Bleachers continue to be an important part of our community events and a great way to seat large crowds around a central show. But, have we given enough thought to the safety of bleachers?     

I run into a lot of event organizers who have the belief, “If it ain’t broke, then why fix it”. That may be ok for some things, but I would suggest that it isn’t the best approach to keeping your guests safe when it comes to bleachers. Preventative maintenance or renovations to ensure your bleacher seating is safe and meets building codes is a better approach to ensure everyone’s safety, and protect you from liability. If your back or side railing breaks (especially on the higher levels), it may be too late…

The US Consumer Product Safety Commission put together a recommendation in December 1999 regarding bleachers and grandstands. This was made in response to tens of thousands of serious injuries and deaths, due to falls from bleachers. Most of these were children ages 2-10.   Most of these falls occurred due to missing or inadequate components on side and back rails of the bleachers.

(This report can be found at https://www.cpsc.gov/s3fs-public/330.pdf)

Here’s what the International Building Code (IBC) says:

  1. Side rails must be present on any bleachers that are over 30 inches (762 mm) above the ground.
  2. Side and back rails must be 42 inches (1067 mm) high.
  3. Side and back rails must be constructed so that a sphere of 4” (100 mm) cannot pass through.
  4. Side and back rails must be built with vertical spindles or solid material, to prevent climbing.
  5. Side and back rails must be constructed and engineered to handle adequate side pressure loads.

International Building Code link:   https://codes.iccsafe.org/content/ICC3002012/chapter-4-egress?site_type=public

The picture above shows how large spaces can allow for people to fall through. Bleachers are recommended to be constructed with vertical rails, like in the picture on the right.

Below, the diagram shows required heights and spacing of side guards.

Now for my rant…

When I was doing research on starting a bleacher rental company, I reviewed over 200 fairs, festivals, and rural events.

My questions,

  1. What were events currently renting? (Maybe I could rent that same equipment for my own event?)
  2. How much were they paying to rent the bleachers?
  3. Were they happy with what they were getting? How could it be better?

What I found…

  1. 98 out of 100 events in Ontario were using bleachers that didn’t meet the current building code!
  2. A building permit was not needed in most cases, either because they were “grandfathered in” when the first codes were created in 2002, or they were using mobile bleachers that don’t require a permit for some reason.
  3. The bleachers that were grandfathered in are now over 20 years old. In a lot of cases, they were just built by a local service club or a group of people, not engineered or designed with specific load restrictions.

This led me to even more questions; why would we have a building code and not enforce this code on mobile bleachers?    Isn’t the building code set out for the safety of the public? Thousands of people sit on these bleachers each year, yet they don’t require engineered drawings or annual reviews to ensure the building material has maintained it’s structural integrity.

Most of these older style bleachers were built with horizontal side and back rails with large gaps, because…

  1. it is much cheaper and easier to put together.
  2. These bleachers were built before 2000 and have yet to be updated
  3. A building permit was not obtained or parts were overlooked
  4. The Ontario Building Code for outdoor bleachers allows the use of horizontal rails on bleachers built outdoors.

Why would the Ontario building code allow horizontal rails on bleachers that are 8’ above the ground or higher, while they require vertical rails on a deck that’s 2’ high? Vertical rails are also mandatory to meet the International Building Code requirements, and in my opinion, are critical for a safe bleacher.

Is it worth the risk of injury to our guests, and potential lawsuits? Or would you feel better knowing you have safe bleachers with adequate side and back rails?

Whether building or renovating your own bleachers, or looking into renting bleachers, always make sure you are following the building code, to keep your attendees safe! Check to make sure side and back rails are in place, only use vertical spindles, and don’t have any gaps over 4”.