Kevin Underwood, technical director at the British Woodworking Federation (BWF) explains five key features of staircase safety.
A staircase is often a central feature of any new home. It can be one of the first things that catches the eye when walking into a property, adding character to the space. What the prospective homeowner won’t consider is whether the staircase is safe to use.
A badly designed staircase presents real safety issues through the risk of injury and death from slips, trips and falls. According to BS 5395-1:2010, there are over 500 deaths each year in the UK from stair-related accidents in the home. It is estimated that a further 250,000 non-fatal accidents take place on the stairs each year that are serious enough to result in a visit to the doctor or Accident & Emergency. This is equivalent to a domestic accident occurring on the stairs every 2 minutes.
The majority of stair accidents occur when the individual is coming down them, usually slipping backwards and injuring themselves on the nosings of the steps or when they hit the floor. Falling forwards often results in more serious injuries. Going up the stairs, injuries are usually less severe as the individual tends to fall forwards onto the stairs. Carpets can reduce the impact while hard, sharp edges are more likely to cause injuries.
But how can installers of staircases in new builds further mitigate risks and ensure staircases are as safe as possible? At the British Woodworking Federation, we advise builders to follow five key safety principles, which are summarised below.
Ensure there is a consistent rise
Stairs need to be as consistent as possible. When going up or down a set of stairs, the human brain subconsciously determines the required movements of the legs and feet based on the first couple of steps. So if there are variations in the rise, this can lead to a person tripping or stumbling as they go. It is important to allow only small variations in the rise – no more than plus or minus one percent is recommended throughout.
Keep the going consistent too
When a user places their foot on a step, the best support is provided when they can place most, if not all, of their foot on the tread. When the going falls below 250mm this is not always possible, and the user may begin to turn their feet to the side to get adequate support. This increases the risk of slipping on nosings, especially as the amount of the foot that overhangs the tread increases. Therefore, it is important to keep the going over 250mm wherever possible, and to keep it consistent to prevent surprises for the user as they go up or down.
Handrails are a great safety net
Handrails can be an attractive feature to a staircase but they are an important extra safety support in the event of a person slipping. This is especially true for the elderly and physically frail. Having a handrail there to grab onto can prevent a person from losing their balance completely and having a serious fall. It is important that the handrail is within easy reach at all points. Stairs with a rise of over 600 mm should have a handrail and where the stair width exceeds 1000 mm a handrail should be fitted on both sides
Keep your guarding up
Another key risk in going up and down stairs is to fall over the side. That is why some form of barrier or guarding to protect people from falling is required for any height over 600mm. This could be in the form of a screen or balustrade and it must be high enough to prevent people falling over it and the materials used must be strong enough to withstand someone falling into it. The material used for the guarding should be strong enough to withstand someone falling into it and high enough to prevent anyone falling over it. With children’s safety always a key issue to bear in mind, any gaps in the guarding should be less than 100mm to help prevent them falling through or from becoming trapped.
Pay attention to the surface finish
The surface finish of a staircase can be a striking feature, making it impressive to the eye. But it is also important to consider the safety implications of the chosen surface finish Where the going of the stair is 300mm or more, users tend not to be affected too much by the slipperiness of the surface, but on stairs with treads of less than 300mm consideration should be given to a degree of slip resistance at the nosing. This is where first contact is made in descent and a slip resistant surface can help prevent a user falling. For stairs, BS 5395-1 advises that surfaces that are suitable for floors are generally also suitable for stairs – however it’s important to remember that some floorings can become unsafe if they are wet or dusty.
These are only five of many aspects that can influence the safety of a staircase, whether for use in the home, a commercial building or a public space. To help builders and the wider construction industry, the British Woodworking Federation’s (BWF) Stair Scheme has published a number of best practice guides and factsheets. The BWF Stair Scheme is focused on promoting effective design, reliable manufacture, developing guidance and ensuring best practice advice is passed to installers. This reassures installers and homeowners that products made by BWF accredited stair manufacturers consistently meet the relevant performance requirements for design and structural integrity.