CMHC publishes advisory on stair safety for seniors

Saturday, September 20th, 2008

Simple tread patterns, glare-free lighting contribute to avoidance of falls


When seniors fall on or from stairs, even a short distance, the consequences for their health can be both severe and long-lasting. Thankfully, many of those falls can be prevented with a little careful planning and a few simple strategies.

To help protect the health of older Canadians, increase their safety and maintain their independence, the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. has a number of tips on how seniors and their caregivers can help reduce the risk of falls on or from stairs at home.

Avoid visually distracting patterns on the tread (the horizontal part of a step) that can make it difficult to distinguish one step from another. If the edges of the stairs can’t be seen clearly, mark them by painting a permanent stripe on the edge in a contrasting colour.

Improve the lighting on steps and stairs. Use lighting that makes the edges of stairs visible without causing glare or strong shadows, and consider installing low-intensity night lighting, as well as a light switch at both the top and bottom of the stairs.

For steps with short treads and/or high risers (the vertical parts of the steps), keep any coverings thin and tightly affixed to maximize the usable tread space. Avoid soft treads with a large rounding at the edge.

If you’re renovating or building new stairs, allow for ample treads and gentle risers, and make sure all the steps are of a uniform size and height.

Steps that are non-uniform in size are an especially common cause of missteps and falls. Consider partially or completely rebuilding the steps to make them of uniform treads and risers. This is very important.

Use a slip-resistant, rough finish on stairs that are prone to getting wet. Make sure to fasten all coverings on stairs securely. Don’t place any objects or loose rugs on steps, landings or at the top or bottom of the stairway.

Handrails are strongly recommended regardless of the number of steps on both sides of the stairs. A functional handrail serves several purposes including providing a visual indicator of the stairs, assisting with normal balance and — most critically — preventing a misstep and fall.

Installing handrails on both sides of the stairs is particularly important for winding or curved stairs, especially where the stairway includes combinations of rectangular and tapered treads.

Position handrails at about adult elbow height, and extend them on both sides for the full length of the stairway as well as beyond the top and bottom of the stairs.

Repair loose or broken handrails. Ensure that the handrails have a tactile indicator that warns you when a stairway is coming to an end, and that they’re easy to see even in low light or at night.

Lastly, when taking the stairs, always be cautious, deliberate and not rushed. Hold on to the handrails, wear shoes or slippers that fit properly and have a non-slip sole, remove reading glasses, switch on stair lights and — most importantly — always take your time, especially when using an unfamiliar stairway.

For more information or a free electronic copy of a fact sheet on stair safety, visit or call CMHC at 1-800-6682642.

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