What I Learned About Industrial Flooring

According to the National Floor Safety Institute, “slips and falls . . . represent the primary cause of lost days from work.” And the Bureau of Labor Statistics notes that in 2019[1], there were 6,640 workplace injuries from falls due to tripping on uneven surfaces. The quality of what’s under workers’ feet has a direct impact on safety. With that in mind, here’s what I learned about undertaking a flooring project with my previous employer during holiday downtime.

By way of background, the firm I previously worked for makes metal tubing across three building on an industrial campus in the U.S. Midwest. In one building, workers oversee machinery that rolls and welds tubing and then transport the tubing to a second, 7,000-square-foot building for machine-powered electropolishing. While touring the facility with our general manager, we examined the floor, which last received a trowel floor coating more than a decade earlier. Electropolishing includes chemicals to smooth miniscule peaks and valleys along a tube’s surface. When small amounts of chemicals drop to the floor, the errant droplets eat away at concrete aggregate causing pockmarks that look unsightly and pose a safety issue for workers traversing the surface.

The GM asked me to figure out a solution for fixing the floor. I solicited bids and learned the ins and outs about resurfacing an industrial floor. For example, some of the vendors I spoke with recommended we remove our equipment from the facility to get the best coating and proper mil thickness, a “mil” is one thousandth of an inch. This was something we were already considering because we wanted to clean and refurbish our machines. Alternatively, if we left our equipment in place, a vendor would have to work around the machines, which can cause an uneven mil thickness and lead to trouble spots erupting weeks, months or years later.

Time, however, was at a premium. My team and I had to convince our managers that we could resurface the floor between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Shutting down one of our facilities for a month made some people cringe, especially since tubing was among our most profitable products. Every day of production lost would cost tens of thousands of dollars. To allay concerns, we decided to stockpile our tubing in advance of the planned downtime. We looked at our production levels and worked for 45 days in advance to build stock to a point that managers were comfortable with shutting down between the holidays.

After soliciting proposals, we selected a vendor to handle the flooring project. The flooring process was new to us, but like any project we asked each vendor how they would meet our timeline, select a coating, resolve any problems, and ensure a safe working environment. The quality of our chosen vendor’s answers as well as the work they had done convinced us. Another vendor we considered didn’t have much, if any, experience with our type of facility. A third vendor’s plan included adding aggregate to our flooring. The vendor we selected explained how that technique was less important than picking a coating that would stand up to our chemicals; they simply had a more comprehensive plan as to how they were going to get our project done. I believe we saved money by thoroughly planning out the flooring work. For example, our vendor:

Explained how stopping production to move equipment and entirely rework a floor can ultimately cost less. Resurfacing the floor at one time, evenly, would prevent the cost of slips or falls due to new trouble spots or pockmarks erupting. Selecting the right product and applying it correctly at the recommended thickness would make the floor durable, which would eliminate calling another vendor back the next year or in subsequent years to touch up trouble spots or completely resurfacing the floor again for six figures.
Asked us to share the composition of the chemicals that occasionally hit our floor, so they could get the right product specification for our flooring situation.
Illustrated how coating techniques matter. For example, even with the right product, you can’t simply coat over, say, an expansion joint. To get a lasting finish, a worker has to fill, coat, re-cut and add a flexible urethane to the joint. Anything less than that kind of approach would cause our floor to fail from that point.
Highlighted the preparation needed to coat a floor. Making sure a product binds to a surface usually takes some sort of grinding or blasting, which creates dust. We asked them to mitigate the dust. Their response was to bring in ventilation equipment with double HEPA filters for reducing or containing dust.

Our vendor had answers to many of our questions. But we looked for a cultural fit, too, especially regarding safety. The flooring work required the use of a number of industrial vehicles, so we examined the status of our vendor’s certifications and training, which were in good order. We reviewed their safety policies including their and our PPE requirements to align everyone’s expectations and work.

Before removing our machines, we set a schedule to clean and refurbish our equipment. To reinstall the machines and recover production before the new year began, we asked the flooring vendor to document each step and day of their plan. After reviewing and editing the plan, we signed off and began removing our equipment the week of Thanksgiving. We asked the flooring vendor to arrive the Monday after Thanksgiving to complete their portion in five days, so we could reinstall our equipment and be operational before the new year. By Saturday, they had finished the flooring. We reinstalled our equipment and had operations ready by Jan. 1.

Our commitment to communicating with the vendor was critical. For instance, we met each morning with the vendor’s project manager to discuss the prior day’s work, review progress and highlight expectations for the day ahead. That kept the job on track, and, had there been an issue, we could’ve solved it quickly. Our meetings also allowed us to see the morning safety tailboards the vendor held with its workers, who, by the way, were employees and not subcontractors.

Picking the right flooring specification matters, too. A good vendor, daily communication and proper safety won’t help if the coating doesn’t match the conditions. We had to have a coating that could stand up to chemical drips or splatter. A safety manager doesn’t have to become a flooring expert to tackle a project like this. But the specifications shouldn’t be left entirely to the vendor, either. Instead, get help from an unbiased third party like the National Floor Safety Institute. NFSI can recommend NFSI WACH graduates who can evaluate your facility and suggest a specification for the conditions. To achieve success, invest in expertise and materials that, while they may not be the least costly, will keep your floor safely coated for years to come.

[1] U.S. BLS “Number of nonfatal occupational injuries and illnesses involving days away from work by event or exposure leading to injury or illness and selected natures of injury or illness, private industry, 2019.”

Dan Sundby is a regional EHS manager for a North American manufacturing firm; he has more than a decade of experience in the manufacturing industry, beginning his career as an EHS specialist with a multinational maker of heavy equipment. He earned his bachelor’s degree in occupational safety and health from the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater and resides in Janesville, Wisc. Readers can reach him at sundbydd07@gmail.com.

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