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Unsafe exterior stair (C) Carson Dunlop Associates Two Dozen Ways to Fall Down the Stairs
24+ Causes of Stair Trip & Fall Accidents

  • SLIP TRIP & FALL HAZARD LIST, STAIRS - CONTENTS: Photographs of all kinds of stair and step & walk defects illustrate a wide range of causes of falling down the stairs - stair trip and fall hazards and injury sources. Worn, Loose, Damaged Steps & Stair Fall Hazards. Narrow Tall Stair Steps, Slippery Stair Tread Surfaces. Curved, Angled, & Winder Stair Trip Hazards. Discontinuous, Awkward, Stairs & Steps. Curved, Tapered Steps & Stair Hazards. Lack of Visual clues to Indicate Presence of a Step or Stair. Is it a Step or a Passage? A rug at the top of the stairs is a fall hazard.
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Stair slip trip & fall hazards guide:

Stair tread & step construction or maintenance mistakes can create a wide range of serious stair fall hazards. Using illustrations from around the world, we illustrate many common causes of stair falls and injuries such as uneven or damaged steps and stairs, missing or unsafe railings, loose, crooked treads, or lack of visual cues that tell a walker that she is approaching a step.

In this article we include the classic mistake: a loose throw rug at the top of a stairway. Page top photo: severely damaged stair treads, rotted stair stringers and treads, rotted loose newell post and an open sided stairway to the basement of this home lake these stairs treacherous.



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Photographs & Sketches of Serious Stair Step Defects, Trip Slip & Fall Hazards

Article Contents

Angled, & Winder Stair Trip Hazards

Angled stairs in Manhattan (C) Daniel Friedman

Angled or Curved stair treads are a particular trip hazard, especially because of the lack of uniformity and because the tread width at the inside of the curve can be too small for safe walking.

Broken Stair Tread Nose

Stair tread nose damage, trip and fall hazard (C) D Friedman

Our photo above illustrates a stair fall hazard more common than the severely worn steps at page top. The safety tread on these stairs in a New York City gallery have broken away at the tread nose.

Even more serious a fall hazard are sections of stair tread nosing that are still in place but that have become split, cracked, loose or fragile.

This stair nose falling hazard is discussed
at STAIR TREAD NOSE BROKEN-FALLS

Collapsing or Poorly-Supported Stair Treads or Stairways

Collapsing stairs in Portland Maine (C) Daniel Friedman

Well this collapsing stair in northern Maine in the U.S. is pretty obvious. But there are more subtle stair collapse hazards including stair carriages not properly secured to the structure, stair tread cleats not properly secured to the stair carriage or stringer, and under-sized, over-cut stair stringers as you'll see in other photos in this series.

See STAIR STRINGER DEFECTS

Stair treads not properly secured to the stair carriage or stair stringer are a particularly odious collapse hazard.

Collapsing stair treads due to inadequate connection of tread to stair carriage (C) Daniel Friedman

The stairs shown above are discussed in more detail at SLIPS, TRIPS & FALLS, EXTERIOR STAIRS

As we illustrate below, even solid masonry stairs may, left exposed to weather, slip, tilt, or collapse.

Collapsing stone stair (C) Daniel Friedman

 

Curved, Tapered Steps & Stair Hazards

Stair trip slip and fall hazard example - using color cues (C) Daniel Friedman

Above: to complete one of the worst stairways we've encountered in Mexcico, check out the combination of a rounded step with one that tapers to a point, giving the walker almost nowhere to step comfortably nor safely. Do not expect an elderly or disabled person to consider using stairs by Machete Ken, the builder of these interesting climbers.

Below: these curved steps in Tucson, Arizona, are awkard-enough that this stair user was hesitating before taking the plunge.

Curved steps in  Tucson, Arizona (C) Daniel Friedman

Discontinuous, Awkward, Stairs & Steps

Our photos below show two different sorts of difficult-to-use stairs. At below left the steps are familiar to locals and visitors to San Miguel de Allende, the side steps to the Parroquia. Construction on the Parroquia, began in the 1600s, and its current facade was completed by a master mason whose sketches, drawn in the dirt in the 1860's resulted in a unique and widely loved neo-gothic facade.

The steps shown appear to date from that epoch. At below right we begin illustrating scarier stairs in the same city.

Broken stone steps, irregular, no rails (C) D Friedman Angled stairs in Manhattan (C) Daniel Friedman<

At above right the stair, located in a private home in San Miguel de Allende, is used to access a tiny rooftop patio. The climbs a narrow metal stair, then from a tiny platform, leap onto a step where you can see my left foot, then ascend to the patio. The builder included an overhead "grab rail" (below left) to give users a small chance at surviving access to the upper patio space.

But as our two photos below show, hazards remained. A curtain hung from the grab rail interferes with grasping it, and finally, even getting on or off of the metal stairway includes another discontinuous "partial" step near the stair bottom, as our friend Rebecca demonstrated during our visit in 2005.

Angled stairs in Manhattan (C) Daniel Friedman Angled stairs in Manhattan (C) Daniel Friedman

Door Swings Out Over Steps

Walking down a set of stairs entered by having to open a door that swings out over the steps is likely to result in a fall. That's in part because holding onto the door knob to open the door tends to direct where the walker is going to step - out into space (expecting a landing) rather than with great care down onto the first stair tread.

Door swings out over a step is a fall hazard (C) Daniel Friedman

More about problems with a door that swings out over steps is at PLATFORMS & LANDINGS FAQs .

False Step Stairs or Step Risers

Uneven rise dodgy steps at a New Zealand resort  (C) Daniel FriedmanDefinition & history of false-step stairs: The trip and fall hazard caused by stairs whose steps are uneven in height (rise) has been known probably for thousands of years as one discovers it promptly when using uneven-rise stairs without paying close attention to the step height. More than 3/8 of an inch in variation of the height of steps from one step to another is a tripping hazard.

Our photo illustrates uneven-rise as well as out of level stair treads at a New Zealand hotel property. Owners warn stair users about the dodgy steps.

While most false-step stair hazards are constructed in error, in some structures stair builders deliberately created a so-called false-step. False setp stairs feature in both reality and historical fiction.

So what’s different about this particular stair, located at the 36th Street station in Sunset Park? And why is everyone tripping? It turns out that one of the steps is half an inch higher than the others — which is just high enough to send even the most coordinated climbers reeling.

Filmmaker Dean Peterson, who frequents the station daily, noticed this engineering glitch and decided to document it, filming instance after instance of climbers stumbling — some steadying themselves and others falling straight down. ... After this video of a problematic Brooklyn [New York] subway staircase went viral, the MTA stepped in to fix the problem. (Grossman 2012). 

In the process of renovation, he devoted considerable attention to one small design detail of the stairway -- the so-called false step. The riser of the false step was one inch higher than the other steps so that it would trip up anybody unfamilar with it and serve as a primitive burglar alarm. This was a device used in many old houses [in Savannah, Georgia in the U.S.], but it proved to be a hazard for Driggers, since he generally arrived home in no shape to deal wit normal stairs, let alone trick ones. (Berendt 1994).

Below: a dramatic false-step stair in Tucson. The first step is much shorter in rise than the remaining one, none of the step risers are uniform in height, four of the five risers are too tall, and heaven knows how users step securely onto that topmost tread in front of the door itself.

Tall uneven rise steps in Tucson Arizona (C) Daniel Friedman

See STAIR RISER SPECIFICATIONS for details about proper step riser height and riser uniformity requirements.

Guardrails: Unsafe, Missing or "Removed" Stair Guards

Stair trip slip and fall hazard example - using color cues (C) Daniel Friedman

At left we indicate a stair railing mistake that you may encounter in a home where a narrow stairwell has made it difficult to move furniture in or out of a room. Someone removes the railing to move large items up or down the stairs - and doesn't bother to replace it.

There are so many ways to foul up a handrail on steps and stairs that we have collected railing specifications and examples of mistakes in a separate article -
see HANDRAILS & HANDRAILINGS .

More deceptive than a handrailing that is totally missing is a handrail that is not graspable: a non-graspable handrail denies the stair user the chance to prevent or arrest a fall. The handrailing shown below is also the top of the stair guard: it's much too wide to grasp securely.

Hard to grasp stair railing (C) Daniel Friedman

Handrailings that are not-graspable, too low, too high, or that are not securely fastened are in some respects more dangerous than no handrailing at all, since the stair user thinks there she can grasp the handrail to prevent a fall.

In fact if a handrailing comes away from its mounting, breaks, too big to grasp securely, or is simply too loose the stair user is more likely to be badly hurt during a fall, and worse, if the railing comes away and tangles with the stair user injuries may become compounded. [We investigated just such a case - the person who fell was badly hurt as he and the railing fell together into a stairwrell - Ed.]

Details are at GRASPABILITY of HANDRAILINGS

Handrailings Missing or Defective Along Stairs

Stair trip slip and fall hazard example - using color cues (C) Daniel Friedman

In the photograph above, also griped-about at HANDRAILINGS DEFECTIVE or MISSING the handrail and stair guard (presumably balusters) were both removed. Below we show a safe guardrailing along a stairway at the Castle Point Veterans Administration Facility in Dutchess County, New York.

Guard railing or stair guard along stairs at the Castle Point VA Facility in New York (C) Daniel Friedman

While Handrailings are placed along stairs to provide a gripping surface to help stair users prevent or arrest a fall down the stairs, stair guards or guardrailings have a different purpose and may be higher than handrailings: the purpose of stair guards or stair guardrailings is to prevent someone from falling off or through the open side(s) of a stairway.

As you see in our photo below, where the top of the stair guard would be too high to serve also as a handrailing, a railing must be provided and securely attached.

Guard railing or stair guard along stairs at the Castle Point VA Facility in New York (C) Daniel Friedman

Above my hand is grasping the handrailing along the same stairway. As you see, the handrailing is at a lower height above the walking surface of the treads than is the top of the stair guardrail.

The next photograph illustrates the opposite condition. At New Zealand's University of Canterbury the stair builders added a handrailing along the top of the stair guard.

Stair guard top handrailing, Canterbury University, New Zealand (C) Daniel Friedman

The following is excerpted from STAIR RAILS, STAIR GUARDS

1926.1052(c)(5) Handrails and the top rails of stair rails shall be capable of withstanding, without failure, a force of at least 200 pounds (890 n) applied within 2 inches (5 cm) of the top edge, in any downward or outward direction, at any point along the top edge.

1926.1052(c)(6) The height of handrails shall be not less than 34 inches nor more than 38 inches from the upper surface of the handrail to the surface of the tread, in line with the face of the riser at the forward edge of the tread.

Loose Stair Treads, Railings, Other Components

Loose brick exterior stairs (C) D Friedman

Loose bricks in theses steps are a sneaky trip hazard: step onto the outer end of the brick and it flips up as you flip down the steps. The Poughkeepsie homeowner has since re-built these brick stairs.

Narrow or Tall Stair Steps

Shown below the stair treads are too narrow - a single 2x6 was used, making these treads only 5 1/2" deep. The stair stringers were placed "upside down" in order to achieve the total height or rise that this stair-dope was constructing, but he failed to appreciate just how think how puny is the remaing remaining structural part of the stair carriage. These stairs may collapse if we don't fall down them first.

Unsafe exterior stair stringer and riser height (C) Daniel Friedman

There are other troubles with these stairs too, discussed
at STAIR STRINGER DEFECTS.

Narrow Tread Depth Stairs

Too-narrow tread depth (C) Daniel Friedman

Above: a tread depth that is inadequate. Tread depth is the distance from the stair tread nose to the face of the stair step riser. The toe of my ugly shoe is against the step riser and you can see that the heel of my shoe doesn't fit onto the step. The only way to climb these attic stairs is on tip-toe or by placing your foot sideways along each stair tread.

Details are at STAIR TREAD DIMENSIONS

Obstructions & Debris on Stairways

Obstructions or stuff left stored along stairs are a serious trip and fall hazard, more likely to cause an accident at the worst time: during an emergency evacuation of a building when people are trying to run up or down the stairway.

Open Stair Guards: missing, loose, or wide-spaced balusters

Shown below: a "stair guard" that is too open: a child could easily fall through the opening along these stairs and ramps. In this case the child would fall into hot boiling mud at this New Zealand facility on South Island.

Open stair guard above boiling mud in New Zealand (C) Daniel Friedmanb

See GUARDRAILS on STAIRS for details.

Projections into the Stairway Can Cause Trips & Falls: Injury Report

Stair fall at roof access (C) D Friedman J JohnsonReader Question: Electrical boxes installed in stairway in the walking path - hazards and stair fall, injury report

Is it against building code that electrical boxes mounted inches above top step at roof hatch on commercial building before entering roof? - Jimmy Johnson, 8 June 2012

Reply:

Jimmy: the question is unclear, but if the electrical boxes are an obstruction, trip hazard, or are going to be used as a walking surface, any of those would be an objectionable hazard.

I'd need to see some photos to have a more accurate opinion, but in general, if the boxes are a trip hazard in the walking path or if they are going to be stepped on I'm sure it'd be a bad practice.

This question was originally posted at BUILDING CODES for STAIRS

Reader follow-up:

Here are some photos, trying to find out these boxes are mounted is a building code. Thanks - Jimmy

Stair injury photo (C) D FriedmanReply:

Standard stairway safety requirements are for stairs intended for normal occupancy-use while access to lofts, roofs, and mechanicals areas are usually held to a different standard as they are not in normal, daily, public use. OSHA standards and rules may apply, however.

Nonetheless the trip and fall hazards in your stairway photos are in my opinion obvious and are unsafe.

Photo 1 - above, shows a steep roof access stair with a handrailing that ends well below the final step out over a hatch and onto the roof surface.

We can also see two electrical boxes protruding into the walking path at the top riser, and a very large opening between the topmost tread and the vertical riser formed by the roof access hatch wall.

Mr. Johnson's second photo (immediately at left) shows the opening between the last stair tread and the open riser space, as well as two electrical boxes installed on the face of the roof framing above the last step.

This photo (left) also suggests that there is a considerable variation in riser height from the top tread to step over the access hatch and onto the roof.

The third stair-injury photo (below left) gives additional view of the height of the roof access hatch. It appears again that this is a high step from the last or uppermost stair tread.

Stair accident photo (C) D Friedman J JohnsonWe can also see that there is no grab rail, nor handle for use by someone climbing up out of or down into the stairwell. Naturally the requirement for a closable roof access hatch cover precludes a permanent railing extending the standard height above the stair walking surface.

These steps were most likely designed only for use by building maintenance personnel. As such, while there are OSHA rules governing workplace stairways, the requirements governing stairway pitch and tread design and handrails are different from those expressed in building codes pertaining to stairs intended for general or public use.

Jimmy in my OPINION, regardless of a possible third party interpretation of OSHA regulations or building codes, the stairway in your photos is unsafe for several reasons including

Also in my OPINION, even if a local code official OK's the stair, if, heaven forbid, someone should be injured, you should not count on the code department to come to your defense, and an expert may agree with me that the stairs were a hazard, independent of any approvals.

Reader Follow-up:

Thanks for your help, I did fall, my pants leg got caught on the electrical box. [I have ] already had surgery on both shoulders and had not even started on my back problems, Thanks again an I'll let you know what I find out

Reply:

Jimmy I am so sorry to read of your injuries, though not surprised. While I don't like being asked questions in any mysterious way, in this case, by astutely avoiding telling me anything about what happened to you when you asked my opinion, my answers form an unbiased and unimpeachable opinion that the stairs were a hazard. And if they have not been amended, the are still a hazard to others.

Particularly because of other details at that stairwell, the hazard is above average: there is no handrailing that one might grab onto at the point of entry to or exit from the stair - I alluded to that earlier, and also the stairs look to be steeper than those used for normal stairways (steeper stairs, even ladders are permitted by some codes for accessing certain areas not normally used by normal building occupants).

Unless you ask me to keep this information offline, I'd like to add the photos and comments to our stair fall articles, keeping your identity and such details totally private of course. Showing the hazard to others may help prevent other injuries. However if you are in the midst of legal actions I imagine that your attorney might prefer that we wait.

Reader Follow-up:

... as for the photos you can use them in any way cause I don't want anyone else to go through that I'm going through it's not worth it and I will let you know the outcome.

Since the doctors told me that I wouldn't be able to continue to work in my field, I was needing help to find something? Thanks again.

Slippery Stairs: A Rug at the Top of the Stairs?

Stair trip slip and fall hazard example - using color cues (C) Daniel Friedman

Do not place slippery items such as a rug or towel on a smooth floor at the top of steps or stairways such as the steps shown in our photo (left).

Slippery Stairs: stair treads with algae, ice, polish, snow, or water or other slippery surfaces

Landscape tie stair trip hazard (C) Daniel Friedman

Do not permit stair treads to remain coated or covered with materials that make the steps slippery.

Various industry, ANSI, ASTM, OSHA, ADA standards recommend a static coefficient of friction (SCOF) of 0.5 or higher (ADA 0.6 or above) and define surfaces with SCOF of 0.4 or lower as "low traction", i.e. "slippery".

At SLIPPERY STAIRS, WALKS we give detailed technical data on slippery surfaces. Indoor stair tread slip hazards include high gloss polyurethane coated wood treads, polished stair treads, carpets on stairs, wet stair treads.

Outdoor stair trip hazards include algae, especially wet algae, ice, snow, water, loose dirt or sand.

See Algae, Ice, Fungus, Wet Surfaces & Other Stair Slip, Trip & Fall Hazards for details.
Also
see EXTERIOR STAIR FALLS for a catalog of causes of falls on stairs that includes surface conditions and other defects.

Slippery Stair Tread Surface

Below are wooden steps in a 1790 home restored by the author (DF) in the 1970's. Coating the antique, hand-sanded pine stair treads left a beautiful deep red-brown surface. But use of high gloss varnish or (in this case) polyurethane on wooden steps leaves a hard, durable, but slippery surface.

Stair tread surfaces of glass, tile, or painted wood surfaces are slippery, especially when wet, and more-so on outdoor steps that are not protected from rain, snow, ice, or algae growth.

More information on slippery stair treads and landings due to moss, ice, water or algae is found
at EXTERIOR STAIRS
and
at STAIR PLATFORMS & LANDINGS, ENTRY.

Unsafe exterior stair stringer and riser height (C) Daniel Friedman

Snag Hazards Along Stairways

Snag hazards are any projection or obstruction that can catch clothing or a handbag strap as users pass up or down a staircase. Below, the open hook ends of the stair guard balusters have been seen catching handbag straps.

Stair rail snag hazard (C) 2013 Daniel Friedman Tlaxcala, Mexico

Please see SNAG HAZARDS on STAIRWAYS for details.

Tall Step Risers - too tall to climb safely

Tall uneven rise steps in Tucson Arizona (C) Daniel Friedman

Above these steps entering a Tucson Arizona home include uneven riser height with step risers that are too tall.

Uneven Step Surface & Other Stair Hazards

The steps shown at below left (Spain) were uneven in surface, had no side railing, were too narrow, a bit steep, and had that interesting little swing-out gate (with no platform) leading up to an upper balcony with not much of a railing, as our friend Nuria was contemplating.

At below right the author (DF) considers how to walk around a corner on triangular stone stairs in the historic (and long empty of its original occupants and builders) Jewish quarter of Murcia, Spain.

Spanish steps unsafe (C) Daniel Friedman Spanish steps unsafe (C) Daniel Friedman

Lack of Visual cues to Indicate Presence of a Step or Stair

The presence or absence of visual cues that can inform a walker that she is approaching a step.

Examples of "do's and "don'ts" in visual clues that can help prevent stair falls are detailed
at COLOR / LIGHTING CUES AVOID TRIP HAZARDS. Examples of some of the most egregious stair trip mistakes due to lack of visual cues are shown just below.

The floor at below left has a 4-inch step up. The same color tiles were used on the floors at both levels as well as on the step riser, making it harder to see the presence of a step, especially in low light and especially for new visitors to this hotel room in Mexico.

Stair trip slip and fall hazard example - using color cues (C) Daniel Friedman Stair trip slip and fall hazard example - using color cues (C) Daniel Friedman

Is it a Step or a Passage? Absence of visual clues of change in height contribute to trips and falls.

Stair trip slip and fall hazard example - using color cues (C) Daniel Friedman

Stairs and steps often try to use a color change or a tile layout change to indicate a change. But tile patterns alone can be confusing. Is the photo at left showing a passage between two rooms whose floors are on the same level, or is there as step up or down?

In our photo left (Rhinebeck, New York) it is not clear what's going on.

Teeny Weenie Step Trip Hazards

Teeny weenie steps  are often un-noticed and result at best in a stubbed toe, or worse, in a bad fall  (C) Daniel Friedman New Zealand

Above we illustrate a weenie step, just about 1.25" tall with little visual clue that the walking surface changes height. Barefoot as our model illustrates one can badly stub a toe on weenie steps, while walking with shoes on the user is at risk of a nasty fall. This weenie step hazard is exacerbated by the lack of a visual clue that the walking surface height is changing - the floor tiles are the same colour on both levels.

Weather Hazards at Steps & Stairways: algae, ice, snow, water

At SLIPPERY TREAD SURFACE we already discussed the hazard of slippery finishes on stair treads such as hard gloss polyurethane or slippery smooth-surfaced ceramic tile stair treads.

Below we illustrate temporal stair slip trip and fall hazards due to weather or weather-related hazards. These include wet steps (below), snow or ice covered steps, and algae growth on walking surfaces, a result of the combination of water and shade. Interestingly, algae is one of the slipperiest substances known - it has an extremely low static coefficient of traction.

Wet slipperty stone steps in the U.K. (C) Daniel Friedman

Above, these antique stone steps at Brinstone Farm in St. Weonards in the U.K. combine water from the wet English climate with a bit of algae on the stair tread surfaces.

Below, the ice running across these steps forms a remarkable fall-hazard at this Northern Minnesota state park facility. Worse, as weather warmed a thin coating of water atop the ice makde walking up or down this stairway incredibly difficult, even when holding on to the handrailing with both hands.

Icy stairs in Minnesota (C) Daniel Friedman

Minnesotans are undaunbted by a little smidgen of ice and snow. Later the park put up warning signs that walkers intending to use this stairway needed to be wearing crampons.

Icy stairs in northern Minnesota are a fall hazard (C) Daniel Friedman

Below: snow on these wooden steps doesn't deter visitors in Poughkeepsie, though the hazards are increased by absence of any handrailing.

Snow on wooden steps in New York (C) Daniel Friedman

But when snow falls over previously iced stair treads the slip and fall hazard is increased enormously, almost as much as when there is water atop hard ice. Below are the same steps under different weather conditions.

Snow and ice combined on stairs (C) Daniel Friedman

More about slippery steps and walks and about algae's SCOF can be read at SLIPPERY STAIRS, WALKS

Worn, Loose, Damaged Steps & Stair Fall Hazards

Our page top photo illustrates a stunningly-worn and unsafe wooden stairway. At below left you can see an occupant stepping out through a door that opens out over an exterior stair where a platform was needed. Be sure to notice that the stone steps are supported on wobbly, tipping and falling-over clay blocks.

Stair trip slip and fall hazard example - using color cues (C) Daniel Friedman Stair trip slip and fall hazard example - using color cues (C) Daniel Friedman

[Click to enlarge any image]

Or see these detailed articles on specifications for proper dimensions for stairs, railings, platforms beginning
at STAIR DIMENSIONS, WIDTH, HEIGHT
and
at HANDRAILS & HANDRAILINGS


CONTACT US to contribute images of other types of unsafe stairs or railings. Contributors who wish to remain anonymous may do so. See Privacy

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Continue reading at SLIPS, TRIPS & FALLS, EXTERIOR STAIRS or select a topic from closely-related articles below, or see our complete INDEX to RELATED ARTICLES below.

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SLIP TRIP & FALL HAZARD LIST, STAIRS at InspectApedia.com - online encyclopedia of building & environmental inspection, testing, diagnosis, repair, & problem prevention advice.

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