Staircase Safety

 Interesting facts that everyone should know about staircase construction prior to building.

"Education is when you read the fine print.
  Experience is what you get if you don't." --
Pete Seeger

    On average 4000 people per year have fatal accidents on staircases in this country (that's right- just the USA!) according to the Handbook to the 1997 Uniform Building Code ©. These are just the fatal accidents.  More than 1.4 million people are hospitalized annually in the US due to falls! An estimated 998,871 of those people fall on stairs!  With more than half (72-80%) of these nasty falls the victims were navigating their own staircase in their own home!  We all think of our homes as the safest place on the planet.   Almost all of the accidents can be traced to poor design features or shoddy construction,... meaning these accidents are almost entirely avoidable!  Oddly, the statistics show that a victim's age, gender, race,  health (mental and physical) or banana peels have little to do with it.  Everyone is equally at risk.  If my math is right, roughly every 2 minutes somebody is getting hurt on a staircase somewhere in the US... and statistically about every 2 hours that person is going out in a Pine box!

    That can't be right...somebody check my math.  In the time I spent with a calculator just now, someone got hurt falling down a stairway. Ignorance is not bliss in this matter.

 If it is possible to avoid an accident, is it really an accident?

Webster's definition of Accident: an undesirable or unfortunate happening that occurs unintentionally and usually results in harm, injury, damage, or loss; casualty; mishap.

There should be a law!  
 As a stair designer/builder- I have a huge responsibility to uphold that law and do a perfect job. If you find a builder that lacks my zeal for the codes and safer design, you don't want them building anything in your home.  His or her priorities are confused!

The Code

The entire state of Washington (along with most of the country) has adopted the 2006 IBC/IRC as it relates to all construction activities in this state.  More specifically,  the sections in the 2006 International Residential Code for One and Two Family Dwellings® pertaining to staircase construction (and finishes) is in part of the 3rd chapter:
 R311 MEANS OF EGRESS and R312 GUARDS.  A free (code text only) download by agreement with The International Code Council is available in *.pdf on this site's downloads page .
 A thorough design encompasses the entire code within the entire structure's envelope, but this segment is most pertinent to proper legal stair design and it's understanding is a good start to a safe staircase design. Please visit the website of the ICC for more information about codes, jurisdictional amendments, and all the great downloadable products and services available at their online store.

 If you are remodeling, you may be under the common misconception that your existing stair may be "grandfathered" into a prior code.  ANY time a means of egress is modified or altered, it is subject to the current laws and a permit is required by that same law.  Permits must be obtained and disclosure of that information is needed  if you sell that home in the future.  There are a few exceptions vaguely outlined in the code where a permit is not required by law, but you should always check with your local building department whenever in doubt, for a green light to move forward with or without a permit.  Different jurisdictions hold different interpretations and amendments to the law as it may pertain to that locale, and the call is free.  Not making the call could cost too much.

The Visual Interpretation guide to the '06IRC (in *.pdf = Adobe® portable document format) covers this segment of the 3rd Chapter of the code and is available for download at the Stairway Manufacturer's Association   (off-site link) as well as many of the manufacturer's sites they represent.  This is not the code text alone.  It is the SMA's interpretation of the code with photo illustrations for us non-lawyer types to comprehend. Because it is an interpretation, it has a few faults, but on the whole it's a good tool for your arsenal.  I believe the intent of the law is met.  I'd be happy to share with you my interpretations where I believe their guide falls a couple of treads short of a staircase.

All codes serve a higher purpose
Support your local building department by obtaining the permits required by law to do your project. The building department's plans examiner is highly trained to catch any errors/omissions prior to submitting the plan that an architect/designer may have missed. A good general contractor knows what he is doing, but is usually only trained in the school of hard knocks. Obtaining a GC's license in this state does not have any requisite competency testing.  Involving good subcontractors early in the planning stage to assist with your design in their specific field of expertise is another wise move.  Your building inspector is your last line of defense against illegal design features or shoddy construction (by others of course).  He/she may just save your life (and/or your wallet). This whole process is a great system of checks and balances.   If you miss a step in the process you could quite literally fall.  There are an army of people that can assist you if you involve them.  It's an incredible deal when compared to the cost of hospitalization, and the financial windfall for a fall victim's attorney.  CODES SAVE LIVES!

Adherence to the code alone
 does not imply that a staircase design is as safe as it can be.
 Avoiding the circumstances in the design that cause falls, as well as creating an environment that will minimize injury in the event of a fall are 2 critical aspects of stair design analysis.  A perfectly legal staircase design may still employ built-in safety hazards that could present an unacceptable risk to a homeowner.  Experience and common sense are still needed even after a design meets the law.  The staircase is the most dangerous place to be in your home.  It's safe design deserves the most careful analysis from both legal and practical performance.

To better understand the need for safe design and reasons for building codes as they apply to staircases the following research material is recommended reading:

"The Staircase Vol. I- History and Theories" by John Templer.

"The Staircase Vol. II- Studies of hazards, falls, and safer design" by John Templer.

John Templer is a former Regents' Professor of Architecture at the Georgia Institute of Technology.  He is also an expert on legal cases involving bodily injury caused by falls., unless you happen to sport this on your jammies  

Please allow me to offer some free advice:

Limit your risks!   I'm all for "do-it-yourself" projects, but make an investment into your long term physical and financial health by hiring a seasoned professional to draft a plan, obtain necessary permits, and build your staircase. My experience, education, and dedication in this field could save you from a nasty accident. 

Call me, if you get the machine I'm outstanding in my field.  I'll return the call ASAP.

-Chris Graham (mild mannered stair builder)


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