On July 5th, 2015, a 19-year-old woman was critically injured after falling from a fourth-floor apartment balcony in southeast Ottawa. Reports suggest that the railing had become dislodged, resulting in the tenant’s 15-metre drop to the concrete ground below. Fortunately her condition has steadily improved, but that’s not always the case.
Stories of fatalities due to faulty balcony railings, structural deterioration, and unsafe behaviour are rampant in the news. In June, the world mourned the loss of six young Irish students who died after a fourth-floor balcony collapsed during a party at Library Gardens complex near the University of California’s Berkeley campus.
Following the tragedy, investigators noted that the building code for 2007 (the year the building was constructed) would have included a 60 lbs-per-square-foot rule for the balcony. With 13 people on the 5-by-10-foot concrete structure, some authorities surmised that it may have been overloaded, causing the platform to separate from the stucco wall. Others speculated about the “run-down” conditions of the apartment building as a whole.
Since then, an investigation by the city of Berkeley has determined that “severely dry rotted” timber contributed to the tragedy and a criminal investigation has been launched to assess whether shoddy construction was a factor.
A spokesperson for the building’s construction company expressed condolences while emphasizing its flawless track record: “As part of the Northern California community for more than 20 years, Segue has constructed more than 6,000 apartments across the region. We have never had an incident in which a member of the public was injured as a result of construction defects after a project was completed and we are shocked and saddened by the loss of life and injuries that resulted from this tragic accident.”
But a clean track record isn’t enough to vindicate a company if found criminally responsible. To put it simply, Landlord Lawyer Ike J. Awgu, B.A., J.D. comments: “Safe balcony conditions are akin to safe driveway or walkway conditions. If a tenant slips and falls because you’ve failed to keep your driveway free of ice or snow, you as the landlord will be liable. In a similar vein, if a tenant falls off a balcony because of improper construction, you, again, as the owner or builder, will similarly be responsible.”
Balcony safety basics
Construction defects and faulty railings aside, news of balcony and window-related accidents, particularly among small children, are enough to strike fear in any residential property manager.
“Every year we see maybe eight or 10 of these accidents in the late spring to early fall,” says J.P. Trottier, Public Information Officer with Ottawa Paramedic Service. “And for the most part, they are related to children.”
Trottier says the warmer weather prompts tenants to leave heavier doors open for airflow, forgetting that flimsy screens are not strong enough to contain young kids who are notoriously curious. “They will climb up on anything—any piece of furniture placed near a window in order to see outside, and a little force is all it takes to push through a screen.”
Tragically, many accidents happen this way, and through no fault of the tenant or landlord, but there are steps that can be taken to prevent them. Ensuring structural integrity by conducting frequent inspections is just one way to regulate safety; being proactive in the form of educating tenants about the risks is another.
“Provide everyone with an information package outlining the dangers that windows and balconies pose, along with tips for keeping kids safe,” advises Trottier. “Put a process in place so tenants know what to do if they notice rust or a missing bolt, anything suspicious that might indicate structural integrity has been compromised or that maintenance is required.”
Mechanisms that limit doors and windows from opening, often mandated in cities’ property standards bylaws, should be placed on all windows and balconies at least two metres above ground. Called “limiters” they are effective devices that only allow for a maximum opening of 10 cm. “Even the end of a hockey stick can be used to prevent doors from sliding open,” Trottier notes, “so you don’t have to spend a lot of money.”
And, although as the landlord or property manager, you can’t legally enforce safe behaviour or be there to personally supervise, you can warn about the dangers of sitting on railings and climbing over partitions and do your part to discourage it.
Erin Ruddy is the editor of Canadian Apartment Magazine