Guardrail collapse led to injury (C) Daniel Friedman Guardrail & Handrail Strength Requirements & Testing

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Guard rail & handrail strength requirements & strength testing requirements specified in various building codes & standards. This article provides details about standards, requirements & testing procedures for handrailings & guardrailings in or on the exterior of buildings.

Our page top photo shows an odd guardrail along a tiny walking space - the DIY owner-installer never considered that someone (a housepainter) might actually need the railing to be secure and functional. The result was a serious injury.

We also provide a MASTER INDEX to this topic, or you can try the page top or bottom SEARCH BOX as a quick way to find information you need.

Guardrail, Stair Rail & Handrail Strength Requirements - the 200 pound load criteron & others

Deer Net deck rail (C) Daniel Friedman

Definition of handrail & guardrail strength requirements along with appropriate building code citations. Types of guardrailings vs. strength requirements for cable, glass, plastic, wood & other guardrail types.

In their 2001 study of an unsafe wooden deck railing assembly, Barnett and Switalski point out that the first American safety standard to address railing design (except residential railings) was the American Standard Safety Code for Floor and Wall Openings, Railings and Toe Boards, ASA A12-1932. [45][46]

That study and other sources cite an array of standards that address some but most-likely not all of the considerations in building or testing a safe guardrail or deck rail system. By 1967 in the U.S. there were national standards for railings and guardrails, and by 1973 ANSI standards were available.

The railing must be strong enough to resist horizontal loads from people leaning on it.

Article Series Contents

200 Pound Concentrated Load, 50 Pound PSF Load Guardrail Strength Requirements

The 2000 IRC (IRC Table R301.5) and other typical building codes requires that a guardrail or a handdrail be able to resist a 200-pound concentrated load applied along the top in any direction, while some local codes still in effect specify a smaller load of 20 pounds per linear foot.

After an above-ground swimming pool was removed, the owners continued to use the deck in our photo (left). Deer netting was installed across the open edge of the deck - and it worked fine until someone fell thorough it. The torn remains of the deer netting can be seen on the left side of this photograph.

Continuing from from Best Practices Guide to Residential Construction:

Under the IRC, the infill or balusters must resist a concentrated horizontal load of 50 pounds applied to a square foot area. The baluster requirement is easily met with standard fastening techniques, but meeting the IRC guardrail requirement is difficult without adding steel hardware. The majority of residential decks, which rely on notched posts lag-screwed into the band joist, do not meet the 200-pound requirement.

Watch out: at least some of the standards & procedures specified for testing handrailing & guardrailing or stair rail strength focus on static strength testing. Dynamic testing such as the forces exerted when a person is falling and grabs onto a railing may be important for further consideration.

An additional warning from ASTM explains how you can or cannot use the standards summaries listed here and in further detail at the ASTM website. Quoting:

This abstract is a brief summary of the referenced standard. It is informational only and not an official part of the standard; the full text of the standard itself must be referred to for its use and application. ASTM does not give any warranty express or implied or make any representation that the contents of this abstract are accurate, complete or up to date. [1]

Guardrailing strength specifications & testing procedures & standards

General references

Cable & Other Guardrailing Systems - OSHA

Reader Question: are cable railings permitted by OSHA?

(Aug 5, 2015) Fran said:
Can these cables be applied for OSHA guardrailing?

This question was posted originally at CABLE RAILINGS & GUARDRAILS

Reply: OSHA requirements for fall protection for workers

There is not an explicit discussion of cable railings and guardrails in the OSHA language, as you'll see in the citation below. My OPINION is that because of the tension required to provide secure cable railings the time, cost and trouble of installing a cable system instead of a more rigid system may be inconvenient at some jobsites even if OSHA would approve the system.

Where workers on a construction site are exposed to vertical drops of 6 feet or more, OSHA requires that employers provide fall protection in one of three ways before work begins:

Many times the nature and location of the work will dictate the form that fall protection takes. If the employer chooses to use a guardrail system, he must comply with the following provisions:


Glass & Laminated Glass Railings, Guardrails: strength & testing codes & standards

Glass guardrailing & glass stair guard (C) Daniel Friedman

Our photograph above shows a glass panel guardrailing atop a balcony as well as a glass guard along the stairwell itself. I'm doubtful that the balcony glass guard meets the requirements of the IBC and note that there is no top railing along the glass guard enclosure.

There is a "handrailing" along the glass guard on the stairs themselves: I forgot to measure the handrailing height - it may be a bit high for some stair users.

Reader Question: are guardrailings required along the top of glass guardrails on balconies or decks?

I'm building a glass guardrailing around my deck overlooking a lake. Do I need a railing along the top of the glass or is the glass strong enough to meet code?


Glass guard railing in New York City (C) Daniel Friedman

At left we illustrate a glass guardrailing as well as a glass stair rail (at right in the photo) installed in a shopping mall in New York City.

Note the position of the stair-user's right hand (red arrow- click to enlarge any image) suggesting that while the railing along the top of the glass guards at both balcony and along the stair may serve to meet the code requirements below, the position of the rail along the top of the stair guard may be too high for comfortable use by people walking on the stairs. [For privacy we blurred the faces of the pedestrians in this photo - Ed.]

According to the ICC, a top rail, at a height of 42" above the walking surface is required along a glass guardrail will be required unless the glass panels themselves will meet the structural strength required by IBC 1607.7.

Considering the safety factor cited fromthe IBC for the top rail it is unlikely that glass panels will meet that requirement. (Wagner Companies ret. 2015).

The top rail should continue to meet the guardrailing load requirements even should a glass panel itself fail, fall, or break. Note that you may be required to use laminated, tempered or safety glass for glass guards in your area. Check with your local building official by providing the plan and design specifications for your glass guardrailing system as obtained from your professional engineer or architect.

Note that the above is only discussing the top rail along a glass guardrail or stair guard. In addition to a top rail, along a stair guard or ramp that is enclosed by glass "guards", a handrailing will be required at a height between 34" and 38".

In-Situ Testing of Guardrails & Handrails

Metal Railings, Guardrails, Handrails testing standards

Guardrail collapse led to injury (C) Daniel Friedman

Plastic Railings, Guardrails, Handrails testing standards

Wood-Plastic Composite Railings, Guardrails, Handrails testing standards

Wood Railings, Guardrails, Handrails, testing & strength standards

Railing & Handrail Strength & Failure Studies


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Guardrail / Railing Articles

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