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Handrailing graspability: this article 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.
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
Hold On! Handrailing & Railing Graspability Requirements, Codes, Hazards
The intent of a handrail is to provide a handgrip for people using a stairway. If a railing cannot be securely gripped it is unsafe.
While graspability of handrails naturally focuses on the profile or shape and dimensions of a handrailing, the spacing of the handrail from the wall, its height, continuity, and other features also will interfere with the ability of a person to securely grasp a handrailing when she wants to or needs to in an effort to prevent or arrest a fall.
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Shown above/left: a water-filled handrailing along a stairway at the Alhambra in Spain. Beautiful, this handrailing reflects the Moorish affection for water. It's not a great handrailing to prevent a fall.
Definition: Graspability of a handrail refers to the ability to get a secure hold onto a handrailing whose purpose, after all, is both to guide a walker along a stair or other surface and to prevent or perhaps to interrupt slip trip and fall hazards.
Dimension Specifications for Graspable Handrails: recap
Railing grip size and shape:
(must be able to be grasped)
Round rails: between 1.25" and 2" in diameter
Metal ogee shaped: <= 2.25" across widest dimension
Wood oblate shaped: <= 2.25" across widest dimension
Rectangular shaped: perimeter must be between 4" and 6.25"
Perimeter larger than 6" must have a graspable finger recess (see details at the ASM document link below)
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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 .
Reader Question: are 2" diameter PVC handrailings acceptable?
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Is 2” PVC piping allowed to be used as a stairway handrail in a school building?
John [by private email] 2016/03/21
I don't think codes specify materials, John, rather dimensions, strength, etc.
The two-inch diameter of the PVC pipe is acceptable in terms of graspability as we see in this article.
Watch out: however in my opinion, long runs of un-supported PVC piping may be too flexible or may sag too much to be safely graspable and safely rigid to support a stairway user in the event of a fall. So while the diameter of the pipe may be fine, unless the piping is supported at intervals sufficiently close to keep it rigid and straight it may not form a good railing.
Type II Residential Handrails - for perimeter larger than 6 1/4"
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.
The IRC and residential portion of the 2009 IBC define Type II handrail as follows:
Type II. Handrails with a perimeter greater than 6¼ inches (160 mm) shall provide a graspable finger recess area on both sides of the profile.
The finger recess shall begin within a distance of 3/4 inch (19 mm) measured vertically from the tallest portion of the profile and achieve a depth of at least 5/16 inch (8 mm) within 7/8 inch (22 mm) below the widest portion of the profile. This required depth shall continue for at least 3/8 inch (10mm) to a level that is not less than 1¾ inches (45 mm) below the tallest portion of the profile.
The minimum width of the handrail above the recess shall be 1¼ inches (32 mm) to a maximum of 2¾ inches (70 mm). Edges shall have a minimum radius of 0.01 inch (0.25 mm).
The California stair codes model the Uniform Building Code UBC 1003.3.3.6 1997 or later. Below are additional excerpts from the IRC, IBC, and Florida handrail codes:
The non-circular handrail profile shown above is illustrated in the Florida Handrail code at 505.7.2. where the additional details are specified:
505.7.1 Circular Cross Section [handrailings].
Handrail gripping surfaces with a circular cross section shall have an outside diameter of 1 1/4 inches (32 mm) minimum and 2 inches (51 mm) maximum
505.7.2 Non-Circular Cross Sections [handrailings].
Handrail gripping surfaces with a non-circular cross section shall have a perimeter dimension of 4 inches (100 mm) minimum and 6 1/4
inches (160 mm) maximum, and a cross-section dimension of 2 1/
505.8 Surfaces: Handrail gripping surfaces and any surfaces adjacent to them shall be free of sharp or abrasive elements and shall have rounded edges.
505.9 Fittings: handrails shall not rotate within their fittings
Thanks to reader M.S. for careful editing and correcting of the graspable handrail diameter, 9/17/2013 - Ed.
Handrail Continuity: In What Locations Must Handrailings Must Be Continuous to Be Considered Fully Graspable?
We've moved this to a separate article. Please
see HANDRAIL CONTINUITY. In general, stairway handrailings should be continuously graspable along the run of the stair and in most situations the railing should continue around intermediate stairway landings.
How Unsafe or Non-Functional Handrails & Stair Railings Contribute to to Stair Falls & Injuries
Summary of Common Causes of Non-Graspable or Unsafe Handrails
A handrailing may be non-graspable for many reasons but most commonly because of these handrailing safety defects:
Location: Handrailing location: too low, too high along the stairway
Missing: Handrailing is missing where required
Obstructed: Handrailing obstructions: interruptions, blockages to access
Shape: Handrailing shape: profile cannot be securely grasped
Size: Handrailing size: too big or too small to grasp comfortably
Spacing: Handrailing spacing: too close to wall to grasp, too far from wall projecting into stair passage
Strength: Handrailings are not strong enough to withstand loads of a person holding-on or grasping when falling
Winder or curved stair blockage: handrailings should include features to prevent people from walking along the portion of angular stair treads that are too small and thus unsafe
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).
But as a general rule, when a stair fall occurs the existence of the railing and its condition take on a very important role in stopping the fall or reducing its extent.
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 above illustrates a stair railing that is much to large to be securely grasped.
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. This handrail 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.
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.
Building Codes Specifying Hand Railing Graspability Requirements
Above: the couple of tangueros we found smooching on these stairs in Buenos Aires were grasping one another so tightly that neither of them cared a hoot about the graspability of the handrailing in their stairwell.
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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 handrailing - Ed.
Eric Galow, Galow Homes, Lagrangeville, NY. Mr. Galow can be reached by email: email@example.com 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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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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