Are Single Riser or Short Flight Stairs More Dangerous Than Multi-Step Stairways?

Surprisingly, the answer is yes. You might be surprised to learn this and that almost all safety people agree with this assessment.

In fact, the ASTM International -- a safety organization formerly known as American Society for Testing and Materials -- says so. Founded in 1898, the ASTM International is an organization that provides and publishes over 12,000 safety standards to be followed throughout the entire world. Those standards apply to a wide range of materials, services and products.

The ASTM International has over 30,000 members, including over 1,150 organizations all devoted to safety. Its members originally included scientists and engineers, but today membership includes all types of individuals and groups.

Although the standards are voluntary guidelines, there are many federal, state and municipal regulations that have adopted them.

This includes ASTM Standard F1637, which reads “Short flight stairs shall be avoided when possible…[or] obvious visual cues shall be provided.”

Most pedestrians will look ahead a few feet in the direction of travel and not stare perfectly at the ground. This causes missteps when it comes to short flight stairs.

Short flight stairs (any stairway that is made up of 3 or less stairs) are dangerous because people tend to not visually recognize the short drop and end up taking a short step and falling. This can cause big injuries. It is very easy for the human eye to not notice a depth decrease of a few inches without a visual cue.

To test this theory, imagine for a moment that you are descending stairs and approach a stairway with 7 or 8 risers downward. It is very easy for the human eye to detect such a large drop in elevation. But, when compared to a slight drop of a few inches or more, such as in a single riser situation, it is easy for the human eye to not be able to detect any descent whatsoever. Missteps can then occur; often with disastrous results.

The ASTM International is not the only safety organization that recognizes the dangers of a single riser stairway. The “\Guidelines for Stair Safety, Guideline No. 2.5.6 “Accentuation of Single Steps” also comments “If there is a single step within a room…. then provide patterns of illumination, color or other cues to emphasize the location of the step.”

This guideline, while voluntary in nature, warns business and landowners that single steps can go unrecognized by persons ascending or descending that single riser if a visual cue is not provided. This is why you might often see yellow paint or different colored carpets or floor textures on each side of the single step. The human brain simply has a difficult time appreciating small changes in elevation while walking.

Similarly, the Life Safety Code Handbook, Guideline A-5-1.6.2, Small Changes in Elevation also goes on to remark “[S}mall changes of elevation of floors are best avoided because of the increased occurrence of missteps where…single steps [are]…not readily apparent.”

Look at the example in the two photographs below. As you can see, the ability for the human brain to recognize a short descent pales in comparison to the ascending view.

The simplest method of avoiding injuries in these examples is to simply eliminate single riser stairs. But, when that cannot be accomplished architects are recommended to use design features that increase safety.

While codes vary from state to state and city to city, here are some design features that help.

  1. Landing and tread edges must be made visually apparent (paint, textures).
  2. In two riser stairs, use a minimum tread depth.
  3. Addition of a sloping handrail within 30” of the pedestrian’s path helps provide a visual cue of a descent.
  4. Replace the single riser with a ramp.

Attorney Jeff “JJ” Shaw has been handling single riser and short flight stair trip and fall cases for decades.

Call or Text (260) 777-7777 to get Attorney Shaw working on your case within 10 minutes from the comfort of your own home.

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