Stairway Risks and Injuries

Although your employees and customers likely use the stairs at your business every day, improper stairway design, inadequate visibility and lighting, debris on stair treads, and user behavior can lead to slips, trips, stumbles, and falls.

Here are some ways you can help protect employees and visitors from these types of injuries.

Stairway Design

Research shows that on normal ascent, stairway users visually scan and locate the first few steps and, if everything is normal, take a final scan to locate the final steps and top landing.[1] Stumbles and falls occur on stairs when a hazard exists but is not detected. Keep the following design elements in mind:

  • Ensure that riser heights and tread depths meet current standards and are uniform throughout the stairway.
    • Risers should be minimum 4 to maximum 7 inches high.
    • Treads should be at least 11 inches deep, exclusive of overhang.
  • Use slip-resistant tread surfaces and floor surfaces leading to the stairway.
  • Provide an intermediate landing on stairways with more than 12 steps.

Stair Rails and Handrails

Stair rails and handrails are different. Stair rails (or guards) protect individuals from falling from open sides of stairways and landings, while handrails provide leverage and help individuals keep their balance while using a stairway.

  • Install both handrails and stair rails for all open-sided stairways.
  • Install barrier protection under the stair rail to prevent pedestrians from falling under the stair rail. The barrier should extend from the top rail to the steps. A fixed barrier system is preferred and most protective.
  • Use highly visible handrails on both sides of the stairs that:
    • Allow for continuous holding
    • Extend horizontally beyond the bottom and top steps
    • Secure to a wall or landing surface
  • Install handrails 34-38 inches above stair nosings, ramp surfaces, and walking surfaces.
  • If the stairway is two or more lanes wide (60 inches maximum on new stairs), place an intermediate railing in the middle.

Visibility and Lighting

Poor visibility and inadequate lighting can cause a user to misread the stair edge, resulting in faulty foot placement and an accident.

  • Provide visually contrasting colors on tread nosings (step overhangs) or at the leading edges of treads without nosings.
  • Post signs at waist height to call attention to the stairway.
  • Make sure stairway lighting is within standards.
  • Consider tread lighting as an option, especially in low-light areas.

One-to-Three-Step Stairways

A significant number of falls occur on low stairways because people fail to perceive the modest elevation change or incur a misstep on descent. If possible, avoid these designs, especially one-step designs. Consider replacing the step with a ramp as an alternative. If one-to-three step stair designs are required, be sure to take appropriate safety measures:

  • Change the stairway approach path to require people to slow down and turn prior to ascending or descending (locate path about 5-10 feet before the stairway).
  • Install a handrail system.
  • Use contrasting colors to differentiate landings and treads. Also, use contrasting colors, lighting, or “safety yellow” paint to highlight the leading edge of each step.

Regular stairway maintenance can also minimize injuries. Keep stairways clear of objects and debris, and promptly repair damaged stairs, torn carpeting, and broken lights. Through proper stairway design and maintenance, you can better protect customers and employees and help reduce the frequency of accidents.

[1] Templer, John, The Staircase: Studies of Hazards, Falls, and Safer Design, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 1994.

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The illustrations, instructions, and principles in this material are general in scope and, to the best of our knowledge, current at the time of publication. No attempt has been made to interpret any referenced codes, standards, or regulations nor to identify all potential risks or requirements.