Inadequate, poorly designed stairs and railing in the home are the root cause of thousands of significant fall accidents across America. According to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, each year falls result in 3 million emergency room visits, with one in five falls resulting in a broken bone or head injury, costing Americans over $50 billion per year.
While new homes constructed in Florida must follow building codes for stairs and railing, these codes are minimal and in certain cases not adequate to account for children and seniors. As a rule, there must be a better push to bring older homes into code compliance because many of them lack the basic railing for health and safety.
Florida Building Code mandates that railing be used on any porch, ramp, and raised floor that is 30 inches, or more, above the floor or ground below and that the railing be a minimal of 36 inches in height. This sounds reasonable if you are a young, vibrant 20-something who can withstand a fall from a porch that is two and a half feet off the ground.
However, what about your 80-year-old grandmother or two-year-old niece? Could seniors or young children survive a fall onto the ground from 30 inches without injury or death? Porches that are just six inches off the ground can cause a hard fall, which can easily result in an emergency room visit.
Although builders are slow to add any home feature without being required to do so by code, for those with the elderly or young children in their family, porch railings should be installed in elevated areas.
Children and animals are little magicians who can get themselves caught in a tight spot with no way out. The maximum clearance between rails is only four inches and there are homes on the market today wherein the rails are six inches, or farther, apart. This is a huge hazard. This is how a head can get stuck and neck broken while parents are not watching. If you are looking at an older home, ensure the railing splits are no more than four inches apart.
The rise of stairs is basically the height of the step. Back in the day, builders who were poor planners would be left with stairway areas in which the rise was unreasonably high because they did not have enough room on the slope. Have you ever walked up or down a set of stairs and it was a struggle?
Going up makes you breathless and going down makes you feel like you are falling on each step. Normally, when you notice the actual up and down of stairs, it is a safe bet these stairs are not compliant when it comes to the rise. A stair rise should be 7 to 7.5 inches at the most and the stair treads should be at least 10.5 inches wide. Anything smaller is normally a trip hazard.
Another mistake made in many homes is the lack of a top or bottom landing area for the stairs. Stairs that immediately go to a top door or area at the bottom without a landing are huge fall hazards. Just imagine opening a door and your first step is a set of stairs. Without watching, the next step could be a doozy and a potential trip to the hospital.
The landing should be a minimal of 36 inches, and larger, if the door at the top of the stairs is a 36-inch door that opens outward. You should design the system to allow people to adjust their footing when they go up or down a stairway, and that is what landings allow.
Finally, I do not like rounded stairs and steps because they are falls waiting to happen. Yes, many designers love the look. In some cases, spiral staircases are used because of limited areas for landings. However, the problem with spiral and curved staircases is that the treads are typically not the same width from side to side.
Instinctively, the mind thinks stair treads are the same width all the way across and when they are not, people tumble and fall. Do not sacrifice stair safety for a look — many seniors have died from a head injury because of a fall from a curved stair tread.
Many falls can be prevented with proper design and project planning. Check the stairs and railing before building, remodeling, or buying.
Don Magruder is the CEO of RoMac Building Supply and host of Around the House, which can be seen at AroundtheHouse.TV.