Evolution of safety floors

Christopher Capobianco

Although it’s not an “official” category of its own, for over 30 years, there has been a resilient flooring product commonly called “Safety Flooring.”

This material was developed in Europe as a resilient flooring option for wet slip resistance that is an alternative to quarry tile or poured epoxy. By incorporating an abrasive aggregate such as carborundum into a sheet vinyl floor, the material can improve traction, especially on wet floors. Because it can be easily coved up walls and has heat welded seams, it can take a lot of water on the floor end and even be hosed down like those other materials.

“Sustainable Wet Slip Resistance” is a term often used to identify products where the “safety” characteristics won’t wear off before the floor wears out. I’ve seen several “slip resistant” Vinyl Composition Tile floors where the surface layer containing the abrasives wore smooth after just a few years. This is not what you’d call “Sustainable.” Many Safety Flooring products come from Europe, where standards for slip resistant floors are much more stringent than here in North America. The testing is also more stringent; it’s not just a test of the floor when it’s new. One such test is done by grinding down floor samples for over 50,000 cycles to simulate heavy wear. By testing again at this point, this assures that the floor will retain slip resistance as it wears and demonstrates the durability and depth of particles in the product.

Recent-generation safety floor products are both easier to install and more attractive.

As far as testing, there is not a consistent method worldwide so that’s lead to a lot of confusion. In North America, the method used for years tests Static Coefficient of Friction (SCOF). So, if you were standing still, the test would replicate the force required to move your foot across the floor. It really doesn’t have anything to do with people walking and slipping, and it’s a test that can only be done in a lab. Other tests have been developed around the world to measure Dynamic Coefficient of Friction (DCOF), which measure an object in motion, more like a foot slipping on the floor. The two most popular are the British Pendulum test and digital “drag-sled meters,” both of which can be used in a lab or on an actual floor in use. DCOF testing is becoming more prevalent here, so you’ll see that term more often these days.

Those original safety floors got off to a slow start because there were very few colours and because of the rough surface that wasn’t easy to clean. However, the material was a good solution for wet areas like commercial kitchens, buses and other wet areas plus ramps and inclined floor surfaces where traction is important. The first generation of these products was thick and not real flexible, so installers had to use a lot of “old school” techniques for installing sheet goods such as pattern scribing to fit material. The aggregate particles also make the flooring tougher to cut, so installers go through a lot of knife blades! A version of these products are still sold for heavy duty applications in kitchens, but the category has evolved and become more widely accepted for general use.

The next generation of Safety Flooring incorporated UV-cured polyurethane reinforcement that made it easier to clean, and thinner options were introduced that were a bit easier to install. These floors started to move into “front of the house” areas, but the “black specks and glitter” still limited it’s use from a design point of view. While this material became more widely used in Europe, it was slow to grow for interior use here in North America, although the transportation industry uses a lot of it.

Safety floors are generally installed with the same techniques as homogeneous sheet vinyl that’s used in sterile areas like hospital operating rooms; heat welded seams and flash cove walls. However, for areas where safety floors are used in wet environments, advancements that improved the quality of the finished flooring made it necessary for installers to learn techniques like installing clamps when fitting material around drains, dealing with transitions to wall materials and caulking to seal the material against pipes and other intrusions. Accessories like gully angles were developed that allowed the material to be installed around drains or up against adjacent floors like tile for a watertight seal. This involves making a saw cut in the concrete, setting the gully edge into the floor with a waterproof adhesive and then heat welding the safety flooring to the gully edge. It’s a really clever invention, and a very specialized installation technique for resilient flooring.

The next generation of safety flooring was more desirable from a design point of view, bringing it into more common commercial spaces like health care. By imbedding slip resistant particles like aluminum oxide that are almost invisible to the naked eye, safety floors were developed with a clear wear layer over printed visuals such as wood looks. The floors have a more decorative appearance while maintaining the sustained slip resistance for underfoot safety. Manufacturers also developed products with special surface textures that can be used in barefoot areas like showers and around pools.

Most recently, the safety floor market has taken a step even further with the inclusion of coloured quartz particles that are closely matched to the base colour. These floors have the look of a smooth vinyl, with wide ranges of colours that are highly decorative but easy to clean and still very slip resistant when wet. The traditional looking safety floor with carborundum is still available and widely used. I think that sometimes their visible appearance calls attention to the floor in wet areas and may provide an added level of reassurance to the public. However, with the newer technology and more decorative visuals, the old objection to their appearance is eliminated, so safety floors can be used in virtually any commercial or residential space and with the same performance. With so much emphasis on slip and fall protection in facilities such as health care facilities, schools and retail stores, the new products allow for great looking, cleanable floors that still are not as slippery as standard resilient floors when wet.

For installers, working with these materials in is often not too different than other heat welded/flash coved resilient flooring, except when it comes to wet areas where drains are present. That requires some specialized training, which is available from some of the manufacturers. For flooring contractors that are doing work in markets such as hospitality that safety flooring could be used in, I’d recommend investing in this training for your experienced installers. We’ve covered other “specialty” flooring products like cork and linoleum here in my column, and I’d add “safety flooring” to the list. Although these “niche” products may not be an everyday item, they still have a place in the commercial market today. Flooring contractors and installers that can specialize in these materials will have more opportunities for work at higher profit margins.

Christopher Capobianco has been in the floor covering industry since the 1970s in various roles including retail and commercial sales, technical support, consulting, journalism, education and volunteer work. He currently is part of the sales team for Spartan Surfaces in New York City. You can reach him via [email protected].
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