Four percent of all emergency room visits and 15% of fall-related injuries occur on stairs or in conjunction with handrails or banisters. That’s a fairly staggering number.
While most injuries happen when going down the stairs, a surprising number happen when people miss their footing while going up the stairs! The issue is further complicated by the fact that the length, construction, and placement of stairways can vary greatly. While building codes often dictate the rise and run of stairs, older stair cases and those not built to code create unique problems.
Stairs can be made of basic lumber, finished hardwood, glass, composite material, metal, or concrete. They can be carpeted, covered in polished stone, painted or unpainted. Because this category is so broad, it is best to categorize the process of reducing slips and falls into prevention and mitigation.
Unsafe acts are actions that we take that increase our risk of an injury. Because about 90 percent of all injuries are caused by unsafe acts, we will go a long way toward reducing injuries on stairs if we can recognize which acts are unsafe, and then change our behavior. Some of the most common unsafe acts on stairways include:
- Use Handrails When Available: When using stairs without a handrail, we’ll often have only a single foot, a single point of contact, on the stairs. A hand on the rail provides another point of contact, increasing stability and providing a way to recover should we start to fall. Handrails are so effective in reducing injury that many businesses mandate the use of handrails in their safety manuals. Always use a handrail when using the stairs.
- Make Smart Footwear Choices Worn-out shoes, slippery soles, high heels, clothing that falls below foot level, untied shoelaces, and stocking feet all contribute to unsafe situations. While we’ve all experienced how slippery stocking feet can be on hardwood floors and stairs, we continue this unsafe behavior because wearing socks is a simple solution to cold feet. A small change, such as a warm pair of slippers with nonslip soles, can make you safer. The same can be said for covering the stairs with a carpet runner or applying a nonslip tread to the stair (visit PeopleTreads.com for one option).
- Be Careful When Carrying Items Carrying anything on the stairs increases your risk of an accident. Your attention is split between what you’re holding and where you are walking. Your weight distribution and balance are affected, and the greater physical effort can result in muscle failure. And finally, your hands aren’t available to hold onto the handrails and your view of the stairs may be blocked by the object you’re carrying. Carrying children down stairs results in about five thousand child injuries a year. In fact, children who are injured when being carried are more severely injured than those who fall on their own. If you have to carry something on the stairs, focus on carrying things safely. Making multiple trips with smaller and lighter loads will make you safer.
- Keep Stairs Clean: Keep your stairs clear of clutter and clean up spills immediately. Waiting until later can result in accidents.
- Pay Attention: Focus your attention on the task at hand – walking down the stairs. Make sure your foot is solidly on each stair before taking your next step. Don’t rush to get on to the next task or become distracted by your surroundings.
You can mitigate the slip, trip and fall risk on stairs by mitigating design, construction and material flaws that often leads to slips and falls, including the installation of Handi-Treads. You can also reduce risk by mitigating the environmental conditions that encourage falls. Here are ways to mitigate the inherent risk from stairs.
- Install Handrails: Stairs should have a well-secured handrail, if at all possible. Using a handrail while ascending or descending stairs adds a second point of stability that will often allow you to “catch” a slip before it becomes a fall. Don’t overlook locations with just one or two steps, like a transition between your home and garage. In commercial environments, handrails are a must on any steps or ramps. You can find commercial handrails at Handiramp.com
- Repair or Replace Worn or Cracked Steps: Take care of problems right away. If you notice loose, uneven, cracked, or broken steps; broken or chipped stair edges; and nosings (front-edge guards) which are bent and do not lie flat, address these issues as quickly as possible. By maintaining stairs properly, or retrofitting them with tread caps like our Handi-Treads nosings, you can minimize the risk posed by the physical deterioration of stair treads.
- Insure Stairs Have a Standard Rise and Run: A standard step has a 7-inch rise with an 11-inch-wide run. We expect this—our muscle memory is trained for this pattern. A serious design flaw, such as stair riser height that varies on the same set of stairs, can mean that we are taken by surprise and our balance is affected. Stairs that have a higher than average rise will cause us to stumble. A lower than average rise will require a lot of extra steps and will feel unnatural. Stair treads that are too narrow provide too little space to properly place our feet, and treads that are too wide create an unnatural gait and require extra concentration to keep from landing on the stair edge.
- Weather: Rain, snow, frost, and even mold and mildew can make porch and deck steps unsafe. Special treatment for slippery stairs includes applying a nonslip product (visit Handitreads.com for one option).