Walk like a penguin, and other slip-and-fall advice

Neal Rubin
The Detroit News

Last winter wasn't just hard on our psyches. It was tough on our tailbones, knees and noggins, too.

Accident Fund Insurance crunched some numbers on slip and falls, and it turns out bodies were meeting hard surfaces at painfully high rates.

Since aches and pains translate to dollars and cents in the workers' compensation business, the Lansing-based company has some tips to help keep everyone upright. But first, some cold, hard facts:

Compared to the previous year, winter-related slip-and-fall claims doubled in 2013-14. As in, twice as many. As in, nearly one-third of all workers' compensation claims in five hardy and weather-wise Midwestern states.

As in, ouch.

The funny thing about slip and falls is that usually, we laugh at them. "If you watch 'America's Funniest Home Videos,'" says Mike Eckert, "that show wouldn't exist without people falling."

But when it's your bottom or your bottom line, it's not so entertaining.

Eckert, 48, is Accident Fund Insurance Company of America's Director of WorkSafe Consulting Services, which is a long way of saying he's the loss prevention guy. He's also the deputy fire chief in Hartland, where he lives.

In both roles, he's always prepared for difficult winters. But the last one was improbably nasty: 37 percent of all worker's comp claims in Indiana, 33 percent in Wisconsin, 32 percent in Michigan and Illinois, 29 percent in Minnesota.

You'd think Minnesota and Indiana would be reversed, considering the general nastiness factor of the weather there.

It could be that people in Minnesota are more used to dealing with treachery and awfulness. Or maybe people in Indiana are just clumsy.

Then again, few of us have much defense against black ice. All we can do is watch out for it — and waddle like waterfowl.

"We tell people to walk like a penguin," Eckert says. "Shorter steps, wide base of support."

Hazards never rest

Accident Fund's guidelines for employers go into deep detail on things like which ice melters to use, when to plow (early and often), and the paths the melting water will take. Hazards never sleep; overdo a particularly strong ice melter and you might put cracks in your blacktop, and then you trade slip and fall for trip and fall.

For most of us, though, it's enough to read the labels on the bags and figure out which product is appropriate for the temperature.

Other advice:

■Wear boots or something else that's slip-resistant. At Eckert's house, they use ice grippers that attach to their shoes. Rather than wear or carry dress shoes or high heels into the office, leave a pair there.

■Don't be fooled by a minor bit of melting. That's the first ingredient in the recipe for black ice.

■Be extra careful getting in and out of cars. Try to keep three points of contact with the vehicle and ground: two hands and one foot, or the other way around.

■Watch for slippery floors at the entrances to buildings. If it's wet outside, it'll probably be wet inside, too. It just won't show.

■If you have to carry a briefcase, don't. Use a backpack instead, keeping your hands empty and your arms free for stabilization. When Eckert slings his laptop bag over his shoulder, he pushes the pouch toward his back so that it doesn't impede his vision or pull him off line.

Don't be a statistic

Or, you could move to Samoa. But that's not a lot more practical than what people expect of Eckert and his colleagues.

"They think we walk around in bubble wrap," he says.

In truth, he's only human, which is to say occasionally foolhardy. Watching him teeter as he hangs Christmas lights, his wife will say, "What do you do for a living again?"

Watch him walk like a penguin, though, and you can feel better about looking silly yourself.

Twice as many slip and falls last winter? That's a nasty statistic, and you might as well do whatever it takes to make sure your number isn't up.