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Stair rails or stair guards: this article explains and illustrates the requirements for a stair guard along the open side of steps and stairways. We explain the difference between a stair rail and a handrail and their different requirements, and we describe using the top member of a stair rail as a handrailing.
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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Stair Rail / Stair Guardrail Specifications & Defects: requirements for stair guards or guard railings along steps, stairs & stairways
At the stairs shown at left, we are missing both handrailings and stair rails.
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.
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.
Railings in stair codes and specifications refer to the safety barrier along steps or stairs. Also see GUARDRAILS on BALCONIES, DECKS, LANDINGS for details about safety railings on landings and open hallways, porches, screened porches, balconies - horizontal walking surfaces.
Railing Types - A Quick Guide
Detailed definitions of these three terms are at RAILING CODES & SPECIFICATIONS
The 2006 IRC Section R202 these terms are defined clearly. We add some comments.
When are Stair Rails Required? How many steps, what total rise height requires a Stair Rail or Guard?
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 stair rails or stair guards (and also handrailings) on stairs that have a total rise of three feet or more.
Our photo (left) illustrates a stair that has no functional stair guard - none is installed along the open side of the stairs.
The handrailing that is provided is un fortunately not usable: my left hand is on a hand railing too low to grasp when descending the stairs
OSHA Stair rail requirements & note that stair rails may serve as handrails, and vice-versa
Our photo (above 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:
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.
Continuing from CA/OSHA Title 8 Section 1626 [paragraph (1) is given and discussed above]:
A 2013 survey of model residential building codes and building codes for several U.S. states (CA, CT, NY, PA) left us looking for expert citations warning about snag hazards caused specifically by snag hazards along stair railings or stair guards.
Rules for residential stairway handrailing are clear about handrail continuity, projections, smooth graspable surfaces, and returns. But model and state building codes that we surveyed did not explicitly address snag hazards built into the guardrail itself.
We did find some general references to stair rails (railings or guardrails, as distinct from handrails) that imply continuity and smoothness, and in OSHA regulations we can find rfeferences to avoiding snags along stair guards.
Please see SNAG HAZARDS on STAIRWAYS for details about this topic.
Don't Underestimate the Importance of Stair Railings or Guards
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.
Examples of Stair Rail or Stair Guardrail Safety Hazards
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 stairrail in stair fall injuries is underestimated or missed entirely by people investigating such accidents.
The proper construction and physical condition of the stair rail at any stairway should be an important part of the investigation conducted to understand the cause & extent of stair falls and fall-related injuries.
Explanation of non-graspable stair railings
The photographs below illustrate a non-graspable handrailing located along the stair rail or stair guard of an open stairway. While thumb and finger grooves were provided, the width of the stair rail top, intended to serve as a handrailing, is too great to be safely grasped.
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 rail top used as a 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.
Too Wide or Too Fat Handrails Cannot be Grasped When Falling
One of my [DF] daughters fell down these curved stairs at the Galleria shopping mall (DC-NY) where the triangular tread hazard was combined with a beautiful, architect-designed stair rail that was about 8" in diameter (photo at left, red arrow) - she was unable to grasp it as she was falling.
The photo shows her older sister grasping an added handrail (green arrow) that appears to have been added on to correct this unsafe condition.
The original "fat" hand railing that no one could grasp when falling remains installed but we do not recommend relying on it.
Above we show photographs of two more non-graspable handrails that are unsafe: at left at Carnegie Hall in New York City, and at right demonstrated by Asta in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. The "stair rail" at right is not just too big, it's also 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.
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 Related Topics .
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 GUARDRAIL & HANDRAIL STRENGTH & Testing Requirements or select a topic from the More Reading links shown below.
Green link shows where you are in this article series.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) on building and installing stair rails / stair guard rails
Question: is a 2x6 handrailing safe and legal?
I fell using a handrail. It was a 2 by 6 piece of wood. Was this safety railing up to code in 1991? - Anon 8/20/12
Will a 2 by 6 pass code prior to 1991 to use as a safety railing ? - Anon
Reply: What are the Specifications for a Graspable 2x Hand Railing Along a Stair?
Anon, a 2x6 handrailing placed "on flat" and even a 2x4 handrailing in the vertical position if it lacks a thumb-groove (sketch above from the CBC  - click to enlarge) is not readily graspable, is not safe, and does not comply with the hand railing maximum perimeter rules in model building codes. See GRASPABILITY of HANDRAILINGS for details.
Question: do we need to have a stair guard for just 2 steps?
is it necessary to have a handrail for 2 steps in a hair Salon? Going up to the washing area is that in violation of the building codes? - email@example.com 5/24/12
Reply: 36-inch or 30-inch rule for step heights that require stair guards
Question: Is it "legal" for a basement stair to have no stair rails, stair guards, or 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
Our photo (at left) shows a common but unsafe lower floor or basement stair condition in an older home.
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 newell post in our photo.
This is an unsafe stairway - it has no stair guard or stair rail along the open side of the stairway and it has and no handrailings on either side.
The rail and balusters that were removed and that previously formed both a stair rail and a handrailing 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 enclosed wall side of the stairs as well . 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.
Question: What are acceptable methods for reducing the space between stair rail (stair guard) balusters that are too far apart
We have an apartment complex in Oregon, and the insurance company is requiring that we tighten up the metal posts on the railings...The railings on the premises currently have vertical balusters that are more than 4 inches apart. Baluster spacing of 4 inches increase the protection for small children sliding through. It is recommended to replaced the railing with vertical balusters that are no more than 4 inches apart to reduce the risk of small children falling. Is there an easy fix for this? - Tami 7/23/12
Reply: Suggestions for tightening up baluster spacing at a stair rail
Question: What are the differences between guardrail heights and stair rail heights, & what are acceptable methods for raising the top height of a stair rail that is too short?
In addition, in another complex in Oregon, the insurance company suggests the balcony or stair railing are less than 42 inches high. Railing less than 42 inches high do not adequately protect adults and children from falling. It is recommended that the insured replace the balcony and stair railings that are less than 42 inches tall with railings exceeding 42 inches in height to reduce fall potential. - Tami 7/23/12
Reply: Methods for Raising the height of an existing metal stair rail or guardrail:
We agree with your opinion that stair rails or guardrails in any location that are too short are a falling hazard. Height requirements vary by location and local code and heights of stair rails under 42" are permitted. But what the insurance company's statement leaves vague is how much less than 42" is an acceptable height for a stair rail or guardrail?
First we need to separate the requirements for guardrails - safety barriers along elevated horizontal walking surfaces from stair rails - safety barriers along the open sides of stairs or stairways.
Guardrail height requirements
Details about guardrails are at GUARDRAILS on BALCONIES, DECKS, LANDINGS
Stair rail height requirements are different
Here are several references on stair rail height (where the top also is used as a handrailing) from our OSHA citation above:
If the top of the stair rail is to serve as a handrail along a stairway, here is a typical requirement for stair rails and stair rail top height if the top is being used as a handrailing:
This is also easy to do as an add-on project by welding an extension on top of the existing railing. Take a look at the page top photo in this article and you'll see a different example of an add-on rail. You didn't say how high is the existing railing top but I'm guessing it's 36" or more above the step tread surface. If that's the case, welding on an additional tier of railing, while it creates multiple horizontal bars, will result in a railing in which both horizontal members are high enough above the step level that the hazard of making the railing "climbable" to a child is minimized - check with your local building officials to be sure they'll approve the addition before actually executing it.
Quoting stair railing heights from the document above:
It seems to me you want to ask your building officials for a height clarification, including a clarification on the maximum handrail height they consider safe (reachable) along a stairway.
If you and the officials are discussing not a stairway railing but guard rails on a balcony or landing, please take a look at our separate article on guardrails at Guardrails on Balconies & Landings where you'll see a 42" minimum guardrail height requirement for buildings newer than 1970. In that article we warn against interpreting building codes to permit stairway handrailings to be placed too high as they could be beyond reach or safe grasp.
Don't confuse the handrail (along a rising or descending stairway) with guardrails (along horizontal walking surfaces such as a balcony or deck).
Keep us posted, and send along photos of the before and after railing improvements - that will permit further comment and may assist others.
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