Now that summer is well underway, it’s prime season for vacation rentals, hotel stays and outdoor gatherings on decks and porches. However, poorly constructed decks and unsafe railings can pose a threat to unaware travelers, potentially causing life-threatening injuries.
According to the North American Deck and Railing Association, deck failures and resulting injuries are on the rise, with more than 40,000 decks in the United States considered unsafe and in need of repair. Between 2000 and 2008, at least 30 deaths in the United States directly resulted from deck collapses. When a deck collapses, NADRA reports, more than 75 percent of people are typically injured or killed.
Deck and porch collapses can be caused by a wide range of factors including defective design, shoddy construction, rotting wood or general lack of maintenance. In many instances, these cases can involve premises liability when individuals responsible for maintaining the property are determined to be negligent in their responsibility to create a safe environment that meets reasonable safety and building code standards.
The International Association of Certified Home Inspectors estimates that only 40 percent of decks are safe. There are currently more than 40 million decks in the United States that are more than 20 years old, which means they may not have been constructed in compliance with current safety requirements. Property owners should make a point to inspect their deck periodically, enlisting assistance from a qualified engineer, contractor or home inspector. Many older decks were built before construction codes were put in place to protect consumers.
Railings on balconies, porches and stairwells that have been inadequately fastened are another common source of injuries, as they can give way when an individual leans or exerts normal force on them. If the height of the railing falls below a person’s center of gravity, which is typically considered to be 55 percent of their height, stumbling against the railing may also result a potentially dangerous fall.
Railings most often fail at their connection points, particularly the area where the bottom of the system is mounted to the floor.
Some failure mechanisms can be complex, consisting of multiple issues, while other failures may be simple, like anchor bolts installed improperly, resulting in inadequate structural support for prescribed loads.
Without proper support and maintenance, screws and bolts can rust, weaken and become a hazard. Over time, railings and their support systems can degrade, particularly when exposed to salty ocean breezes and heavy rain.
If property owners don’t take the proper precautions, a tragedy could happen for which they may ultimately be found liable.
Property owners have a fundamental responsibility to adequately maintain and inspect their property, including support railings. Catastrophic injuries, and even death, can result from railings that have not been properly installed or adequately maintained.