Balcony Safety and Compliance to Code Standards

4 July 2023
By Chris Jakovljevic

Falls from heights have been a growing concern in Australia in recent years, with the NSW Government taking a renewed focus on preventing these accidents. The legal obligations of building and building remediation companies such as us and property owners are now more stringent than ever before, with a particular emphasis on matters such as access, worker and occupant safety, adherence to the code, and balcony safety.

In 2019, Jeff posted an article “Is your balcony safe and BCA compliant”. It has proven to be a popular subject and with the recent renewed focus on the risk of falls from heights by NSW Minister for Work Health and Safety, we thought we would loop back on the subject and provide some new insight and what you need to know.

Some background information on Balcony Falls

It has always been a requirement, but more than ever, it is essential for property owners to ensure their buildings are compliant with Building Code of Australia (BCA) requirements with reference to the minimisation of risk of falls and other accidents. Due to the combination of height, ease of access and the number of older buildings in the state, balconies in particular are a major risk factor that need to be designed and maintained according to the highest standards in order to ensure the safety of occupants and visitors.

The reason is simple: falls from balconies occur too often and often lead to tragic outcomes. In fact, in a study released in 2020 it was found that over a 22 year period (1998-2019) there were 381 falls from balconies and windows. The scarier issue, however, is that statistic is for children under the age of 15. The true number of deaths and injuries from building falls is higher again. The inference is this: the presence of young children living in a building or strata complex increases the likelihood of potential accidents and should be taken into account when assessing balcony safety.

Balconies in older buildings – the risk

The reasons for people falling from balconies and windows vary, but one leading reason is the age of the building involved. Too often, falls occur in older buildings where due to a small loophole in the legislation — non-compliance of issues is overlooked if you are not making structural changes — balconies and the balustrades themselves do not meet requirements. Reasons for this can include:

  • The height of the balustrade is below requirement as the building was built before newer regulations were introduced
    • For reference, where a balcony is higher than 1m above the ground, the balustrades (railings) must be at least 1 metre high, and any openings in the balustrade should not allow a 12.5cm sphere (round ball) to pass through.
  • The tiles or concrete on the balcony are dilapidated and have become uneven creating a fall risk
  • The balustrade in use can be climbed.
    • Older-style balustrades were often wrought-iron or similar structures. Children and others can often use elements of the balustrade to climb, thus increasing the chance of a fall.

Ensuring a balcony is safe for use

As mentioned above, under the Building Code of Australia, a platform that is more than 1 metre above ground level must be bordered by a balustrade or railing in order to minimise the chances and severity of a fall. What this railing or balustrade is designed from can vary widely – they can be made from glass panels, metal or timber bars. As long as they are high enough, have no horizontal footholds, the distance between vertical bars is less than 12.5 cm apart, and they are designed to withstand loading forces in accordance with AS/NZS 1170.1 then they are going to be fit for purpose.

It sounds like an onerous list, but all Australian manufacturers will be aware of these requirements, so working with a reputable manufacturer will help ensure you install compliant balcony railings.

What you need to know when upgrading your balcony

Over many years and in numerous court cases, it has been proven that safety standards for building design, such as the BCA, do not act retrospectively. This means if your balcony was constructed and railings installed before the current code, then you do not have to – under the law – conform. However, morally and ethically it is best to check your balconies and balustrades to see if they pass Australian safety standards, especially if you know they pose a significant risk. After all, if it can be proven you were aware of a risk and did nothing to contain it and as a result, someone fell, aside from the guilt, you could be found negligent and face criminal proceedings or higher insurance costs.

Similarly, if you are a building owner or body corporate and are considering renovating your building’s balconies, bear in mind the specifics provided for by the BCA. If the flooring surface is changed or is raised, necessary changes must be made to the railings in order to meet the 1-metre height requirement. Changing your flooring surface may not seem like something you are likely to do — after all who changes a balcony, right? — but if you have waterproofing issues, tiles become drummy or handrails start to become wobbly, then it is very likely you will need to pull up the existing surface and put down a new one.

We would also point out, that if you are designing a new balcony layout, decorative elements, and furnishings should also be placed as far away from the edge as possible to prevent climbing. This includes BBQs and pot plants, chairs, and other elements that represent ways to climb. After all, children are inventive and will use anything they can.

Some final thoughts

The simple truth is, building repairs and façade upgrades may seem straightforward, but there are often elements that you may be unaware of. After all, you cannot be expected to know everything about everything, so get a professional involved early.

If you are looking to make changes, consult a qualified expert such as an engineer. Gather their input inclusive of structural designs and then gather your quotes. Building Code of Australia changes in the last years have meant that you cannot do any work (outside of emergency repair) without approved designs.

At the end of the day, balcony safety is an important consideration for you as building owners and unit owners within strata corporations in NSW. Not only is it essential for the safety of occupants, but it can also have a major impact on property prices. Make sure all your work is compliant with BCA regulations and that any renovation or repair work is done by professionals who adhere to the highest safety standards. If you need any more advice on balcony upgrades and general balcony safety, we are here to help.