Thousands of people are injured each year by falls from and through outdoor and telescoping bleachers and grandstands.
Current building codes dictate maximum opening size and railing height requirements that help minimize these incidents. But older bleachers that were built prior to adoption of these newer requirements still present increased opportunities for injuries and deaths from falls. Figure 1 illustrates how large openings provide opportunities for falls from and through bleachers.
One of the newest and most significant requirements governing openings in bleachers and grandstands is the 4 inch sphere rule. This prohibits any opening where a 4 inch sphere could pass. This requirement was first adopted in 1996 NBC (National Building Code), 1997 UBC (Uniform Building Code), and 2000 IBC (International Building Code), and is included in the most recent 2015 IBC.
Stricter railing height requirements to prevent falls were also adopted in each of these codes at these times as well.
Current codes require that all newly constructed or modified bleachers and grandstands comply with the updated requirements. However, older bleachers and grandstands built prior to adoption of these newer codes are “grandfathered” and are not required to be retrofitted to meet these newer standards.
The bleacher shown in the photograph below represents an example of a “Grandfathered” bleacher that could be found in many schools, or other public recreational sports facilities. Note the open space below each of the seat boards, which would allow a person to fall through the bleacher.
In 1999, in response to the many injuries and deaths resulting from falls through and from bleachers and grandstands, U.S. Representative Bill Luther and U.S Representative Jim Ramstad petitioned the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) for development of a national safety standard for bleachers and grandstands. The Congressmen requested that the standard include “minimum spacing requirements for gaps between guardrails and between seats and footboards for new construction, side and back safety features, and guidelines for retrofitting older facilities”.
In October 2000, the CPSC staff recommended that the CPSC deny this petition. Some of the reasons cited were:
…falls from bleachers are occurring on older bleachers with hazardous spacing… a mandatory standard would not affect these older bleachers…inspection and enforcement of a mandatory standard would be difficult and staff believes these functions are best accomplished by the governing state and local officials.
The Office of the General Council for CPSC determined that the request for guidelines could not be considered… because the Commission does not have the authority to issue guidelines.
In 2000 the CPSC did publish “Guidelines for Retrofitting Bleachers” that included many of the newer guidelines. However, the Guidelines for Retrofitting Bleachers state that:
The CPSC has issued these guidelines as recommendations; they are not intended as a CPSC standard or mandatory requirement.
To date, only Minnesota has adopted mandatory retrofitting or replacement of these older, hazardous bleachers that provide opportunities for falls that can cause serious injury or death.
Although it is true that most of these installations are “grandfathered” and legal; school districts, parks and recreation districts, and other organizations that utilize these older bleacher/grandstand designs may be exposing themselves to liability, if and when a fall incident occurs.
There are other areas of liability exposure such as slips & falls, egress, and ADA compliance that owners of older bleachers and grandstands should consider. These will be addressed in future WERC articles.
Carl Muha, PE, has over 17 years of experience regarding the design and inspection of bleachers and grandstands. He is ready to assist you in these and other areas.