Codes & Standards for Safe Stairways Expert Article

This article discusses several stairway codes and standards relevant to pedestrian safety. The article introduces the importance of consistent tread depth and riser height for preventing fall injuries. It also discusses the importance of handrails and other prominent stairway features.

The premises safety experts at Robson Forensic investigate many fall injuries related to stairs and other walkways. Call or submit an inquiry through our website for help determining which of our experts is best suited to address the specific technical issues in your case.

Stairway Codes & Standards Expert

Codes & Standards for Safe Stairways

The codes and standards relevant to safe stairs are intended to provide the public with stairways that are consistent in design and construction and that include features to assist them to use the stairs safely. The act of descending a stair has been described in safety literature as a controlled fall. The act of ascending a stair has been described as an exercise for which some users require handrails to help pull themselves up.

Codes and standards for safe stairways are derived from studies of how people walk, how they use facilities, and what reasonably attentive stair users can see. Standards for stairway design are commonly thought of as defined in building codes, fire codes, and property maintenance codes. Standards are also published by ASTM, the National Safety Council, the NFPA Life Safety Code, and the National Bureau of Standards.

Stair Users Require Consistency & Regularity

Stair users commonly orient themselves visually to stair conditions as they approach and begin traversing the stair. For that reason stair conditions should be made obvious. After the first few steps, users reasonably expect that the conditions they have experienced will continue throughout the remainder of the stair. For that reason, stair conditions should be made consistent.

The safety of a flight of stairs depends not only on the dimensions of the risers and treads, but also their regularity. Variations in riser heights within a flight of stairs can cause trips and falls. Nosings on the steps should be regular and conspicuous to limit tripping and missteps. Flooring materials should be securely attached to treads and risers. Treads should be slip-resistant.

Short Flight Stairs

Short flight stairs having one, two, or three risers should be avoided because their low nature can impair the ability of users to identify the presence of a change in level, particularly in descent. For that reason standard practice requires that specific features be provided to make them reasonably conspicuous. Handrails, colored nosing strips, contrasting materials, accent lighting, and warning signs are generally specified for that purpose. To be effective, such features should be made conspicuous in the users’ field of view as they approach the short flight stair.

Short Flight Stairway Expert


Handrails and guardrails at stairs serve different purposes. The purpose of guardrails is to protect people from falling over the edge of a platform, landing, balcony, or stair. Handrails are important safety features to assist users to maintain their balance and prevent falls on stairs.

There are at least four critical uses of a handrail on a stair:

  1. to slide a hand while monitoring one’s progress and stability,
  2. to use as a pivot at corners or doglegs,
  3. to provide support for an elderly or infirm user, and
  4. to grab onto for support in the event of an accident.

The need to perform these functions prevails throughout the length of each flight. Therefore, secure handrails should be available to the user at every point throughout their use of a stair and for a distance before and after the end of the stair.

Stairway Safety Features Expert Witness

Handrails must also be of a configuration, shape, and size so they are usable for their entire length without requiring the user to release their grasp.

  • Graspable - The profile of the handrails must be small enough to provide graspabiilty. If handrails are to be of service to the occupants, they must be uninterrupted and continuous.
  • Continuous - There should not be intermediate breaks or impediments in a rail that would impede the users’ use of the rail or cause them to release their grip.
  • Within Reach - Depending on the width of a stair, handrails may be required on both sides and also in the middle of monumental or very wide stairs.
  • Properly Maintained - Missing, poorly maintained, or defective components of a stair system can be a major contributor to trips and falls on a property.

Premises Safety Investigations

The Premises Safety Experts at Robson Forensic investigate cases involving the design, construction, operation, and maintenance of residential, institutional, and commercial premises. We conduct site inspections, perform tests, and review applicable standards to learn facts and form opinions about how and why individuals were injured within the built environment.

For more information submit an inquiry or call our corporate office at 800.813.6736.


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