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This article explains and illustrates the requirements for continuously graspable handrails on steps and stairs, at landings, and at other locations inside or outside buildings. We show examples of breaks in the handrail and discuss when the local building inspector is likely to permit such interruptions - or not. The aricle also discusses the effect of handrail support brackets on the continuity of grip along the railing. Our page top photograph illustrates a continuous handrail along the inside of a stairway and landing in a New York City business stairwell.
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
Handrail Continuity: In What Locations Must Handrailings Must Be Continuous to Be Considered Fully Graspable?
Stairway handrailings should be continuously graspable along the run of the stair and in most situations the railing should continue around intermediate stairway landings. But there are exceptions to these general handrail continuity rules that may be permitted by the local building code inspector, such as interrupting the handrail at long landings.
The continuous stair handrailing along the left side of the stairs shown above, photographed in a London U.K. building in a beautiful example of a continuous handrailing up a stair and through the landing. The wider handrail atop the guardrail along the open or right side of this stairway might be a bit too large for easy grasping.
Above: a more modern continuous handrailing on location in the CIA in Hyde Park, New York.
Example handrail code on continuity
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/
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/
inch (3.2 mm) for each 1/
inch (13 mm) of additional handrail perimeter dimension
that exceeds 4 inches (100 mm).
Reader Question: Do stair railings need to be continuous?
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
Reply: Yes handrails should be continuous. And should return to the walls too. But between floors, depending on landing conditions, railings may be interrupted by doors, floors, etc.
As we stated more succinctly at GRASPABILITY of HANDRAILINGS, 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).
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
Handrailing Continuity at Intermediate Stair Landings & at Stair Tops
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. In our photo above, perhaps because this intermediate stair landing is more than 3 ft. long in the direction of travel, New York City building code inspectors who (presumably) have inspected this concert hall may have approved this installation.
But in my opinion, the interruption shown in the handrailing at the top of these same stairs is unsafe. The user climbing the stairs has no continuous grasp up onto the next floor level.
Handrailing Continuity Along the Run of the Stairway & at Railing Support Brackets
Handrailing continuity also means that the user's hand should be able to slide or move along the handrailign without meeting an obstruction between newell posts. Below, in a photograph sent to us by reader D.G.,
the handrailing is interrupted by a capped bolt sticking up in the center of the railing along the stair passage.
I live in Berlin and often see rather old handrails here which have these large bolts sticking out of it every few feet or so. It makes the handrail-holding experience quite un-smooth and uncomfortable and I always wondered why they were designed so. I've examined them and I don't think they serve any structural purpose. Could it be to prevent people from sliding down them? Do you have any ideas as to why this is? - D.G., Berlin, Germany, 20 Feb 2016
We speculated that some knuckle head thought that kids would slide down this stairway railing and that the bolts would put an end to that. But a stair user who needs to keep continuous grasp of the handrail along these stairs has to let go and re-position her hand, reducing the handrailing's help in protecting against a fall.
Handrailing Support Bracket Options vs. Hand Clearance
Below we illustrate a stair handrailing support bracket design that affords extra depth to allow comfortable sliding of the hand along the handrail. This handrailing, installed in a Minneapolis home, permits the hand to slide on the railing with minimal contact with the supporting bracket.
But not everyone wants their hand to slide without interruption down or up the handrailing.
Why is there a rag tied around the handrail support bracket shown above? This example is useful to broaden our understanding of how people use stairs and railings. In this case the user does not want to depend solely on the strength of her grip around the handrailing.
The occupant of this Two Harbors Minnesota home relies heavily on a firm grip on the handrail when she descends or ascends the stairway. While normally we want the hand to be able to slide past the supporting bracket beneath the railing, this occupant depends on being able to slide her hand against this bracket to slow her descent in the stairwell. But the impact of hand to bracket was painful. She added this rag as padding.
Handrailing Interruptions May Be Unsafe
Above: at this outdoor stairway built along the wall of a restaurant in Oxaca, Mexico, we noticed that the chimney installer, venting a gas heating appliance, and the handrail installer building along an outdoor stairway wall, simply could not find an accord. Shown below in a closer look, the handrailing passes right through the chimney. There are other stair hazards here including the open wall along the right side of the stairs. Both the handrail and the chimney are unsafe.
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(Oct 25, 2014) Jeff Gordner said:
can skate blocks be installed on handrails and still be considered uninterruptable?
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M.S. [reader] personal correspondence, 9/17/2013, corrected a typographical error in our specification of the minimum outside diameter of a graspable handriling - Ed.
Eric Galow, Galow Homes, Lagrangeville, NY. Mr. Galow can be reached by email: firstname.lastname@example.org or by telephone: 914-474-6613. Mr. Galow specializes in residential construction including both new homes and repairs, renovations, and additions.
Thanks to reader Craig Sharp who contributed technical review & clarifications regarding the distinctions among handrailing, stair rail and guardrail 2/1/2-13.
 Electrical Safety in the Theatre, Broadway Press, web search 8/9/11, original source: http://www.broadwaypress.com/PDFs/LTSpdfs/LTSchpt13.pdf - quoting: Referring to the NEC will provide the technician with details
specifically related to the theatre and moreover, these regulations will
be better suited to the needs of the theatre.
 Illustrated theatre production guide, John Holloway, Focal Press, 2002, ISBN 0240804937, 9780240804934
 How to Build Theater Stairs, an Illustrated Guide, Ben Teague, www.benteague.com, Amateur Theatre Division, December 2004, web search 8/9/11, original source: http://www.benteague.com/features/Stairs.pdf
Note that Mr. Teague warns that his designs and advice do not comply with building codes.
 OSHA Publication 3124 - Stairways and Ladder, web search 12/21/11, OSHA Publications Office
U.S. Department of Labor
200 Constitution Avenue, NW, N-3101
Washington, DC 20210
Telephone (202) 693-1888 or
fax to (202) 693-2498. Original source: osha.gov/Publications/ladders/osha3124.html
 "The Elimination of Unsafe Guardrails, a Progress Report," Elliott O. Stephenson, Building Standards, March-April 1993
 "Are Functional Handrails Within Our Grasp" Jake Pauls, Building Standards, January-February 1991
 "The Elimination of Unsafe Guardrails, a Progress Report," Elliott O. Stephenson, Building Standards, March-April 1993
 Lighting, proper use of: proper aiming of a good flashlight can disclose hard to see but toxic light or white mold colonies on walls.
 The Stairway Manufacturers' Association, (877) 500-5759, provides a pictorial guide to the stair and railing portion of the International Residential Code. [copy on file as http://www.stairways.org/pdf/2006%20Stair%20IRC%20SCREEN.pdf ] -
[11a] "Visual Interpretation Of The International Residential Code (IRC) 2006 Stair Building Code", The Stairway Manufacturers Association, [Portions of this document reproduce sections from the 2006 International Residential Code, International Code Council, Falls Church, Virginia.},
The Stairway Manufacturers Association website stairways.org provides free downloads of stairway handrailing profiles and dimensions
 A HREF="http://astore.amazon.com/inspectapedia-20?node=14&page=2">Slips, Trips, Missteps and Their Consequences, Gary M. Bakken, H. Harvey Cohen, Jon R. Abele, Alvin S. Hyde, Cindy A. LaRue, Lawyers and Judges Publishing; ISBN-10: 1933264012 ISBN-13: 978-1933264011
 Falls and Related Injuries: Slips, Trips, Missteps, and Their Consequences, Lawyers & Judges Publishing, (June 2002), ISBN-10: 0913875430 ISBN-13: 978-0913875438 "Falls in the home and public places are the second leading cause of unintentional injury deaths in the United States, but are overlooked in most literature. This book is unique in that it is entirely devoted to falls. Of use to primary care physicians, nurses, insurance adjusters, architects, writers of building codes, attorneys, or anyone who cares for the elderly, this book will tell you how, why, and when people will likely fall, what most likely will be injured, and how such injuries come about. "
 Slips, Trips, Missteps and Their Consequences, Second Edition, Gary M. Bakken, H. Harvey Cohen,A. S. Hyde, Jon R. Abele, ISBN-13: 978-1-933264-01-1 or
ISBN 10: 1-933264-01-2,
available from the publisher, Lawyers ^ Judges Publishing Company,Inc., www.lawyersandjudges.com email@example.com and also from the InspectAPedia Bookstore (Amazon.com)
 Arts, Crafts, & Theater Safety (ACTS), 181 Thompson Street, #23
New York, NY 10012-2586
Telephone: (212) 777-0062
E-Mail: ACTSNYC@cs.com, web search 5/9/12, website: http://www.artscraftstheatersafety.org/ - Quoting:
ACTS is a not-for-profit corporation that provides health, safety, industrial hygiene, technical services, and safety publications to the arts, crafts, museums, and theater communities. A part of the fees from our consulting services goes to support our free and low-cost services for artists. We gratefully accept donations, but do not solicit them from the artists who call here for help and advice. We recognize that artists and performers are among the least affluent groups in society.
ACTS also will not accept money or take advertising in our publications from manufacturers of artists materials or businesses whose interests could conflict with ours. We want artists to know that we have no financial incentive to make our product and safety recommendations.
 Access Ramp building codes:
 Access Ramp Standards:
ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act), Public Law 101-336. 7/26/90 is very often cited by other sources for good design of stairs and ramps etc. even where disabled individuals are not the design target.
ANSI A117.4 Accessible and Usable buildings and Facilities (earlier version was incorporated into the ADA)
ASTM F 1637, Standard Practice for Safe Walking Surfaces, (Similar to the above standard
"The Dimensions of Stairs", J. M. Fitch et al., Scientific American, October 1974.
 Mobile Home Inspections common defects unique to factory built housing, inspection methods,
The National Institute of Standards and Technology, NIST (nee National Bureau of Standards NBS) is a US government agency - see www.nist.gov
 BUILDING, FIRE, RESIDENTIAL CODES - The 2007 & 2010 California Building Code (Part 2), California Residential Code (Part 2.5) and the California Fire Code (Part 9) of Title 24 are available for viewing online via the following International Code Council web site link: California Codes, Title 24, Part 1, 6, 8, 10, 11 & 12 are also available for viewing and download in PDF form on the California website: 2007 Edition of the California Building Codes or see2010 Edition (Effective Jan. 1, 2011) of the California building codes. For a summary page accessing all of the California building codes see http://www.bsc.ca.gov/pubs/codeson.aspx
 "Guard Rail Height", CREIA, California Real Estate Inspection Association, Website: http://ask.creia.org, web search 8/1/12 original source: http://ask.creia.org/index.php?topic=424.0, December 2009
 California Department of Industrial Relations - CA/OSHA: California Stair & Railing Code details: Subchapter 7. General Industry Safety Orders,
Group 1. General Physical Conditions and Structures Orders,
Article 2. Standard Specifications, Section 3214. Stair Rails and Handrails, web search 8/1/12, original source: http://www.dir.ca.gov/title8/3214.html
 California Department of Industrial Relations - CA/OSHA: California Stair & Railing Code details: Subchapter 4. General Industry Safety Orders,
Article 17. Ramps, Runways, Stairwells, and Stairs, Section 1626. Stairwells and Stairs., web search 8/1/12, original source: http://www.dir.ca.gov/title8/1626.html
 California Building Code, Nonstructural Design Requirements, web search 08/01/12 original source: http://sanbruno.ca.gov/comdev_images/California_Building_Code.pdf
 Uniform Building Code Stair Specifications: UBC 1003.3.3.6 1997 or later specify handrail requirements, railing heights, rail widths, baluster spacing, stairway types, and guardrail specifications.
 Teruo Uetake & Masahiro Shimnoda, Experimental Study on the Grip and Hold Strength for Staunchions and Handrails in Buses", J. Human Ergol., 35: 11-19, 2006
 A. H. Larsen,
P. Aagaard, "Biomechanical determinants of maximal stair climbing capacity in healthy elderly women", Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports
Volume 19, Issue 5, pages 678–686, October 2009. Abstract: Stair walking is an important functional movement task that may require considerable amounts of muscle strength/power. This study aimed to perform a descriptive biomechanical analysis of maximal stair ascent in elderly women and to examine the relationship between mechanical muscle function and maximal stair ascending velocity (MAV). Seventeen healthy elderly women (age 72.4 ± 6.4) were tested for MAV, maximal multi-joint counter movement jumping (CMJ), and maximal single-joint isokinetic/isometric muscle moment. Peak knee joint power during MAV was the single independent parameter that explained most of the variation in MAV (50%), however, combining knee and ankle parameters in a multiple regression analysis mean joint power explained 82.4% of the variation in MAV. Generally, multi-joint CMJ parameters showed stronger correlations with MAV than single-joint isokinetic/isometric muscle strength parameters. MAV appeared to be highly dependent upon knee and ankle power and to a lesser extent on joint moment and range of motion. Furthermore, CMJ assessment seemed well applicable in healthy elderly individuals to distinguish between differentiated levels of maximal stair walking capacity.
 Brian E. Maki, Sheryl A. Bartlett, Geoff R. Fernie, "Influence of Stairway Handrail Height on the Ability to Generate Stabilizing Forces and Moments", Human Factors: The Journal of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society December 1984 vol. 26 no. 6 705-714, Authors are at West Park Research, University of Toronto, Toronto, Canada. Abstract: An experimental study was performed investigating the influence of handrail height on the ability of stairway users to generate stabilizing forces and moments, with the aim of improving stairway safety by developing better handrail design standards. The experiments involved measurement of the maximum forces and moments that subjects were able to exert on a handrail while they stood stationary in an upright position. Two age groups were tested: young (20 to 45 years) and elderly (59 years and over), with a total of 35 subjects. All subjects showed a strong linear dependence on handrail height in generating stabilizing forces and moments. Ability to generate forward/backward forces and forward/backward moments increased linearly with increasing handrail height. Ability to generate upward force decreased linearly with increasing handrail height. Based on the results, an optimal design range for handrail height was estimated.
 A Field Study of Stair Descent Ergonomics in Design: The Quarterly of Human Factors Applications April 1, 2000 8: 11-15 Ergonomics in Design: The Quarterly of Human Factors Applications April 2000 vol. 8 no. 2 11-15
 Brian E. Maki, Sheryl A. Bartlett, Geoff R. Fernie, "Research Note Effect of Stairway Pitch on Optimal Handrail Height:, Human Factors: The Journal of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society June 1, 1985 27: 355-359
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