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Stair Wars : With accidents costing the U.S. $10 billion to $12 billion a year, safety experts are urging change in home stair design while builders decry cost.

April 18, 1993|PETER BENNETT | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Bennett is a La Verne free-lance writer. and

A poor devil has ended his cares

At the foot of your rotten-runged rat-riddled stairs?

--Robert Browning

Frankly, stairs are risky business.

When Scarlett O'Hara tries to slap Rhett Butler in "Gone With the Wind," she stumbles and careens violently down the stairs. The pregnant Scarlett falls into a coma and suffers a miscarriage.

Stairs are also a slippery slope for politicians. President Gerald R. Ford's well-publicized missteps--at the inauguration of his vice president, Nelson Rockefeller, in the Senate Chamber, and later disembarking Air Force One with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat--helped mold a perception of the nation's chief executive as a stumbling, bumbling world leader.

The fictional and famous aren't the only ones to be tripped up by stairs.

In a rush to get her children off to school this fall, Shirley Young of Los Angeles slipped down her carpeted stairs, skidding on her tailbone the last five steps. She slowly picked herself up, her pride bruised more than her posterior.

"I was lucky," Young said. "Now I approach stairs the same way I would a jagged cliff--with extreme caution."

In the past, stair accident victims have often blamed their own clumsiness or carelessness for their slips, trips and falls. Now, some safety experts say flawed stair design is at fault. Home builders argue, however, that tampering with the basic geometry of stairs is an arbitrary and unaffordable extravagance, unacceptable to price-conscious home buyers.

"There's no such thing as a safe stair. It doesn't exist," said John Templer, Regent's Professor of Architecture at the Georgia Institute of Technology and author of "The Staircase," a definitive, two-volume study published in 1992 on stair history, hazards, falls and designs.

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission estimated that 1 million stair-related accidents occurred in 1990. A 1989 study by the National Safety Council reported that about 12,000 people die every year after a fall from one level to another or a fall on the same level.

The elderly are especially vulnerable to falls. In the home, 84% of those who die after a fall are over 65, according to the same 1989 National Safety Council study.

"I wonder how many homeowners, and even home builders, know that the stair is the most dangerous consumer product in the home," said Templer, adding that falls cause more than twice as many deaths annually as drownings, fires or burns.

Jake Pauls, a safety specialist with a Maryland consulting firm, estimated that stair accidents cost the United States $10 billion to $12 billion a year in terms of health care, lost wages and short- and long-term disability.

Despite such statistics, stair accidents remain a hidden epidemic, noted John Archea, a professor of architecture at the University of Buffalo, who co-wrote stair safety guidelines for the National Bureau of Standards.

"Unless we fall on them," he said, "or unless our daughter is getting married and we want to take a picture of her coming down the stairs and tossing her bouquet, stairs are pretty much in the background of our world."

That, however, could be changing.

Safety experts want the same codes regulating public access stairs--steps with a 7-inch vertical rise and 11-inch horizontal tread--applied to home stairs. These dimensions are based on a 1985 study of stairways in workplaces for the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, of which Templer and Archea were the chief authors.

After videotaping and analyzing about 63,000 people going up and down stairs in a variety of settings, they found that fewer missteps result on gently sloping 7-11 stairs than occur on steeper, tighter stairs with tall risers and shallow treads.

By contrast, California stair codes set by the International Conference of Building Officials (ICBO), based in Whittier, require only an 8-inch maximum rise and a 9-inch minimum tread. Stair standards also differ in other areas of the country, reflecting regional codes and practices that are sometimes centuries old.

This lack of uniformity can lead literally to the downfall of stair users.

"I can't tell you how many accident cases I've investigated where an elderly grandparent visiting from the East falls on a stair that is different from back home," said Harvey Cohen, a safety consultant in La Mesa.

In the Northeast, the Building Officials and Code Administrators International (BOCA) briefly adopted the 7-11 recommendation of safety experts, then overturned the new rule last September, under pressure from builders and their trade group, the National Assn. of Homebuilders (NAHB).

"We don't have a national building code in this country," Archea said. "We're the only country in the world that doesn't."

Added Templer: "There is no federal agency with a continuing mission to reduce building accidents, and the (building) industry seems to be too fragmented to undertake such a task."

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