Canadian and American annual statistics show that stairway accidents result in numerous serious injuries and significant financial losses. A 2017 study1 in the US reported that over a million stair-related injuries are treated in emergency departments every year. Furthermore, falls from stairs can sometimes be fatal. You would be surprised to know that falls from stairs are the second most common cause of accidental death in the US after car accidents2. Stairway accidents also take a large financial toll on societies. The societal economic cost of stairway accidents includes medical costs, loss of productivity, and quality of life. The cost of stair-related injuries in the US was estimated to be $100 billion a year on average; in Canada, this figure was estimated to be $19.8 billion in 20043.
Seeking compensation for stair-related injuries requires that the liable party is correctly identified. In this article, we explain how the various aspects of stair construction could affect its safe use and we explore the responsibilities of each of the different parties connected to a stair slip-and-fall incident: the property owner, designer, homebuilder, and handrail installer. Depending on the circumstance, one of these parties may be liable for the stairway accident. Human factors are not part of the scope of this article as we assume that the stair users are in typical mental and physical health and follow safe practices when ascending and descending the stairs.
All building codes include dimensional and structural requirements intended to ensure that stair slip-and-fall incidents are minimized. Naturally, it is important that the stairs are examined for compliance with these requirements after a stairway accident as non-compliance could be the main cause or a major contributing factor to the accident. Stair falls often occur when one or more of the following aspects do not meet the requirements of the applicable building code.
Steepness of the stair flight: The angle of a flight of stairs should be compatible with the natural stride of an average person. If the flight is too steep or too low-sloped, people would have to adjust their natural stride to use the stairs, which causes fatigue and increased risk of fall. The 2012 edition of the Ontario Building Code (OBC 2012)4 specifies the allowable run and rise of the stairs, which translates into a stair flight angle between 20⁰ to 44⁰.
Uniformity of step run and rise: After taking a couple of steps, the human brain automatically regulates one’s strides to climb the entire flight of stairs without thinking about the height and depth of every step. If the rise of the steps is not fairly uniform across the entire flight of stairs, the stair user might trip over a non-uniform step and fall. The OBC 2012 requires the tolerance in the rise of adjacent steps not to exceed 5 mm.
Handrail installation and fastening: Handrails provide guidance to stair users and help them keep their balance. Building codes require that at least one handrail is installed on every set of stairs. For stairs wider than 2200 mm, a handrail should be installed on both sides of the stair and a handrail should be installed in the middle of the stair. Handrails are required to be reachable, graspable, and installed at a proper height for an average-height person. If too low, the stair user would have to bend down to grab the handrail, which is unsafe; and, if too high, it would be inconvenient to grab the handrail. The OBC 2012 requires the height of residential handrails to be between 850 mm to 950 mm. The connection of handrails to a wall must be strong enough to help people regain their balance.
Finish of the stairs: To minimize the risk of slipping, building codes require the stair finish to be made of non-slippery, wear-resistant material. If the owner has laid a rug over the stairs, it should be properly adhered to the stairs, so that the rug does not slip under the foot of the stair user.
Minimum and average run of spiral stairs: In general, spiral stairs are more hazardous than rectangular stairs because of the varying run of stairs along their width. The OBC 2012 requires a minimum run of 150 mm and an average run of 200 mm for spiral stairs.
Stairs should be designed and constructed to the latest edition of the applicable building code. The designer must either show the details of the stairs on the drawings or specify that the stairs and handrails are to be constructed as per the code requirements. Otherwise, the designer may be liable for any deviation from the building code requirements. However, in most stairway accidents, the stair was designed to the code requirements but was not constructed according to the drawings. In this case, the contractor can be found liable for any construction deficiencies. Sometimes, property owners make alterations to the stairs without involving a designer or obtaining a building permit; this leaves them vulnerable to liability for stairway accidents if the alterations contravene the building code requirements.
If the handrail installer did not fasten the handrail to the wall or the stairs as per the building code requirements, he/she could be liable for a stair accident caused by handrail failure. For wood-framed buildings, the handrail should be secured directly to the studs or to blocking between the studs. We have seen cases where the handrail installer connected the handrail to a drywall panel without any wood blocking behind it, which is a major deviation from the building code requirements and is obviously unsafe.
To accurately identify the liable party in a stairway accident, it is imperative to request the permit drawings from the Authority Having Jurisdiction and to inquire if any alterations were made to the stairs by the owner. It is also important to record the recount of the accident described by the injured party.
A significant number of fall incidents occur on stairs. In a personal injury claim involving a fall on stairs, the geometry, dimensions, handrails, and finishes of the stairs are scrutinized to determine whether they complied with the requirements of the applicable building code. Stairs that do not comply with the dimensional requirements of the building code may put users at higher risk of falls than code-compliant stairs. To reduce the risk of stair falls and personal injury claims, property owners and managers should have the stairs in their buildings reviewed for code compliance and take remedial actions where stairs do not comply with code requirements.
About the Author
Nabi Goudarzi is a forensic structural engineer with Origin and Cause Inc. He is a licensed structural engineer in Alberta, Ontario, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia. He holds a Ph.D. in structural engineering from the University of Alberta.
- Blazewick D.H., Chounthirath, T., Hodges, N. L., Collins, C. L., Smith, G. A. (2018). Stair-related injuries treated in United States emergency departments. The American Journal of Emergency Medicine, 36(4), 608-614.
- Bryson B. (2011). At Home: A Short History of Private Life. Doubleday Canada.
- Public Health Agency of Canada. (2014). Seniors’ Falls in Canada, Second Report.
- Ontario Building Code (2012). Ministry of Municipal Affairs & Housing.