Floating docks can present a variety of slip, trip and fall hazards if they are not safely managed. It is best practice to use ramps and gangways to provide passage from the main dock to the floating dock, but stairs are sometimes used, which can create a trip/fall hazard.
In this article, Carl Wolf explains the marine industry standards and building code standards that apply to the use of stairs on floating docks through the lens of an actual case example.
Stairs as Slip/Trip/Fall Hazards at Marinas – Expert Overview
Floating docks are used in areas where water levels fluctuate on a regular basis with the tides, moving vertically up and down. For ingress and egress to floating docks, marine industry guidelines recommend the use of ramps or hinged gangways complemented by even, non-slip decks. Marine industry standards have long accepted that the rules of dimensional uniformity that apply to stairs on dry land apply in marine environments. Additionally, it is established that transitions between docks should optimally utilize a slope meeting ADA-ABA requirements. When there are no viable alternatives to ramps or gangways, stairs should be dimensioned in accordance with local building codes.
Stairs are more difficult to navigate than level surfaces, and the potential for movement of the staircase on floating docks or boats makes it even more challenging for the user to keep their balance. When users descend a stair, gravity acts to accelerate their motion in the direction of travel. Anything that interferes with the safe placement of feet as they descend increases the likelihood of a fall.
Tread and riser dimensions should be uniform throughout an entire stairway. Uneven risers and treads create dimensional variations that may impede a user’s safe movement or induce a loss of balance. For that reason, standards for safe stairs require that stairs be constructed and maintained with a high degree of uniformity.
GAPS BETWEEN DOCKS AND MEANS OF INGRESS/EGRESS
The photo below shows 11 ½” wide gap between the pier and top step, which far exceeds the allowable distance of 1.5in or 38mm per the standard of care.
Standards of Care concerning dock walkway spacing forbid wide openings that can cause trips, falls, and entrapment incidents. The space should be as small as possible, and covered with a plate to further reduce the risk of personal injury.
A fundamental tenet of safe moving and climbing in a marine environment is to provide three points of contact: two feet and one hand, or two hands and one foot at any given time. At a marina, this would constitute handrails provided along walkways, ramps, gangways, and stairs. On stairs in particular, the need for continuous handrails is well documented, as handrails have been shown to reduce the frequency and severity of injuries relating to stair falls.
Industry standards for the operation and maintenance of marinas require that handrails be provided on all stairways, walkways, and all office and service docks that are open to the general public. Stairs are also required to adhere to state/local building codes, even when they are being used on a dock at a marina.
In this case, the Plaintiff was descending a set of stairs at a marina onto a floating dock to access a boat. When the Plaintiff stepped off the stairs, she encountered a difference in step height causing her to fall and be injured. The purpose of our investigation was to determine if the stairs on the dock were dangerous in a manner that caused the fall and injury.
The stairs provided by the Defendant to access the floating dock were a combination of a manufactured plastic dock stair and a wooden base built by the Defendant. The manufactured plastic dock steps were installed on top of the hand-built wooden base, which formed the first riser and tread above the dock.
The image below shows the incident stair configuration with measurements
Highlighted in red, the lowest step had a rise of 14.5”, 6.5” higher than the preceding steps, and over 7” higher than allowed by the local building code. The gap between the main deck and the first step of the staircase on the floating dock was approximately 12”.
After performing a site inspection and assessing the available information, our expert determined:
- The lack of dimensional uniformity between the manufactured plastic steps and the hand-built wooden base violated applicable marine industry guidelines for safe dock stairs, and the excessive height of the bottom riser at the wooden base violated the local building code. This made the stairway dangerous in a manner that caused the Plaintiff to fall and be injured.
- The handrail installed on the plastic steps failed to extend through the entire transition from the floating dock to the main dock, which violated applicable guidelines and standards for safe dock stairs and denied the Plaintiff the opportunity or ability to arrest their fall.
- The inappropriate use of stairs mounted on a floating dock instead of using a gangway or ramp violated applicable industry guidelines and created a dangerous condition.
- There were readily available options to use a gangway on this floating dock. In fact, the same manufacturer who produced the dock also sold compatible gangway systems.
INVESTIGATING SLIPS, TRIPS, AND FALLS AT MARINAS
Marinas and boatyards can be dangerous places; they combine the traditional hazards associated with a commercial premises and warehouse facility, but with the introduction of a dynamic waterfront hosting vessel traffic. Investigation of slip, trip, and fall incidents at marinas can involve experts specializing in walkway and pedestrian safety, marine accident reconstruction, recreational boating and rules of the road, or experts like Carl Wolf who specialize in marina and boatyard operations.
For more information, contact the author of this article or submit an inquiry.
Marina & Boatyard Expert
Carl is an expert in the operations and management of marinas and boatyards. Since 1976, Carl has owned his own marina related businesses, operated marinas and boatyards, developed marina operations manuals, operated boats and boatyard equipment, and served in the U.S. Coast Guard. Carl applies his expertise to a variety of injury and economic loss investigations involving incidents that occur in marinas, boatyards, and waterfront facilities.