Safe Home Tip
TREE SWINGS AND LADDERS
A tree swing (or a rope swing or tire swing) is composed of a single rope or chain attached to a high tree branch, along with a seat, which is typically a wooden plank or tire. For many homeowners, tree swings represent fond childhood memories, but this type of DIY play equipment is too often poorly constructed by non-professional builders for their children who can be unaware of the potential dangers.
Consider some recent tragedies. In 2010, a British girl enjoying her tree swing was killed when she was pinned to the ground by the falling silver birch, which is a tree species considered unsuitable for tree swings. That same year, an unsupervised boy accidentally hanged himself when he became tangled in the tree swing’s rope. Children are also killed or injured when ropes snap or hanger brackets dislodge. An article in the journal Pediatrics stated that “recreational, single-rope tree swing injuries among children resulted in significant morbidity, regardless of the height of the fall. This activity carries a substantial risk for serious injury.”
To prevent accidents, homeowners can learn about what goes into a properly installed tree swing, and how to inspect them for potential hazards.
A sturdy tree is a must for a safe tree swing, but this consideration may be overlooked on properties that lack a variety of healthy trees from which to choose. Also, homeowners should remember that while trees appear stationary, they are actually alive and constantly, albeit slowly, growing and changing shape. As such, branches will “absorb” hanger brackets, and overhead branches will become brittle, gradually transforming what was once a properly installed tree swing into one that is no longer safe to use.
Check for the following indications that the tree will pose dangers to the user:
- Inappropriate tree choice. According to London Play, an organization that promotes outdoor exercise for children, beech, oak, sycamore and Norway maple are suitable for rope swings, while pine, poplar, spruce, willow and silver birch should be avoided. Cherry, cedar and ash can be used only when their limbs are large and the tree is in good condition.
- The branch is too thin. The branch’s minimum thickness depends on the tree species, but, in general, it should be at least 8 inches thick.
- Bulges, cracks, or unusual swelling. These tree defects often lead to limb failure. If possible, the candidate limb should be inspected from above as well as from the ground.
- Decay, fungus, or signs of hollowing within the tree. Dead wood is often dry and brittle and cannot bend in the wind under the stresses of the weight of a swinging child. Strike the tree at different points with a hammer to test for the sound of hollowing.
- Poor tree architecture. While a tree that naturally leans may have no structural defects, straight trees that have started to lean recently may be damaged and in danger of collapse.
- Cracks or seams where the branch forks from the larger limb. Weak unions indicate that the limb is at risk of tearing out.
- Dead or hanging branches above the swing. These should be secured or removed, as they are likely to dislodge from the motion of the moving swing.
Whether on purpose or by accident, sooner or later, children will fall from playground equipment, including rope swings, and the extent of their injuries will be determined, in part, by the condition of the ground beneath the swing.
Inspect for the following hazards that may make injuries more likely:
- Asphalt, concrete or other types of hard surfaces. Grass or bare earth covered with leaves is usually safe, although additional safety can be provided by loose-fill material, such as mulch, wood chips, shredded rubber mulch, or engineered wood fiber. Earth that has been compacted by frequent foot traffic may be too hard.
- Natural objects that may be tripped over or injure a child, such as rocks, exposed roots, stumps or branches from a neighboring tree. These objects should be removed so that only a flat surface remains.
- Downward-sloped terrain. This will have the effect of accelerating the speed or adding to the distance for the child to dismount the swing, increasing the likelihood that s/he will trip and fall. Such a slope will also encourage the loss of leaves and other natural loose-fill material to wind and rain.
- Safe ground surface that extends only in a narrow path in front of and behind the swing. Tire swings, which permit a swinging motion in any axis, demand a larger safe-ground surface than other rope swings. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) recommends installing a protective surface outward from the swing equal to the suspension rope plus 6 feet.
Tree swings are sometimes installed adjacent to ponds or rivers so the user has the option of a water landing. As exciting as this prospect may be, water presents its own set of dangers. A flotation device may be kept next to the tree so that it can be thrown into the water in case of an emergency.
Also, check for the following:
- Water depth. Check to make sure that the water is sufficiently and uniformly deep within the fall range.
- Sharp rocks, branches or other objects that can cause injury.
- Obvious exit. A steep-walled river can be difficult to escape, as can swift river currents.
A tree swing is only as strong as its rope or chain, so care should be taken to choose adequate material.
Check for the following rope defects:
- Too thin. Rope that is too thin will either not support the weight of a swinging child or be difficult to adequately grasp.
- Too thick. Ensure that the rope is not so thick that a child cannot easily grasp it. Rope that is an inch to 1-1/2 inches thick is typically sufficient, depending on the material.
- Inadequate strength. Remember that as the user swings higher and higher, the tension in the rope or chain will equal several times the rider’s weight at the bottom of the arc. Therefore, the rope should be rated to withstand significantly greater weight than that of the intended rider.
- Abrasiveness. Before wrapping the rope around the tree limb, protect the tree from abrasion and subsequent damage and weakening by wrapping a section of rubber around it.
- Unsafe, makeshift or additional ropes. Ensure that the rope does not create strangulation hazards. Also, check for any stray jump ropes, clotheslines, pet leashes, or anything else unnecessarily attached to the tree swing.
The seat should be high enough so that the user’s legs do not scrape the ground but not so high that the swing isn’t easily accessible or requires unsafe effort for the user to dismount. Remember that tree limbs can sway under the user’s weight, and weaker limbs may permit the seat to get too close to the ground. Sufficient clearance is roughly 10 inches between the ground and the user, which may translate into 16 inches for an unoccupied swing. A seat may be made from a wooden plank, which can be inspected for splinters, or a tire, which is usually suspended in a horizontal orientation using three suspension chains or cables connected to a single swivel mechanism that permits both rotation and a swinging motion in any axis.
The tire may be a discarded vehicle tire or a plastic imitation, but it can present its own set of defects, including:
- Exposed metal wires. Newer radial tires should not be used for a swing. In fact, the American Society of Testing and Materials (ASTM) explicitly advises against their use because they can become worn, exposing dangerous metal wires. Radial tires should be closely inspected for wear before their use. Older bias tires are usually safer to use for swings.
- Using a heavy truck tire. This type of tire may be too heavy, causing the hanger clamp to dislodge. According to the ASTM, the entire rope swing assembly should not be greater than 35 pounds.
- No water drainage holes. Tires will collect rainwater if they lack holes through which water can drain.
- Beehives or hornets’ nests. Carefully inspect the interior of the tire for dangerous animals and insects and their nests, especially stinging insects, which may require special handling in order to remove safely.
Hanger clamps provide a fixed point for the rope and the tree branch to intersect while keeping them properly separated, reducing friction on the rope that can cause it to gradually wear away.
The likelihood of failure at this point is increased due to the additional stress of rotational movement and multiple users.
Check for the following defects:
Additional Inspection Tips
- Poor clamp location. The hanger should be installed far enough away from the tree trunk that the user cannot inadvertently swing into the tree, especially if the swing permits horizontal motion. Likewise, the hanger should be placed at a point on the branch close enough to the tree trunk that the branch is of desirable strength and thickness.
- The clamp is not securely installed. If it detaches, the swing and its rider will fall to the ground. The CPSC has ordered a recall of tire swings manufactured by Miracle Recreation Equipment Company (model #714-852, #714-852-X and #278) for this safety defect due to reported injuries.
- Pinch points. Hanger clamps, especially for multi-axis tire swings, should not have any accessible pinch points.
- Check for signs of vandalism. Even if intended as a harmless prank, disaster can result from a partially cut rope.
- Supervise children at play. Children may stand on the swing, swing excessively high to outdo a friend, or spin the swing to create dizziness. A little supervision can mean the difference between childhood antics and serious danger.
- Remove drawstrings from children’s clothing, as they can become attached to the moving swing and create a strangulation hazard.
- Remove the swing in bad weather if it may become damaged or damage the tree.
- Clean, sand and repaint rusted areas as needed.
- Occasionally inspect the condition of the equipment for signs of wear (especially after a season of harsh or inclement weather), such as splintering wooden surfaces, damaged suspension ropes, broken and missing components, and bent pipes or tubing.
- Ensure that protective caps and plugs that cover bolts and tubing ends are in place and secure.
- Periodically oil any moving metal parts
- Maintain adequate loose-fill surfacing beneath the swing.
In summary, tree swings can be great fun if they’re used with safety in mind first and foremost. Homeowners should inspect for their proper installation and maintenance to prevent avoidable and potentially tragic accidents.
Treehouses are great fun for kids, but danger is inherent when you let children play in trees. Homeowners should keep aware of potential hazards.
Despite what we know about power line dangers for residential homes and commercial structures, homeowners sometimes build treehouses near power lines, perhaps due to space constraints. This situation increases the likelihood that children will be electrocuted or burned in a tragic treehouse fire, as it becomes quite easy for them to climb onto the power lines or deliberately touch them with sticks or poles. The wind may also cause the branches to contact the power lines. Some utility companies instruct their workers to flag treehouses that are dangerously close to power lines. Homeowners are then notified and, depending on the company, the tree may be either pruned or removed.
In addition to power lines, treehouses should not be built near or over a cliff, a busy road, or dangerous water features.
The Forestry Commission of England offers the following treehouse safety guidelines (their code is in italics):
Advice for Homeowners
- Fall height. The fall height from the treehouse should not be greater than 2 meters unless the structure has good protection against falls, such as railings or other edge protection
- Fall zone. The fall zone around the treehouse should be free of any pointed stumps, sharp or large rocks, or dangerous waste, such as sharp metal. Normal vegetation cover, saplings and bushes are not a problem. Wood chips make a good groundcover beneath the treehouse.
- Access. Access to the treehouse needs to be checked. If a rope or rope ladder is provided, then weight-bearing capacity should be checked by giving the rope a ‘good pull’ with feet firmly on the ground. Wooden ladders are better than rope ladders, which are less stable and pose a strangulation risk.
- Structure. Structure should be checked to ensure that collapse is not likely. This should be done in a safe manner from outside the structure [while] wearing safety helmet. If ladders are used to access the structure, then working at height regulations should be followed. Also, inspect the tree, as well as neighboring trees, for evidence of weakness, fungus and decay.
- Snag hazards. Inspect for rough, splintered areas that can be sanded down, and for nails sticking out that may be replaced with screws.
- Inspect for loose and rotten boards.
- Is there a railing? According to The Black and Decker Complete Guide: Build Your Kids a Treehouse, railings should be at lest 36 inches tall with vertical balusters no more than 4 inches apart. On treehouses designed for small children, rope or cable should not be used for the balusters. Horizontal balusters are dangerous because children use them to climb.
- Check your homeowners insurance policy or give your agent a call to find out what kind of liability you may face by building a treehouse on your property. It may range from full coverage to no coverage at all, including having your policy's renewal revoked if you build one.
- Restrict access to the treehouse, especially if you live in a neighborhood with a lot of children. You may be held responsible if a trespassing child is injured in your treehouse.
- Treehouses allow children privacy and freedom, which can be healthy, but keep an eye out for antisocial activities, such as drug use.
- If the treehouse borders a neighbor’s house, it may cause a nuisance. Children might need to keep their voices down and be respectful.
- Is the treehouse not on your property? Build treehouses on public land at your own risk, as the project may be illegal. Also, the treehouse and children's activity may disrupt the enjoyment of others, or negatively impact nature conservation areas.
- Never allow children in the treehouse during inclement weather, especially if you hear thunder.
- Construct a pulley-and-bucket system for hauling items up to reduce the chance of fall or injury that can occur when climbing while carrying items.
- Restrict the number of children allowed in the treehouse at one time.
- Post a list of safety rules for the children to learn, and make sure they follow them.
In summary, treehouses pose some unique risks that can be mitigated with regular inspection and common sense.
Ladders and Stairways
A ladder is a structure designed for climbing that consists of two long side-pieces joined at uniform intervals by rungs or steps. It's important to use the right tool for the job, and that includes ladders, which come in different types and sizes for different applications. It's also important to exercise extreme caution while using a ladder, as a fall from a ladder can lead to serious injury and even death.
Some common causes of ladder injuries include:
Statistics Concerning Ladder Dangers
- mounting or dismounting the ladder improperly;
- losing one's balance;
- failing to set up the ladder properly;
- over-reaching while on the ladder; and
- mis-stepping while climbing or descending.
- According to the World Health Organization, the United States leads the world in ladder deaths. Each year, there are more than 164,000 emergency room-treated injuries and 300 deaths in the U.S. that are caused by falls from ladders.
- Most ladder deaths are from falls of 10 feet or less.
- Falls from ladders are the leading cause of deaths on construction sites.
- Over the past decade, the number of people who have died from falls from ladders has tripled.
- Falls from ladders are the leading cause of ladder-related injuries, followed by using a ladder improperly, using a faulty or defective ladder, and simple carelessness.
Some basic safety tips will help prevent injuries. And safety begins with understanding the types of ladders available and their common uses
According to the American Ladder Institute, there are seven common types of ladders:
- a step ladder, which is a self-supporting ladder that is not adjustable in length, with a hinged design for ease of storage;
- a single ladder, which is a non-self-supporting ladder that is not adjustable in length, consisting of one section. This type of ladder is rarely used anymore because extension ladders are used instead;
- an extension ladder, which is a non-self-supporting ladder that is adjustable in length. It consists of two or more sections that travel in guides or brackets arranged so as to permit length adjustment;
- an articulated ladder, which has one or more pairs of locking articulated joints, allowing the ladder to be set up in several different configurations. It may be used as a step ladder or single ladder;
- a tripod ladder, which has one leg opposite the rungs and is handy for applications where more support is desired than that provided by an extension ladder but where space to set up the ladder may be limited;
- a trestle ladder, which is a combination of a step ladder with a single extension ladder that can be raised through the top; and
- a telescoping ladder, which uses a pin system to "telescope" into variable lengths. As it is more portable than the extension ladder, it is often preferred over that design for indoor applications. Homeowners should be aware that accidents have happened due to failure of the pins, which can be difficult to detect in advance. Some people refuse to use telescoping ladders for this reason.
Ladder levels attached to the bottom of the side rails can provide stability and support on uneven surfaces, but the use of these devices should be limited to people whose expertise and confidence in ladder use is advanced. For most users, placing the ladder on a flat, even surface is the safest method.
If it's not possible to safely brace an extension ladder against a stable or level surface at the top, a straight ladder stabilizer can be used for this purpose.
Safety Tips for Homeowners
- leave a raised ladder unattended. Ladders that are not in use should be laid on the ground or put away;
- place a ladder in front of a door that is not locked, blocked or guarded;
- place a ladder on an unstable or uneven surface;
- use a ladder for any purpose other than the one for which it was designed. Many homeowners and even professionals sometimes use an extension ladder as a ramp between two points or as a shelf to hold materials and supplies, and what may seem convenient in a pinch may lead to an accident or injury;
- tie or fasten ladders together to provide longer sections, unless they are specifically designed for that purpose;
- use a ladder in windy conditions;
- use a ladder if you're not fully alert and physically able;
- skip any rungs while climbing or descending;
- bounce on any rungs;
- use a ladder that has been exposed to fire or strong chemicals, as these conditions may leave residual damage or corrosion, which cannot be detected during use;
- exceed the maximum load rating. The maximum load rating, which should be found on a highly visible label on the ladder, is the maximum intended load that the ladder is designed to carry. Duty ratings are Type lll, ll, l, lA and 1B, which correspond to maximum load capacities of 220, 225, 250, 300 and 350 pounds, respectively. Homeowners should know the duty rating of the ladder they are using, as well as the combined weight of themselves and their tools;
- use a step ladder in the closed or partially closed position, or use it by leaning it against a wall;
- sit on any rung, including the top;
- climb past the fourth rung from the top on a leaning ladder, or the second rung from the top on a step ladder. Never use the top step;
- pull, lean, stretch, or make any sudden moves. Over-reaching is the most common and dangerous form of ladder misuse;
- climb a ladder while holding tools or other items. Both hands are required for safe climbing and descent;
- pull or push any items while ascending or descending. Always wait until you're at the top or bottom of your working point to hoist or lower items;
- step on the rear section of a step ladder or the underside of an extension ladder; paint a wooden ladder, as this can conceal cracks and other damage that would require repairing or replacing the ladder; or
- drop or throw a ladder, or allow it to fall, which can create a hazard for others, as well as damage the ladder.
Before mounting a ladder, always check the following:
- that the ladder, steps and rungs are free of oil, grease, wet paint, and other slipping hazards;
- that the feet work properly and have slip-resistant pads. These pads become worn over time and may need to be replaced. On extension ladders, the rubber pads can be turned around to reveal metal spurs, which can be used to secure the ladder in soft surfaces, such as grass or dirt;
- that rung locks and spreader braces are working;
- that all moveable parts operate freely without binding or excessive play;
- that all bolts and rivets are secure;
- that ropes aren't frayed or excessively worn;
- that the ground under the ladder is level and firm. Large, flat, wooden boards braced under the ladder can level a ladder on uneven or soft ground. Also, some companies make leveling devices so that ladders can be used on uneven and hilly terrain;
- that the ladder's rungs, cleats or steps are parallel, level, and uniformly spaced when the ladder is in position for use. Rungs should be spaced between 10 and 14 inches apart;
- that the ladder is anchored. The base can be tied to a nearby sturdy object, such as a pole or a building. If no anchor is available, a stake can be driven into the ground. Homeowners should beware not to anchor their ladders to something that can impale them if they were to fall on it, such as a grounding rod. A 10-inch nail, hammered so as to leave only an inch or two exposed, is usually safe and effective;
- that the area around the ladder is roped off or barricaded;
- for any cracks, bends, splits and corrosion;
- the location of nearby power lines. If setting up a ladder near them or other types of electrical equipment is unavoidable, use a wooden or fiberglass ladder rather than a metal ladder, which can conduct electricity and lead to a shock or electrocution. Do not allow your ladder to make contact with any overhead wires, regardless of the type or whether they're live, as it is not always possible to confirm their status;
- the distance of non-self-supporting ladders from the structure. This type of ladder must lean against a wall or other support, so they should be positioned at such an angle that the horizontal distance from the top support to the foot of the ladder is about one-quarter or at a 4:1 angle of the working length of the ladder. A rough method to test this angle is by placing your toes at the base of the ladder and stretching your arm at shoulder height. Your hand should just touch the ladder;
- that the ladder has slip-resistant feet;
- that the ladder is the proper length for the job. Ladders should extend a minimum of 3 feet over the roofline or working surface;
- the locking devices. Step ladders must have a metal spreader or locking device to hold the front and back sections in an open position when in use; and
- that someone knows where you are. Accidents can and do happen in remote areas where cell phones are ineffective and no one is home. If you are injured under these conditions, no one will know you are hurt and need help
While on the ladder, always:
- face the ladder;
- wear secure-fitting footwear that’s free of mud and other substances that may cause you to slip;
- consider anchoring the top of the ladder with a bungee cord. Perhaps the most feared move is stepping back onto the ladder from the roof. You must step around the section of the ladder that extends above the roofline, placing lateral pressure on the rung as you make contact with the ladder. A bungee cord is a convenient tool that can be used to reduce any wavering that could otherwise result in a serious accident. Also, a bungee cord may prevent the ladder from being blown over in the wind while you’re on the roof;
- be conscious of the ladder's location, especially while walking on the roof. In an emergency, the homeowner may need to leave the roof quickly. Ladders become much more dangerous when someone becomes covered in a swarm of stinging bees and must get down in a hurry, for instance;
- use a fall-arrest system for working at great heights or while performing complicated tasks;
- use the proper protective equipment for the job, such as a hardhat or eye protection;
- keep your body centered between the rails at all times. Do not lean too far to the side while working; and
- utilize at least three points of contact, because this minimizes the chances of slipping and falling from the ladder. At all times during ascent or descent, the climber must face the ladder and have two hands and one foot, or two feet and one hand, in contact with the ladder cleats and/or side rails. In this way, the climber is unlikely to become unstable if one limb slips during the climb. It is important to note that the climber must not carry any objects in either hand that can interfere with a firm grip on the ladder.
Always use proper mounting hardware on vehicles used to transport ladders, and follow precautionary measures if your ladder exceeds the length of your vehicle so that you don't cause an accident or violate any traffic codes.
Attic Pull-Down Ladders
Attic pull-down ladders, also called attic pull-down stairways, are collapsible ladders that are permanently attached to the attic floor. Occupants can use these ladders to access their attics without being required to carry a portable ladder
Homeowners, not professional carpenters, usually install attic pull-down ladders. Evidence of this distinction can be observed in consistently shoddy and dangerous work that rarely meets safety standards.
Some of the more common defective conditions include:
Tips for Homeowners:
- Cut bottom cord of the structural truss. Often, homeowners will cut through a structural member in the field while installing a pulldown ladder, unknowingly weakening the structure.Structural members should not be modified without an engineer’s approval.
- Fastened with improper nails or screws. Homeowners often use drywall or deck screws rather than the standard 16d penny nails or ¼ x 3-inch lag screws. Nails and screws that are intended for other purposes may have reduced shear strength and they may not support pull-down ladders.
- Fastened with an insufficient number of nails or screws. Manufacturers provide a certain number of nails with instructions that they all be used, and they probably do this for a good reason.
- Lack of insulation. Hatches in many houses (especially older ones) are not likely to be weatherstripped and/or insulated. An uninsulated attic hatch allows air from the attic to flow freely into the home, which may cause the heating or cooling system to run overtime. An attic hatch cover box can be installed to increase energy savings.
- Loose mounting bolts. This condition is more often caused by age rather than installation, although improper installation will hasten the loosening process.
- Attic pull-down ladders are cut too short. Stairs should reach the floor
- Attic pull-down ladders are cut too long. This causes pressure at the folding hinge, which can cause breakage.
- Improper or missing fasteners.
- Compromised fire barrier when installed in the garage.
- Attic ladder frame is not properly secured to the ceiling opening.
- Closed ladder is covered with debris, such as blown insulation or roofing material shed during roof work.
- Cracked steps. This defect is a problem with wooden ladders
- In sliding pull-down ladders, there is a potential for the ladder to slide down quickly without notice. Always pull the ladder down slowly and cautiously.
- Do not allow children to enter the attic through an attic access. The lanyard attached to the attic stairs should be short enough that children cannot reach it. Parents can also lock the attic ladder so that a key or combination is required to access it.
- If possible, avoid carrying large loads into the attic. While properly installed stairways may safely support an adult man, they may fail if he is carrying heavy items. These trips can be split up to reduce the weight load.
- Replace an old, rickety wooden ladder with a new one. Newer aluminum models are often lightweight, sturdy, and easy to install.
In summary, attic pull-down ladders are prone to a number of defects, most of which are due to improper installation.
Due to their inherent dangers, stairways and unsafe patterns of use are the cause of a surprising number of injuries. A careful assessment of the risks posed by stairways can prevent unnecessary injuries.
Facts and Figures
- More than 1,600 people died from falls on steps and stairs in the United States in 2004. This figure is greater than the combined number of swimming pool and bathtub drownings for the same year, according to the National Safety Council. The actual number of stairway accidents is probably much higher, as many people who sustain injuries don't know why they fell, and others are too embarrassed to admit they fell, so these incidents go unreported.
- Elderly occupants are at particular risk of falling down stairs, mostly due to impaired vision, reduced strength, and poor balance. For individuals age 65 and older, 260,000 are injured every year in falls on steps, stairs and escalators, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
- Handicapped and young children are also at increased risk of sustaining stairway injuries.
- In a study by Loughborough University in England, one-third of surveyed households admitted to leaving objects on stairs, presenting a serious trip hazard.
- In addition to potential physical injury, falls can cause serious psychological and social consequences, affecting confidence, mobility, and general well-being, according to the same study
While residents may already be aware of stair abnormalities in their own home, their guests may not be prepared for irregular steps or inadequate headroom height, for instance. If you sell your home, prospective home buyers are better off hearing about such irregularities from you than learning through experience after they purchase your home.
The following is a partial list of defects you may find in stairways:
- A handrail is loose, incomplete, missing, splintery, not of a contrasting color with its background, or has insufficient finger clearance. As deck stairways may be open on both sides, missing handrails there put occupants at serious risk.
- Treads are cracked, uneven, worn, loose, or poorly supported.
- Risers are of uneven height.
- Lighting is poor, shadows are numerous, or the corridor leading to the stairs is dark. It’s helpful to have a light switch installed at the top and bottom of each staircase.
- The floor is waxed, increasing the chances of slipping.
- Exterior steps are not sloped to prevent water settlement and icing.
- The stair carpeting slides because it is not firmly affixed to the stairs. Double-sided tape or tacks may be used to prevent slipping.
- Balusters are spaced more than 4 inches apart, allowing a child to potentially slip through and get trapped.
- The stairs are not ergonomically designed.
- The stairs are too steep.
- The platform or landing surface is not slip-resistant, and/or it has a sharp object, blunt wall, or window located in the direction of a possible fall.
- The nosing is missing, broken, worn, patched, loose, slippery, or not installed properly.
- Sharp corners are on stair elements.
- Headroom is insufficient
- There is no safety gate at the top of the stairway in a home with small children.
Note that some design defects would be difficult or cost-prohibitive to remedy, so this would require rebuilding of the stairs.
Tips to reduce the chance of stairway falls include:
- Start a regular exercise program, if you haven’t already. Inactivity leads to weakness, inflexibility, and an increased risk of falling.
- Remove trip hazards, such as clothes, shoes, toys and/or books from stairs and other places where you walk.
- Improve the lighting around the stairs. As you age, you'll need brighter lights to see well. Lampshades or frosted bulbs will reduce glare.
- Senior citizens should wear shoes that provide good support and have thin, non-slip soles. Avoid lightweight slippers or shoes with deep treads, as they can reduce your feeling of control
- Do not carry heavy items up and down stairs, especially if the item blocks your view of the steps. Also, always hold onto the handrail.
- Install a second handrail for additional support. A second handrail will also provide support for two individuals as they pass each other.
In summary, stairways can pose a serious safety risk, but these risks can be minimized by adequate stair construction and safe practices.
Even decks that appear to be professionally constructed can have defects that could cause their collapse. These defects are so difficult for the average homeowner to recognize that the Master Inspector Certification Board recommends that all decks be inspected by a Certified Master Inspector®.
More than 2 million decks are built and replaced each year in North America. Of the 45 million existing decks,only 40% are completely safe.
Because decks appear to be simple to build, many people do not realize that decks are, in fact, structures that need to be designed to adequately resist certain stresses. Like any other house or building, a deck must be designed to support the weight of people, snow loads, and objects. A deck must be able to resist lateral and uplift loads that can act on the deck as a result of wind or seismic activity. Deck stairs must be safe, and handrails graspable. And, finally, deck rails should be safe for children by having proper infill spacing.
A deck failure is any failure of a deck that could lead to injury, including rail failure, or total deck collapse. There is no international system that tracks deck failures, and each is treated as an isolated event, rather than a systemic problem. Very few municipalities perform investigations into the cause of the failure, and the media are generally more concerned with injuries rather than the causes of deck collapses. Rail failure occurs much more frequently than total deck collapses; however, because rail failures are less dramatic than total collapses and normally don't result in death, injuries from rail failures are rarely reported.
Here are some interesting facts about deck failure:
- More decks collapse in the summer than during the rest of the seasons combined.
- Almost every deck collapse occurred while the decks were occupied or under a heavy snow load.
- There is no correlation between deck failure and whether the deck was built with or without a building permit.
- There is no correlation between deck failure and whether the deck was built by a homeowner or a professional contractor.
- There is a slight correlation between deck failure and the age of the deck.
- About 90% of deck collapses occurred as a result of the separation of the house and the deck ledger board, allowing the deck to swing away from the house. It is very rare for deck floor joists to break mid-span.
- Many more injuries are the result of rail failure, rather than complete deck collapse.
- Deck stairs are notorious for lacking graspable handrails.
- Many do-it-yourself homeowners, and even contractors, don't believe that rail infill spacing codes apply to decks.
Significant safety hazards are caused by both DIY and commercially built decks that:
- lack adequate attachment to the house, both in terms of the deck’s structure and the use of improper fasteners;
- are cantilevered in style without the proper support to prevent weakening and collapse;
- are built too high off the ground for their supporting members;
- are not anchored properly at the base with proper footings and piers;
- lack proper bracing at their underside;
- are built on loose or uneven ground;
- have deck planks installed without adequate spacing to allow for drainage of rainwater;
- have deck planks installed without staggering for adequate load support;
- lack proper rail height and width;
- have baluster infill spacing that is too wide;
- lack graspable handrails at the stairs;
- lack a GFCI-protected and covered electrical receptacle especially for use at the exterior;
- lack adequate exterior lighting at the deck and/or stairs;
- may have its supporting members subject to excessive moisture, such as by a lawn sprinkler system;
- may have been built with reclaimed wood that is too weathered, dried out, splintered and/or cracked to be safe to support the weight of people;
- may be built over an emergency egress window at the home’s basement or lower level; and/or
- may be built over a septic system or underground storage tank
These are just some of the hazards that make a deck that is unsafe to use.