Balcony Safety

July 1, 2014Minnesota

Preventing Childhood Injuries Due to Falls from Balconies

Best practices to keep children safe on balconies

Insurance companies locally and nationwide have recently identified childhood falls from balconies as an area of concern for their organizations. Many are devoting tremendous time and resources toward improving the safety of children in the buildings they insure.

If your association has balconies with railing or baluster openings greater than four inches, or railings less than 42 inches high, there is a greater risk of a child falling from the balcony.

Best practice recommendations are that associations meet the current National Fire Protection Association life safety code for railings. Since 1991, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) Life Safety Code has required that the openings between railing elements or ornamental railing patterns are such that a sphere four inches in diameter shall not pass through any opening. Prior to that, the criterion was six inches. The code was changed after it was identified that 95 percent of children under age 10 can pass through a six-inch wide opening.  

The State of Minnesota follows the four-inch diameter maximum in its building codes for distances between balcony railings. However, like the NFPA, it used to allow for larger spacing between railings. In Minnesota, some high-rises have railing with distances of eight inches or more. Buildings that were built prior to the code change are “grandfathered” in. However, even though they are legally “grandfathered,” these balconies pose a risk for child falls.  

A 15-month old boy who fell from an 11-story balcony in Minneapolis in May 2014 is the most recent accident highlighting the importance of balcony safety in the prevention of childhood injuries. The distance between railings in this building was five and a half inches.

Since many of the standard insurance markets for condominiums in the Twin Cities area have the same stance on distance between railings, simply changing insurance carriers may not be the answer for associations with balconies that do not meet the current NFPA and Minnesota building codes. While Marsh & McLennan Agency will seek out all available insurance marketplace options, we recommend that associations engage in preventive risk management for balconies as soon as possible to save money, pain, and resources. More falls will inevitably occur nationwide, and as they do, insurance carriers will continue to focus on this issue and require either retrofitting or replacement of unsafe balconies.

Identifying the Problem
In 2001, The American Academy of Pediatrics highlighted the risk of children falling from balconies in their article Falls From Heights: Windows, Roofs, and Balconies. In this article they state: Spacing of railings determines how well they function to prevent falls from balconies, decks, porches, and bleachers. Widely spaced rails are ineffective barriers because they permit a child’s body to slip through. Virtually all children younger than six years can slip through a six-inch opening, and none older than one year can pass through a four-inch opening.

Scope of the Problem
From an insurer’s perspective, frequency (how often something occurs) begets severity; meaning that if something occurs often enough, odds are that at least some of those incidents will also have a high severity, or high cost. In the event of falls from balcony railings, this “high cost” can be the loss of life for a family, a large claim for the insurance company, and perhaps a law suit against the association and/or the board of directors.

Developing a Plan
If your association has balconies with greater than four-inch openings or railings less than 42 inches high, Marsh & McLennan Agency can help develop a process going forward. We will be sending letters to affected associations discussing the Fireman’s Fund loss recommendation for the association, important dates and timelines, and alternate insurance company market possibilities. Every association is different in their property specifications, balcony configurations, reserve planning, other options for insurance, and options for retrofitting or replacement of balconies. Marsh & McLennan Agency will work with each association’s property manager, board of directors, and insurer to help facilitate the available options for insurance and risk management specific to each association.

Additional Reading
The following links are selected references providing additional details on the issue of balcony railing safety: