How do you keep your safety programs effective and relevant when there is not much data to work from? Your business can’t do pilot studies or simulations where people are likely to be injured to gather robust safety data.
Where there is a lack of easily accessible data, there is a tendency to focus safety effort on hazards and perceptions rather than on correctly assessed risks i.e. hazard consequence x likelihood. Some would argue that where there is an identified hazard, doing something is better than nothing. From my experience, safety campaigns that can’t clearly outline the actual risk lead to confusion in the workforce, distract people from real risks and lead to a false sense of security. If you want your safety group to be taken seriously, they need to be able to demonstrate that the situation is in fact...serious.
An example of this focus on hazards was a campaign on escalator usage run at a large organisation I am acquainted with. This campaign included the production of signage and demonstration material on how to use an escalator safely, so some time and effort went into it. The initial information appeared to indicate that walking on the escalator could lead to falls, but a follow up message talked about maintaining three points of contact to avoid falls, which appeared to contradict the initial message by now suggesting that walking was OK (two hands on the handrails, one foot on the step at all times).
In these circumstances, the questions I suggest need to be answered are:
1) what is the actual risk that the hazard (an escalator) poses to a person in this environment; and
2) would any of the proposed measures make a material difference to people’s safety?
No doubt escalators present a number of hazards to people using them, and falls and entrapment of body parts or clothing come readily to mind. Despite escalators being very common, reliable safety statistics are hard to come by. However, some US data indicates that there are around 10,000 hospital presentations due to escalators, for a population of around 300 million with 35,000 escalators.
Assuming our target organisation exists in an area of similar escalator density (around 1 per 8000 head of population) then for a building with 1000 workers we should anticipate about one hospitalisation every 30 years. This is very rough, but even with these ball-park figures it suggests this particular hazard would score as a low risk on most company risk matrices.
If 10% or less of all escalator injuries requiring hospitalisation are the result of mechanical failure, human factors must be the predominant cause of escalator accidents. But we are comparing an escalator in a work environment with a cohort of escalators to which the general public have access to – a quick check of the annual Youtube video collection of escalator “fails” highlights the issues of providing access to your average punter.
Two studies show that there are both gender and age biases to the injuries sustained on escalators. Importantly, men had predominantly upper body injuries consistent with falling, and in over 50% of cases alcohol was involved (again, Youtube video material). Women tended to have injuries to the lower extremities consistent with entrapment of clothing and footwear. Significantly, about half of all injuries for adults occurred in people over the age of 65, and a disproportionate number of accidents for men and children occur on a Saturday (oddly enough, Tuesday stands out for women).
So who is at risk of falls? Tipsy pensioners appear to be the stand-out, and there are few workplaces where this group predominates. It looks like women on the whole are more sensible in using escalators, but possibly their clothing choices are letting them down at times.
Realistically, more than half of typical escalator incidents are unlikely to occur within an office environment. For the organisation in question, a serious escalator incident requiring hospitalisation every 50 years might be a reasonable conclusion. Whilst it is probably sensible to hold on to the handrail and not walk on the escalator, the safety messages that would make a tangible difference for their workforce should probably be for men to take the lift after a “long lunch”, and for women to consider their footwear and clothing choices.
This is by no means a thorough risk analysis, but what I am hoping to highlight in the minefield of keeping employees safe is that hazard does not mean risk, and even risk in the general population may not mean risk for your organisation. It doesn’t hurt to get an independent review to “sense check” your thinking, and there are plenty of organisations like ours that can help you sift the wheat from the chaff so you can commit your time and money to addressing real risks.
 Schminke, et al, “Riding the Escalator: How Dangerous is it Really?”
 National Elevator Industry, Inc.
 Schminke, et al, Op. Cit; EMCD, Hong Kong Government;
 Schminke, et al, Op. Cit; Murphy & Moore, “Escalator Injuries”.
 Schminke, et al, Op. Cit; Ashby, K, “Escalator Injuries”.