Most of us take walking for granted. Yet just one misstep can permanently affect you for life.

The only real workplace injury I ever had was a few years ago. A contractor tripped and fell into me, throwing me into the edge of a metal structure, injuring my knee. That incident required months of physiotherapy, and I sometimes still feel an ache on damp days.

Some things are beyond your control, even when you work safely.

The best definition I’ve heard of for walking, is “controlling falling in a forward direction.” When you take a step, you are intentionally putting yourself off balance by lifting your rear foot while moving forward, then stopping your fall by continuing to move you rearward foot forward to support your body. If something stops that rearward foot from getting forward quickly enough, you will trip.

Canadian drivers know all about traction. Likewise, without traction to hold one foot in place while we push off with the other foot, the other things required for walking are useless. For example, safety experts tell us that the two most dangerous things we do around the home are getting out of the bathtub and walking down stairs.

I’ve slipped badly twice while walking downstairs at home, requiring medical treatment. Both times it was in summer, on carpeted stairs. I’m sure the cause of my fall was the extra humidity that caused the carpet to be slightly more slippery. I also wore only socks, so I may as well have been wearing skis. I now either wear slippers or go barefoot when walking on stairs at home. When not at home, I keep my socks on of course, but I’m extra careful on stairs.

In my safety job, over the years I’ve dealt with several cases of staff slipping on stairs, usually in winter. The situations are always the same; people coming inside with snow on their boots, then walk down a set of stairs. Even when they hold the railing, the body reaction of the slip may cause an overexertion injury.

If you can’t stand up, you can’t walk. Over last winter, I had vertigo and I thought I had an inner ear infection. Vertigo is a terrible thing that makes you dizzy and nauseous. The doctor said that my inner ear labyrinth had crystals in them.

In each ear, we have three semi-circular tubes that are filled with fluid. When we move in space, the fluid is displaced, and this tells our brain if we are oriented up or down. If crystals get into the fluid, they affect the fluid movement, and our brain gets the wrong message. To fix this problem, there is an exercise called the Epley Maneuver: a series of head motions that move the crystals outside of the fluid filled tubes in your head. I tried it twice and it worked immediately—no more vertigo for me.

Robot designers have been working for decades to try to emulate human walking in a machine. Walking is such as complicated process that they still haven’t perfected it. The best examples of robotic coordinated-walking that I’ve seen recently are by Boston Dynamics with Spot the robot dog and Atlas the humanoid. They move in a stilted way, but the process is improving. The software for robotic walking is complicated, so just image how complicated our brain is to allow us to walk effortlessly.

Safety tips
Look down. Last autumn I tripped over a street curb in the dark and I have the scar on my hand to prove it. I look down a lot more now that I wear a mask, especially in the dark.

Be aware of the ground. I have a paved driveway also some areas have gravel. When a piece of gravel gets on the dry asphalt it is as slippery as a ball bearing. A small rock can roll your ankle and trip you. In winter, those little ice melting beads used on asphalt have the same slippery effect.

Don’t put anything on stairs—they aren’t shelves. Pay attention to the stair material and remember that any moisture will make any stairs slippery, in winter and in summer.

Leather sole dress shoes and western boots look great but except for wearing on a dance floor, are unsafe for everyday life. The same applies worn rubber soles: you wouldn’t drive on bald tires, so throw out your worn shoes.

My dad has a good technique for getting out of cars in winter; while sitting, he puts one foot out, then moves it side-to-side (like putting out a cigarette butt) to check for iciness. Then he steps out once he knows that he won’t slip. He also keeps two hands on the car while getting out (known as having ” three points of contact” in the safety biz).

When getting in and out of bathtubs, never step on the side of tub. Have a non-slip bathmat outside the tub and move slowly and purposefully.

Point your toes when walking. I heard this one many years ago. If you point the toes of your rearward foot, as you swing it forward, you are less likely to trip on something—more likely to kick it out of the way. It sounds good; it may work.

I once heard it said that safety officers are actually “professional mat-straighteners.” Many apartment buildings now prohibit using mats in hallways in front of apartment doors due to the trip hazard. Look for similar things around your home and yard that could trip someone. Uneven or broken walkways are a common one. Unsalted outside stairs and walkways are obvious winter ones.

In 2019, falls, slips, and stumblues caused about 20% of workplace injuries in Canada. Look down, stay safe, and watch out for those curbs.

Halifax Magazine