Bleacher Safety

Here’s a scary thought: Experts in bleacher design and bleacher safety say that most facility directors responsible for bleachers probably don’t think much about bleacher safety issues — until someone has an accident.

That may be one reason why Googling“bleachers” on the Internet produces so many advertisements sponsored by personal injury attorneys.

In fact, research by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) suggests that bleacher safety should probably command more attention from facility directors, especially those managing equipment that is more than 15 years old.

CPSC research indicates that falls from bleachers killed 19 people between 1991 and 2003. Hospital emergency rooms treat an average of 19,100 injuries stemming from bleacher accidents ever year.

During 1999, bleacher accidents killed two children and caused 22,100 injuries. Approximately 6,100 of those injuries occurred when an individual fell from — or through — a stand of bleachers to the ground below. Children under the age of 15 accounted for about 4,910 of these incidents.

The deaths recorded in 1999 involved a six-year-old child who fell through a 13-inch opening between the footboard and seatboard and a three-year-old who fell through an opening in the guardrail.

The accidents set off a reaction in the U.S. Congress.“In July of 1999, we received a petition from two members of Congress asking CPSC to develop retrofitting guidelines that would help prevent falls and make existing bleachers safer,” says Patty Davis, a spokesperson for CPSC.

A Roundtable on Bleachers and Grandstands that included consumers as well as representatives from industry and government was convened to discuss hazards related to the equipment. The guidelines developed by CPSC are based on recommendations made by the Roundtable.

The guidelines appear in a free publication, entitled “Guidelines for Retrofitting Bleachers,” which may be downloaded free at the CPSC website. Aim your browser at and click on CPSC Publications. Then go to Public Use Products. You’ll find the publication on this page.

“We encourage manufacturers, designers, and officials responsible for schools and parks to get a copy of this publication.” Davis says.

Guidelines For Bleacher Safety

A quick survey of the guidelines turns up recommendations for guardrails, openings, maintenance, and much more.

CPSC recommends that openings in guardrails should prevent passage of a four-inch sphere, the approximate size of a baby’s head. Nor should guardrails encourage young children to attempt to climb over. Specifically, CPSC recommends a picket fence guardrail design with no more than four inches between the “pickets.” A small child will not be able to slip between the bars or to climb them. If the in-fill guardrail members allow footholds, CPSC says to limit the maximum openings to 1.75 inches. Where visibility would not be significantly impaired, the publication recommends solid members.

The recommendations call for the use of guardrails on the back of bleachers. Guardrails should protect bleachers at heights above 30 inches. The top of the guardrail should be at least 42 inches above the leading edge of the adjacent footboard, seatboard or aisle.

These recommendations aim to prevent people from falling off of bleachers. Another set of recommendations prevents people from falling through. In this area, recommendations address the open deck design of older bleachers. CPSC recommends the addition of risers in the spaces below the seatboards and above the footboards. The riser should close off enough of the opening in the deck to prevent the passage of a four-inch sphere.

People also fall and hurt themselves while walking on bleachers. CPSC says such falls are likely to occur when there are missing or inadequate components that assist in access and egress, such as aisles and handrails. Non-skid surfaces also help people to keep their footing.

As a rule, new bleachers comply with these guidelines as well as regulations issued by the International Code Council (ICC), Building Officials and Code Administrators (BOCA), the Southern Building Code Congress International (SBCCI), the International Conference of Building Officials (ICBO), the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), and applicable local codes.

“Over the past 10 to 15 years, many of these kinds of safety features have been incorporated into codes and become standard features for most manufacturers,” says Cathleen Holzknecht, director of marketing with Louisville-based Dant Clayton Corporation, one of the nations largest manufacturers of bleachers.

Inspecting Your Bleachers

But no one knows how many old bleachers in need of replacement or renovation exist in K-12 gymnasiums and athletic fields across the country, but there are likely quite a few. The only way to find them is for facility managers to inspect their bleachers.

In fact, the CPSC recommends and the NFPA requires that bleachers be thoroughly inspected at least quarterly by trained personnel and that any problems be corrected immediately. These groups also say that a licensed design professional should inspect the bleachers at least every two years and provide a written certification that the bleachers are fit for use.

Records of all inspections as well as records of all incidents and injuries should be retained.

To Repair? To Renovate? To Replace?

How can you perform an elementary evaluation of your bleachers and determine if repair, renovation, or replacement is necessary?

A spokesperson for Southern Bleacher Company in Graham, Texas, Garrett Pettus identifies six major components of grandstands and bleachers that can be inspected to answer this question.

• Support Structure: Structural components rank among the most critical items to evaluate, Pettus says. In most cases, galvanized steel structures show little deterioration, while painted steel structures may. During the inspection, look for noticeable rust, broken welds, loose bolts, and bent or damaged cross braces. Also check the concrete piers or slab upon which the bleachers sit. Look for heaving or sinking.

• Seats, Footboards, and Risers: Pettus suggests looking for gaps large enough for a four-inch sphere to pass through. If the seats and footboards are made of wood, Pettus recommends testing the integrity of each board. “Wood often decomposes from the bottom or inside first,” he explains.

• Aisles: Are the aisles fully closed? Are the aisles with seating on both sides at least 48 inches wide? Is the vertical dimension from step to step 8 inches or less? Are the handrails located at each aisle?

• Egress — Stairs and Ramp: Pettus cautions that the stairs should be fully closed and asks if there is guard railing on each side, rising 42 inches above the bleachers, with spaces filled in to prevent a four inch sphere from passing through.

• Guard Rails: Do your bleachers have guardrails for walking surfaces higher than 30 inches from the ground? Does the infill configuration eliminate openings large enough for a four-inch diameter sphere to past through? You should also check whether guardrails extend at least 42 inches above seat height.

• ADA Compliance: Pettus also notes that bleaches today must comply with ADA regulations that require wheel chair seating at the main concourse elevation. Lines of sight for wheel chair patrons must be free of obstructions and comparable with lines of sight available to other spectators. Finally, the ramp must present a slope no steeper than 1:12.

“Based on answers to these questions, schools could be faced with renovating or replacing their grandstands and bleachers,” Pettus says. “This decision should be based on structural integrity, costs, future maintenance, and public safety. Ultimately, the answer determines if your grandstands and bleachers are an asset of a liability.”

What Are Bleachers?

Bleachers provide tiered or stepped seating, generally without backrests. They come in various configurations and sizes. Generally, they fit into one of four categories: permanent/stationary, portable/movable, telescopic/folding, and temporary. Temporary bleachers are typically stored in pieces and are intended for use only during specific events, such as circuses, golf tournaments, and parades.

“Guidelines for Retrofitting Bleachers” lists four categories of bleachers: Permanent/stationary, portable/movable, telescopic/folding, and temporary. The guidelines in the publication apply to bleachers in all four categories.