Nov 152011

Safety is Paramount when it comes to Stairways-Part M


It stands to reason that stairways must be safe. If stairs are too steep, and they don’t have railings, or if screens and balustrades are not strong and secure, people may fall with disastrous consequences.

What the National Building Regulations say about Stairs and Stairways

“Any stairway, including any wall, screen, railing or balustrade to such stairway, shall:

(a) be capable of safely sustaining any actions which can reasonably be expected to occur and in such a manner that any local damage (including cracking) or deformation do not compromise its functioning;

(b) permit safe movement of persons from floor to floor; and

(c) have dimensions appropriate to its use.”

What this means is that stairways, in addition to all the elements relating to them, must be properly designed. This takes us back to Part B of the NBR, which deals with structural design.

Like everything else, stairways must be designed to provide the strength, stability, serviceability and durability required for use. It is imperative that they are built so that any accidental overload won’t cause the stairway to collapse. It is also vital to takes steps to ensure that people won’t fall off the structure. If the sides of the stairs don’t have railings or screens this CAN happen – and it does (sadly) happen.

In addition to these general requirements, there are fire requirements that must be adhered to. These are outlined in Part T of SANS 10400 – Fire Protection, but when it comes to houses, those that are relevant mainly relate to basics (including the materials used to build your home). For instance you don’t have to have fire escapes, exit doors, escape routes, and that kind of thing.

SANS 10400 Stairways – Part M

As always, the South African National Standards give a good rundown on how we should build to ensure that we “satisfy” the legislation. The most recent Standard was published in April 2011; and it contains new guidelines that relate to both masonry stairways and timber stairways.

You will find Part M of the legislation towards the end of Standard, on Page 11.

It should be read in conjunction with several other Standards, including SANS 2001-CC1, -CC2, and -CM1 that deal with structural concrete works, minor concrete works and masonry walling; SANS 1460, Laminated timber (glulam); and SANS 1783-2, that deals with stress-graded structural timber and timber for frame wall construction; as well as several other parts of SANS 10400, specifically Part A (general principles), Part B (structural design), Part K (walls), Part S (facilities for people with disabilities), and Part T (fire protection). This is important because, for instance:

  • Part S reduces the rise of the step (as indicated in this part), increases the width of stairways and the length of landings. It also has a requirement that solid risers should be used where stairs overlap the next lower tread, and another that specifies the need for handrails on both sides of the stairway.
  • Part T increases the standard width of stairways as indicated in this part, disallows the use of spiral stairways, and requires solid risers for all buildings except those defined in Part A as D4 (a plant room that contains mechanical or electrical services that are necessary for the running of a building, and are usually left unattended).

Requirements of this particular Standard that relate to dimensions specify that:

  • there must be sufficient headroom above any stairway: at least 2,1 m measured vertically from the pitch line of the staircase (see drawing below)


    Minimum headroom allowed on stairways

  • stairs need to be wide enough for safe use, usually not less than 750 mm (see drawing below)
  • the going (depth of the tread) and width of treads must be at least 250 mm (see drawing below)


    Allowable minimum dimensions of treads and risers

  • treads of stairways that do not have solid risers must overlap the next tread by at least 25 mm (see drawing above)
  • landings serving two flights in a straight line need to be at least 900 mm long and at least as wide as the flight of stairs
  • there shouldn’t be a vertical rise that is greater than 3 m between landings
  • single step risers shouldn’t be more than 200 mm
  • doors cannot open onto stairways unless it’s onto a landing – and the landing then needs to be at least the width of the door (which must not obstruct people using the stairs)

Sometimes the dimensions of risers and going of treads vary in a flight of stairs. This variation should not be more than 6 mm. Further, dimensions of each individual step can be checked for safety by adding the dimension of the going to 2 x the height of the riser. This should be at least 570 mm and no more than 650 mm.

Tapered treads and winders (which are are steps that are narrower on one side than the other and used to change direction of the stairs without landings) are most common in spiral stairways. If they don’t form part of a spiral staircase, they must be designed to comply with the minimum tread and riser dimensions shown in the drawing above, and have a minimum going of 125 mm. The angle between successive risers (measured horizontally) must be constant (see drawing below).


To check the variation in going between tapered treads, measure each tread at the same distance from the narrow end

Stairways that incorporate winders – defined by the SANS as a “tapered tread that has a going of at least 50 mm and which is used in conjunction with non-tapered treads in a single flight” –  are permitted in our homes as long as there are no more than three of them, and the winder may not turn through more than 90 degrees.

Spiral stairways are defined as a “succession of tapered treads forming a curved stairway which extends as a single flight from one floor or landing to another”. These must be no wider than 800 mm and may not be used as an emergency route. There are also restrictions in terms of certain buildings where they may not be used, including theatres and other entertainment venues, schools, sports facilities, places of worship, exhibition bass, jails, hospitals and health care facilities, offices, hotels, dormitories and hospitality venues.

Prevention Against Falling

It should be common sense, but people don’t always see it that way, because stairs don’t always LOOK good with railings!

Essentially what SANS tell us is that:

If a flight of stairs is more than three risers high, it could be dangerous, especially if toddlers and old people use it. This is why it is essential to have some sort of protection to prevent falling.

This can be in the form of:

  • a secure wall
  • a screen of some sort
  • railings or a balustrade – all of which should be at least 1 m high

Other issues include “openings”. If a child can fall through a gap in the railings, or if someone falls and their leg or foot gets stuck in the gap, it could end up really badly. The opening specification is similar to that which relates to swimming pool fencing: it shouldn’t allow anything with more than a 100 mm diameter to pass through it.

Handrails are also an important element. If a flight of steps continues for more than about five risers, there should be a handrail of some sort. And any sort of handrail MUST be securely fixed to the wall, screen, railing, balustrade or whatever! In some instances, for example when the stairs are wide (more than 1,1 m), it might be necessary to have a railing on either side.

If a screen is made of glass, it is vital that the glass used complies with the relevant SANS.

Timber Stairways

There are several clauses that relate specifically to timber stairs in SANS 10400 Part M (Edition 3, 2011). This section was previously not covered in the “deemed to satisfy” regulations.

Stringer Beams

Stringer beams support treads, and where these are not be wider than 1,2 m in double- and single-storey domestic residences and dwelling houses, they should be at least 48 mm x 225 mm. Grade 5 timber should be used and it should not be excessively warped.

Timber Treads

These must be at least 36 mm thick. Since timber stairways are designed in different ways, the options are that they may be:

  • built into masonry walls with a minimum end bearing of 90 mm
  • supported on a steel angle cleat that has minimum dimensions of 50 mm x 50 mm x 4 mm
  • bolted to a wall with two masonry anchors per clear according to the manufacturer’s instructions

If anchors are used and embedded into a Grade 20 concrete (which will be 20 MPa), these anchors must have  “a safe working load in sheer of not less than 1,25 kN, certified by the manufacturer”.

Materials Used for Timber Steps

Building Materials and Tests in general are covered in Part A of the National Building Regulations. In terms of timber, it should be treated against termites and wood borer as well as protected against fungal decay in terms of SANS 10005. For consumers, the important thing to look for is the product certification mark of a body that has been certified by the SA National Accreditation System.



  133 Responses to “Stairways”

Comments (131) Pingbacks (2)
  1. Good day, I urgently need to clarify the regulations relating to a spiral staircase. According to SANS 10400-M paragraph 2.4.9 does not apply for spiral staircases (including Figure 3). It makes sense because else it will imply that you cannot use a centre pole with a diameter of about 1 meter, to be able to satisfy 4.2.9 (b), minimum going of 125mm. Most spiral staircases use a very small diameter pole and it is practicable impossible to satisfy the requirements of paragraph 4.2.9. Can you please confirm that paragraph 4.2.9 is not applicable for a spiral staircase ?

    • Hi Willie,
      The clause says:
      “4.2.9 Any tapered tread that is not a winder and that does not form part of a spiral stairway shall…a)…b)…c)…etc”
      So yes as it says 4.2.9 doss not refer to a spiral stairway.

  2. If you have glass balustrades, do you need a handrail, by law?

    • Hi Louis,
      Any glass balustrade needs to satisfy the Building Regulations Part M – Stairways. There are other Parts that are also referred to but to answer your question I am copying the section that is relevant clause 4.3 “Prevention against falling” (I have put the word handrail in bold):
      4.3.1 Any flight of steps which contains more than three risers shall have protection on both sides provided by a secure wall, screen, railing or balustrade which shall be not less than 1 m high and so erected that any such wall, screen, railing or balustrade shall not have any opening above the pitch line that permits the passage of a 100 mm diameter ball; provided that such protection shall consist of at least a handrail and one other rail midway between such handrail and the stair tread.
      4.3.2 Any flight of stairs which contains more than five risers shall be provided with at least one continuous handrail extending the full length of such flight, provided that this requirement shall not apply to any building classified as H4, or within individual dwelling units in an occupancy classified as H3.
      4.3.3 The handrail to any flight of stairs provided in terms of 4.3.2 shall be
      a) on at least one side of the flight where the width of the flight is less than 1,1 m, and on both sides where the width exceeds 1,1 m,
      b)  securely fixed to such wall, screen, railing or balustrade at a height of not less than 850 mm and not more than 1 m measured vertically from the pitch line to the upper surface of the handrail, and
      c)  of such a design and so fixed that there shall be no obstructions on, above or near to it which might obstruct the movement of a hand moving along it.

      • Hi,

        Part M of the SANS 10400 is not clear in terms of the 100mm space between rails for occupancy classification F1 – it indicates that this is not the requirement for this classification – not logical nor practical – is there anywhere in the SANS 10400 where it states that a max 100mm gap is mandatory.

  3. I urgently require advise, I work in a company that is currently re-vamping. As I am typing this, they are using a jack hammer in our reception area, we are all based on the 1st floor and we are unable to use the stairs as they are tiling the side of the stair case and there is cement and tile cutters in the way. The dust cloud hanging over us is ridculous and everyone here is either sick or couching, what can I do for my fellow workers and myself, to protect us. If there is a fire right now, it will be madness trying to get down the stairs. We often have no running water, almost on a daily bases, electicity also gets cut off often, sometime for the entire day, and that is not due to load shedding. I need help please, i cannot watch my fellow collegues work under these conditions, i myself am asthmatic.

    • Hi N,
      You must contact your local authority and complain as it appears that they are in contravention of SANS 10400 F clause F1 Protection of the Public and it says:
      (5) The local authority may, before or during the erection or demolition of any building, impose any reasonable conditions in addition to the conditions and requirements contemplated in this regulation, for the purpose of safeguarding the interests of the general public, and every condition so imposed shall be observed by the owner.
      (6) Any owner who contravenes or causes or permits any other person to contravene a requirement of this regulation or fails to comply with any notice served on him by the local authority ordering compliance with this regulation, or contravenes any condition contained in any approval, shall be guilty of an offence.

      Let us know what happens.

  4. good moring Panny
    can you please assist me with what does the spec say about the installation off steelstairway at cylinder fuel tanks

    • Johan, while construction standards for stairways of all types are stated in this section of SANS 10400, there is nothing that gives guidance in terms of cylinder fuel tanks and stairways. I imagine you would need to comply with various other standards including Occupational Health and Safety. Contact the SABS (phone one of their libraries)and ask them to search the full bank of standards. SANS 10400 is just one of hundreds of thousands. While we do have information about some other standards, we concentrate on the construction industry rather than industrial specifications.

  5. Is there a legal requirement for the ladders going up the side of the flood lights ( 30m) to have safety rails on or not.
    Normally they all have a semicircular backing behind the climber ( if you know what I mean)

    • Mark this is not covered in the Building Regulations. But I would think that there should be some time of safety rails. Certainly if it was scaffolding you would need safety rails. I am not sure which SANS covers flood lights. Contact the SABS.

  6. Hi, I looked all over. What do regulations say about treads and landing at a severe slant (allegedly so that water can run off better ?!). We have 275 mm treads with a tilted slant of 13 mm and a 1 metre landing with a tilt of 40 mm. Is this legal ??

    • Norbert there are two issues here:
      1. safety – this sounds downright dangerous
      2. good building practice – everything should be square, level and plumb (except where drainage is an issue – e.g. patios, roofs etc – not stairs!)
      While Part M of SANS 10400 (Stairways) doesn’t state that treads and landings must be level, all their drawings clearly show that they are! I am not sure if there is anything in Part B (Structural Design)… there probably is. When I get a chance I will check for you. Otherwise go to an SABS library and ask if you can have a look at that part of the regulations.

  7. Hi.

    I truly hope that somebody can give me an answer on a question I have regarding a staircase I need to install.

    My concern is about what the regulations allow or require for staircases that is essentially a barrier between the inside of my garage and the house.

    What im planning to build is a new room above my existing double garage.
    The garage is adjacent to my living room in the house, thus what I would like to do is to construct the stair case inside the garage, connecting the bottom of the stair case via an entrance into the living room.

    A wall will be build against the side of the staircase (thus essentially the staircase is no longer inside the garage).

    However, the bottom of the staircase will still be inside the garage, thus essentially this is the part that divide the house from the garage.

    In short, my question to this is, am I allowed to construct a wooden staircase, and will it comply with the regulations including fire regulations, and if so is there any specific requirements in need to keep in mind?

    Or do I have to construct the staircase out of concrete?

    Any advice would be greatly appreciated.

    • Jurie, the Building Regulations require you to use a competent person to draw up your plans, and this person will, due to their training, know what you can and cannot do. Once they have drawn the plans, your local authority will assess whether the plan is in accordance with the regulations. We cannot be drawn into a debate, especially since it would be “blind”. So sorry we can’t be more helpful.

  8. Do you also need a landing at the top of your stairs when you have a sliding door in an external wall and the floor level is about 1m above the ground level? The width of the landing then the width of the opening? Doesn’t seem necessary?

    • Elmine, The building regulations state that no door may open onto a stairway unless it opens onto a landing. And the width of the landing may not be less that the width of the door. This is a safety issue, since even a standard doorway will be at least 750 mm wide, but a stairway can be as narrow as 250 mm.
      The standard also states: “The position of the door relative to the landing and its direction of opening shall be such that it does not obstruct the flow of persons on the stairway when i a fully open position.” – though with a sliding door this won’t be an issue.

  9. I own a flat in a fairly old block (probably built in the late 60’s) and I’ve been told that the hand rails of the balconies in the block are too low and/or don’t conform with the regulations. What exactly should the height be? If they don’t conform what should be done – I think most owners are unaware of the potential problem and may resist having to spend money on something that was never a problem?
    Thanks for any advice,

    • Patrick the railings for stairways must be at least 1 m high, and if the flight is more than five risers high it must have a continuous handrail that extend the full length of the flight. It should also be “securely fixed to such wall, screen, railing or balustrade at a height of not less than 850 mm and not more than 1 m measured vertically from the pitch line to the upper surface of the handrail”.
      Part B Structural Design of SANS 10400 cross references SANS 10104, Handrailing and balustrading (safety aspects). I don’t have a copy of this particular Standard, but it might be helpful.
      Part D Public Safety of SANS 10400 states: “The edge of any balcony, bridge, flat roof or similar place more than 1 m above the adjacent ground or floor level shall be provided with a balustrade or parapet wall not less than 1 m in height, unless unauthorized access of persons thereto has been excluded by a physical barrier properly erected and maintained.” (the same height as stairway railings)
      Your local authority may have additional requirements – so it may be a good idea to check with them too.

      • We have installed stainless steel balustrades to an access staircase in a parking garage at a height of 950mm off the nose of the treads and 1000mm on the landings. Am I right in saying that this falls within the regulations?

        • Hi Andrew, PartM of the SANS 10400 in paragraph 4.3.3 b), states:
          b) securely fixed to such wall, screen, railing or balustrade at a height of not less than 850 mm and not more than 1 m measured vertically from the pitch line to the upper surface of the handrail, and…
          So as far as I can see, yes you are within the regulations.

  10. I recently had an accident at a Five Star Lodge. The first riser of the staircase is only 120mm and risers 2-6 are 160mm. The staircase is a closed, cast staircase. As I came down the staircase, my perception of the last stair was misjudged and I slipped and fell resulting in a broken foot, surgery and time off work. Surely this staircase is not in accordance with building regulations and leaves for me to have recourse in claiming for this accident?

    • Yes you do have recourse to claim.
      I have added some info and a few drawings to this page, and have doubled checked the Standard for Stairways. This is the clause that “proves” they were negligent:
      “4.2.7 The variation in the dimensions of the risers and the goings of the treads in any one flight shall be not more than 6 mm,”
      They should also have handrails as a precaution against falling – because the steps incorporate more than five risers.
      The new regs mention masonry stairways but not specifically case concrete (though concrete SANS are cross-referenced), viz: “Masonry stairways and landings in occupancies classified as H3 and H4 in single-storey and double-storey buildings shall be in accordance with the provisions of figure 5 and the relevant requirements of SANS 2001-CM1 and SANS 2001-CC1 or SANS 2001-CC2.”
      H3 and H4 are domestic residences and dwelling houses
      SANS 2001-CM1 deals with masonry walling
      SANS 2001-CC1 deals with structural concrete works
      SANS 2001-CC2 deals with minor concrete works
      But I don’t think that these will help you.

  11. Does the law allow for fire escape stairways to be used in the normal day-to-day movements around the office? Or should usage of the fire escape stairway be limited to emergency situations only?

    • I am not aware of a law that prohibits use of fire escape stairways except in emergency situations, but it isn’t common practice. There should be other stairs for day-to-day use, if there aren’t there might be a problem in terms of compliance with the NBR.

      • Hi Penny

        There are other stairs as well. The fire escape stairway is simply much more conveniently located for most in the building.

        • If there is anything stopping people using fire escape stairways, I guess it would be in one or other of the fire regulations. I will see what I can find next time I go to the SABS library.
          I have checked Part T, Fire protection, which deals with escape routes, including stairs, and there is nothing in the regulations to say that they may not be used unless in the case of a fire.

          • Just my 2 cents worth here, I think it would be against the regulations to block the use of the stairs in any way, as this would block off a vital escape route in an emergency. Please use common sense when dealing with this “problem”.

  12. We have a porch at our main bedroom which is on the 2nd floor of the house we rent. There is no ballustrades or protection from falling of the porch, which is more than 3meters high. Only a small wall approx 500mm high. How did they pass the building plans?
    Is it legal to rent out a house with dangerous areas like that. Please advise

    • Louis, they are breaking the law. Part D Public Safety of SANS 10400 states that the edge of any balcony or similar structure (and this does apply to private homes – as do the regulations for fencing around swimming pools) that is more than 1 m above the adjacent ground or floor level must be provided with a balustrade or parapet wall not less than 1 m in height.
      I suggest that you call your local authority and report the situation and ask them to take action against the owner.
      In terms of plans etc., there may have been some sort of balustrade or railing on the wall at one stage – that has been removed – or the building inspector may not have noticed! Anything’s possible.

  13. Hi

    Apparently the regulations on stairs have changed very recently. Can you help with this. I have spiral and timber stairs. I want to make sure they will be ‘legal’. Busy fixing the house up.


    • Lola, Part M, Stairways was updated in April 2011. I have recently updated this page to incorporate the changes – which are additions, rather than changes as such. There is a small amount of information on spiral stairs – but of course all the other guidelines apply as well – specifically those relating to dimensions. I have also added info about timber stairs – which is a new section to Part M. I hope this helps.

  14. How do I go a about to report a case where the spiral staircase is not
    up to the standard it should be and where in the act does it say what
    the spiral staircase should be like

    • Hi Natalie,
      All spiral staircases should be built to South African National Standards that manufacturers and installers are obliged to adhere to. If you are worried, and it sounds as if you are, contact your local Authority and ask them to send a building inspector to have a look and give you a report. In addition the factory manufactured stairs must follow the relevant SANS, but if the stairs ars build “in situ” then the Building Regulations Part M are to be followed but these have to be read in conjunction with the section that deals with the type of material used to build the stairway as well as Part T which covers “Fire Protection” amongst others. Have a look at our page on “Stairways” that has more info for you.

  15. hi, we have a neighbour who removed stair railings inside the house
    and a balcony railing outside. approx two years now. is this allowed
    in a private house with kids?? can one report this?

    • Hi Tom,
      The Building Regulations do cover Stairways and railings. One of the main factors in Part-T is safety and by removing a railing or balustrade a persons life could be in danger. It sounds as though they have changed a legally approved structure into an illegal one. So this is a serious breach of the law. You can start by contacting your Local Council and ask for a Building Inspector to have a look.

    • Hi Tom, I have added to this page and you will see what the regulations are in terms of stairs (1 m height). In addition, Part D Public Safety of SANS 10400 states that the edge of any balcony (and this does apply to private homes – as do the regulations for fencing around swimming pools) that is more than 1 m above the adjacent ground or floor level must be provided with a balustrade or parapet wall not less than 1 m in height, unless there is a physical barrier that is properly erected and maintained. By removing these railings, your neighbors are breaking the law!

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