Should building codes be changed to keep fans from falling out of upper-level stadium sections?

It was the 10th straight day of 90-plus-degree temperatures in St. Louis this past June when Chris Hoffman fainted in the front row of Busch Stadium's fourth deck, just as a choir on the field was singing "God Bless America" before the Cardinals took on the Minnesota Twins. Hoffman toppled over a railing and fell 12 feet onto an empty seat in the third deck as the screams of onlookers alerted stadium personnel to the accident. Bloodied by a facial laceration but conscious, the 34-year-old was taken by paramedics to a nearby hospital for tests and was expected to fully recover.

Others haven't been as fortunate. Since 2000, at least three individuals have died as a result of falling from the upper decks of stadiums in the United States. In addition, eight non-fatal falls have occurred in stadiums and arenas over that time, resulting in injuries not only to the falling individuals (typically in their mid-20s and invariably male), but often to the fans on whom they fell. There have been falls at professional baseball games (five), college and professional football games (one each), and one professional hockey game, as well as during two concerts staged at sports venues.

The four most recent accidents - including a fatality in May 2008 at Turner Field in Atlanta - occurred in buildings less than 15 years old, which leaves one to wonder whether enough is being done in modern stadium and arena design to protect patrons in balcony seating. Two months prior to Hoffman's fall, a man fell 18 feet from the Casino Queen Party Porch overlooking left field at Busch Stadium, which debuted in 2006. Shortly after the stadium opened, fan complaints of compromised sightlines prompted the Cardinals to alter upper-deck railing heights, but now fans are voicing the opposite concern. "The rails are too low, plain and simple," wrote one fan on the Belleville (Ill.) News-Democrat's web site.

The International Building Code calls for a minimum height of 42 inches for railings at the base of aisles, and sightline issues here are often unavoidable (though frequently addressed through the specification of Plexiglas or mesh barriers, or flat, angled steel as opposed to tubular railings). In front of fixed seating, the minimum requirement drops to 26 inches, or roughly knee height, regardless of the potential fall distance from the deck. "The reason it's allowed to be lower is you're walking parallel to it, not straight into it," says Greg Sweeney, director of technical design at Rossetti, the architecture firm that designed Ottawa's Scotiabank Place, where last December a man tripped in the aisle and sailed out of the arena's third level.

Sweeney says no architecture firm would even consider subverting code requirements, and that Rossetti often encourages clients to exceed minimum railing heights. "We feel more comfortable as a firm when we put them in at 30 inches," he says. "It's a balancing act. You're trying to meet the intent of the code, match the design of the building, and maintain sightlines."

Busch Stadium's lowest railings currently stand at a code-compliant 28 inches, according to stadium manager Joe Abernathy, and no further alteration is planned. "We like to feel we have a safe building here," Abernathy says, adding, "Despite all your best efforts, sometimes unfortunate things happen."

Codes themselves are not cast in concrete, however, and language pertaining to upper-deck railings is perhaps due for review. "Any type of tragedy in which people are falling is something that should definitely be looked at by code officials to determine if this is a recurring issue that shows that buildings need to step up their level of safety in certain areas," Sweeney says. "One option is putting a 42-inch or higher rail everywhere. That may be what the code comes to in the future."

Paul Steinbach is Senior Editor of Athletic Business.