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Author(s): Ron Cote. Published on November 2, 2015.

Grab Hold

Considering grab bars to prevent falls in baths and showers. BY RON COTÉ

HOW CAN NFPA 101®, Life Safety Code®, address falls in baths and showers?

That’s the question behind a pair of changes, proposed for the 2018 edition of the code, under consideration by two of the NFPA 101 technical committees. As part of the first phase of the revision process, the Fundamentals Committee and the Means of Egress Committee have discussed proposals related to reducing injuries from falls via provisions for grab bars for new baths and showers in certain occupancies.

One change, proposed to Chapter 1, Administration, would state that the code’s scope include reducing injuries to occupants from falls. Current code provisions address fall protection based on an existing scope statement for the design of egress facilities to allow prompt escape of occupants from buildings. For example, provisions for walking surfaces in the means of egress require slip-resistant surfaces under foreseeable conditions, and provisions for stairs require handrails and guards.

A proposed change to Chapter 7, Means of Egress, would provide detailed design and installation criteria for grab bars for new bathtubs, bathtub-shower combinations, and showers. These provisions would be presented as a menu, taking the format of “where required by Chapters 11 through 43” so as to be applicable only if referenced by another section of the code, typically an occupancy chapter.

The grab bar changes are being made to address a significant public health problem, one raised in the substantiation for the Public Inputs proposing these new provisions. The substantiation documented the following:

» The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission National Electronic Injury Surveillance System estimates that for the product code of bathtubs or showers, there were more than 262,000 visits to U.S. hospital emergency rooms in 2010.

» On a risk-per-use basis, each step into and out of a bathing facility without grab bars is more dangerous than taking a step up or down on a stair.

» Bathtub or shower users encounter wet surfaces that are generally hard and smooth, adversely affecting slip resistance; stepping over tub walls creates additional ambulation challenges; no countermeasures are commonly installed to mitigate the fall danger; and the only solid “point of control” (something to hold on to securely) might be the edge of a vanity countertop, which, like other features of the bathroom, is not designed to be grasped with sufficient security to avert or mitigate a fall.

The proposed design and installation guidelines call for providing a minimum of two grab bars in all bathtubs and bathtub-shower combinations, one in a vertical orientation on the faucet wall for entering and exiting the tub and one in a horizontal or angled orientation to help with sitting down or standing up. Dedicated showers will be required to have a vertically oriented grab bar.

Based on First Revisions prepared by the occupancy chapter technical committees, grab bars would be required in newly constructed hotels and apartments, as well as residential board and care, day-care, educational, and assembly facilities. The technical committees also prepared Committee Inputs for dwellings, lodging/rooming, health care, and ambulatory health care occupancies that make no change at the Frist Draft phase of the revision process but permit the subject of grab bars to be reconsidered during the Second Draft preparation phase. Neither First Revisions nor Committee Inputs were prepared for detention/correctional, mercantile, business, industrial, and storage occupancies.

For more information, refer to the NFPA 101 First Draft Report, which will be posted on March 7, 2016.

RON COTÉ, P.E., is principal life safety engineer at NFPA.