Vice president’s message – evaluating stairway falls:

Jul 1, 2006 by

Let’s face it, stairways are a common hazard, but one we reasonably accept as necessary to get from one elevation to another.  Still, many injuries occur from stairway falls.
Almost all serious stairway falls happen while the victim is descending the stairway; typically they report that they “slipped” on a step.   However, the actual cause of the fall is usually not a “slip”, but a “mis-step”, and mis-steps are often caused by irregular out-of-code rise and run dimensions of the as-built stairway.
“Rise” is defined as the vertical change in height of two adjacent steps, measured from nose to nose; and “run” is defined as the horizontal distance from the nose of one step to the nose of an adjacent step.

Special tools and techniques are necessary to correctly measure rise and run.
Over the years, the building code requirements for rise and run have changed.  Currently in commercial and public structures, the rise must be between four and seven inches, while the run must not be less than eleven inches.   However, much more importantly, the variation of both rise and run must not exceed three eights of an inch (3/8 inch) for the entire stairway.

Handrails are also an important safety feature; they must be firmly mounted, easily grasped, and at a proper height (again, code requirements for handrails have changed over the years).   For most public locations, a handrail is required on both sides of the stairway.

Other factors such as lighting, visual patterns, and nose markings might be involved in a stairway fall, and the expert evaluating the stairway should be prepared to address those issues as well.
If the construction of the stairway is up to code, it is reasonable to ask why did this one person fall when ten thousand others passed by without a problem?   This brings in the additional level of complexity of the human factors.   Here are some of the questions that need to be answered when evaluating those factors to fairly assess causation:
•     What was the claimant doing just prior to the accident?   In what direction was the claimant going?   Was the claimant carrying something or talking to somebody?   Was the claimant turning or running?   Which foot was initially involved?  Security cameras have been very helpful in helping to answer some of these questions.
•     Was the claimant visually or physically limited?   How about obesity, arthritis or color blindness?  What medications were taken?
•     Exactly where did the accident happen? On what step of the stairway and on which side?  On which particular surface, if it varies?
•     What were the environmental factors?   Were the steps wet?   Were there contaminants or debris (spilled drinks, leaves, sand)?   What was the lighting like (dark, bright, too bright)?
•     Are the steps loose or broken?  Are they painted or carpeted?   Is the carpeting tight?   Are defects significant or trivial?
•     Is the claimant’s footwear a factor?   Did the footwear fit securely?   Are they slippery on the walkway surface?   How slippery?  Are they new or old or worn?
•     How slippery are the steps?   What is the appropriate method to measure the slipperiness of the steps?

Experts qualified to evaluate environmental conditions, code requirements, human factors and biomechanics must consider all of these factors.

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