Stair_Rail_Cant_Grasp (C) Daniel Friedman Handrailing Graspability
The ability to obtain a secure hold on handrailings is essential in fall prevention

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Handrailing graspability: this article explains and illustrate the requirements for graspable handrails & railings used inside or outside buildings, including guardrails, hand railings on steps and stairs, and stair rails or stair guards for both interior and exterior stairways. used on stairs, balconies, decks, ramps, walks.

We include descriptions & definitions of graspability for handrailings, and we illustrate safe and unsafe, graspable and not-graspable handrailings in sketches, photographs, and building code citations.

This article series provides building code specifications, sketches, photographs, and examples of stair & railing safety defects used in inspecting indoor or outdoor stair railings or handrails and related conditions for safety and proper construction.

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.

Hold On! Handrailing & Railing Graspability Requirements, Codes, Hazards

Outdoor handrail with running water at el Alhambra in Granada Spain (C) Daniel Friedman

The intent of a handrail is to provide a handgrip for people using a stairway. If a railing cannot be securely gripped it is unsafe.

While graspability of handrails naturally focuses on the profile or shape and dimensions of a handrailing, the spacing of the handrail from the wall, its height, continuity, and other features also will interfere with the ability of a person to securely grasp a handrailing when she wants to or needs to in an effort to prevent or arrest a fall.

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Shown above/left: a water-filled handrailing along a stairway at the Alhambra in Spain. Beautiful, this handrailing reflects the Moorish affection for water. It's not a great handrailing to prevent a fall.

Definition: Graspability of a handrail refers to the ability to get a secure hold onto a handrailing whose purpose, after all, is both to guide a walker along a stair or other surface and to prevent or perhaps to interrupt slip trip and fall hazards.

Article Contents

Profiles & Dimensions of Graspable Handrailings

Dimension Specifications for Graspable Handrails: recap

2x handrail profiles - CA CBC - DF

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If the horizontal profile of a stairway handrailing is too fat (we give an example below, thumb grooves help but don't eliminate the hazard - for oversized stair rails simply can't be grasped securely.

These two sketches (above and below) are found in the California Building Code for stairs and railings [37].

Reader Question: are 2" diameter PVC handrailings acceptable?

Plastic PVC pipe: is it suitable for handarilings (C) Daniel Friedman

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Is 2” PVC piping allowed to be used as a stairway handrail in a school building?

John [by private email] 2016/03/21


I don't think codes specify materials, John, rather dimensions, strength, etc.

The two-inch diameter of the PVC pipe is acceptable in terms of graspability as we see in this article.

Watch out: however in my opinion, long runs of un-supported PVC piping may be too flexible or may sag too much to be safely graspable and safely rigid to support a stairway user in the event of a fall. So while the diameter of the pipe may be fine, unless the piping is supported at intervals sufficiently close to keep it rigid and straight it may not form a good railing.

Type II Residential Handrails - for perimeter larger than 6 1/4"

Some (not all) codes allow handrails that have an overall perimeter greater than 6 1/4", most commonly to permit use of 2x lumber to construct handrails. However in these larger sizes, the handrail must have a thumb and finger groove; Some older codes may permit the 2x6 handrail profile at far left in the illustration below, but as of 2009 the handrail needs a groove on both sides. The intent of the finger and thumb groove is to provide equivalent graspability as might be obtained on a round 2-inch handrail. (The 2-inch handrail is allowed by all U.S. building codes.)

2x handrail profiles - CA CBC - DF

Watch out: No model building code and no other building code that we have surveyed permitted 2x6 or even 2x4 handrailings installed "on the flat" as a safe graspable stair handrail system. The two sketches here illustrate graspable (and X'd out non-graspable) handrailing profiles.

The IRC and residential portion of the 2009 IBC define Type II handrail as follows:

Type II. Handrails with a perimeter greater than 6¼ inches (160 mm) shall provide a graspable finger recess area on both sides of the profile.

The finger recess shall begin within a distance of 3/4 inch (19 mm) measured vertically from the tallest portion of the profile and achieve a depth of at least 5/16 inch (8 mm) within 7/8 inch (22 mm) below the widest portion of the profile. This required depth shall continue for at least 3/8 inch (10mm) to a level that is not less than 1¾ inches (45 mm) below the tallest portion of the profile.

The minimum width of the handrail above the recess shall be 1¼ inches (32 mm) to a maximum of 2¾ inches (70 mm). Edges shall have a minimum radius of 0.01 inch (0.25 mm).

The California stair codes model the Uniform Building Code UBC 1003.3.3.6 1997 or later. Below are additional excerpts from the IRC, IBC, and Florida handrail codes:

Handrail profile non circular

The non-circular handrail profile shown above is illustrated in the Florida Handrail code at 505.7.2. where the additional details are specified:

505.7.1 Circular Cross Section [handrailings].
Handrail gripping surfaces with a circular cross section shall have an outside diameter of 1 1/4 inches (32 mm) minimum and 2 inches (51 mm) maximum

505.7.2 Non-Circular Cross Sections [handrailings].
Handrail gripping surfaces with a non-circular cross section shall have a perimeter dimension of 4 inches (100 mm) minimum and 6 1/4
inches (160 mm) maximum, and a cross-section dimension of 2 1/ 4
inches (57 mm) maximum.

505.8 Surfaces: Handrail gripping surfaces and any surfaces adjacent to them shall be free of sharp or abrasive elements and shall have rounded edges.

505.9 Fittings: handrails shall not rotate within their fittings

Thanks to reader M.S. for careful editing and correcting of the graspable handrail diameter, 9/17/2013 - Ed.

Handrail Continuity: In What Locations Must Handrailings Must Be Continuous to Be Considered Fully Graspable?

We've moved this to a separate article. Please
see HANDRAIL CONTINUITY. In general, stairway handrailings should be continuously graspable along the run of the stair and in most situations the railing should continue around intermediate stairway landings.

How Unsafe or Non-Functional Handrails & Stair Railings Contribute to to Stair Falls & Injuries

Summary of Common Causes of Non-Graspable or Unsafe Handrails

A handrailing may be non-graspable for many reasons but most commonly because of these handrailing safety defects:

Don't Underestimate the Importance of Railings on Stairs

Graspable stair handrail (C) Daniel Friedman

Opinion: Daniel Friedman. The following opinions derive the author's experience in building stairs, inspecting stairs in and at buildings, in researching stair construction practices & building codes, and in the occasional assistance in the investigation of stair falls.

While it is readily apparent that a loose, broken, or defective guardrail on a deck, balcony, or landing can contribute to or even cause a bad fall, we sometimes find that the role of the stair handrail in stair fall injuries is underestimated or missed entirely by people investigating such accidents.

The proper construction and physical condition of the handrailing at any stairway should be an important part of the investigation conducted to understand the cause & extent of stair falls and fall-related injuries.

At left our photo shows a stair handrailing that is functional and graspable. But what if the railing is one that is improperly located, secured, sized or shaped?

Because a defective stairway handrailing denies the stair user an opportunity to arrest or reduce the extent of a fall, non-functional handrailings are a significant contributor to the both the occurrence of the fall down stairs and the severity of the fall.

A stair fall can be initiated by many conditions or events, some related to the condition of a tread or walking surface (slippery, uneven, sloped, loose, gaps, knots, rot, breakaways, bad lighting) but also to other more independent causes (person is running and missteps, person trips over own shoelace).

Stair railing too fat (C) Daniel Friedman

But as a general rule, when a stair fall occurs the existence of the railing and its condition take on a very important role in stopping the fall or reducing its extent.

In that circumstance, an improper or unsafe railing is in one sense, worse than had there been no handrailing present at all, since in the latter case a stair user will have observed that there was no railing and may have been inclined to move more slowly and with greater care without that security, just as we are not inclined to step to the very edge of a tall balcony if no railings are installed on its perimeter.

Our photo above illustrates a stair railing that is much to large to be securely grasped.

Our friend Asta S., visiting el Nigromante Art and Cultural Center in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, is illustrating the extent of this oversized stair rail - just compare the size of her hand to the railing size. This handrail might help to steady someone walking up or down the stairs as one can place a hand on the railing. But in a fall this railing is worthless.

A person using stairs often does not think at all about railings and may not even touch them - until a fall begins. At that moment there is an instinct to "grab on" to something to try to arrest the fall or at least to reduce its severity.

At the start of a fall up or down stairs, people will drop packages or even throw them into the air in the process of trying by instinct to grab onto a railing. The reach for a secure hand-hold in in such moments is rapid and the opportunity to obtain a secure grasp to stop a stair fall is brief, giving import to the term readily graspable handrails.

Building Codes Specifying Hand Railing Graspability Requirements

Please see the following stair code articles:

A Photo Guide to Unsafe & Unacceptable Handrail Dimensions & Shape -

We moved this discussion to a separate article now at HANDRAIL GRASPABILITY DEFECT PHOTOS

Handrailing at a tango milonga, Buenos Aires Argentina © D Friedman at

Above: the couple of tangueros we found smooching on these stairs in Buenos Aires were grasping one another so tightly that neither of them cared a hoot about the graspability of the handrailing in their stairwell.

Article Series Contents


Continue reading at HANDRAIL CODES - GRASPABILITY or select a topic from closely-related articles below, or see our complete INDEX to RELATED ARTICLES below.

Or see GUARDRAILS on BALCONIES, DECKS, LANDINGS where we describe details about railings on landings and open hallways or other horizontal walking surfaces.


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GRASPABILITY of HANDRAILINGS at - online encyclopedia of building & environmental inspection, testing, diagnosis, repair, & problem prevention advice.


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