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STAIRS, RAILINGS, LANDINGS, RAMPS
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Stair & railing trip & fall hazards: This series of articles provides details about how to build steps, stairs, and railings, including interior and exterior or outdoor stair & railing codes, stair construction, stair inspection & stair safety hazard guides: beginning here.
We include building code specifications for stairs, steps, rails, stair measurements & sketches, stair & railing photographs, and examples of defects in indoor or outdoor stairs, railings, landings, platforms, treads, and building access ramps. We provide stair code citations for details of how stairs, landings, and railings should be constructed to meet various building codes & standards.
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Catalog of Common Stair & Railing Specifications, Stair & Rail Defects & Trip HazardsStairway, Railing, Landing Basic Dimensions & Rules
Our page top photograph shows an exterior stair extravaganza that looked beautiful. On closer inspection we found that this exterior stairway was not securely supported on the steep rocky hillside over which it had been constructed.
[Click to enlarge any image]
Because more people are injured by trips and falls than other hazards, experts have looked closely at the specifications for stairs, steps, and rails to reduce the falling hazards.
This work has been translated into stair and railing specifications that are similar among codes and countries (but not identical). -- IBC, IRC, BOCA, Kingston NY Stair Code, & other sources. Sketch courtesy Carson Dunlop Associates.
Stair and Railing Specification Topics for stair (U.S. and International Residential Codes) include the items listed below.
List of Recommended Stairway & Handrailing Construction, Specifications, & Defects Articles
Following this list we provide sketches and photographs of stair, railing, landing and related codes, construction details and hazards. Also see the detailed list of stairway and railing articles found at the "More Reading" links at the bottom of this article under STAIRS, RAILINGS, LANDINGS, RAMPS
[The steep narrow pitched stone steps in our photo (left) connect walkers on two roadways in Mallorca (DF 2002). The builder pitched the steps in towards the stone wall on the left, perhaps to give the stair use an added measure of "safety".
These steps, constructed in the 1700's make successful use of platforms at the stairway turns, but are unsafe, lacking guardrails, handrails, and (due to centuries of wear) level treads.
This hazard pattern has shifted since about 1996 to reflect significant increases in mortality due to drug overdose and firearms. In fact, by the end of 2011 in the U.S. at least, the New York Times reported that for the first time, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control had found that drug overdoses represented the leading cause of accidental death, overtaing motor vehicle accidents. However falls remains a very high risk and one which receives less attention than it deserves.
"Falls include both falling to another level -- as in falling from stairs, ladders & windows -- or same level falls such as slipping, tripping & stumbling. Deaths from falls were highest in Hungary, the Czech Republic, Norway, Slovenia & Finland -- and lowest in Albania, Mauritius, Bahamas, Argentina & Chile. (Countries listed in order of death rate.)" Reference: Causes of Death, Ben Best
Risk of Falls, Burns, Poisoning 3
Falls: The highest risk of injury by falls occurs among the elderly. "Falls represent the most frequent non-transportation related accidents occurring among older adults and are the leading cause of home fatalities for this population. Stairways are particularly hazardous for the elderly.
Other types of falls include slipping in bathtubs and showers, slipping on tile or icy terrain, and tripping over objects on the floor. Falls associated with getting in and out of bed, getting on or off a chair, or using the bathroom are also frequent.
Continue reading at CODES for STAIRS & RAILINGS or select a topic from the More Reading links shown below.
Suggested citation for this web page
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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
Question: is a handrail needed for stairs of just three risers? how about stairs of seven risers?
I have a set of exterior steps on my commercial project in PG county Maryland. Thee stairs consist of seven risers. Do these steps require a handrail? - Robert Traylor
Use the "Click to Show or Hide FAQs" link just above to see recently-posted questions, comments, replies, try the search box just below, or if you prefer, post a question or comment in the Comments box below and we will respond promptly.
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Technical Reviewers & References
We've had several reports of severe injury involving collapsing attic stairs, including involving home inspectors as well as occupants. Attic & Basement stair defects can be grouped by the stair type as we describe just below.
Basic information is just below. See ATTIC STAIRS for full details of this topic.
Conventional or home-made attic or basement stairways
Attic Folding Stairs or Pull-Down Attic Stairs
Watch for these common folding attic stair or ladder defects:
Basic information is just below. See BALUSTERS, STAIR & RAILING for full details of this topic. For more details about balusters (vertical spindles in railing construction) see details at RAILING CODES & SPECIFICATIONS for a discussion of safety barriers along stairs, and GUARDRAILS on BALCONIES, DECKS, LANDINGS (railings on landings and open hallways, porches, screened porches, balconies that are more than 30" above floors or grade).
As our photo shows, a toddler (in this case very carefully held and supervised) can easily fall through open landing balusters or open balusters on a stairway.
We often see guards and railings enclosed using horizontal members or mesh or link fencing materials. Because a toddler can easily climb these materials, they are not safe for guard or railing enclosures and should not be used.
We also often see decks and porches more than 30" above ground level with no rail whatsoever, perhaps relying on the placement of plants or furniture to discourage people from stepping too close to the edge. Where building code enforcement was absent or lax we found a deck eight feet above ground with no railings at all. A local inspector opined that because the deck was not attached to the house (it abutted the house) it was exempt from building code enforcement.
Our opinion was that code exemption did not do much to reduce the falling hazard and that guards and railings should be provided regardless.
We also often see trip hazards at exterior stairs and walks, details which may escape some building inspectors. It's common for gravel, dirt, or asphalt to settle inside of the step perimeter made of landscape ties such as shown in our photo. When the wood projection is 1/8" or more above the other walking surface (asphalt in this photo) it's a tripping hazard that should be corrected.
Guards or guard rails referred to in stair codes and specifications refer to the safety barrier placed along the open sides of a horizontal walking surface such as a landing, balcony, deck, or porch. The equivalent safety barrier placed along a stairway itself is discussed at RAILING CODES & SPECIFICATIONS.
Balusters for Guards & Railings
Stair Railing Specs & Defects
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.
Examples of Stair & Landing Railing Defects
The stair stringer is the diagonal supporting structure that carries the weight of the stair assembly as well as people using the stairs. You can see a stair stringer along the upper-edge of the set of stairs lying on their edge in our photo at above-right, after the stairs fell from the stair opening (our photo at above left) during a building renovation project. The stair stringer is secured to the structure at stair top, stair bottom, stair sides, depending on where there are building surfaces present.
Some common stair stringer defects we've found include:
Rotted stair treads or stringers: watch for rot in wooden stairs, especially at exterior entrances and decks. Where the stair stringer is mounted against a building wall water is often trapped, leading to hidden rot and sudden collapse.
Our photo shows rotting basement stair treads; from the stair top we could see that the entire stairway was twisting and in danger of sudden collapse. The sketch, courtesy Carson Dunlop, predicts stair rot exactly where it's found in our photograph.
Bad Deck Stair Example: Nothing is right about the exterior stairs shown in our photo from a 1991 home inspection:
Stair Step Treads
Another Stair Code Example - Source BOCA 2001.
Another Stair Code Example - BOCA 2001.
Examples of stair tread defects
Stairs that are Curved or Angled, & Winder Stairs
Dimensions for Turning or Winding Stairways
What's the difference between open riser and closed riser stairways?
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.
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.
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:
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.
Notes to Table of Stair & Railing Defects/Checklist