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Stairways in Homes

Stairways, due to their inherent dangers, as well as unsafe patterns of use by homeowners, are the sites of a surprising number of injuries. A careful assessment of the risks posed by stairways can prevent unnecessary injuries.

Facts and Figures

  • 1,638 people died from falls on steps and stairs in the United States in 2004. This figure is greater than the combined number of swimming pool and bathtub drownings for the same year, according to the National Safety Council. The actual number of stairway accidents is probably much higher, as many people who sustain injuries don’t know why they fell, and others are too embarrassed to admit they fell, so these incidents go unreported.

  • Elderly occupants are at particular risk of falling down stairs, mostly due to impaired vision, reduced strength, and poor balance. For individuals age 65 and older, 260,000 are injured every year in falls on steps, stairs and escalators, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

  • Handicapped and young children are also at increased risk of sustaining stairway injuries.

  • In a study by Loughborough University in England, one-third of surveyed households admitted to leaving objects on stairs, presenting a serious trip hazard.

  • In addition to potential physical injury, falls can cause serious psychological and social consequences, affecting confidence, mobility, and general well-being, according to the same study.

While residents might already be aware of stair abnormalities, their guests may not be prepared for irregular steps or inadequate headroom height, for instance. Prospective buyers, too, are safer hearing about such irregularities from you than learning through experience after they purchase the home. The following is a partial list of defects you may find in stairways:

  • Handrail is loose, incomplete, missing, splintery, not of a contrasting color with its background, or has insufficient finger clearance. As deck stairways may be open on both sides, missing handrails there put occupants at serious risk.

  • Treads are cracked, uneven, worn, loose or poorly supported.

  • Risers are of uneven height.

  • Lighting is poor, shadows are numerous, or the corridor leading to the stairs is dark. It’s helpful to have a light switch installed at the top and bottom of each staircase.

  • Floor is waxed, increasing chances of slipping.

  • Exterior steps are not sloped to prevent water settlement and icing.

  • Stair carpeting slides or is not firmly affixed to stairs. Double-sided tape or tacks may be used to prevent slipping.

  • Balusters are spaced more than 4 inches apart, allowing a child to potentially slip through and get trapped.

  • Stairs are not ergonomically designed.

  • Stairs are too steep.

  • Platform or landing surface is not slip-resistant, and/or has a sharp object, blunt wall, or window located in the direction of a possible fall.

  • Nosing is missing, broken, worn, patched, loose, slippery, or not installed properly.

  • Sharp corners are on stair elements.

  • Headroom is insufficient.

  • There is no safety gate at the top of stairs in a home with small children.

Note that some design defects would be difficult or cost-prohibitive to remedy, so this would require rebuilding of the stairs.

Other tips that inspectors can pass on to their clients to reduce the chance of stairway falls include:

  • Start a regular exercise program, if you haven’t already. Inactivity leads to weakness, inflexibility, and an increased risk of falling.

  • Remove trip hazards, such as clothes, shoes, toys and/or books from stairs and other places where you walk.

  • Improve the lighting around the stairs. As you age, you’ll need brighter lights to see well. Lampshades or frosted bulbs will reduce glare.

  • Senior citizens should wear shoes that provide good support and have thin, non-slip soles. Avoid lightweight slippers or shoes with deep treads, as they can reduce your feeling of control.

  • Do not carry heavy items up and down stairs, especially if the item blocks your view of the steps. Also, always hold the handrails.

  • Install a second handrail for additional support. A second handrail will also provide support for two individuals as they pass each other.

In summary, stairways can pose a serious safety risk for building occupants, but these risks can be minimized by adequate stair construction and safe practices.


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