How to prevent workplace concussions

by Norm Kramer & Toni Volpato

Mild traumatic head injuries, also known as concussions, are on the rise in Ontario workplaces. Caused by blows or jolts to the head, concussions can have complex and serious consequences for workers, including physical and cognitive impairment, headaches, blurred vision, depression, and sleep disorders. Symptoms can last a long time, making recovery and return to work difficult.

Sometimes, concussions can be deadly. In a case in Ontario, a worker in a warehouse tripped over an empty pallet. The worker complained about an injury to the head and called in sick the next day. They passed away in the hospital two weeks after the incident. The employer was fined $60,000 for violating Ontario’s health and safety legal requirements by not keeping the floor clear of obstructions and hazards.

Warehouse settings may be particularly problematic when it comes to head injuries because of crowded work areas, high demand, the constant movement of people and machinery, excessive inventory, lack of storage areas, and more. The direct causes of head impacts include:

  • Slips, trips, and falls — which can occur when walkways and work areas are obstructed by materials when surfaces are wet or slippery
  • Falls from heights — for instance, when a worker on a ladder falls while removing product off a high shelf and suffers a head injury
  • Falling objects — when merchandise or products falls on workers from overhead shelving or racking

Duty to accommodate

Concussions have been called invisible injuries. The manager of someone with a concussion can’t see the debilitating headache, the brain fog, or the intense pain from loud noise and bright light.

While the injury may be invisible, the consequences are not. According to a recent Canadian study, one in six people reported changing their work habits to manage persistent concussion symptoms at work, and one in five reported struggling to meet their employment demands over months or years. “Some may reduce work hours or exit the workforce entirely,” the authors wrote.

Using a return to work protocol specific to concussion allows employees to heal as quickly as possible, with the least disruption for the workplace. Human rights laws across Canada recognize concussion as a disability and require employers to accommodate workers by adjusting work conditions to enable the employee to continue working.

Preventing concussions

Taking action to eliminate and control hazards that can lead to concussions will help avert needless suffering for workers, and protect your workplaces from related costs and liability. Employers across Canada have a duty under health and safety laws to take every reasonable precaution to protect workers from hazards, including hazards related to concussion.

Best practices

Follow these best practices for preventing and managing concussions.

1. Eliminate or control slip, trip and fall hazards. Include policies and protocols in your company’s health and safety program. Measures include having dedicated places to store inventory and empty pallets rather than using walkways or aisleways, and developing and enforcing good housekeeping practices for regularly removing clutter, spills, ice and snow from walkways and loading docks.

2. Address hazards related to falls from heights and falling objects. Train employees on ladder safety; ensure loads are secure and pallets are supported evenly across both beams to ensure load stability.

3. Ensure employees wear appropriate footwear. Non-slip footwear with an appropriate tread can help minimize the risk of slips and falls on slippery surfaces when used in conjunction with good housekeeping.

4. Encourage workers to report unsafe conditions to the nearest supervisor.

5. Provide concussion awareness education to supervisors and workers. Include causes, effects and prevention.

6. Act quickly if an employee sustains an impact to the head. It’s important to seek professional treatment right away. A qualified health provider with specialized training in concussion management and a gradual return to work can help the worker resume work safely and avoid prolonged symptoms and absences.

7. Develop a return-to-work protocol specific for concussions. Communicate the protocol to the workforce.

8. Train supervisors on the return to work protocol. Supervisors carry the bulk of the responsibility when it comes to integrating disabled workers back into the workforce. They need a clear understanding of accommodation requirements and their duties.

Norm Kramer is a Canadian Registered Safety Professional with over 25 years of experience. Norm provides health and safety consulting services for Workplace Safety & Prevention Services (WSPS) as a Warehouse Specialist in the GTA region. Toni Volpato is a Canadian Registered Safety Professional with over 25 years of experience. Toni provides consulting services as a specialized consultant in occupational hygiene for WSPS.