Understand the Laws That Keep You Safe on Stairs

Understand the Laws That Keep You Safe on StairsDo not take the elevator…take the stairs. It is healthier, and safer in the event of an emergency. Stairs are simple and effective at doing what they need to do. They seemingly have been around since the beginning of time, an elegant and straightforward way of getting up and down that we take for granted every day.

Stairs actually are subject to significant rules, building codes, and regulations. Looking at your everyday stairwell, you may not appreciate the thought that goes into them and the efforts that are made to keep them safe. When codes, regulations, and laws that govern stairwell safety are not followed, serious injury can occur.

Height and Depth

We take for granted that every step on a stairwell is the same height and depth, but that is actually something that is regulated by building codes.

Our brains are hardwired to assume that every step we take up or down will be the same height. As such, our brains adjust our muscles and skeleton to expect the impact of the next step going up or down. When a step is even just slightly different in height than the one before it, our bodies are not ready, and serious injury can occur. Injuries can includes falls, ankle fractures or knee injuries.

Stairway height from step to step is not exactly even; most building codes will allow them to vary by 3/8 of an inch. That is slight enough that our minds perceive them as the same height.

Depth and Width

Building codes also regulate the depth of each step, and also require them to be uniform.

Aside from uniformity, have you ever noticed that each step you take is generally a manageable depth? In other words, you usually do not have to stretch too far to reach the next step? That is because building codes also regulate the maximum height of each step. Most codes say that the height from one step to the next must be in the range of 7-8 inches.

Stair length or depth (the actual stepping area) is limited, as well. Stairs that are too narrow risk the user’s foot slipping off of them, especially when descending. Stair depth that is too wide risks the user having to stretch too far to reach the next step, and possibly catching the foot on the rim of the next step. Most codes say that stair depth must be at least 10 inches long.

If you have not guessed by now, the width of the stairs are regulated as well. The length from right to left must be at least three feet long.


The length and dimensions of the stairs themselves are not all that a building owner must mind to when providing a stairwell to the public.

It is no coincidence that you see handrails on each stairwell. Two handrails are usually required, with one on each side of the stairway, and they must be strong enough to withstand 200 pounds of pressure. They must be between 34-38 inches above the stairs below them.

Often, property owners will have handrails that stop just short of where the stairs begin or end. This sometimes happens when a property owner puts in a few stairs after the building itself is constructed. The stairs may be installed to correct an uneven surface, provide a better viewing angle for visitors, or just for looks. The property owner installing three or four steps may easily overlook handrails. Sometimes the ends of handrails break or deteriorate and are not replaced.

If the handrails are not there, or if they do not span the entire length of the stairs themselves, the property owner can be held liable for injuries that occur on the stairwell.

Stepping Surfaces

Also common in after-the-fact stairway construction is the material on the steps themselves.

Building owners may simply leave concrete, or whatever material the stairs are constructed with as the base for the stair surfaces. However, most codes require that non-stick surfaces be applied to stairs.

The exact tackiness of the materials will usually depend on whether the stairs are indoors or outdoors. Outdoor stairs will almost always require some type of non-skid surfacing.

Speaking of surfacing, have you ever noticed that most stairwells have striping or paint on the rim or ledge of each step? There’s a reason for that. If steps were all painted the same color, the human eye would have a hard time perceiving where one step ended and the other began. The result can be misjudging where to step, and thus, a serious fall.

That is why most building codes require some way to perceive where one step ends and the other begins. Sometimes this is only done with a paint stripe, which is fine, until the paint wears off, which is an inevitability in high traffic areas, or on steps that are not regularly maintained by the property owner.

Lighting Problems

Flooring, coating, and materials are not the only issues when it comes to stair safety.

Often, indoor stairwells can be windowless and dark and outdoor ones can, of course, be difficult to navigate when night comes. Although some codes do not address lighting, property owners have an obligation to provide proper lighting in stairwells. Proper lighting does not just mean enough lighting, it also includes lighting that does not cast shadows in a way that makes navigating the stairs confusing.

Building Codes are Not Definitive

Remember that while building codes set a standard for stairwell safety, they aren not the beginning and end of determining negligence. Negligence is what is reasonable, and in many cases, a property owner can be negligent even when building codes are followed, or even when building codes do not specifically address the problem that caused someone to fall on the stairs.

If you are injured on someone’s property, or you suffer a fall on stairs, do not wait to get help. Contact Brill & Rinaldi today about a free consultation if you are injured on someone’s property.