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Railings used on stairs, balconies, decks, ramps, walks: we explain the difference between a handrail, a stair rail and a guardrail, and we provide specifications and building code specifications & sketches of proper, safe, and improper, unsafe handrails and other types of railings. 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. If you don't see information you want, ask us for it using the comments box on this page.
Green links show where you are. © Copyright 2013 InspectAPedia.com, All Rights Reserved. Author Daniel Friedman.
Railing Specifications & Defects & important distinctions among guardrails, handrails, & stair rails
Railings in stair codes and specifications refer to the safety barrier along steps or stairs. Also see Guards for details about safety railings on landings and open hallways, porches, screened porches, balconies - horizontal walking surfaces.
The 2006 IRC Section R202 these terms are defined clearly. We add some comments.
Notice that 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. Handrailings or hand rails may be commonly found installed
Details about handrails are at HANDRAILS & HANDRAILINGS.
Definition of stairrail or stair rail systems - guards along stairways
Think guardrail for an open stair. In most specifications such as you'll see below, the height requirements for stair rails and handrails are identical. They differ only in graspability.
Details about stair rails or stair guards are at STAIR RAILS, STAIR GUARDS.
Watch out: If you build stairs with a non-graspable stair rail (guardrail along open stairs) you must provide a graspable handrailing and the dimensions, spacing, height, projection, etc. for handrails must still be maintained.
Details about guardrails are at GUARDRAILS on BALCONIES, DECKS, LANDINGS.
The final authority on when and where railings (stair rails or guards and handrailings) 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.
OSHA's requirements for handrails
OSHA Stair rail requirements - stair railings may serve as handrails, and vice-versa
CA & OSHA Codes for [Graspable] Handrails Along Stairs & for Stair Rails Along Open Stairways as Guards
Details about handrailing graspability are at GRASPABILITY of HANDRAILINGS. Excerpts are below.
Handrailing Specifications from CA/OSHA Title 8 Section 1626
Continuing from CA/OSHA Title 8 Section 1626 [paragraph (1) is given and discussed above]:
Don't Underestimate the Importance of Railings on Stairs
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).
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 at left illustrates a stair railing that is much to large to be securely grasped. It 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. 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.
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.
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 .
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.
Graspable Vs Non-Graspable Stairway Handrailings
Below our photographs illustrate a properly designed & installed graspable stair railing or handrail. At below right, a photograph taken from the under-side of the handrail shows that when the railing is of a proper dimension and profile the hand can make a secure grasp with thumb and fingers.
The photographs below illustrate a non-graspable 2x6 wooden handrailing. At below left, the thumb is pressed against the vertical side of a 2x6, relying on friction alone for security - there is no mechanically-locking grasp of this railing - it is unsafe. Railings of this design are not approved by any of the model building codes.
At below right on the same railing design you can see that the four fingers of the hand also must rely on friction alone, as there is no groove that might give a mechanical purchase, and certainly the wood rail is far too large to be grasped around by the hand.
How do unsafe handrailings contribute to stair-fall injuries? "Handrails must provide an adequate handhold for [people] to grasp to prevent falls"
Unlike the easily-grasped handrail shown above, our stair handrail photograph (left) illustrates an attractive stainless-steel rail on a lower stairway in the New York City Metropolitan Opera building. As you can see from our model's hand on top of the railing, the width of this particular rail, roughly 6", is too great to be grasped and held on-to should a stair fall occur. A 2x6" shape on edge, is also not readily graspable.
As we cited in OSHA's guidelines above, and as you will read in every expert source on proper stairway railing or "handrail" or "banister" design in our references at the end of this article, to be usable and functional, a handrailing must be of a size and shape than can be easily grasped, must be at the proper height above the steps (measured at the tread front nose), must be separated from the side wall (if present) at an adequate distance to permit the hand to grasp the railing, and must be continuous.
And of course the railing must also be secured soundly to the structure. If any of these features are violated the hand railing is unsafe. An unsafe handrailing may go unnoticed for a long time, even years. But an improperly designed or installed handrail is likely to be discovered, and will contribute to the extent of injuries suffered by someone who slips, trips, or falls when using the stairs.
A loose handrailing can actually contribute to or even be a root cause of the initiation of a stairfall. But even when the stair-fall occurs for some other reason, if the falling person cannot maintain a grasp on the railing, that person is likely to suffer more serious injury.
See GRASPABILITY of HANDRAILINGS for complete details about handrail graspability.
More Stair & Landing Railing Defects
Wrong Guardrail Height - too low
Sample excerpts of sources which a building code compliance inspector would be expected to cite in support of requiring a properly-designed, properly-secured guard rail include but are not limited to the citations below.
Our photo (left) indicates mid-stairway activities that could require secure handrailings at a Tango dance hall in Buenos Aires.
1003.3.3.11.3 Handrail grasp ability. Handrails with a circular cross section shall have an outside diameter of at least 1.25 inches (32 mm) and not greater than 2 inches (51 mm) or shall provide equivalent grasp ability. If the handrail is not circular, it shall have a perimeter dimension of at least 4 inches (102 mm) and not greater than 6.25 inches (159 mm) with a maximum cross-section dimension of 2.25 inches (57 mm). Edges shall have a minimum radius of 0.125 inch (3.2 mm).
100333.11.4 Continuity. Handrail-gripping surfaces shall be continuous, without interruption by newel posts or other obstructions.
1607.7 Loads on Handrails, guards, grab bars and vehicle barriers
1607.7.1.1 Concentrated Load. Handrail assemblies and guards shall be able to resist a single concentrated load of 200 pounds (0.89kN), applied in any direction at any point along the top, and have attachment devices and supporting structure to transfer this loading to appropriate structural elements of the building.
1607.7.1.2 Components. Intermediate rails (all those except the handrail), balusters and panel fillers shall be designed to withstand a horizontally applied normal load of 50 pounds (0.22 kN) on an area not to exceed one square foot (305mm2) including openings and space between rails.
PM-305.5 Stairs and railings: all interior stairs and railings shall be maintained in sound condition and good repair.
Commentary: Handrails, treads and risers must be structurally sound, firmly attached to the structure, and properly maintained to perform their intended function safely. During an inspection the code official should inspect all stringers, risers, treads, and handrails.
PM-305.6 Handrails and guards: Every handrail and guard shall be firmly fastened and capable of supporting normally imposed loads and shall be maintained in good condition.
Commentary: This section provides for the safety and maintenance of handrails and guards. See Section PM-702.9 for additional requirements.
PM-702.9 Stairways, handrails and guards: Every exterior and interior flight of stairs having more than four risers, and every open portion of a stair, landing or balcony which is more than 30 inches (762mm) high, nor more than 42 inches (1067mm) high, measured vertically above the nosing of the tread or above the finished floor of the landing or walking surfaces. Guards shall be not less than 30 inches (762mm) high above the floor of the landing or balcony.
Commentary: Handrails are required on all stairs more than four risers in height. Handrails cannot be less than 30 inches nor more than 42 inches above the nosing of the treads (see Figure PM-702.9).
Guards are required on the open side of stairs and on landings and balconies which are more than 30 inches above the floor or grade below. The guard must be at least 30 inches above the floor of the landing or balcony. Guards are to contain intermediate rails, balusters or other construction to reduce the chance of an adult or child from falling through the guard. If the guard is missing some intermediate rails or balustrades, it is recommended that the guard be repaired to its original condition if it will provide protection equivalent to the protection it provided when originally constructed.
Using 1997 UBC version as a model 
Stairway Handrail Widths:
The handgrip portion of handrails shall not be less than 1-1/4 inches (32 mm) nor more than 2 inches (51 mm) in cross-sectional dimension or the shape shall provide an equivalent gripping surface. The handgrip portion of handrails shall have a smooth surface with no sharp corners. Handrails projecting from a wall shall have a space of not less than 1-1/2” (38 mm) between the wall and the handrail.
Stairway Handrail Heights:
The top of handrails and handrail extensions shall not be placed less than 34” (864 mm) nor more than 38 inches (965 mm) above landings and the nosing of treads. Handrails shall be continuous the full length of the stairs and at least one handrail shall extend in the direction of the stair run not less than 12 inches (305 mm) beyond the top riser nor less than 12 inches (305mm) beyond the bottom riser. Ends shall be returned or shall have rounded terminations or bends.
1. Private stairways do not require handrail extensions
2. Handrails my have starting or volute newels within the first tread on stairways in Group R, Division 3 Occupancies and within individual dwelling units of Group R, Division 1 Occupancies.
Stair Handrail requirements:
Stairways shall have handrails on each side, and every stairway required to be more than 88 inches (2235 mm) in width shall be provided with not less than one intermediate handrail for each 88 inches (2235 mm) or required width. Intermediate handrails shall be spaced approximately equally across with the entire width of the stairway.
1. Stairways less than 44 inches (1118 mm) in width or stairways serving one individual dwelling unit in Group R, Division 1 or 3 Occupancy or a Group R, Division 3 congregate residence may have one handrail.
2. Private stairways 30 inches (762) or less in height may have a handrail on one side only.
3. Stairways having less than four risers and serving one individual dwelling unit in Group R, Division 1 or 3, or a Group 4, Division 3 congregate residence or Group U Occupancies need not have handrails.
The intent of a handrail is to provide a handgrip for people using a stairway. Stairways which serve an individual dwelling unit must have a handrail on one side if they have four risers or more.
Such stairways with fewer than four risers are not required to have handrails. Handrails projecting from a wall shall have not less than 1 1/2 inches between the wall and handrail.
Handrails must be placed between thirty-four and thirty-eight inches above the nosing of the stair treads.
Ends [of the stair handrailings] must be returned or have rounded terminations or bends. The handgrip portion of handrails shall not be less than 1 1/4 inches nor more than 2 inches in cross-sectional dimension or the shape shall provide an equivalent gripping surface.
The handgrip portion of handrails shall have a smooth surface with no sharp corners. 
Note: this code establishes minimum occupational safety & health standards that apply to all places of employment in California. This is not a residential building code requirement, but this text in our OPINION models stair construction safety & design specifications. Also see STAIR TREAD DIMENSIONS and the other stair measurement parameter subtopics outlined in our detailed article links listed at Related Topics .
(a) Stairways shall have handrails or stair railings on each side, and every stairway required to be more than 88 inches in width shall be provided with not less than one intermediate stair railing for each 88 inches of required width. Intermediate stair railings shall be spaced approximately equal within the entire width of the stairway.
Note: Intermediate stair railings may be of single rail construction.
(1) Stairways less than 44 inches in width may have one handrail or stair railing except that such stairways open on one or both sides shall have stair railings provided on the open side or sides.
(2) Stairways having less than four risers need not have handrails or stair railings.
(3) Stairways giving access to portable work stands less than 30 inches high.
(4) Stairs that follow the contour of tanks or other cylindrical or spherical structures where the construction requires the inside clearance between the inside stair stringer and wall or tank side to be 8 inches or less, shall not be considered an "open side."
(5) Guardrails may be erected provided a handrail is attached.
(b) A stair railing shall be of construction similar to a guardrail (see Section 3209) but the vertical height shall be in compliance with Section 3214(c). Stair railings on open sides that are 30 inches or more above the surface below shall be equipped with midrails approximately one half way between the steps and the top rail.
Note: Local building standards may require 4-inch spacing of intermediate vertical members.
(c) The top of stair railings, handrails and handrail extensions installed on or after April 3, 1997, shall be at a vertical height between 34 and 38 inches above the nosing of treads and landings. For stairs installed before April 3, 1997, this height shall be between 30 and 38 inches. Stair railings and handrails shall be continuous the full length of the stairs and, except for private stairways, at least one handrail or stair railing shall extend in the direction of the stair run not less than 12 inches beyond the top riser nor less than 12 inches beyond the bottom riser. Ends shall be returned or shall terminate in newel posts or safety terminals, or otherwise arranged so as not to constitute a projection hazard.
(d) A handrail shall consist of a lengthwise member mounted directly on a wall or partition by means of brackets attached to the lower side of the handrail so as to offer no obstruction to a smooth surface along the top and both sides of the handrail. The handrail shall be designed to provide a grasping surface to avoid the person using it from falling. The spacing of brackets shall not exceed 8 feet.
(e) Handrails projecting from a wall shall have a space of not less than 1 1/2 inches between the wall and the handrail.
(f) The mounting of handrails shall be such that the completed structure is capable of withstanding a load of at least 200 pounds applied in any direction at any point on the rail.
Exception: Handrails and stair rails on flights of stairs serving basements or cellars that are covered by a trap door, removable floor or grating when not in use, shall stop at the floor level or entrance level so as not to interfere with the cover in the closed position. (Title 24, Part 2, Section 1006.9.2.7a.)
Note: Authority cited: Section 142.3, Labor Code. Reference: Section 142.3, Labor Code; and Section 18943(b), Health and Safety Code.
A complete guide to building decks, porches, & exterior stairs can be found at Related Topics above. Key articles include:
Contributions, criticism, suggestions are welcomed. CONTACT US
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 !
Simon [this question was originally posted at Balusters & Railing Enclosures ]
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 newell 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 newell 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 Guards 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.
Q1: Can a railing change as it goes along...ie Steel/wood to rope back to Steel/wood ?
Q2: Is there any law (not guides) governing gaps between railing when it cannot be continuous ?
My problem is it is not going to be a permanent structure as it will be part of a set in a theatre (just for the shows) I was wondering whether there were different rules for such? - D. Gould 8/8/2011
The short answer is that in a theatrical production where model building codes are not going to be followed you will want to understand the intent of the code and to comply as much as possible with that safety objective. So to use your example, if a railing changes material but the actor's hand can slide from one section to another without obstruction you are meeting an intent of the model stair codes. And where railings cannot be continuous there may be serious fall hazards that in my OPINION should be addressed by some means: safety cables, warning markings, special training and preparation of the actors, lighting details, even in some cases a safety harness, etc.
Background on Theatrical Stage Set Stairs and Railing Safety Advice
It is widely recognized  and  that in the more temporary constructions used for theatrical productions and sets, local and model building code standards are rarely respected in total, and except in major cities where local code officials have considered the building and safety code needs of theatres, other local building codes are generally not going to be adequate for theatrical productions. Some model codes and national codes such as the IBC Stairs Code and the U.S. National Electrical code do include provisions for theatres and stages. There are also texts such as Holloway's Illustrated Theatre Production Guide  and Teague's (non-code-compliant) advice for building theatre stairs 
You are well aware that there are special hazards to the actors - especially depending on lighting variations etc. and certainly we've both seen productions using tall steep stairs that sport no railings whatsoever. It is also my OPINION that some productions I've seen involved staging that was so dangerous (indeed people had been injured) that the performance of some actors appeared to be affected by a real fear of falling - which in some perhaps, helped the interpretation of the script.
In some U.S. States and Canadian provinces as well as in Australia, a limited-scope electrical license is required even for theatrical wiring (the fixed building wiring is not touched). There are also some published recommendations such as Electrical Safety in the Theatre (Broadway Press) . Similar rules may apply in other areas.
It makes sense to start any set design with good stair and railing safety practices and to recognize where production requirements (and the director and set designer) need to vary from those by making special effort to compensate and reduce risk. I've seen, for example, use of yellow/black floor safety tape markings and in some productions, use of small diameter wiring as fall barrier warnings. And I would bet that the director/producer and set safety experts also spend time briefing actors on necessary safety precautions.
In addition to consulting with local code officials about requirements for theatrical sets and the use of an onsite safety inspection before dress rehearsals and stage productions begin, there are published safety guidelines for theatrical productions that you might review for suggestions, often more local, such as Yale's guidelines. Australia, for example, has specific standards for licensing people who perform high risk work such as rigging. Those guidelines recognize that for staging reasons standard railings may not be provided (such as balusters 4" o.c. but they require an inspection and approval of the set for trip and fall hazard safety (as well as fire and electrical and other safety concerns) before the production can be staged.
In my OPINION such an inspection is key, but it is also my experience that if an unfortunate injury or fall should occur, you can figure that once attorneys get involved, stairway and railing standards from the standard authorities will be brought to bear. I pose that a combination of onsite safety inspections by a qualified authority and careful training and preparation of the actors themselves, to alert them to specific risks, is probably what's needed to manage stairs and railings constructed for theatrical productions whose requirements cannot incorporate all of the safety details of model building code stair and railing recommendations.
Mr. Gould, please also take a look at the theatrical set stair and rail notes and references I've added above this section and the reference texts added below this section.
Being a Stage Manager, the safety of performers and crew and to some extent the general public (as they should not be up on the stage) is of paramount importance to me and I am very aware of the 'pit falls' of Health & Safety awareness or lack of it in many venues I have worked in. I always work from a standpoint of 'do "I" think it is safe' and if the answers is no then something will be done to rectify the problem. Unfortunately we don't live in a perfect world and other people do 'cut corners' when it comes to their own and others safety, fortunately I am not one for cutting corners and do not tolerate such in others likely. Thank you for the extra advice and your time. - D. Gould 8/9/11
D we're in complete agreement. Unfortunately in theatre applications it doesn't look as if we can count on much protection from code officials. Recognizing the need to be safe, (and I too am aware of some awful pit-falls), I pose that you're doing about all possible, especially with the added step of focus on informing and cautioning the performers. No preaching coming from this end. I'd welcome specific suggestions that you think we should add to the topic as they'd surely help others.
Questions & Answers on building and installing stair railings and guard rails and stair/railing safety & regulations
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