The perils of the stairwell

Ben McBride looks at the law around the most common of accidents: staircase falls.

One of the most common causes of fatality, along with road accidents, is falling on domestic staircases.

While, to a large extent, this high rate reflects the numbers of the mainly elderly, infirm and very young having such fatal falls in non-workplace situations, staircases do present a hazard in the workplace.

Falls from height have been a priority programme for the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). Analysis of the RIDDOR statistics between 1996/7 and 2001/2 showed stairs to be the most common agent in low fall accidents (below two metres) and although the 2001/2 statistics showed the number of stair incidents had decreased, there were 500 such falls, making stairs the second most common cause of falls from height, after ladders (Falls on Stairways – Literature Review HSL/2005/10).

Staircases at work should be treated as a potential hazard and risk assessed accordingly. They can be dangerous and the law recognises the obligation to make them safe.

The most common place for workplace stairway falls is the service industries, in particular in catering.

Any situation that carries the risk of a fall from height is covered by the Work at Height Regulations. They state that, if the staircase has an open side, it must be securely fenced off.

Regulation 12 (5) of the Workplace Regulations 1992 says suitable and sufficient handrails (and even guards where appropriate) should be provided for all staircases that are traffic routes unless a handrail would block the traffic route.

The HSE explains that “a secure and substantial handrail should be provided and maintained on at least one side of every staircase” (except where they would block access as in a theatre aisle).

If the staircase is busy or unusually wide or has narrow treads or is likely to be subject to spillages, then there should be handrails on both sides or even one extra rail in the middle on a very wide stairway, according to the Code of Practice that accompanies the Regulations.

While it might not be obvious what difference a handrail can make, given that people tend not use them, a 1998 study by Maki, Efficacy of handrails in preventing stairway falls: A new experimental approach, showed that virtually everyone can right themselves by grabbing a rail when falling.

But inevitably, where there is a sensible law aimed at protecting workers, employers will disregard it and lawyers will still get into battles over the language rather than the spirit of the law.

When is a staircase not a staircase?

The key battleground has become the word “staircase”. When is a staircase just a set of steps and so does not benefit from the safety standards required by these regulations?

For a staircase to be a staircase you might think it must have a minimum number of steps. But the courts have failed to make a definition, even though they have said that a few steps do not necessarily make a staircase.

In the case of Jaguar Cars -v- Coates (2004) the Court of Appeal (CA) said there was no legal requirement for a handrail on four steps, even though the stairs were outside.

Mr Coates tripped on the third step of four at Jaguar’s Coventry factory which led from the outside of a building to the car park. There was a chain link fence on one side but the other side, by a grass bank, was open. Mr Coates fell onto the bank, breaking his arm.

Although there was nothing intrinsically wrong with the steps, which were in good condition, solidly constructed and of generous depth, the lower courts said that Jaguar was negligent for its failure to provide a handrail.

Although Jaguar did then install a handrail, the firm did not think it was necessary and appealed the finding of negligence. The CA found in favour of Jaguar. It said that the failure to provide a handrail was not negligent.

The steps were of generous dimensions and, because there were only four, could not pose any real risk so long as those using them exercised the degree of care to be expected.

It was also found that Jaguar was not in breach of Regulation 5 (1) of the Workplace Regulations relating to the duty to maintain work equipment because, as the equipment – a handrail – was not provided, the regulations on maintenance and repair did not apply.


A solitary step in a workplace is the most common cause of a trip caused by steps or stairs and it should be well lit and prominently marked by a contrasting colour.

Visibility of stair edges and lighting is a key part of the Regulations. They add that it should be ensured “that edges of steps have clearly visible nosings” – the commonly seen yellow strips on the edge of stairs are to comply with this guidance.

The nosings should be non–slip and should be regularly inspected to ensure they do not wear smooth over time. Carpets too can wear smooth through excessive use and should be regularly inspected.

An employer in the care services has a duty in common law to heed a carer’s complaints if a domestic carpet is frayed or dangerous.

There is much literature on about such risks and the slipping assessment tools (SAT), including measurements for non-slip surfaces.

As ever, safety representatives at work have a right to make inspections and representations if they feel the workplace falls short of legal obligations.

Bakery fall ends career

A BFAWU member slipped coming down a stairway back into the mixing area, fracturing his elbow.

The injured man said he would normally have used both handrails of the stairs but a truck had been left at the top and he was obliged to remove his left hand.

The elbow was pinned but physiotherapy failed to relieve the pain or restore full movement. Even after manipulation under anaesthetic and further surgery, the man had limited shoulder movement and a weakened grip in his right hand.

He also developed a frozen shoulder and problems with the main nerves in his forearm.

The prognosis was that his reduced arm function was unlikely to improve and so it would be difficult for him to get another job.

Although the bakery admitted that it was negligent in allowing the accident to happen, it argued about whether the fall directly caused the man’s symptoms and it was some time before a substantial compensation settlement was reached.