In the safety and risk field, something you hear often is “It met code so it’s fine, right?” Implying that building codes are sufficient by themselves to determine whether a condition is reasonably safe. Codes are most certainly important and useful, but when evaluating risks you must be careful to look beyond codes to broader risk analysis principles.
The example above is a railing at the new recreation center in our town. The issue at hand something known as “ladder effect” where horizontal elements of the guard rail present facilitated climbing for young children. This is something that was previously part of model building codes in the U.S. (The base documents that local building codes are based on.) These requirements were phased out of building codes several years ago. The rationale was given to provide more flexibility for architects and designers to create more varied buildings, and support for this was offered in the negligible reduction in emergency room visits related to this issue during a trial period where the regulation was removed.
They removed the requirements, aren’t we fine?
There are several concerns with this.
First, nothing in the code or supporting materials suggest that this design is safe for all applications, there is now just more responsibility on the architect or building managers parts to decide when to employ different types of handrails.
Secondly using emergency room data was a very limited way to support this change, as the number of railings already existing and the relative number different configurations installed didn’t change much during the relatively bread period examined. When the regulation was dropped many many facilities had compliant railings under the old standard and it was very hard to discern how different the environment really was when it came to handrail composition.
What to Do
There are other elements to this issue but I wanted to focus on the general concern of code compliance not equaling safety per se. The location depicted is the second level of a recreation center and the railing protected area adjacent to a toddler and small children play area. During the time I was there with my daughter I noticed many many children with various levels of supervision in and around that area. And the location and use of that area indicates that a handrail guard rail without climb ability would be a better choice.
We can’t remove every risk from the world we can’t remove every hazard that we and our children face but we do need to have a prudent approach to figuring out what risks are excessive and what risks are unnecessary. Code compliance is one factor to consider when determining relative safety, is should not be the only factor.