A high percentage of stair/ramp injuries, deaths and lawsuits can be prevented by complying with applicable state or local building codes.
The first article in this series addressed general principles: minimize lawsuits by good ethics, well written contracts, clear and open communication, and by following directions (e.g. building codes). Generally in order of decreasing lawsuit frequency: The second article was on inadequate drainage, which causes foundation movement and masonry distress. The third was on inadequate foundations, which cause masonry distress. This fourth article is on masonry stairways and ramps. The National Safety Council reports that annual deaths from stairway falls exceed deaths from fire, drowning and air travel combined. A high percentage of stair/ramp injuries, deaths and associated lawsuits can be prevented by complying with the applicable law, which is usually the state or local building code.
The building code adopted by state and/or local government in at least part of all 50 states is now the International Residential Code (IRC) for one- and two-family structures, and the International Building Code (IBC) for most other construction. But it is essential to be sure of code applicability: which year code and amendments apply.
The following is a summary of stairway/ramp requirements (IBC’06:1009-1013, IRC’06:R311-312):
- Width: 36” minimum, more with more than 50 occupants.
- Headroom: 80” minimum clear space.
- Risers: 7” maximum and 4” minimum (IBC), 7 3/4” maximum (IRC).
- Treads: 11” (IBC), 10” (IRC), sloped 2% maximum (IBC).
- Tolerance: between largest and smallest tread/riser: 3/8”.
- Landings: top and bottom of stairs and ramps 36” minimum width and length, sloped 2% max, sloped to drain if exterior.
- Maximum vertical stair rise: 12’ between floor or landings.
- Ramps: maximum running slope 8% (IBC), 12.5% (IRC), maximum cross slope 2%, minimum width 36” or more, maximum rise between landings 30” (IBC), with edge protection (IBC).
- Door Thresholds: maximum 1/2” high, with that above 1/4” beveled 1:2 (IBC).
- Handrails: on both sides of stairs with one or more risers (IBC), on one side of stairs with 4 or more risers (IRC) on both sides of ramps with 6” or more rise (IBC), on one side of ramps exceeding 8.33% slope (IRC), on full length of stairs and ramps, returned at ends, extended 12” beyond end of stairs and ramps (IBC), grip size 11/4” to 2” diameter or 4” to 6 1/2” perimeter if not round.
- Guardrails: where stair or ramp is more than 30” above grade below, minimum 42” high (IBC) 34” high (IRC), with no opening that will pass a 4” sphere, maximum 60” between handrails (IBC).
- Accessible: on egress routes required to be accessible, more restrictive requirements will apply (ICC/ANSI A117.1 by International Code Council), including no stairs, ramp edges protected with ramp surface extending 12” beyond inside of railing or a 4” curb or barrier.
After the author’s expert witness report and depositions, each of the following resulted in a settlement out of court with large payment to the injured or to deceased’s estate.
Case #1: Treads and Risers. A masonry stair (photo 1) had code violating risers (from 5 1/2” to 7 1/2”) and treads (from 11” to 12”), and missing handrails that caused a fall and severe injury. Also, guardrails (which were not handrails because of grip size, etc.) did not comply with guardrail height and gap requirements.
Case #2: Landing. A landing at stair bottom (photo 2) had code violating 15% slope, which caused a fall and severe injury. Also, riser and tread variations were several times the code maximum; handrail height exceeded code maximum and handrail length was less than code minimum.
Case #3: Handrails. Fifteen-foot-wide stair with missing two, mid-stair handrails. It also had inadequate handrail height and length, and riser/treads varying 2.3 times code maximum (photo 3), causing a fall and injury resulting in death.
Case #4: Door Threshold. The difference in elevation between the masonry inside stair landing and the outside walkway was 2.5 times the code maximum, which caused a fall and severe injury. Also, the masonry stair width, riser height and variation, handrail height/gaps/extensions/returns did not comply with code (photo 4).
Case #5: Ramp. Missing ramp handrails and ramp edge protection (required by accessibility code) caused a fall and severe injury. Other code violations included sidewalk cross slope, elevation changes in masonry joints, tread/riser variations, tread slopes, door threshold height and missing stair handrails (photo 5).