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Designing for safety

You can significantly reduce the risk of slips, trips and falls if your home is designed and maintained with safety in mind. Here’s some things to think about.

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General safety considerations

By incorporating safety features at the design stage you won’t necessarily have to spend more. For example, small changes in level, such as single steps increase your fall risk. By designing your home without single steps you reduce your trip or fall risk and it shouldn’t cost you any more.

Some other considerations are to:

  • Avoid lips at doorways to the outside, but ensure there is adequate drainage
  • Use fitted carpet
  • Install a fixed heating system so you don’t need portable heating appliances with cables trailing across the floor
  • Provide light switches at the entry door of rooms, corridors and stairs.
  • Fit security stays on low-level windows to prevent them from obstructing paths or walkways outdoors.

External

Front Path

The Building Code requires that the path from the street to the front door is sufficiently slip resistant so you can safely enter and exit your home. For homes built before 1992 there were no specific slip resistance requirements.

Slip resistance is the ability of a finished floor surface to provide sufficient friction to reduce the risk of injury from slipping. If the path gets wet, then it must not be slippery when wet.

Paths and driveways need to be:

  • Well lit. Sensor lights mean you are not lighting the area unnecessarily.
  • Level. Don’t design the path with sudden changes in level.
  • No steeper than 1:12 if they are sloping. Ramps should have a handrail.
  • Non-slip when wet. Some materials are more suitable for this than others.

Entry steps or steps within a path should have:

  • A handrail.
  • Clearly defined, non-slip edges. You can use screw-on nosing or self adhesive strips.
  • Even height and width. Easy-to-use steps have a height of 160-180mm and a tread width of 175-195 mm. Uneven steps are a major cause of injuries.

You could also consider painting the front edge of the steps with white paint to make them more visible.

Front entry

Front entries should provide:

  • Space for people to gather with some shelter.
  • Surfaces that are non-slip when wet.
  • A flat landing area immediately outside the front door.
  • An aluminium or timber door sill set into the floor to minimise lips that people have to lift their foot over.

Balconies, decks and mezzanines

Since 1992, if the balcony or deck is one metre or more off the ground you have to provide a barrier. However it is worth considering putting a barrier on balconies or decks below one metre to prevent people simply walking off the edge.

Timber-slatted decks and concrete patios.

Timber-slat decks can be very slippery especially when wet, mossy or when it’s frosty. Grooved timber decking is more slip resistant in the wet than smooth timber, as long as you are walking against the grooves.

Timber-slatted decks can be installed at the same level as the floor inside to give level access but you must have a gap of at least 6-12 mm between your wall cladding and the deck to allow for drainage and prevent water pooling. Any lip at the door sill or step down onto the deck should be easily distinguished by users. Windows opening onto decks and patios should not obstruct travel paths outside.

Risk of falling from decks is higher where:

  • Barriers are not provided – barriers must be provided on new buildings where it is possible to fall more than one metre from the deck surface.
  • Low seats are placed around the edge of the deck. It is the platform height which is used by building inspectors to decide if you need a barrier. If you install a fixed seat on a deck it increases the height of the platform to the top of the seat.
  • Decks have small changes in level.
  • Barriers are not in good condition.

The Building Code requires barriers to be:

  • Installed wherever it is possible to fall more than one metre from a deck.
  • At least one metre high.
  • Designed so that a child cannot get a foothold and climb the deck between the heights of 150 mm and 760 mm.
  • Able to resist loads from occupants.

If you opt to install a barrier on a deck below one metre in height, the barrier must still comply with the Building Code.

For homes with small children, put stair gates at the top of stairs from the deck.

To have a safe non-slip deck:

  • Run grooved decking across the main travel paths when installing or replacing the decking. Decks with the grooves running across will improve slip resistance when dry. When wet or slimy the deck will still be slippery.
  • Clean the surface to remove moss often.
  • Paint the deck, incorporating sand into the wet paint.
  • Install outdoor carpet over the decking.
  • Regularly tidy up toys etc after deck use.

The safety of concrete patios depends on their surface finish – very smooth finishes can be slippery when wet. The more texture a concrete surface has the better slip resistance it provides. Concrete patios are often finished with tiles or pavers which can, depending on their surface finish, also be slippery.

For new concrete use a light broom finish or applied non-slip surface rather than a steel trowelled finish.

Waterproof decks and balconies

Decks that have a waterproof coating or membrane over them can become slippery when wet.

Your deck may be finished with a painted or acrylic surface coating, timber-slat duckboards, tiles, stone or paving slabs. Depending on the finish, these can be slippery when wet.

Incorporate:

  • Sufficient slope so water drains off the surface and there are no areas of ponding.
  • A waterproofing membrane or surface finish that provides good slip resistance when wet.
  • A clearly defined entrance from the deck into the building.

Garage

Internal access garages often have a single step at the door. Small level-changes like this increase the tripping risk when you step up, or fall risk when you step down, as the step is often difficult to distinguish from its surroundings.

Garages should have:

  • A wood float finish, or be painted with non-slip paving paint or coarse sand added to the wet paint to give it grip.
  • Automatic lighting.
  • A door which opens inwards into the house.

The garden

Typical slip, trip and fall risks in the garden are:

  • Sudden changes of level in lawns or paths.
  • Cracks, pot-holes or uneven surfaces in driveways, paths and steps.
  • Slippery paths, paving or steps.
  • Unprotected banks and retaining walls – under the Building Code banks and retaining walls may require a non-climbable barrier when the fall distance is more than one metre. Even if they are not required, they may prevent people from being injured from a fall.
  • Children's play equipment, particularly when installed over a hard surface.
  • Toys, bikes, tools etc left lying around.
  • Climbable trees and fences and tree huts.
  • Difficult to see changes in slope.
  • Power leads and water hoses.
  • Windows opening into pathways.

Paving materials that provide good slip resistance when wet are:

  • Unglazed clay tiles.
  • Asphalt.
  • Broomed or stamped concrete (coatings applied to stamped concrete can increase slipperiness).
  • Concrete pavers.
  • Outdoor carpet.
  • Sawn or honed stone slabs.

Pools, spas and ponds

Like bathrooms, pool and spa surrounds must be considered as wet areas. Pools and spas also usually incorporate steps and ladders that become slippery when wet.

To reduce the risk of slipping:

  • Use surface finishes that provide good slip resistance.
  • Ensure surfaces around pools and spas are sloped to effectively drain water away.
  • Apply slip resistant surfacing to steps.

All pools, spas and ponds more than 400mm deep come under the requirements of the Fencing of Swimming Pools Act. See Fencing of Swimming Pools Act for more information.

Internal

Halls or corridors

Halls and corridors encourage children to run along them. As speed of travel increases so does the risk of a slip, trip or fall.

Consider the following:

  • Avoid long or narrow corridors.
  • Don’t place large windows at the end of a corridor.
  • Avoid slippery floor finishes or loose laid rugs or mats.
  • Avoid single steps.
  • Don’t have doors opening into a travel path.
  • Light switches at both ends of the corridor and at main entry points into it.
  • Sensors to automatically turn lights on when someone enters the corridor.
  • Automatic permanent low-level night-lighting.

Living or dining areas

Think about:

  • Lights at all entrance points so you don’t have to cross the room in the dark when coming in or out.
  • Plenty of fixed power outlets to plug in electric equipment so cables don’t have to run across the floor or under mats or rugs.
  • Separate defined areas for quiet and active indoor activity.
  • Uninterrupted and unobstructed travel paths through living spaces. Think about where your low furniture or activity areas will go.
  • A fixed heating system so you don’t need portable heating appliances with trailing cables.
  • Marking fully glazed internal and external doors so you can see the glass.
  • Laminated or toughened glass (safety glass) in low level glazing.
  • Avoiding lips at doorways to the outside.
  • Fitted carpet to avoid rugs and mats.

Indoor outdoor flow

The change from indoor to outdoor creates a potential for slips, trips and falls at each entry/exit point.

Consider:

  • A sheltered transition space at the door – such as a veranda, recessed porch or canvas awning.
  • Avoiding lips at external door sills. Sometimes this is difficult as you need to allow for water to drain off decks or balconies.
  • Making the transition from outside to inside as visible as possible especially where there’s a step.
  • Making glass panels in doors, particularly sliding doors, clearly recognisable as glass.
  • Well lit doorways.

Bedrooms

Consider:

  • Providing light switches at the entry door, en suite door and at the bed (without over-reaching).
  • Permanent night lighting.
  • Avoiding single steps within or between rooms.
  • Non-slip floor finishes.
  • Permanently wiring power and phone outlets for computing and entertainment systems to avoid trailing cables.

In children's rooms think about:

  • Beds closer to the floor – to reduce the injury risk from a fall.
  • Where furniture will go so you can avoid creating climbing routes.
  • Storage areas for toys.
  • Restrictors or security stays to limit how far low-level windows can open.
  • Windows which open out over paths or decks can pose a significant risk of injury to those walking past or playing.

Home Offices

Consider installing:

  • Hard-wired data, telephone and power outlets so you don’t have trailing cables.
  • Storage areas for office materials, so you can keep the area tidy.

Kitchen

In the kitchen you have to balance safety, aesthetics and practicality. Floor surfaces which look good and are easy to clean can be slippery, especially when wet. The more slip resistant a floor is the harder it is to clean.

Consider:

  • The kitchen should not be a traffic route between different parts of the house or to the outside.
  • A small kitchen can be more dangerous. If you fall you are more likely to hit something on the way down.
  • There should be an effective work triangle which minimises the need to carry hot or heavy objects.
  • Locate appliances and fittings to avoid over-reaching during normal use.
  • Lay floor tiles without lips or level differences between individual tiles.
  • Light switches at entry points
  • The kitchen needs to be well lit.
  • Avoid high cupboards requiring you to stand on something to reach into them.
  • Provide accessible storage for frequently used items.

Bathrooms and toilets

Bathrooms and toilets are wet areas and this makes them high risk for slips, trips and falls. Many are poorly planned and cramped so there is little space to avoid vanities and toilet bowls on the way down if you fall.

There are no minimum slip resistance requirements in the Building Code for wet areas such as bathrooms, laundries, kitchens and decks (other than at the front entry). However, providing good slip resistance makes wet floors safer.

Consider:

  • Floor drainage with the floor sloping to the drain point.
  • European-style showers with a level entry.
  • Securely installing shower screens so that if they are grabbed while falling they don’t collapse.
  • Non-slip surface finishes on the floor and in the bath or shower.
  • Grab rails for the bath, shower and toilet. Or make sure you position dwangs and studs so that you can retrofit grab rails at a later date if you need to.
  • Locating towel rails close to basins and showers to reduce water drips on the floor.
  • Level floors with no lips or thresholds.
  • Not having to reach over a bath to open a window.
  • Avoiding showers over the bath – getting in and out of the bath can be a slip and fall risk.
  • Rounded edges for fittings and fixtures – injuries from impact with a round edge may reduce the severity of an injury.
  • Non-slip surfaces in the bath or shower.
  • Sufficient ventilation to remove damp air to reduce the risk of mould which can have health implications.

European, wet area or level-entry showers

Level-entry showers are:

  • Safer - tripping is reduced not having to step over a threshold.
  • Much easier to use when helping children, elderly, unwell or disabled people.
  • Usually larger than a cubicle shower so they are easier to access if there is an emergency.
  • Spacious enough to have room for a seat.

Floor surfaces within the level-entry shower and adjacent bathroom area should be slip resistant.

There are strict rules governing waterproofing level-entry showers so that water from the shower area is prevented from causing damage to other parts of the building. For more information contact your local building consent authority.

A range of grab rails that are available from a hardware store for you to install – make sure the handrail is fixed into solid framing and not just the wall lining material.

Laundry

Laundries are often a dumping ground, especially just before wash day or after sports practice. They also have a tendency to become storage areas.

To increase safety, design your laundry with:

  • Enough space – the risk of slips, trips and falls is greater in cramped spaces.
  • Specific areas for storage, ironing and clothes washing/drying.
  • Non-slip floor surfaces.

Stairs and steps

Stairs that are too steep, have changes in direction (winders) or are tightly spiralled are more difficult to use safely. Spiral or curved stairs must meet specific design requirements so that the curve is not too tight.

Well designed stairs incorporate:

  • Even step heights (risers) – the riser height plus one tread depth should be in the 580 mm to 620 mm range.
  • A tread depth of at least 275 mm.
  • Stair width of 900–1100 mm.
  • Treads that are all at the same width.
  • Treads that project past the riser by at least 15 mm, but not more than 25 mm to prevent toes being caught while walking up stairs.
  • A maximum of 17 risers between landings, but 14 is recommended.
  • A handrail on at least one side – handrails on both sides are safer.
  • No winders – it is safer to install a landing, it also provides a rest for less mobile users.
  • Handrails which project past the end of the stair.
  • The same surface finish, texture and pattern throughout.
  • A defined, non-slip, front edge to each tread.
  • No reflective or slippery surfaces.
  • Even lighting to make them well illuminated day and night.
  • Light switches at the top and the bottom of the stair.
  • Colour differentiation between the stairs and the surrounding surfaces.
  • No obstructions or distractions.
  • Stair gates in homes with young children.

Open risers must not allow a 100 mm diameter sphere (for stairs frequently used by children under 4), or a 130 mm diameter sphere (4 to 6 year-old children), to pass between the treads. This is to prevent children from falling through or becoming stuck between the treads.

Stairs are also safer where:

  • Large floor-level windows are not placed on the downward side of a landing.
  • Doors opening off landings do not obstruct stair travel.

Barriers are required inside your home where it is possible to fall one metre or more.

They must be:

  • At least 900 mm high (one metre if they are in a place where people are likely to congregate).
  • Designed so that a child cannot get a foothold and climb onto them between the heights of 150 mm and 760 mm.

Stairs constructed since 1992 also require side barriers where it is possible to fall more than one metre.

Roofs and skylights

You should also be able to clean overhead glass, such as skylights, without risking a fall or breaking the glass.

You can make it safer by:

  • Using translucent or partially opaque skylights that need less cleaning.
  • Positioning skylights so you can clean them from the eaves without having to get on the roof.
  • Installing a pivoting roof-window so it can be cleaned from the inside.
  • Designing the roof so the skylight can be safely cleaned from a window above.
  • Designing safe roof access with points for fixing safety ropes or a harness.
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