footwear for prisoners is manufactured in prisons and tests are now underway to assess the slip resistance of all footwear provided for them.

Rough with the smooth

The slip resistance of a walking or working surface depends largely on how rough or how smooth the surface material is and therefore how slippery it might be. High surface roughness is determined by the size and shape of the granular material from which the floor surface is made.

There is a number of ways of measuring the co-efficient of friction (CoF) of flooring – the HSE preferred tool for doing this is the pendulum test.

The pendulum was originally designed to simulate the action of a slipping foot. The method is based on a swinging, dummy heel (using a standardised rubber soiling sample), which sweeps over a set area of flooring in a controlled manner. The slipperiness of the floor has a direct and measurable effect on the pendulum value given (known as the slip resistance value, pendulum test value, or British pendulum number).

Research carried out by the Health and Safety Laboritories (HSL) has found the pendulum to be a reliable and accurate test for the assessment of floor slipperiness in wet, oily or greasy conditions – the conditions in which most slips occur. It requires a competent person both to carry out the tests and interpret the results.9

Surface micro-roughness

Measuring the surface roughness of a floor will also give an indication of its slipperiness. There are several roughness tests, but research has shown that the measure of the total surface roughness – calculated as a mean of several ‘peak to valley’ measurements of the Rz parameter – allows slipperiness to be predicted for a range of common materials.

This measurement is simple, quick and a good indicator of the slip resistance of floors.9 In most situations it will be necessary to carry out both pendulum CoF and surface micro-roughness tests to give an accurate indicator of floor slipperiness.

Slip-resistant footwear can help reduce slip and trip accidents.10 People rarely slip on a clean, dry floor but even tiny amounts of water on a smooth floor can cause a slip.11 A good cleaning regime improves floor friction and lowers contamination levels.12 However, poor cleaning regimes can contribute to slip accidents. Regular floor cleaning – carried out in accordance with the flooring manufacturer’s recommendations – is crucial. Procedures should also be in place for cleaning occasional spills.

Cleaning in prisons is carried out by prisoners who are supervised by officers. Many prisons have already implemented a system of training for prisoners who carry out cleaning operations and staff responsible for supervising them to British Institute of Cleaning Science (BICS) standards to ensure that cleaning is carried out effectively.

However, it was evident that there were inconsistencies in the standard of cleaning. In one prison visited by the HSE during its study, prisoners ran a competition to see who could produce the shiniest floor. While the hard work is to be commended, the practice may have increased the risk of accidents.

The HSE, in its report on the work carried out in the Prison Service, made a number of recommendations (se panel above). Many of these relate to good housekeeping practices, are easy to implement, do not have a significant cost attached, and would apply equally to all workplaces where slip and trip accidents are a cause for concern.

The Service is now actively implementing these measures and closely monitoring accident records to evaluate their effectiveness, particularly the trial on slip-resistant shoes.


The impact of slip and trip accidents on organisations can be considerable, but in many circumstances the causes can be relatively easy to eliminate, or adequately control. Whereas the slip-resistant properties of flooring and footwear are very important considerations in the reduction of slip and trip accidents, many of these accidents are the result of poor housekeeping and inadequate cleaning regimes. They can therefore be reduced or eliminated by the introduction of simple, relatively inexpensive, easy-to-implement measures, which will have a considerable benefit for the organisation through a reduction in injuries and ill health to staff, sickness absence, compensation claims and regulatory intervention.


1 HSE: Slips and Trips Statistics

2 The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999, London, HMSO

3 Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992, London, HMSO

4 Ellis, P (2004): Slips, trips and falls. RoSPA Occupational Safety and Health Journal March 18-22

5 Ibid.

6 CIEH (2006): Slips and trips are no laughing matter, Annual Conference 2006

7 Hallas K, Scott, A(2006): Slips and Trips in the Prison Service, HSE

8 HSWA 1974, London, HMSO

9 HSE (2004): The assessment of pedestrian slip risk – the HSE approach.

10 Ibid.

11 HSE (1995): Slips and Trips. The importance of floor cleaning. HSE Books.

12 Carpenter, J Lazarus, D and Perkins, C. (2006) Safer surface to walk on, reducing the risks of slipping. CIRA.


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