Kevin Underwood of the British Woodworking Federation discusses why staircase aesthetics must go hand in hand with safety, and why too often design flair can compromise it
For many, the staircase is a central feature of any new home, and for self-builds it offers the ability to truly put a unique and personal mark on a property. So why is stair safety so important? According to the British Standards Institution (BS 5395-1:2010), trips, slips and falls on the stairs cause 500 deaths in the UK each year.
Added to this, 250,000 non-fatal accidents take place on staircases in the home each year that are serious enough to require a visit to an A&E department or a doctor. When combined, this is the same as an accident occurring every two minutes on a staircase within the home in the UK.
STEPS TO SAFER STAIRS
Safer stairs do not mean you have to compromise on design. At the British Woodworking Federation (BWF) we recommend that self-builders consider five vital design characteristics before designing and installing a new staircase.
When going up or down a staircase, the brain subconsciously judges the depth of each step based on the first couple of steps and movements made. This means that if each step is not consistent in its depth then the brain will not adjust to the change, making everyone vulnerable to trips and slips on stairs. To help prevent accidents, the step rise should only vary by one per cent throughout the staircase.
The ‘going’ of a stair (its width) can significantly affect a person’s ability to travel up or down the stairs safely. If the going is 30 cm or more, users are less likely to overstep. However, if a staircase must be narrower, consider surface finish that offers high slip resistance to reduce the risk of an accident.
Any potential fall over the side of a staircase presents a serious injury risk. For this reason, drops of more than 60 cm should be protected by guarding. The material used for the guarding should be strong enough to withstand someone falling into it and high enough to stop anyone falling over it. For properties where children will be using the staircase, the gaps in the guarding should be less than 10 cm in width and height to prevent them from falling through.
Trips and slips on the stairs can often be prevented by providing something for someone to hold onto when they lose their balance – particularly for properties where vulnerable persons may be using the staircase. Handrails should be incorporated into the design at an early stage so that they can become an attractive design feature. The railing should be positioned where it can be easily reached at all points on the staircase.
The finish of a staircase can be the final touch for a truly breathtaking design, but it can also significantly influence the risk of slips. For example, a shiny varnished wooden floor will be more prone to becoming slippery in comparison to a carpet. The ongoing maintenance of the stairs should also be considered when selecting the surface finish, as wet and dusty surfaces, worn or thin carpets and various types of hard flooring can all wear differently and increase the risk of trips and falls.
Stair safety does not need to be a restricting factor on design creativity. In fact, by incorporating features of interest including handrails and guarding, unique staircase designs can be created to further enhance the focal point of any home. The BWF Stair Scheme promotes best practice in stair design and has a wealth of information on its website to help you ensure that beauty and safety are carefully balanced.
Kevin Underwood is technical director of the British Woodworking Federation