Canadian researchers are bringing the outside world into the lab to solve problems from preventing falls on stairs to understanding how a bar triggers cravings for booze.

Falling is one of the biggest accidental causes of death in seniors, with the most dangerous falls occurring on stairs.

This month, Canada's building code, which serves as a model for provincial codes, is adopting a change for stairs in homes. Scientists at Toronto Rehab turned to a small wooden staircase to provide evidence to support the safety change.

"What we found was as you increase the length of a step, you reduce the risk of falling," said Geoff Fernie, director of research at the hospital.

The minimum tread — the horizontal part of the step — will go from 21 centimetres to 25.5 centimetres.

The National Research Council of Canada estimated that the stair change will save 39 lives and 13,000 serious accidents across the country in the first five years.

Bigger stairs are safer but also more expensive. Fernie said the role of the lab is to come up with evidence to support the change and draw industry support.

The new standard will apply to new construction and major renovation of all types of residential dwellings, he said.

What can I get you?

The stair lab is part of a growing trend towards simulations. 

When scientist James MacKillop walks into a lab at St. Joseph's Healthcare in Hamilton, Ont., it's also a realistic bar.

Complete with wood panelling and two bar stools, the new simulator is designed to help researchers investigate alcohol consumption by bridging the gap between the real world and traditional lab.

James MacKillop

Scientist James MacKillop says what people say about how they feel in their day-to-day lives may not be what researchers see in a lab. (CBC)

For instance, MacKillop will not only ask participants about their craving, mood and intoxication, but also observe them using video cameras placed in the lab.

"Talk is cheap, so to speak," said MacKillop, a professor in the department of psychiatry and behavioural neurosciences at McMaster University. "What people tell us about how they feel in their day-to-day lives may not be what we actually see firsthand."

From across the hall, researchers are able to watch as a test subject salivates over a drink in the fully stocked lab.  

Studies using the bar to investigate alcohol use disorders are set to begin in early 2016. 

With files from CBC's Christine Birak