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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.
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Railing Specifications & Defects & important distinctions among guardrails, handrails, & stair rails
This article explains and illustrate the requirements for safe, useable 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.
Railings in all of these categories are a critical safety feature on outdoor and indoor stairs, and ramps, both as graspable handrails to guide a user or to protect against a stair-fall, and as are guardrails along stairs, landings, platforms, decks, porches, and similar structures.
Railings in stair codes and specifications refer to the safety barrier along steps or stairs.
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.
See HANDRAILS & HANDRAILINGS for complete details.
Also see RAILING POST CONNECTIONS
OSHA's requirements for handrails
Our photo (left) illustrates a handrail that is indeed "graspable"
Our photo (left) illustrates very challenging stairs with a high rise, climbing to over 230 feet at the Pyramid of the Sun in Teotihuacán outside of Mexico City.
Adding to the challenge is the combination of uneven and very tall rise steps, the starting altitude (7350 feet) that can add to dizziness for tourists, a flexible cable "handrailing", and the sun itself. Construction began abut 2 A.D., a bit before OSHA was established.
OSHA, in describing stairs built for use during building construction, specifies these details: 
The following general OSHA requirements apply to all stairways and stair rails:
See STAIR RAILS, STAIR GUARDS for complete details.
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.
Some building stair codes (CA/OSHA Title 8 Section 1626) leave readers a little confused between the definition of handrail (green arrow) and guardrail, by adding a third term, stair rail (red arrow in our photo).
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.]
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.
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
Even if a porch or deck complies with local codes that do not require installation of guardrails at the deck and handrails at the deck steps, trip and fall hazards may be present. Our photo, left illustrates this situation.
In some jurisdictions, a deck that is less than 36" above ground and with three risers or less in its access steps might be excluded from the requirement to install guardrails on the deck and handrails at one or both (given step width) sides of the access stair.
This deck uses a bench to form a sort of guard against stepping off of its walking surface in some but not all areas. Imagine a cocktail party with lots of people chatting, some standing with their back to the edge of the deck. Someone takes a step backwards to permit another person to pass by.
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.
International Building Code 2000 (BOCA, ICBO, SBCCI) Handrail Rules
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.
BOCA National Property Maintenance Code 1993 Handrailing Requirements
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.
Uniform Building Code Stairway, Railing, & Guardrail Specifications (UBC 10.3.3.36)
Using 1997 UBC version as a model 
California Building Code Handrailing Specifications (CBC 1003.3.3.6)
California CA/OSHA Title 8 Building Code Stair & Railing Safety & Construction Details
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 the "More Reading" links at the bottom of this article .
CA OSHA Title 8 Section §3214. Stair Rails and Handrails 
(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.
(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.
Continue reading at RAILINGS, DECK & PORCH or select a topic from the More Reading links shown below.
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