Can you slip on stairs?

Over 1,000 people die each year as a result of falls on stairs in the UK each year with a further 100,000+ injured. Any fall that is not on a level surface has the potential for serious injury. Clearly, stairs are a dangerous place to have an accident.

 

But can you actually slip on stairs? This is a hot topic among those of us that are specialists in the field of slips, trips and falls. If you asked the question to passers-by on a major high street, I suspect 100% of them would say: “yes, of course you can slip on stairs”. If you were to ask 10 of the leading specialists in my field, you might get a 50/50 split. So why is that? It seems obvious, surely, that someone can slip down a flight of stairs, doesn’t it?

 

In my opinion, the answer is that there’s a bit of a nuance there. Can someone fall down a flight of stairs? Absolutely. And as mentioned above, this happens with alarming regularity. So, people are falling down stairs, but are they actually slipping? What other reason might there be for someone to fall on a flight of stairs or even a single step?

 

Well, what in my view is more likely to be happening is not necessarily a slip, but a misstep, which causes somebody to potentially feel as if they’ve slipped but it’s not really a pure slip.

 

Let me explain why: if you think about when you’re walking, and the physical action that your feet are taking and how your heel strikes the floor, you’re effectively pushing all of your weight onto the back of your heel at around a 25 degree angle.

 

In simplistic terms, if you don’t have enough friction provided between the heel on the floor, you may slip. Typically you’re going to your heel is going to slide away from you and you’ll fall backwards and end up falling onto your wrist or elbow, or you will bang your head or something of that nature.

 

We can all walk on slippery surfaces without slipping, but we change our gait to do so. Slips on level surfaces often happen when a floor is wet or contaminated and a person does not perceive the risk. We don’t consciously think about how we are walking as we are doing it: it’s a subconscious action because we’ve been doing it every single day since we were 1-2 years old.

 

Similarly, when you walk down stairs, you aren’t consciously thinking about where you are placing your feet – it just happens naturally based on the first step. Wherever that step is, the brain assumes – unless there is an obvious indication to the contrary and, importantly, that we see that sign or warning – that all other steps are the same.

 

The major difference between stairs and flat surfaces, though, is that when you’re walking down stairs, your feet did not make contact with the floor and anywhere near the same way. What actually happens is your foot extends out ahead of you, and goes in front of you and then comes down and back on itself in such a way that your foot strikes the floor or the surface of the step in a much more flatfooted way. Therefore you have a greater surface area striking the floor it that striking the floor in a more stable manner and as such a slip is much, much less likely.

 

Why then would somebody fall down some stairs and feel as if they’ve slipped? Well, if you imagine you were walking down some stairs in the way just described, but instead of the back section of your foot striking comfortably onto the flat section of the stair, you caught the very edge of the nosing and you lost balance, you’d have the sensation of slipping.

 

Is that a slip though? I would say it is a misstep that is the root cause of that accident, not a slip. A similar thing could happen but lead to the sensation of falling forward which would feel like a trip. But again, it’s a misstep causing a fall, not a trip.

 

These types of incident happen due to the key to safety on stairs: the design and in particular the consistency of dimensions.

 

All stairs have a horizontal section (the going) and a vertical section (the rise).

 

A well-designed staircase would have:

  • A large enough going
  • Consistency in measurement throughout the staircase between the going and the rise

 

As mentioned above, we subconsciously walk down stairs and as such, the impact of any inconsistency is heightened. If you have a shorter or higher rise and, in particular, a shorter going, this is where accidents are likely to happen.

 

The depth of the going is especially important: the difference in risk between a 225mm going and a 325mm going is astronomical: a factor of 50,000x+:

 

Most stair accidents that I personally have investigated have had issues with their dimensions.

 

This can present itself by trips happening when ascending stairs too. Indeed, this happened to me once in a pub in the City. I was having a drink with a few people from the insurer, Aviva, and the pub’s toilets were downstairs. As I came back upstairs, I tripped over a step and fell forwards. Embarrassed, though thankfully none of them noticed as it would be a bit ironic to say the least if I fell over(!), but knowing that I’d only had one pint at this point and therefore couldn’t be drunk, after I dusted myself off I decided to see what the problem was.

 

Sure enough, there was an issue with the dimensions of the staircase at the exact point that I tripped.

 

Just as you plant your foot where you expect the stair to be when descending the flight, when ascending you lift your foot the right height based on the previous steps. In this case there was a rise that was about an inch higher than the others and this is where I caught my toe and tripped forwards.

 

I only suffered a graze to my elbow, but clearly this staircase – particularly when coupled with people likely to be under the influence of alcohol – could lead to a much more serious accident.

 

If you have had any accidents on stairs, it’s likely that there is an issue with dimensions.

 

There are various ways in which you can seek to reduce risk, even if stairs do have inconsistent dimensions from the surface, to nosings to hand rails, to lighting, to cleaning and maintenance. In the first instance, I’d suggest asking us to come and review your stairs for you. This could include a slip test if relevant – one can slip on a half landing, for example.

 

Contact us now to arrange a site visit.

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