Taking the Right Steps to Improve Stairway Safety

by Bruce Montgomery Ph.D. March 30, 2016

Taking the Right Steps to Improve Stairway Safety

Stairways come in second to bathrooms as the most common place for falls in the home. And we have a lot of steps and stairs in our American homes.

According to the 2013 American Housing Survey by the US Census Bureau, http://factfinder.census.gov/faces/tableservices/jsf/pages/productview.xhtml?pid=AHS_2013_C01AH&prodType=table

  • Of the 133 million housing units in the United States
    • 54% are 2 or 3 stories (i.e., have stairs)
    • 58% use steps to enter the housing unit from the outside
  • Of the 90 million one-unit housing units (i.e. single residential)
    • 42% have a basement under all or part of the home (i.e., have stairs)

Around 1998, Cornell Cooperative Extension published a Housing Fact Sheet called “Stair Safety: Causes and Prevention of Residential Stair Injuries” http://www.human.cornell.edu/dea/outreach/upload/Stair-Safety-2-2.pdf. Excerpts from the Fact Sheet include the following results of a research project on the prevalence of stair hazards in the studied New York homes, followed by a discussion of the causes of falls on stairs and suggestions for remedies.

A recent study conducted by the Department of Design and Environmental Analysis at Cornell University examined stairs in 68 houses in 6 upstate New York counties. The study assessed stairs with respect to a variety of potentially hazardous characteristics… eighty-one percent of the 68 stair cases examined had at least one of these hazards; 55% exhibited two or more of these hazards.

Stair Hazards in Order of Prevalence

Stair Hazards in Houses in NY Study

           Percent of Houses with Hazard

Bottom Riser Irregularity > 1 inch


Top Riser Irregularity > 1 inch


Articles Left on Stairs


Absence (or Partial) Absence of Handrail


Riser Irregularity in Middle of Run > 1 inch


Tread Badly Eroded


Loose/Torn Carpeting


Broken Tread






Stairway Problems & Solutions

Stairway Design & Construction

  • Most building codes require that the height of the riser height be 7¾” or less and that the tread be 10” deep or more. According to the Cornell report, a riser height between 6 and 7¾ inches and a tread depth between 10 to 13 inches are most comfortable. The optimum dimensions are a 7¼ inch riser height and an 11- or 12-inch tread depth. Nosing on the stair should not protrude more than 1.5 inches and should be beveled to reduce trip potential.
  • Riser consistency and uniformity is one of the most important safety factors in stairway construction. Building codes state that the riser height should vary by no more then 3/8” between risers. However, even a ¼ inch variation can cause a person to fall.

Risers should all be the same height. From the Cornell report, we see that most stairway falls are attributable to uneven height risers especially at the bottom or top riser. If you have one or more risers that vary in height, then you have a tripping hazard that should be rectified.

(Check your local building codes at http://www.cmdgroup.com/buildingcodes/. Note that codes are set at minimums and maximums. Staying within the code guidelines, shorter risers and deeper treads may be more safe and comfortable in many home environments)

  • Stairs with just one or two steps can be hard to detect by visitors to your home and are a cause for many falls. Make sure that these stair runs of just one or two steps are well lit and marked by distinct floor materials, contrasting colors, and handrails.
  • Unsafe landings can also be safety hazards in homes. Typical building codes for landings include:
    • There shall be a floor or landing at the top and bottom of each stairway
    • The width of each landing shall not be less than the stairway served
    • Every landing shall have a minimum dimension of 36 inches measured in the direction of travel


  • The Cornell study also found that missing or broken handrails are a common occurrence in homes. Per the Cornell report, absence of handrails account for a large percentage of falls on stairs that result in injuries. Handrails help stair users maintain or regain their balance. According to most building codes, handrails shall be provided on at least one side of each continuous run of treads or flight with four or more risers.
  • To improve safety, we recommend handrails on both sides of a stairway at a height of 34 inches, but not higher than 38 inches. Round-shaped rails of 1.5 inches in diameter provide the best grip size for adults and must be positioned at least 1.5 inches from the wall. Handrails for stairways need to be continuous for the full length of the flight, from a point directly above the top riser of the flight to a point directly above lowest riser of the flight. Always ensure that the ends of the rails are covered with a return to the wall at each end or that they terminate at a newel post. Rails without returns can catch clothing or other handheld objects causing a person’s movement to be unexpectedly stopped or re-directed.
  • Ensure that the handrails are solid, securely attached to the wall, smooth and free of any defects.


  • We discuss the importance of adequate lighting in another blog and it is especially important in stairways. Ensure that a light switch is installed at the top and the bottom of the stairs.
  • Consider installing lights just above the steps that illuminate each or several steps
  • Install motion sensors that turn lights on automatically when someone approaches the stairway


  • If the stairs are carpeted, ensure that the edge is noticeable and the carpet is tight and not torn
  • If the steps have a smooth surface, install anti-slip material to the tread to provide traction
  • Ensure that all treads are in good repair – no cracks, breaks or wobbles

Housekeeping & Maintenance

  • Keep the stairway clear of any and all objects – even if you are temporarily placing something to take up or downstairs “in a few minutes”
  • Use a side table or wall hooks to hold objects that you plan to take up or downstairs

Operator errors

  • Although ensuring that your stairway is well constructed, lit and maintained, the ultimate responsibility for preventing falls is with you as you use the stairs. According to the Cornell report, slipping is the primary cause of stair falls. Most stairway falls that result in injuries occur while walking down the stairs
    • Be aware of your health and your capacity to navigate stairs – use your strong leg to start your decent or ascent on the stairs
    • Be aware of your movements and foot placement on the stairs – pay attention and do not hurry
    • Wear appropriate footwear (proper fit and non-slip soles) and clothing (avoid loose garments that might get tangled in your feet)
    • If you have a handrail on both sides of the stairs, grip each rail as you move up or down the stairs – if you only have one handrail then grip it too
    • Avoid carrying objects up or down stairs. If you must carry objects, be sure that they are light weight, have an easy-to-grasp handle and that you keep one hand on a handrail at all times. If the object in your hand starts to slip, let it go.
    • Train your pets to stay out of your way as you use the stairs



  • If your physical condition changes and you cannot safely navigate your stairs, consider alternatives such as elevators, vertical lifts and stair lifts.
  • Consider modifying your home and adding fall prevention devices like grab bars so that you can live on the main floor and do not have to use the stairs

Stairways are the second most likely location in your home for fall-related injuries. Paying attention to the condition of your stairs and handrails, while being careful every time you navigate your stairs can help you prevent falls in your home.

Bruce Montgomery Ph.D.
Bruce Montgomery Ph.D.


Dr. Bruce Montgomery is a licensed building contractor in Michigan and Florida. He is a Certified Aging-in-Place Specialist as designated by the National Association of Home Builders. He has also achieved an Executive Certificate in Home Modification from the University of Southern California. He has a wide ranging educational background, including a Master of Science degree in Entomology, with a Master of Science degree in Forestry and a Ph.D. in educational administration.

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