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Handrails & handrailings for stairs, steps, & other locations: here we give stair rail construction & installation specifications & building code citation for handrailings, i.e. stairway handrails.
This article includes photographs, and examples of handrailings & stair & railing safety defects and gives checklists & images used in inspecting indoor or outdoor stair railings or handrails and related conditions for safety and proper
Our page top photo illustrates a well-designed handrailing and stair guardrail at the CIA.
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.
Handrail Specifications & Defects: requirements for handrailings along stairs & other locations
This article series explains and illustrate the requirements for safe, useable hand railings on steps and stairs, both interior and exterior stairways.
Handrailings are a critical safety feature on outdoor and indoor stairs, and ramps, as are guardrails along landings, platforms, decks, porches, and similar structures.
At left the "handrailing" was filled with running water when we photographed it at el Alhambra in Granada, Spain. This is not a particularly easy rail to grasp if one is falling down the slippery brick stairs.
Handrailing safety requirements focus on these factors
The handrailing location: including the requirement for handrails along stairs & other locations, handrail height, continuity, accessibility, & freedom from obstructions
Handrailing graspability: the handrailing size, total perimeter, shape, and surface characteristics. Handrails or railings are sometimes chosen for their creative or aesthetic appeal such as the handrail shown at above left.
Handrailing strength & security of mounting
Some of the fall injury cases we've investigated involved a combination of unsafe stairs and a fall that was made worse when the individual who lost their balance tried to grasp an unsafe handrail.
It's easy to be confused about the difference between handrails, stair rails and guardrails and their different uses, codes, and designs. In several building codes including the 2006 IRC Section R202 these terms are defined clearly. We add some comments.
Definition of handrail or hand railing - graspable supports along stairways or ramps
[Click to enlarge any image]
Above and just below our photographs illustrate a properly designed & installed graspable stair railing or handrail.
Above is a photograph taken from the under-side of the handrail showing that when the railing is of a proper dimension and profile the hand can make a secure grasp with thumb and fingers. The hand and fingers can also pass around the stair handrailing bracket as the user walks down the steps in this buildings.
A handrail is a horizontal or sloping rail intended for grasping by the hand for guidance or support. [Green arrow in our photo]
Notice that by this definition a handrail may be horizontal or sloping. That is, if the railing is intended to be able to be grasped to help protect against a fall, it is called a handrail regardless of where it is installed.
In our photo above, large-diameter top of the stair guardrail (red arrow) would not be graspable by someone losing their balance or beginning a fall. Before the smaller-diameter handrailing in the photo above was installed, my younger daughter fell down these stairs, unable to arrest her fall by trying to grab onto the very large diameter guardrail top that at the time also served as a handrailing.
Handrailings or hand rails may be commonly found installed in these locations
Along some balconies or walkways above ground and even at ground level
At bath and shower entries/exits and around toilets and for other accessibility requirements
At any location where guidance may be required, such as for buildings occupied by vision impaired or elderly people
Watch out: If you build stairs with a non-graspable stair rail or guard you must provide a graspable handrailing and the dimensions, spacing, height, projection, etc. for handrails must still be maintained.
Railing Types - A Quick Guide
A guardrail is a safety railing or barrier located along a horizontal surface such as a balcony, deck, or porch. Details are
A handrailing or stair railing is installed along one or both sides of an ascending / descending stairway, to provide a safe grasping surface to reduce fall injuries, and where stairways are open, to prevent falls off of the side of the stairs. Details are provided in this article.
Temporary Handrails & Guardrails: expedient vs. code
Temporary handrailings and guardrailings are also regulated in the workplace or jobsite, though not in private residences.
Our photo above illustrates a makeshift temporary railing that the author (DF) installed using a woodworking clamp and steel piping.
There was almost nothing technically correct about this temporary railing though as an expedient device it worked successfully to provide a graspable aid for climbing those three steps that otherwise offered no handrailing whatsoever.
OSHA regulates temporary railings and stairs used in the workplace - details are included in our OSHA stair & rail code citations below in this article.
When Are Handrails Required? How many steps, what total rise height requires a handrail?
The final authority on when and where railings are required on steps, stairs, landings, balconies and decks, rests with your local building code official.
The building code requirement for stair railings typically requires handrailings on stairs that have a total rise of three feet or more. Certainly the stairway that we observed in La Huerta, Mexico (photo above) as well as the rooftop deck do not meet current safety standards.
Basic Handrail Spacing & Height Specifications
Railing spaced from wall: (=> 1.5" )
Railing projection into stairs (<= 4.5")
Railing height (=> 31.5" one-side-rail, or =>27" with rails on two sides) (historic)
Railings: U.S. handrails for stairs with one side against a wall: 30-38"
Railings: U.S. handrails at open stairs: 34-38" above the stairs
Railings: Canadian stair handrails: 32-36" above the stairs
Handrail continuity: handrails should be continuous - that is a hand can slide along the rail without interruption from above the top riser to above the bottom riser; handrails can be interrupted at a newel post at the ends of the stairway.
Reader Question: Do stair railings need to be continuous?
If I live in a 3 stories home having an internal stair of 3'-0" wide.
The handrail is not continuous throughout:
From ground floor to first floor the wall mounted handrail is on the LEFT,
From first floor to second floor the handrail with the balustrade is on the RIGHT.
Is this fully complied with Building Regulation and Code of Practice of Canada ?
Please advise, many thanks !
Reply: Yes handrails should be continuous. And should return to the walls too. But between floors, depending on landing conditions, railings may be interrupted by doors, floors, etc.
As we stated more succinctly at the top of this article, guard railings should be continuous, but the railing can stop or be interrupted at a newel post or return at the railing ends at the bottom or top of the stairs. Railings should not be interrupted by posts within the "run" of the railing.
And where there is no newel post (railings are attached to the building wall) most jurisdictions will also require a handrail "return" that connects the end of the hand railing to the interior wall so that someone who grasps the railing during a fall won't have their hand slip off of the railing end.
Our stair rail photo (above left) is from a stairwell that we just completed at a home in New York (courtesy of Eric Galow Homes, Lagrangeville, New York).
Stairways that end at a landing surrounded by walls or at a building floor are likely to have their handrails stop too at each level.
Then the rail along stairs to the next floor will begin anew. Of course if your landing also has handrails (as would be required at least on a landing that had an open side (that is, no building wall), then we'd expect the stair rail to connect to the landing or balcony railing except where interrupted say by a doorway or an open floor on that level.
What I mean to say is that there may be practical reasons for a railing to change sides from one stairwell to another in a building. In the stairwell shown above, safest would have been a stair railing on both sides of the stairway but we didn't want to give up the passage space to a second rail. The building department accepted a continuous handrail with returns on the left side of the stair as shown.
However it's up to the local building officials to interpret the building codes and to tell you what they require. Since stair falls are one of the most common injury hazards in buildings it's worth a call to your local building department for an answer to your question. Let us know if your local building inspector agrees that railings should indeed be continuous.
Reader Question: Is it "legal" for a basement stair to have no handrailing?
I am purchasing a condo and there is no handrail on the stairs leading to the basement. there is a wall on the left and no handrail on the right. is this legal in new york state, and or nassau county? thank you for you assistance, S.F. 7/26/12
Reply: No, not normally
Our photo (at left) shows a common but unsafe lower floor or basement stair condition in an older home.
This stair is missing both handrailings and a stair rail or stair guard along the stair open side.
To make it possible to move large furniture or other objects between floors someone has removed the handrail and balusters that were originally installed on the open side of this stairway. We are sure that a stair rail was originally in place because we see the bottom newel post in our photo.
This is an unsafe stairway - the rail and balusters should be replaced. If the stair is more than three feet wide (probably it's not), and for all stairs in some jurisdictions, a handrail may also be required along the wall. The "legality" of this or any other building condition is in the final hands of the local building code department and officials.
Watch out: sometimes a local building department or official will issue a certificate of occupancy or "CO" on a building with conditions like the one shown here, either because the site was not actually visited (instead the "CO" indicates that there were "no issues on file") or because the official just didn't notice or didn't recognize an improper or unsafe condition.
Nevertheless, a "CO" does not prevent accidents nor litigation. "Saying it's OK" doesn't make it "OK" if an unsafe condition exists, and if there is an injury the building department is not going to pay the injured person's medical bills.
For more details about balusters (vertical spindles in railing construction)
Question: multiple missing guardrails, handrails, questioned by reader
AUTHOR: Maritimer (no email) - 2017/05/04
On the website Apartment Therapy [http://www.apartmenttherapy.com/before-and-after-an-unfinished-attic-turned-modern-studio-242931] they keep showing this one house without a railing and without a wall of any kind to prevent falls.
They have posted this house 4 times and my concern is that this type of remodel may become the new trend in home renovations (open stairs becoming the new open concept).
Can anyone here point out the specific code violations they are obviously breaking?
Reply: 7 Safety Questions for the Attic Stairs & Balcony-walkway Shown Above
Interesting photos, Anon. OPINION: In your first image cited and annotated above I see what looks like multiple dangers, with the reclama that we really cannot see the exact conditions at this home.
Indeed it looks as if there are stair-fall dangers and an unsafe walkway in the photo you showed - though what looks like a toddler gate might lock toddlers either out of the attic office - and along a walkway over a stair that has no guardrail. The following guesses about the photo you asked about are keyed to the red numbers in the photo above:
No guardrail along an open walkway along the side of a stairway
What appears to be a stair side handrail extension at the top landing, less than a foot above the walking surface - no assistance to people descending the stair
and also 7. What looks like cables installed as a grab-line for stair descenders - not a solid nor a graspable handrail (too small, usually too flexible, possibly improper distance from sidewall)
A vertical grab rail at the step down from open balcony-walkway to stair landing
Openings forming a foot trap, tripo hazard along a walkway
A landing that may be too small or short in the direction of travel for walkers descending the stairs from above (need 36" in direction of travel)
See #3 above.
In the site's photos we also see that the handrail at the stairtop landing is just about a foot over the landing walking surface - hardly graspable by anyone descending the stairs unless they're going to slide down on their belly as we did in fraternity hazing days. The same website shows basement stairs open on both sides with no stair guard and no handrails.
In building inspections when we find a home with no rails at all along open stairs and balcony-walkways, we infer that these (often beautiful) open designs were built without a building permit, certainly without inspections and approvals by any building department in North America.
E.g. California 2007 Building Code (effective 1 January 2008) for safety guardrails on balconies, decks, and on the horizontal area of stairway landings for walking areas whose surface is more than 30-inches above adjacent walking surfaces (or the ground) for Group 2 individual residential dwellings as well as for Group-3 occupancies specifies that the guardrail must be 42-inches or higher.
International Building Code 2000 (BOCA, ICBO, SBCCI)
1003.3.3.4 Stairway landings. There shall be a floor or landing at the top and bottom of each stairway. The width of landings shall not be less than the width of stairways they serve. Every landing shall have a minimum dimension measured in the direction of travel equal to the width of the stairway. Such dimension need not exceed 48 inches (1219 mm) where the stairway has a straight run.
Handrail code links are given in the article above - this very page, for example
A stair rail is basically a guard rail along an open stairway. A stair rail may itself be graspable and serve as a handrailing, or the stair rail might be higher, larger, and not-graspable, as shown in our photo at left. [When these stairs were first constructed, the handrail was not present.]
The following requirements apply to all stairways as indicated:
1926.1052(c)(1) Stairways having four or more risers or rising more than 30 inches (76 cm), whichever is less, shall be equipped with:
(A) At least one handrail; and
(B) A stair rail consisting of a top rail and mid-rail along each unprotected side or edge.
This separation of handrail from stair rail appears intended to permit the construction of the equivalent of a "guardrailing" along open stairways and consisting of not just the horizontal members described in (B) above.
But along an open stairway there will also be a requirement for vertical balusters or other means of enclosing the open or unprotected side or edge. Here "unprotected" side or edge means an "open" stairway - that is, stairs that do not run along an enclosing building wall.
I will post excerpted photos of the unsafe stairs you ask about along with arrows pointing to unsafe conditions that one can see in the image. There may of course be other conditions that need attention but that we cannot see.
The same remodeling job was consistent in its design as illustrated in the second image above where open stairs to a basement have no guards and no handrails.
Open stairs look nice and they make it easier to carry stuff up and down the stairway, but they are unsafe and in most jurisdictions they would not be permitted by local building officials.
Perhaps a licensed design professional put her reputation and resources on the line with these remodeling jobs that in our view are unsafe. That is to say, in some jurisdictions the building inspection official will defer to singed-off plans from a licensed professional engineer or a registered architect.
A "sign-off" for unsafe stairs won't put the cast on a broken leg nor bandage a cut head when someone falls down these stairs or walkways.
Center Handrailing for Wide Stairways
Question: how many railings do I need for a 16 foot wide stairway?
(Apr 8, 2016) Anonymous said:
How many railing do I need on a 16 foot wide deck box stair case?
Ask your local inspector the maximum allowable stair width between rails. Typically it's 36" but they might let you get away with just 3 rails, one on either side and a center one leaving 4 ft wide stairways. The decision is local.
Inspecting quite a few very wide staircases I have never seen more than one central handrailing, even when that means that stair users who might choose to walk down the center of the clear stairway space may not have a handrailing within immediate reach.
Above: a wide stairway at the west end of Grand Central Terminal in New York City uses a central handrailing as well as continuous handrails at either side of the stairs.
Walkers on either side of the central handrail have both the centeral and side railing within easy reach.
On wider stairways such as the stair shown earlier in this section, walkers may be able to pass down the stair, by choice, out of reach of a handrailing.
Handrailing Building Codes, OSHA's & Other Codes' Handrailing requirements
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 .
A Comparison of Building Codes Specifying Hand Railing Requirements
Eric Galow, Galow Homes, Lagrangeville, NY. Mr. Galow can be reached by email: email@example.com or by telephone: 914-474-6613. Mr. Galow specializes in residential construction including both new homes and repairs, renovations, and additions.
Thanks to reader Craig Sharp who contributed technical review & clarifications regarding the distinctions among handrailing, stair rail and guardrail 2/1/2-13.
 Electrical Safety in the Theatre, Broadway Press, web search 8/9/11, original source: http://www.broadwaypress.com/PDFs/LTSpdfs/LTSchpt13.pdf - quoting: Referring to the NEC will provide the technician with details
specifically related to the theatre and moreover, these regulations will
be better suited to the needs of the theatre.
 Illustrated theatre production guide, John Holloway, Focal Press, 2002, ISBN 0240804937, 9780240804934
 How to Build Theater Stairs, an Illustrated Guide, Ben Teague, www.benteague.com, Amateur Theatre Division, December 2004, web search 8/9/11, original source: http://www.benteague.com/features/Stairs.pdf
Note that Mr. Teague warns that his designs and advice do not comply with building codes.
 OSHA Publication 3124 - Stairways and Ladder, web search 12/21/11, OSHA Publications Office
U.S. Department of Labor
200 Constitution Avenue, NW, N-3101
Washington, DC 20210
Telephone (202) 693-1888 or
fax to (202) 693-2498. Original source: osha.gov/Publications/ladders/osha3124.html
 "The Elimination of Unsafe Guardrails, a Progress Report," Elliott O. Stephenson, Building Standards, March-April 1993
 "Are Functional Handrails Within Our Grasp" Jake Pauls, Building Standards, January-February 1991
 "The Elimination of Unsafe Guardrails, a Progress Report," Elliott O. Stephenson, Building Standards, March-April 1993
 Lighting, proper use of: proper aiming of a good flashlight can disclose hard to see but toxic light or white mold colonies on walls.
 The Stairway Manufacturers' Association, (877) 500-5759, provides a pictorial guide to the stair and railing portion of the International Residential Code. [copy on file as http://www.stairways.org/pdf/2006%20Stair%20IRC%20SCREEN.pdf ] - [11a] "Visual Interpretation Of The International Residential Code (IRC) 2006 Stair Building Code", The Stairway Manufacturers Association, [Portions of this document reproduce sections from the 2006 International Residential Code, International Code Council, Falls Church, Virginia.}, The Stairway Manufacturers Association website stairways.org provides free downloads of stairway handrailing profiles and dimensions
 A HREF="http://astore.amazon.com/inspectapedia-20?node=14&page=2">Slips, Trips, Missteps and Their Consequences, Gary M. Bakken, H. Harvey Cohen, Jon R. Abele, Alvin S. Hyde, Cindy A. LaRue, Lawyers and Judges Publishing; ISBN-10: 1933264012 ISBN-13: 978-1933264011
 Falls and Related Injuries: Slips, Trips, Missteps, and Their Consequences, Lawyers & Judges Publishing, (June 2002), ISBN-10: 0913875430 ISBN-13: 978-0913875438 "Falls in the home and public places are the second leading cause of unintentional injury deaths in the United States, but are overlooked in most literature. This book is unique in that it is entirely devoted to falls. Of use to primary care physicians, nurses, insurance adjusters, architects, writers of building codes, attorneys, or anyone who cares for the elderly, this book will tell you how, why, and when people will likely fall, what most likely will be injured, and how such injuries come about. "
 Slips, Trips, Missteps and Their Consequences, Second Edition, Gary M. Bakken, H. Harvey Cohen,A. S. Hyde, Jon R. Abele, ISBN-13: 978-1-933264-01-1 or
ISBN 10: 1-933264-01-2,
available from the publisher, Lawyers ^ Judges Publishing Company,Inc., www.lawyersandjudges.com firstname.lastname@example.org and also from the InspectAPedia Bookstore (Amazon.com)
 Arts, Crafts, & Theater Safety (ACTS), 181 Thompson Street, #23
New York, NY 10012-2586
Telephone: (212) 777-0062
E-Mail: ACTSNYC@cs.com, web search 5/9/12, website: http://www.artscraftstheatersafety.org/ - Quoting:
ACTS is a not-for-profit corporation that provides health, safety, industrial hygiene, technical services, and safety publications to the arts, crafts, museums, and theater communities. A part of the fees from our consulting services goes to support our free and low-cost services for artists. We gratefully accept donations, but do not solicit them from the artists who call here for help and advice. We recognize that artists and performers are among the least affluent groups in society.
ACTS also will not accept money or take advertising in our publications from manufacturers of artists materials or businesses whose interests could conflict with ours. We want artists to know that we have no financial incentive to make our product and safety recommendations.
 Access Ramp building codes:
 Access Ramp Standards:
ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act), Public Law 101-336. 7/26/90 is very often cited by other sources for good design of stairs and ramps etc. even where disabled individuals are not the design target.
ANSI A117.4 Accessible and Usable buildings and Facilities (earlier version was incorporated into the ADA)
ASTM F 1637, Standard Practice for Safe Walking Surfaces, (Similar to the above standard
"The Dimensions of Stairs", J. M. Fitch et al., Scientific American, October 1974.
 Mobile Home Inspections common defects unique to factory built housing, inspection methods,
The National Institute of Standards and Technology, NIST (nee National Bureau of Standards NBS) is a US government agency - see www.nist.gov
 BUILDING, FIRE, RESIDENTIAL CODES - The 2007 & 2010 California Building Code (Part 2), California Residential Code (Part 2.5) and the California Fire Code (Part 9) of Title 24 are available for viewing online via the following International Code Council web site link: California Codes, Title 24, Part 1, 6, 8, 10, 11 & 12 are also available for viewing and download in PDF form on the California website: 2007 Edition of the California Building Codes or see2010 Edition (Effective Jan. 1, 2011) of the California building codes. For a summary page accessing all of the California building codes see http://www.bsc.ca.gov/pubs/codeson.aspx
 "Guard Rail Height", CREIA, California Real Estate Inspection Association, Website: http://ask.creia.org, web search 8/1/12 original source: http://ask.creia.org/index.php?topic=424.0, December 2009
 California Department of Industrial Relations - CA/OSHA: California Stair & Railing Code details: Subchapter 7. General Industry Safety Orders,
Group 1. General Physical Conditions and Structures Orders,
Article 2. Standard Specifications, Section 3214. Stair Rails and Handrails, web search 8/1/12, original source: http://www.dir.ca.gov/title8/3214.html
 California Department of Industrial Relations - CA/OSHA: California Stair & Railing Code details: Subchapter 4. General Industry Safety Orders,
Article 17. Ramps, Runways, Stairwells, and Stairs, Section 1626. Stairwells and Stairs., web search 8/1/12, original source: http://www.dir.ca.gov/title8/1626.html
 California Building Code, Nonstructural Design Requirements, web search 08/01/12 original source: http://sanbruno.ca.gov/comdev_images/California_Building_Code.pdf
 Uniform Building Code Stair Specifications: UBC 1003.3.3.6 1997 or later specify handrail requirements, railing heights, rail widths, baluster spacing, stairway types, and guardrail specifications.
Books & Articles on Building & Environmental Inspection, Testing, Diagnosis, & Repair
Carson, Dunlop & Associates Ltd., 120 Carlton Street Suite 407, Toronto ON M5A 4K2. Tel: (416) 964-9415 1-800-268-7070 Email: email@example.com. The firm provides professional home inspection services & home inspection education & publications. Alan Carson is a past president of ASHI, the American Society of Home Inspectors. Thanks to Alan Carson and Bob Dunlop, for permission for InspectAPedia to use text excerpts from The Home Reference Book & illustrations from The Illustrated Home. Carson Dunlop Associates' provides extensive home inspection education and report writing material.
The Illustrated Home illustrates construction details and building components, a reference for owners & inspectors. Special Offer: For a 5% discount on any number of copies of the Illustrated Home purchased as a single order Enter INSPECTAILL in the order payment page "Promo/Redemption" space.
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The Home Reference Book - the Encyclopedia of Homes, Carson Dunlop & Associates, Toronto, Ontario, 25th Ed., 2012, is a bound volume of more than 450 illustrated pages that assist home inspectors and home owners in the inspection and detection of problems on buildings. The text is intended as a reference guide to help building owners operate and maintain their home effectively. Field inspection worksheets are included at the back of the volume.
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