Stair_Rail_Cant_Grasp (C) Daniel Friedman Handrails: Stair Handrailing Codes
Stair Construction & Inspection Guides

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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 construction.

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

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

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.

[Click to enlarge any image]

Article Contents

Handrailing safety requirements focus on these factors

  1. The handrailing location: including the requirement for handrails along stairs & other locations, handrail height, continuity, accessibility, & freedom from obstructions
  2. 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.
  3. 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

Graspable stair railing (C) 2013 Daniel Friedman

[Click to enlarge any image]

Above and just below our photographs illustrate a properly designed & installed graspable stair railing or handrail.

Graspable stair railing (C) 2013 Daniel Friedman

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.

Stair_Rail_Cant_Grasp (C) Daniel Friedman

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

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

  1. A guardrail is a safety railing or barrier located along a horizontal surface such as a balcony, deck, or porch. Details are

    A guardrail is shown by the red arrows in our photo at above left.
  2. A stair rail or stair guard is a safety railing or barrier located along the open side(s) of a stairway. Details are

  3. 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 handrailing (C) Daniel Friedman

Detailed definitions of these three terms are


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?

Railing too low to grasp (C) Daniel Friedman

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

Stairway and stair rails (C) D Friedman Eric Galow

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.

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

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.

This question was originally posted at BALUSTERS, STAIR & RAILING

Reader Question: Is it "legal" for a basement stair to have no handrailing?

Open basement stair no railing (C) Daniel Friedman

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)

see BALUSTERS, STAIR & RAILING for full details of this topic and also

see GUARDRAILS on BALCONIES, DECKS, LANDINGS (railings on landings and open hallways, porches, screened porches, balconies that are more than 30" above floors or grade).

Question: multiple missing guardrails, handrails, questioned by reader

Questions about  missing guards & handrails at a remodeling job - at, original photo source:

AUTHOR: Maritimer (no email) - 2017/05/04

On the website Apartment Therapy [] 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:

  1. No guardrail along an open walkway along the side of a stairway
  2. 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
  3. 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)
  4. A vertical grab rail at the step down from open balcony-walkway to stair landing
  5. Openings forming a foot trap, tripo hazard along a walkway
  6. 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)
  7. 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.

Guardrail code examples are

at GUARDRAILS on BALCONIES, DECKS, LANDINGS where we include specific code citations
and this general description:

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.

also 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

where you will read

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.

Questions about  missing guards & handrails at a remodeling job - at, original photo source:

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

Very wide stairway using a central and side handrailings (C) Daniel Friedman

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?

Reply: Three

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.

Stair width details are STAIR DIMENSIONS, WIDTH, HEIGHT

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.

Wide stairway with central handrailing, Grand Central Terminal, New York City (C) Daniel Friedman

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

This topic is now in a separate article found


Handrail at the Metropolitan Opera is graspable where needed © D Friedman at

Our photo illustrates a handrail that is indeed "graspable"

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

Moved to FALL HAZARDS DUE TO UN-GRASPABLE HANDRAILS - Non-Functional Handrails & Stair Railings Contribute to to Stair Falls & Injuries

Graspable stair handrail (C) Daniel Friedman

Profiles & Dimensions of Graspable vs Non-Graspable Handrailings

Details about the codes for and construction of properly graspable handrails are at GRASPABILITY of HANDRAILINGS. Excerpts are just below.

2x handrail profiles - CA CBC - DF

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].

A Comparison of Building Codes Specifying Hand Railing Requirements        



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