Is the Current Code as Far as we Can go?

The tragic death last month of a 17-year-old girl after falling from a balcony at a high-rise hotel on the Gold Coast dramatically emphasises a massive problem for accommodation providers.

It seems that, no matter how much safety measures one takes, there seems to be the inevitable balcony fall – usually tragic. The problem has escalated dramatically this year.

The most recent fatality occurred when a schoolie fell from the 22nd floor of the Chevron Renaissance tower three in Surfers Paradise onto the pool deck.

It followed the extensive publicity given to an alleged drunk 18 year-old male sleeping on an 11th storey window ledge in a Gold Coast hotel during schoolies week.

These incidents only highlight the issues in regards to balcony safety and poses the question of what can be done to prevent accidents.

After a spate of fatalities, with six recorded deaths from balcony falls in the past 12 months on the Gold Coast, there is a growing concern about how to make balconies safer and whether or not the government plans to change legislation. There has been talk that the government and building authorities may be reviewing the standards for balconies with the ultimate decision being that all balconies will need to be encased with safety glass, which of course would mean horrendous costs for those existing buildings needing to modify balconies.

But Resort News has not been able to confirm these rumours. A spokesperson for the Department of Housing and Public Works has said the current balustrade requirements for balconies and decks of the Building Code of Australia are currently being reviewed by the Australian Building Codes Board.

“Changes under consideration by the ABCB include an amendment to the BCA requiring balustrades to be non-climbable if the floor of the balcony is more than 2m above the surface below. The ABCB is currently proposing to introduce this BCA amendment in 2014 and the BCA requirements are intended to reduce the likelihood of children climbing balustrades.”

However, it is not just children falling from balconies but adults too and unfortunately many of these accidents are the result of alcohol, drugs, balcony hopping, sitting on top of balustrades and general hooligan behaviour.

In the lead up to schoolies week this year both police and organisers were warning the hordes of people heading to the Gold Coast about the potential dangers of reckless behaviour on balconies and advising them to take care. As part of a police blitz the police helicopters were patrolling hotel balconies and the beach precinct but the message wasn’t getting through.

A spokesperson for the Department of Housing and Public Works agreed saying that most falls from balconies are due to human behaviour. “The current and proposed requirements will not prevent adults from climbing over balustrades, taking unnecessary risks or acting irresponsibly on a balcony.”

So what’s the answer?

While reckless behaviour is one factor to contend with, there are many other reasons balconies can be deemed unsafe. Unsafe balustrades or railings, windows without safety barriers, chipped or cracked glass, weather-exposed balconies that are not properly maintained, rusty anchor points and unnecessary stress on the structure can also cause a balcony to collapse.

Guidelines set out by the Department of Infrastructure and Planning provide recommendations to ensure design, construction and maintenance of decks and balconies are adhered to. The guidelines suggest timber constructions should have a termite barrier and should be adequately painted to avoid rot, while both timber and steel structures should be protected and maintained against salt, sand and wind corrosion, abrasive wear and deterioration. It also states that balcony use needs to adhere to certain weight loads and problems that can affect the stability of a balcony including installing a spa on the deck, excessive jumping, dancing or large numbers of people on the balcony at one time. They suggest that 13 people on the one balcony exerts the same force as a small car, so it is advisable to check load limits. High rise apartments, hotels, clubs and restaurants all need to regularly inspect and maintain their balconies.

There are also strict requirements for the design and construction of balustrades and railings so they can resist reasonable force such as people leaning against them for support and also to withstand strong winds. A spokesperson for The Department of Housing and Public Works says the current edition of the BCA requires balustrades on all newly constructed balconies to be a minimum of 1m in height and to be non-climbable if the floor of the balcony is more than 4m above the surface below. “These requirements are intended to reduce the likelihood of children climbing over or falling through a balustrade.” But supervision of children on decks and balconies is also recommended and furniture should not be placed close to the balustrade where they can be climbed on and then used to climb over the railing. And of course adults need to show caution when standing next to or leaning against balustrades.

Glen Campbell, director of Building Rectification Services says a lot of older buildings don’t necessarily meet Australian standards today because they may have been built prior to 1940. “Twenty percent of our work is balustrade replacement for either safety or aesthetic reasons with all our work being in high rise commercial buildings,” he says.

He adds that the most popular style of balustrades today is glass or a mixture of aluminium and glass but, at the end of the day, the most important thing is whether or not it meets Australian standards and is deemed safe. This is why the role of the BCA is so important as they are constantly striving for nationally consistent, minimum necessary standards. The BCA also works closely with all state and territory governments who provide input into any proposed amendments and the BCA is then amended every 12 months following approval from each state and territory.
Building Services Australia were unable to comment on any changes to balcony safety.

For anyone wanting to know more about balcony safety guidelines visit the Building Codes Australia website at

Look for the less obvious risk areas
It is not just a case of ensuring balconies and balustrades are safe, accommodation providers must ensure that (where practical) access to parapets, ledges and building overhangs are secure. Particularly in older high rises, opening windows and maintenance doors can provide access to unsecured areas of the building.

There will always be someone that challenges the odds such as spidermen, balcony hoppers and ledge walkers but accommodation providers need to make their access and progress as difficult as possible.
During schoolies week, the image of an 18-year old allegedly napping off his hangover on an unrailed ledge 11 floors up the Surfers Hawaiian Holiday Apartments in Surfers Paradise should be enough to spur accommodation providers into action.

This is extraordinary behavior considering 25-year old Tamati Luke lost his life when he fell 10 storeys from a balcony at the Marriott Resort a month before – just one of three balcony fatalities on the Gold Coast in October.

Intoxication and drugs are usually to blame for this pseudo-bravado but today there is the added motivation offered by the social media. The 18-year old pictured here, Cameron Cox, was uploaded onto Instagram as he slept. By the time he awoke he was already achieving Corey Worthington-like infamy.

Only a few days later a 17-year-old girl died after falling from a balcony on the 22nd floor of the Chevron Renaissance tower three in Surfers Paradise onto the pool deck. How it happened was not available at the time this article was written.

Pressure was mounting in the lead up to this year’s schoolies festival for a full balcony lock-up and many accommodation managers considered the move but such an action is fraught with legal problems, notably infringing anti-discrimination legislation.

Anti-Discrimination Commission Queensland community relations manager Mackayla Jeffries said accommodation providers could not apply different rules for different customers.

“Accommodation providers can certainly hold tenants to the conditions of the lease … but this standard needs to be applied to all tenants, rather than being based on a presumption that particular groups or individuals will behave in a certain way.”

Ms Jeffries said if hotel operators enforced a balcony ban as a condition of the lease, it would need to be applied to all rooms, not just those rented by schoolies.

Also as Matt Lloyd, who runs the accommodation website, explains any decision to lock balcony doors could not be made hastily. “A lot of students book a year in advance and they are paying for rooms they expect to have balconies,” he said.

The lack of common sense does not help accommodation providers if someone who falls from a balcony, ledge, roof or parapet can prove negligence in any way.

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