First step to safety: Watch those stairways


Here's a riddle. What necessity in most homes is hazardous?

The answer is the stairway that takes you up and down to other floors.

It also can take you to a serious accident or to death.

I have always been very mindful of stairways because of personal mishaps and tragedies within my circle of friends. But after the death of U.S. Rep. Paul Gillmor this month, I am taking more care on every step of the two stairways in my home, to the second-floor bedrooms and down to the basement.

I well understood how the Republican congressman could have fallen backward because it is easy to lose your balance, particularly if you are carrying something. I have also leaned backward more than once and caught myself while going up the stairs, particularly if I was tired or carrying too much stuff.

Add the topic of stairway danger to a conversation and you are bound to hear personal experiences. When I mentioned to a friend that I intended to write this column, he told me of a man who fell down several steps last week and is so injured he can't work. My friend said he would never have that problem because he just refuses to climb or descend stairs; he waits until there is someone to take or get whatever he needs.

Three classmates in my high school class of 160 fell down stairs to their deaths, and a wife of a classmate died two days after she fell down the basement stairs.

In my ongoing house hunt in Toledo, stairways are a prime consideration. Debbie, my real estate scout, knows the minute we get into a listed condo or house that I will say yea or nay to the stairway design.In new condo construction, the stairs often are steep and the thresholds are not even wide enough for my size 9 feet. So what are you supposed to do, step sideways?

Ironically when I discussed stairways with friends over dinner last week they turned the tables on me and criticized the 14 steps on my stairway to the second floor as being steep and they said the steps are too narrow. Obviously it's what you get used to. Nevertheless, despite being very careful, I did tumble down the last six or eight steps five years ago and landed on my back on the living room floor. Digby immediately came to my aid and laid over me. Fortunately I wasn't hurt.

That was the last time I descended stairs in stocking feet. It's my first safety tip. Stockings can be slippery.

The most important precaution is to have a handrail. Even if it spoils the design of your home, it is important to have that safety support. Having a handrail installed on the basement stairs was one of the first improvements I made to this old house when I moved here in 1995. Believe me, I hang on to it so tightly the forest green paint is rubbing from it. A railing on both sides would have been even better, but the concrete wall on the opposite side prevented it.

There are other simple defenses we can follow to reduce the risk of stairway accidents.

When you are dealing with stairways, something always belongs on the other level. I have made it a rule not to leave things on the steps that I could trip over. And no matter how much we may want to tote everything upstairs or downstairs using both arms, I make several trips to have one hand empty for the railing.

Stairways should be well-lighted and families with small children are warned to keep the basement door closed.

It is easy to become nonchalant about things we do every day in our own homes. Even though walking up and down the stairs is second nature we can prevent injury and even death by following a few basic rules.