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Winter weather behind thousands of employee falls

Pedestrians aren’t the only ones who get hurt when they encounter slippery conditions on roads and sidewalks. Employers may also feel the pain when workers suffer serious injuries from falls on the ice. As many as 16,000 employees in Finland hit the deck unexpectedly every year.

Liukas keli.
Image: Jyrki Lyytikkä / Yle

The injuries that workers sustain from falls can result in losses to employers amounting to tens or even hundreds of thousands of euros annually. Slipping and falling is the most common workplace accident for office employees. Slipping is considered a workplace accident if it occurs during normal working hours.

On average Finnish workplaces report some 16,000 slips, trips, or falls every year. Roughly 11,000 of them happen to pedestrians.

The number of workplace accidents that occur during one day may rise dramatically if the weather happens to be particularly poor. Occupational safety manager Janne Sysi-Aho of the Workers Compensation Centre had the numbers to prove it.

Normally, Finnish workplaces experience a daily average of 100 commuting accidents, but on November 24, 2008 - during a particularly bad spell - there were over 1,000.

"The majority were from the capital region, and mostly from four municipalities," Sysi-Aho explained.

Studs and flexi-time to the rescue

While employers can’t influence street maintenance, they can ensure that their outdoor premises and staircases are safe. Senior researcher Simo Salminen of the Institute of Occupational Health said that one way to head off accidents is to ensure that employees stay on their feet.

"For example employers can meet employees halfway and contribute to the cost of anti-skid shoe gear," he said, pointing to his own employer as an example.

According to Sysi-Aho, on days where the forecast predicts weather that will obviously make commuting more difficult, employees could take advantage of flexi-time or remote working arrangements. He noted that altering working hours could ensure that workers avoid the dangers inherent in hurrying to the office on icy roads.

"They could agree with their employers that when the weather is particularly bad, they could come to work 15 minutes later and leave 15 minutes later," he suggested.

Tapani Pulkkinen, occupational health and safety manager of the south-eastern city of Kotka, says the city has subsidised the cost of winter tyres for some municipal workers to bike to work, as well as crampons for shoes worn by workers who pay home visits to their clients. The city’s parking enforcement workers also wear anti-skid shoes purchased by the employer.

Brief doctor’s visit or long sick leave

In many cases falls result in no more than a few bruises, but in the worst-case scenario, workers are forced to stay away from the workplace for extended periods.

"Last year we didn’t have any bad falls that resulted in long absences, but the year before that sick leaves stretched for almost one year," Pulkkinen points out.

One factor that shows up in the statistics is age.

"The number of serious accidents rises as age increases," said Sysi-Aho of the Workers Compensation Centre.

However he stressed that walking to work is generally more of a benefit than a detriment, because of its many positive effects on health.

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