stairs advice from the
National Bureau of Standards

John Archea, Belinda L. Collins and Fred I. Stahl.
Guidelines for Stair Safety.
NBS Building Science Series, Number 120.
Washington, DC: U.S.G.P.O., 1979.

1. Upgrade the stairs most frequently used by the most vulnerable people first. Children under the age of 5 have twice as many stair accidents as their proportion of the population suggests they should. Accidents among older people, while less frequent, are much more likely to lead to serious injuries or even death. People with hearing problems, epilepsy, frequent dizzy spells, or similar medical problems are vulnerable to having these conditions aggravated by the effort required to use the stair. Persons who wear bifocals or hearing aids are particularly susceptible to subtle deceptions on stairs.

2. Avoid piecemeal repairs and temporary patches on stairs. A flight of stairs is a single unit and any improvements that are made should contribute to the uniformity of the materials and dimensions of the whole assembly from landing to landing. One-shot improvements like tacking down a rubber mat on one tread where the carpet appears worn, cement infill for a broken concrete nosing, or a piece of framing lumber to replace a single hardwood tread are often worse than no improvement at all. A lot of accidents are caused by makeshift repairs that the householder thought would make the stairs more safe.

3. Do not try to learn new skills while fixing stairs. Some improvements or repairs on stairs require expertise that most householders do not have. When it comes to stretching a carpet or replacing resilient tile it may be more economical from a safety standpoint to have the work done professionally. Proper installation of most materials is far more critical on a stair than it is elsewhere in the home.

4. There are upper, as well as lower limits to safe conditions on stairs. There is a relatively wide range of material and dimensional characteristics that can support safe behavior on stairs, yet treads can be too long and risers can be too low for safe passage. Treads that are so resistant to slipping that the foot will not move when it should or lights that are so intense that all visual information is washed out can be just as hazardous as icy stairs in the dark. Safe practices, if carried to extremes, can produce unsafe stairs.

5. Compensate for all defects that cannot be corrected. While dimensional characteristics of a stair are seldom amenable to change, it is often possible to alert the user to steep or irregular stairs, low headroom or a missing landing with a strip of reflective tape, special lighting, or a warning sign. It may also be possible to add extra handrails or more slip-resistant tread materials where precarious situations cannot be avoided. The key to stair safety does not lie so much in the hazard itself as it does in the user's awareness of his vulnerability to the hazard. If someone sees a short tread or a high riser he can grab the handrail, step cautiously, and usually avoid an accident. On the other hand, if there is no handrail or the stairs are difficult to see, he may be less fortunate.

6. Avoid repairs or renovations near the stairs that could create new hazards. A new exhaust fan over an exit stair could lead the user to turn his head and miss an otherwise visible hazard. A new window near the stairs can introduce shadows or patches of glare that confound the user's ability to see the nosing of a tread at certain times of the day. Repaving a driveway can shorten the bottom riser of an adjacent stair by the depth of the paving and thereby introduce a non-uniform bottom step. Safe stairs are as dependent on the conditions which surround them as they are on the materials and dimensions of the stair itself. Changes in the surroundings can negate otherwise safe conditions on a stair.


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