Handrails & handrailings codes for stairs, steps, & other locations:
This article provides example & specific stair rail construction & installation specifications & building code citation for handrailings used in or at buildings on stairs and at other walking surfaces where handrails are needed.
This article series explains and illustrate the requirements for graspable handrails & 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. used on stairs, balconies, decks, ramps, walks.
We include descriptions & definitions of graspability for handrailings, and we illustrate safe and unsafe, graspable and not-graspable handrailings in sketches, photographs, and building code citations.
These stair and railing articles provide 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. Our page top photo illustrates an open, exterior stair at La Huerta, Guanajuato, Mexico.
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This article 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.
[Click to enlarge any image]
At above or 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.
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 at left) as well as the rooftop deck do not meet current safety standards.
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.
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 newell 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)
Our photo illustrates a handrail that is indeed "graspable"
OSHA requires these handrailing details:
Above, installed in a restaurant in San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato, this stair railing includes a grab rail designed also to block the use of the too-small insider corner of the triangular stair treads just below. In particular the vertical grab bar blocks the unsafe tread area when people are descending the stair.
Details about handrailing graspability are discussed separately at GRASPABILITY of HANDRAILINGS. Excerpts are below.
Some codes (CA/OSHA Title 8 Section 1626) may cause a little confusion between the definition of handrail (green arrow) and guardrail, by adding a third term, stair rail (red arrow).
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.
My photo (left) shows the difficulty of making use of a too-low handrailing when descending a stairway.
Continuing from CA/OSHA Title 8 Section 1626 [paragraph (1) is given and discussed above]:
1926.1052(c)(2) Winding and spiral stairways shall be equipped with a handrail offset sufficiently to prevent walking on those portions of the stairways where the tread width is less than 6 inches (15 cm).
1926.1052(c)(3) The height of stair rails shall be not less than 34 inches nor more than 38 inches from the upper surface of the stair rail to the surface of the tread, in line with the face of the riser at the forward edge of the tread.
1926.1052(c)(4) Mid-rails shall be located at a height midway between the top edge of the stair rail and the stairway steps.
(A) Screens, mesh, or other material, when used in lieu of mid-rails, shall extend from the top rail to the stairway step, and along the entire opening between top rail supports.
(B) Other structural members, when used, shall be installed such that there are no openings in the stair rail that are more than 18 inches (46 cm) wide.
1926.1052(c)(5) Handrails and the top rails of stair rails shall be capable of withstanding, without failure, a force of at least 200 pounds (890 n) applied within 2 inches (5 cm) of the top edge, in any downward or outward direction, at any point along the top edge.
1926.1052(c)(6) The height of handrails shall be not less than 34 inches nor more than 38 inches from the upper surface of the handrail to the surface of the tread, in line with the face of the riser at the forward edge of the tread.
1926.1052(c)(7) When the top edge of a stair rail also serves as a handrail, the height of the top edge shall be not less than 34 inches nor more than 38 inches from the upper surface of the stair rail to the surface of the tread, in line with the face of the riser at the forward edge of the tread.
1926.1052(c)(8) Stair rails and handrails shall be so surfaced as to prevent injury to employees from punctures or lacerations, and to prevent snagging of clothing.
1926.1052(c)(9) Handrails shall provide an adequate handhold. [This means that handrails must be graspable.]
1926.1052(c)(10) The ends of stair rails, handrails and mid-rails shall be constructed so as not to constitute a projection hazard.
1926.1052(c)(11) Handrails that will not be a permanent part of the structure being built shall have a minimum clearance of 3 inches (8 cm] between the handrail and walls, stairrail systems, and other objects.
Details about the codes for and construction of properly graspable handrails are at GRASPABILITY of HANDRAILINGS. Excerpts are just below.
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 .
Some (not all) codes allow handrails that have an overall perimeter greater than 6 1/4", most commonly to permit use of 2x lumber to construct handrails. However in these larger sizes, the handrail must have a thumb and finger groove; Some older codes may permit the 2x6 handrail profile at far left in the illustration below, but as of 2009 the handrail needs a groove on both sides.
The intent of the finger and thumb groove is to provide equivalent graspability as might be obtained on a round 2-inch handrail. (The 2-inch handrail is allowed by all U.S. building codes.)
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.
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
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. Recapping from our article above in which we describe the shape and size parameters for stair handrails:
That last item in our bulleted list means that code inspectors may approve a 2x6 or 2x4 hand railing placed in the vertical position (narrow dimension facing up - a width that can be readily grasped during a fall, while on flat it cannot - but the design needs to include a finger recess to permit a secure grip. Without that finger or thumb recess (seems to me it should be on both sides of the rail) the grasp is not secure.
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 handrails 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 
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.
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 [sketch at left] 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.
Sketch of handrailing heights (above left) is from the Florida Handrailing Code advisory 505.4. Quoting that document:
The requirements for stair and ramp handrails in this code are for adults. When children are the principal users in a building or facility (e.g., elementary schools), a second set of handrails at an appropriate height can assist them and aid in preventing accidents.
A maximum height of 28 inches (710 mm) measured to the top of the gripping surface from the ramp surface or stair nosing is recommended for handrails designed for
children. Sufficient vertical clearance between upper and lower handrails , 9 inches (230 mm) minimum, should be provided to help prevent entrapment
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 ICC has free, limited, live, online access to some of the latest codes, but I couldn't find the free link for IRC immediately.
Typically codes require a minimum of clearance of 1 1/2 inches between the inner surface of the handrailing and the adjacent wall. Our sketch is from Figure 505.5 of the Florida Handrailing code which states:
505.6 Gripping Surface. Handrail gripping surfaces shall be continuous along their length and shall not be obstructed along their tops or sides. The bottoms of handrail gripping surfaces shall not be obstructed for more than 20 percent of their length. Where provided, horizontal projections shall occur 11/ 2 inches (38 mm) minimum below the bottom of the handrail gripping surface.
1. Where handrails are provided along walking surfaces with slopes not steeper than 1:20, the bottoms of handrail gripping surfaces shall be permitted to be obstructed along their entire length where they are integral to crash rails or bumper guards.
2. The distance between horizontal projections and the bottom of the gripping surface shall be permitted to be reduced by 1/ 8 inch (3.2 mm) for each 1/ 2 inch (13 mm) of additional handrail perimeter dimension that exceeds 4 inches (100 mm).
Advisory 505.6 Gripping Surface. People with disabilities, older people, and others benefit from continuous gripping surfaces that permit users to reach the fingers outward or downward to grasp the handrail , particularly as the user senses a loss of equilibrium or begins to fall.
You can see in this example, also from Florida's handrail code, that there is also a recommended minimum clearance distance between the under-side of the handrailing and a supporting horizontal projection that carries the railing.
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 the "More Reading" links at the bottom of this article .
(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.
Our photo 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:
Handrailings in public areas are generally required to extend 12-inches past the top or bottom step, as shown in this sketch from Florida's Handrailing Code.
The same requirement pertains to access ramps.
Codes generally do not require extensions on private handrailings. In our two photographs shown here you will see handrailing or guardrailing extensions on a stairway and on a ramp that are on the Vassar College campus in Poughkeepsie, NY.
The Florida Handrail Code at Figure 505.10.2 the illustrations at left explain the 12-inch extension requirement for public handrails at the top or bottom of certain stairs or ramps.
Watch out: it is important to notice that where handrail extensions are required the extension is enclosed (leftmost sketch) or returned to the wall (right hand sketch) so as to avoid forming a trap or catch that could snag a user's clothing, straps, handbag, etc. Also
see SNAG HAZARDS on STAIRWAYS
Our photo (above left) illustrates well-designed stair guardrail /handrail extensions at the top and bottom of these exterior stairs located in Poughkeepsie, NY.
Florida Handrail Codes 505.10 Handrail Extensions
505.10.2 Top Extension at Stairs. At the top of a stair flight, handrails shall extend horizontally above the landing for 12 inches (305 mm) minimum beginning directly above the first riser nosing. Extensions shall return to a wall, guard, or the landing surface, or shall be continuous to the handrail of an adjacent stair flight.
505.10.3 Bottom Extension at Stairs. At the bottom of a stair flight, handrails shall extend at the slope of the stair flight for a horizontal distance at least equal to one tread depth beyond the last riser nosing. Extension shall return to a wall, guard, or the landing surface, or shall be continuous to the handrail of an adjacent stair flight.
1. Extensions shall not be required for continuous handrails at the inside turn of switchback or dogleg stairs and ramps.
2. In assembly areas, extensions shall not be required for ramp handrails in aisles serving seating where the handrails are discontinuous to provide access to seating and to permit crossovers within aisles.
3. In alterations, full extensions of handrails shall not be required where such extensions would be hazardous due to plan
Handrail extension requirements for ramps are also illustrated at RAMPS, ACCESS.
Continue reading at HANDRAIL GRASPABILITY CODES or select a topic from closely-related articles below, or see our complete INDEX to RELATED ARTICLES below.
Or see BUILDING CODE DOWNLOADS - free downloadable PDF files of building codes & standards
Or see GUARDRAILS on BALCONIES, DECKS, LANDINGS details about railings on landings and open hallways or other horizontal walking surfaces.
Also see SNAG HAZARDS on STAIRWAYS
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