06/21/2013 04:20 pm ET Updated Aug 21, 2013

Floored! Safety Tips From Falls Aren't Funny Author Russ Kendzior

When Charlie Chaplin fell down on the silver screen, we laughed.

When our aged mothers-in-law fell down the stairs, we went to the emergency room.

Chaplin was a comic acrobat controlling his fall. The mothers-in-law... not so much.

That's why safety expert Russell Kendzior named his book Falls Aren't Funny. After researching falls for 20 years, the head of the National Floor Safety Institute (NFSI) points out that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers falls among older people to be a national epidemic --and he's trying to keep falls from spreading like a raging virus.

Falls are in every sense a big downer, as measured both in human suffering and medical costs. Given the size of the aging population, Kendzior predicts that without major intervention, "it's going to get worse."

That's because when people get older, their gait and vision change, making it harder to walk with confidence. They also develop conditions, such as diabetic neuropathy, that make it hard to really feel the floor. As a result, of the tens of thousands of falls that send people to the ER, just more than half happen on level flooring (not an elevation such as ladders or stairs). Falls sometimes happen because we didn't put up a simple grab bar or move something out of the way. So a fall due to bad flooring or a tripping hazard is partly a preventable problem.

In other words, falls aren't just bad luck or fate, though we'd sure like to see it that way. By changing our surroundings (my book's philosophy) to lower the odds of a fall, we can make our luck. Good luck.

To help, we're fortunate to have Kendzior on hand to share some supremely common-sensical tips on flooring (choosing, cleaning) as a way to prevent falls. You, gentle reader, can help prevent falls: Please educate your community by sharing this column and its follow-ups as widely as possible.

You can also help keep yourself from falling by strengthening your muscles and balance through a regular exercise program, by recognizing how wearing multi-focal lenses affects your ability to judge the depth of steps, and by wearing well-secured shoes with non-slip soles.

And now, let's hear from a true stand-up guy, Russell Kendzior.

Have you ever fallen?

We've all fallen. From the day we take our first steps, we all get some experience with falls. And we all know that fear of loss of control that comes with a fall.

What steps do you take to prevent falls?

It starts at home, where you might be able to "design the problem out" from the beginning through four basic steps.

First, one thing people don't relate to fall prevention is wider doorways. If you can enlarge the openings to about 36 inches wide, it helps you see any obstructions ahead.

Second, you have to put in the right types of floors. Start with appropriate flooring in wet areas like the kitchen and bathroom. Instead of using slippery surfaces like marble, look for high-traction flooring that has been tested by the manufacturer.

Third, improve lighting, especially for pedestrian pathways and in hallways, where a lot of people trip.

And fourth, put up grab bars and handrails everywhere they might be needed.

People don't often think about lighting as a big fall-prevention tool, but it is. What would you like to add about this?

It's good to have consistent, even lighting that doesn't cast shadows -- our peripheral vision isn't as good as our primary vision and with aging our eyes require more light to see. [Some age-related vision disorders, such as glaucoma, specifically limit your field of vision. - RA] Inside and outside the house, you want to light your stair wells better and use handrails.

What about stairs?

Stair walking is very different than walking on a level surface. It would help if the nosings on your stairs, which are the front edges of each tread, are in contrasting colors to the rest of the steps. That way you can see the edge as you go down. We all mis-step sometimes and seeing the edge can help keep us from falling.

Also, make sure your stair posts don't wobble, and check your handrails and tighten them. Make sure they are firmly mounted, the same as you would in the bathtub.

And speaking of tubs...

Grab bars need to be mounted vertically, between the bathtub and the floor outside, to help with that high-risk transfer when you have one foot in the tub and one on the floor. Having something to hold helps you to stabilize as you go in and out, from one surface to another--especially barefoot and wet. That's like the perfect storm of hazards!

Grab bars are cheap and they're easy to install but they're not in the building code. I think once you have it, you'll use it all the time and it'll start to feel normal.

Check back in about a week as Russ Kendzior talks about the nitty-gritty of no-slip flooring. If you're not going to change your flooring or build a new house, learn how to clean and care for what you already have to dramatically improve your safety. Guess's going to save you some mopping!