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SPLITS & CRACKS in STRUCTURAL WOOD BEAMS
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Catch & snag hazards along stairways: stair rails or stair guards as well as some handrailings may be built with designs or even protrusions that can catch a person's clothes, handbag, or briefcase strap, contributing to a fall. This article series provides building code specifications, sketches, photographs, and examples of stairway catch and snag safety defects used in inspecting indoor or outdoor stair railings or handrails and related conditions for safety and proper construction. If you don't see information you want, ask us for it using the comments box on this page.
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Definition of snag hazard
A stairway snag hazard is any projection or construction detail that is likely catch and hold components of a person's clothing or commonly-carried strapped and suspended items (briefcases, handbags), thus possibly causing or contributing to a fall along the stairway.
Let's be clear about the difference between a handrailing and a stair railing or stair guard.
A handrailing or handrail along a stair is intended for a person to grasp to stop a fall or to guide a person.
Handrailing codes do address catch & snag hazards
For handrailings (as opposed to residential stair guards or stair rails)_ there are ample and clear guidelines about handrailing size, height, shape, graspability, mounting, strength, continuity, smoothness etc. Indeed there can be a snag hazard at a handrailing, particularly at the railing ends, which is why handrailing returns are required at those locations. Details are at HANDRAILS & HANDRAILINGS.
Code Citations Warning of Stairway Snagging Hazards Along Stair Railings or Guards
A guardrailing or stair railing or stair guard, which is what we are discussing here, is a vertical guard erected along the open side of a stairway to prevent people from falling off, and has somewhat different requirements. The space between the handrailing and the walking surface of the steps is partly (or fully) enclosed for fall-safety, typically using vertical balusters, sometimes with a mid rail. Other guardrail enclosures are permitted such as certified plastic or glass.
Example Residential Building Code for Stair Railings (Stair Guards) do not Explicitly Cite Snag & Catch Hazards
This excerpt is from the Pennsylvania Building Code, § 47.232 shows that even within the codes there can be confusion about whether we are talking about the railing top - being used as a handrail - and the railing itself - being used as a safety enclosure. And search of the entire PA code for "stair AND snag" produced no hits.
Similarly the Pennsylvania state building code on stair towers (§ 50.25. Stair towers) also does not describe snag hazards:
OSHA Workplace Building Codes Include Reference to Snag Hazards
The OSHA code, which pertains to workplaces not residential buildings, does indeed warn about stair railing snag hazards. In our exterior spiral stairway photo at left, these stairs, representing a workplace environment, viewed at least from this distance, are not showing an obvious snag or catch hazard from the stair guard.
From OSHA(1926.1052) Requirements For Stairs
Other References to Snag Hazards Along Stair Railings
Leibrock & Terry, in "Exterior Planning, Ramps, Stairs, and Elevators", a discussion of the construction of ramps that are wheelchair accessible, cite the importance of avoiding snag hazards that can catch clothing but also wheelchairs,walkers, etc. but as with the building codes, these writers address handrailings, not stair guards.
Our opinion is that stair guards should be constructed to avoid snag hazards that might catch a person's clothing, bag strap, or briefcase, but there is little doubt that there are many thousands of decorative stairways, especially ones built with wrought-iron detail-work, where this hazard was not considered.
Our potential stairway snag photo above illustrates that grab and trip hazards along a stairway can arise from damage or deterioration, in this case an exposed nail head, not just from ornate scroll work or design details.
The proper construction and physical condition of the stair rail at any stairway should be an important part of the investigation conducted to understand the cause & extent of stair falls and fall-related injuries. While it is readily apparent that a loose, broken, or defective guardrail on a deck, balcony, or landing can contribute to or even cause a bad fall, we sometimes find that the role of the stairrail in stair fall injuries is underestimated or missed entirely by people investigating such accidents.
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