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September 2014

Best Practices

Mercantile Safety
By David A. Dodge

Mercantile safety is the safety of the millions of people who are invited daily to shop at the nation's grocery and retail stores. Most discussions in PS and other safety publications have to do with workplace and industrial safety, and justifiably so: those incidents can be catastrophic and involve many workers. However, the safety of a store's guests is no less important, and the injuries suffered from a slip-and-fall event in a parking lot or on a showroom floor can be debilitating both to the injured person and his/her family. Further, establishments that invite the general public to their stores may address the safety of their guests using the same logical, documented safety programming techniques that are used in workplace safety. Those include loss control policy documentation and employee training to those policies.

National Center for Injury Prevention and Control reports that more than 9 million Americans were injured by unintentional falls in 2011. U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission estimates that 2 million of those took place in residential environments, and Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that 1 million fall injuries occurred in private industry, and state and local government workplaces. That leaves about 6 million injuries during 2011 resulting from falls in environments outside of residences or the workplace. That number alone warrants that safety professionals work with mercantile establishments to institute loss control programming to address these foreseeable injuries.

The major hazard to which a store customer is exposed is a fall created by a trip over a misplaced display item, a slip on a pedestrian walkway surface, an improperly secured display item that may fall on an unsuspecting shopper or an improperly maintained exterior walkway surface. Therefore, the safety procedures should focus on those areas.

Policies, Procedures & Guidelines

As with any safety program, the first step in establishing safety policies to address safety of store guests is to devise documented safety policies and guidelines that can serve as reference standards and training guidelines for managers and loss control personnel in mercantile establishments. The mercantile industry has not received much attention from voluntary standards-making organizations. National building codes and NFPA's Life Safety Code are helpful in addressing the basics of stairway construction and other differences in elevation details; however, little guidance covers the day-to-day operation of a mercantile establishment as to spill cleanup, snow and ice removal, safe floor coverings, product display in aisles and the various other store activities that affect guest safety. Therefore, each chain and individual store is left to establish its own safety policies and guidelines. This article helps establish the basis of those documented guidelines.

The Parking Lot

Let's start at the beginning of the customer's experience—the parking lot. Most mercantile customers arrive by automobile and park in the provided parking lot, then exit their cars and walk to the store entrance. Thus, the parking lot becomes a pedestrian walkway and deserves no less scrutiny than the pedestrian walkways within the store.
As one walks through a parking lot, s/he is confronted with all sorts of distractions, such as moving vehicles, and shoppers with shopping carts, children and cell phones. Invited guests may be doing several things while they walk to the front door, so it behooves the store to remove all obstructions to safe pedestrian travel. Store management would not allow an unprotected pothole or a 6-in.-high concrete bumper on the floor inside the store. Therefore, the same obstruction should not be tolerated in the pedestrian walkway that also serves as a parking lot.

Parking lots should be designed so that obstructions such as wheel stops and speed bumps are not provided in foreseeable walkways, keeping in mind that most areas within a parking lot will, at some time, be used by pedestrians. ASTM F1637, Standard Practice for Safe Walking Surfaces, provides good guidance in this area.

Many newer complexes have eliminated the traditional sidewalk curb just before the entrance doors because that single step often goes unnoticed and, therefore, may cause a trip-and-fall event. If a sidewalk curb is present, it should be highlighted to call it to the attention of those entering or exiting the store. Any obstruction to safe pedestrian travel, such as wheel stops, curbs or speed bumps, must be highlighted. However, it must be understood that this is merely coloring a hazard; the defect remains even though it may be yellow. As with any safety hazard, it is best to eliminate it. Viable alternatives to wheel stops and curbs are bollards—high-visibility posts approximately 8 in. in diameter and 3 to 4 ft tall that serve to guide pedestrian traffic and discourage vehicular traffic.

Documented safety guidelines should require daily inspection of exterior pedestrian walkways, specifically to inspect for hazards to pedestrian travel. But guidelines must be specific. It will not serve well to tell employees to go to the parking lot or sidewalk and look for hazards. Many employees will be inexperienced. Their perception of a tripping hazard may be different than that of any variety of shoppers.

Inspection guidelines must detail, using existing building and safety standards referenced here as guides, that differences in elevation of more than ?-in. in a pedestrian walkway can trip people and must be addressed. The policies must consider that potholes and crumbling pavement found during inspection cannot, given the real world, be addressed immediately and require that hazards found during an inspection be cordoned off to prohibit pedestrian travel in the unsafe area. Orange or yellow cones are not enough in that they do not prohibit activity in the area. If the safety hazard is discovered when the parking lot or sidewalk is available for use, an employee must be stationed at the hazard to warn people away from it until it is either repaired or cordoned off.

Parking lot lighting is important to pedestrian safety and the inspection guidelines must lead the inspector to look for inoperable lights and report them. Again, it is important to understand that many employees who will inspect for safety hazards will not be experienced risk assessors; therefore, the inspection guidelines and forms must lead them to look for known pedestrian hazards, such as burned out light bulbs, cracked pavement, potholes, fading highlight paint, and differences in elevation of ?-in. or more.
Care must be taken as well to ensure that any painted surfaces on parking lots or sidewalks are painted with slip-resistant paint. Paint fills in the tiny crevices that make pavement and concrete slip resistant and, therefore, reduces the effective safeguard. The paint applied must restore the slip-resistant quality of the walking surface.

Example Ice & Snow Removal Policy

  • Weather forecasts will be observed and appropriate measures taken to be adequately prepared to keep driveways and pedestrian walkways clear of ice and snow accumulation.
  • An inspection will be made each morning at 5:30 a.m. by a maintenance department designee to determine what action is necessary to make driveways and pedestrian walkways safe for travel. Appropriate action will be taken before 7:00 a.m.
  • Accumulations of ice on walkways will be chipped off to bare walkway surfaces and sand and/or salt applied.
  • Salt will only be used when temperatures are expected to reach 28 °F during the upcoming 12 hours.
  • Snow will be removed by shoveling or plowing, and will not be allowed to accumulate greater than 1-in. Ice will not be allowed to accumulate on driveways or walkways.
  • Accumulated standing water on driveways, parking areas and walkways will be removed before freezing can take place.
  • Ice that does accumulate on walkways will be covered by at least ?-in. of sand and/or salt.
  • During ice and/or snow accumulation, a designee from the maintenance department will conduct an inspection of all driveways, parking lots and walkways at least every hour and more frequently if accumulations warrant.
  • Areas under building eaves or similar places where water may drip and accumulate on walkways will be provided with devices to prevent such dripping.
  • During periods of no ice and/or snow accumulations, a designee from the maintenance department will inspect all driveways, parking lots and walkways every 8 hours. Such inspection will be made to find accumulations of ice and snow and take appropriate action to remove the accumulation. Special attention will be paid to exterior walkways, stairways and parking areas where employees and invited guests may walk.

Inside the Store

Once invited guests are safely through the parking lot, they arrive at the main entry, which is likely an arrangement of automatic doors. They worked fine when they were installed and probably still do; however, the daily inspection guidelines should lead the inspector to make sure that they do.

Once through the entrance doors, the customer will walk on a floor that was probably designed to be slip resistant when dry; however, moisture from rain and snow will be tracked into the interior entranceway and if the interior floor is impermeable to water, it will become slippery when wet and, thus, create a safety hazard.

If the entryway floor surface is not slip resistant when wet (an entirely foreseeable occurrence), the documented safety guidelines must address the hazard. Often, the remedial measure entails the strategic placement of portable water-absorbing mats, so the guidelines must address where they are to be placed and how often they must be changed. Individual store experience provides the best guidance here; however, portable mats tend to curl upward on their edges, creating a tripping hazard. Therefore, the safety guidelines must provide assurance that the mats are secure and that the edges are flat and remain so. Furthermore, the mats should extend to cover all areas onto which water may be tracked.

Remember, too, that there is no prohibition as to the type of footwear that customers will wear; they will and do wear all designs of foot support and tread pattern (or lack thereof). The floors must be slip resistant under all foreseeable conditions and footwear, as stated in the Life Safety Code.

Once the customer has traveled safely from his/her vehicle to the store interior, several predictable safety hazards may still present themselves. The written safety guidelines and inspection procedures must address these areas to ensure that they are designed to be safe and remain that way.

In certain store areas, it is entirely foreseeable that liquids will be spilled on the floor. One such area is a self-serve sales area for flowers. Often, flowers are stored in water and the customer must take them out of the water and put them in a container or sleeve. Water will drip to the floor during the transfer, making hard floors slippery. The same hazard may be created at self-service salad bars, self-service produce areas (particularly grapes) and self-service ice bag dispensers.

Again, if the floor is not properly prepared to be slip resistant when wet, a safeguard must be provided (e.g., portable water-absorbing mats). Each of these areas must be addressed in design and inspection guidelines by the provision of a slip-resistant floor and an ongoing inspection program to ensure that it stays that way.

One may think that these problems take place only in grocery stores; however, modern design blends grocery and general merchandise sales so that the grocery store hazards, such as wet bags of ice or dripping flowers, may be taken by shopping cart into the general merchandise department.

Stores that combine grocery and general merchandise sales under one roof may also incorporate coffee and food shops within the store. These sales encourage customers to carry and consume drinks and food into the mercantile store. Spills are inevitable and often occur without the customer's notice, so they are frequently not reported. No inspection policy, no matter how frequent the inspection, can remedy all such spills and their hazards before an incident occurs. Given the inevitability and foreseeability of the safety hazards presented by customer food-and-drink consumption while walking around the store, store design should incorporate flooring materials that are slip resistant when wet. Such floor materials and coverings that can be effectively cleaned are commercially available.

Once found either by inspection or as a result of an incident, preparation for cleaning up a spill of liquid or other slippery material is as important as the cleanup itself. The documented safety guidelines must address this as a step-by-step procedure to be followed in an orderly manner.

Leaving a slippery hazard unattended and not remedied is unacceptable, whether the store is open or not. When the store is closed, employees may be subjected to an unprotected hazard. The safety guidelines must direct the first employee on the site of a slippery condition to remain with the hazard to warn customers of its existence. S/he must not leave until the hazard area is cordoned off so as to prevent pedestrian travel or the area is completely cleaned and made slip resistant again.

Safeguarding methods should not include caution cones unless they are combined with a barricade material that prevents travel in the area, or a person stationed at the hazard to direct people around it. A caution cone is merely an admission that there is a hazard that was not properly addressed. Most liquid spills on floors are difficult to see and if a cone or cones are placed nearby, the customer is left to wonder what the hazard is, how far away from the cone to walk and how to walk with caution on a slippery surface.
Spill cleanup must rid the entire area of the material that makes the floor unsafe. Water makes hard, smooth floors slippery, so if water is used in the cleanup, the floor must not be opened for pedestrian travel until it is completely dry. Safety policy should require that a spill area be inspected and approved by a manager before pedestrian travel is restored.

Merchandise Displays

Not many stores have back rooms where overstocked items are stored; rather, all merchandise is displayed in the customer shopping area, which may incorporate high shelving and high displays. If not properly stacked, either on shelves or on the floor, the displays may become unstable. It is predictable, indeed intended, that customers will interact with these displays, and if items are not well secured or stacked, an object may fall and strike a customer. It is impossible, of course, to write a safety policy that addresses all sizes, shapes and configurations of items to be displayed in a store, but it is possible to provide a policy and guideline that informs workers of potential hazards to beware of and the basic principles of securing merchandise stacks and shelves.

First, store management must understand that once products are displayed on the customer floor, they are available for the customer to handle, remove them from the stack and, if unwanted, replace them on the stack, perhaps not as originally intended.

A person 6-ft tall can reach about 8-ft high; while doing so, s/he puts him/herself in an unstable, vulnerable position. Therefore, display items up to about 8-ft off the floor must be of a weight and configuration that can be easily handled by the anticipated customer.

Anything weighing more than 5 lb should be placed so that customers lift items from waist height or below. Display shelves that customers cannot reach must be designed so that the stored materials are secured in place. Even when the shelving is struck or the materials are pushed from the back side, the materials should not become dislodged and fall. Once a shelf or floor display is completed it should be tested for stability by interacting with it as a customer might (e.g., pushing, pulling, striking). If it becomes unstable, restack it.

Displays on the floor and within customer aisles must not reduce the aisle width below that required by building and fire safety codes. Again, if the display is within reach of a customer, it must contain only items of size and weight that can be handled safely by the anticipated customer. Floor displays shorter than 24-in. high should not be allowed. At a height less than 24-in. customers often look over and beyond the display, and can trip over it.

Empty pallets should never be left on the floor area to which a customer has access. They trip people if laid flat, and if stacked unsecured on edge, they can fall over. Items stored on their shorter side, such as ladders and tall, narrow items, present a similar hazard. Store these items on their longest side, if possible; if that is not possible, secure these items so that they cannot fall over and such that customers require employee assistance to unsecure them. Otherwise, the untrained customer may not restack the item as intended.

The written safety guidelines should provide for regular inspections dedicated to hazard detection in customer areas of the store. The frequency of such inspections is best determined by individual store experience, but must provide for inspection at least before the store opens and, if open 24 hours a day, at a time before the greatest customer activity. Inspections must be performed by an employee with authority to demand remedial action and be performed to ensure compliance with documented safety guidelines. The inspection documentation format must direct the inspector to areas of foreseeable hazards.

Wintertime Maintenance

A documented wintertime maintenance policy is critically important in regions where ice and snow may accumulate, no matter how infrequently, on exterior pedestrian walkways. As stated, the parking lot is a pedestrian walkway and, therefore, must be made safe for its intended purpose under all weather conditions.

To this end, safety guidelines must provide a policy by which personnel use local weather forecasts to predict wintertime weather conditions, perform timely inspections of exterior walkways and take remedial measures to safeguard hazards that are found. The safety hazards that the inspector is looking for are slippery conditions that could cause incidents; a documented snow and ice removal policy will inform all personnel about when inspections should be made and what remedial measures should be taken.
The sidebar provides an example of a policy that requires forecasting, timely inspection and safeguarding measures. As with any other pedestrian hazard found during inspection, if a hazard is not immediately corrected it should be cordoned off to prohibit pedestrian access until the hazard is eliminated. Without a specific documented wintertime safety policy, weather forecasting and inspection will be performed only at the whim of whomever is on duty, and that individual may be inexperienced and untrained. Customer safety cannot be left to whim; it must be addressed by sound management safety policy that prescribes specific duties, times and responsibilities.
Most mercantile establishments will have a contract with a snow removal company. Make sure the contract details specifically which entity—the snow remover or the store management—is responsible for the individual duties of wintertime maintenance. Many such contracts require the contractor to plow at a certain level of snow accumulation, then perform other duties, such as salting/sanding, only on an as-call basis. Store management must understand that the contractor will not forecast or inspect to determine when safeguarding measures will be taken; store management must do that.

A gap often exists between the duties of a snow removal contractor and those of store management with regard to addressing hazards after rain or melting snow make pedestrian walkways wet, then falling temperatures make surfaces icy and hazardous. Unless the service contract requires weather forecasting and inspection by the contractor, the contractor will not respond to such an event. A well-written store wintertime snow and ice removal policy will ensure that store personnel anticipate and safeguard the hazard.


Millions of people, including you and me, shop at mercantile establishments daily. Each time we do, we may be subjected to potential safety hazards that could cause significant bodily injury. Just as workplace safety hazards can be addressed using sound managerial policies, such as documented safety guidelines addressing safety hazards, specific remedial measures, inspection and training parameters, safety hazards presented to customers by mercantile establishments may be addressed by similar managerial policies.

Most of these hazards are predictable; therefore, safety guidelines may be developed to address most causes of customer incidents. However, without specific documented procedures and guidelines to tell those involved what is expected of them, store safety will only be as effective as the breadth of knowledge of the last inspector, who may be untrained or new to the job.

Without industry-wide safety standardization, each mercantile establishment or chain must develop and contribute to the standard of care in the industry. Our customers are our greatest assets. Let's keep them safe.


National Center for Injury Prevention & Control. (2011). 10 leading causes of nonfatal unintentional injury, U.S., 2011. Washington, DC: CDC, author.
Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC). (2011). NEISS data highlights, 2011. Bethesda, MD: Author.
International Code Council Inc. (2012). International building code. Washington, DC: Author.
NFPA. (2012). Life safety code (NFPA-101). Quincy, MA: Author.
ASTM. (2010). Standard practice for safe walking surfaces (ASTM F1637). West Conshohocken, PA: Author.

David A. Dodge, P.E., CSP, is a safety and forensic consultant performing incident analysis in safety, worker/machinery incidents, products liability and boiler pressure failure and design. He holds a B.S. in Marine Engineering from Marine Maritime Academy, and has taught product safety courses at the University of Southern Maine. Dodge has published articles in Professional Safety, is the author of Safety Manual for Municipalities, and wrote the chapter on permitted work systems in ASSE's The Safety Professionals Handbook. He is a professional member of ASSE's Maine Chapter and serves on ASSE's Editorial Review Board.


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