Stair_Rail_Cant_Grasp (C) Daniel Friedman Handrailing Graspability Defects & Photos
Illustrations of handrails that are unsafe because they can't be grasped

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Handrailing graspability defects:

This article illustrates several categories of handrailing graspability defects, all of which make a stairway unsafe. Some of these include a handrail whose profile is too wide or whose dimensions are too big for the hand to grasp, while others include using 2x lumber, a handrail that is too low or too high, or a handrail that is not spaced properly away from a building wall. All of these conditions can contribute to a fall and to an injury along a stairway.

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.

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Stair Handrail Dimensions & Shape - A Photo Guide to Unsafe & Unacceptable Handrails & Stair Railings

Article Contents

Photo Example of Safe Handrailing Size & Shape for a Graspable Handrail

Graspable stair railing (C) 2013 Daniel Friedman

Above and just below our photographs illustrate a properly designed & installed graspable stair railing or handrail. From the under-side of the handrail you can see that when the railing is of a proper dimension and profile the hand can make a secure grasp.

Graspable stair railing (C) 2013 Daniel Friedman

Hand railing that is too wide to grasp

The non-graspable2x lumber handrail photographs shown above illustrate two more "wide handrailing" hazards: the rail is far too large (a nominal 2x6-inch flat railing) to be grasped by the hand.

Handrailing that lacks a graspable thumb groove

In addition, where the railing abuts a vertical surface (my middle two fingers in the photo) the user cannot even latch fingers around the outside of the "railing" - making it virtually useless.

Note: a 2x4 or 2x6 or other lumber placed "on the flat" for use as the top of a guardrailing (used on level walking surfaces) does not normally raise these graspability issues.

See Guardrails on Balconies & Landings.

A too-wide handrail may be not-graspable even if it has thumb and finger grooves

The stair railing below is attractive but like the full-scale 2x6 railing above the rail below is still hard to grasp, even with thumb and finger grooves because it is just too wide. An adult's hand can hold on with thumb and fingertips but a child could not grasp this rail and perhaps not an elderly person and probably no one at the onset of a fall.

Hard to grasp stair railing (C) Daniel Friedman

Click to enlarge any image]

At that point in the fall, near its inception, the nearest hand goes out to try to grasp the railing. If the railing is "not there" because it is too low, too high, too far away, or if the railing is not properly supported and breaks away, or if the railing, as in your case, is improperly designed so that it is not possible to grasp, the hand slips away and the fall continues to its worst conclusion.

Hard to grasp stair railing (C) Daniel Friedman

Therefore in my opinion, at a stair such as the one above, regardless of whether a person who fell accurately remembers exactly what happened to initiate the fall and regardless of whether or not the person recalls grasping for the rail, it is highly likely that s/he attempted to do so. A non-graspable handrailing in this condition will deny the stairway any opportunity to arrest the fall, thus contributing greatly to the fall's extent and severity.

How do unsafe handrailings contribute to stair-fall injuries? "Handrails must provide an adequate handhold for [people] to grasp to prevent falls"

Unlike the easily-grasped handrail shown above, our stair handrail photograph above 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 railing or "handrail" or "banister" design in our references at the end of this article, to be usable and functional, a handrailing must

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.

A loose handrailing can actually contribute to or even be a root cause of the initiation of a stairfall. But even when the stair-fall occurs for some other reason, if the falling person cannot maintain a grasp on the railing, that person is likely to suffer more serious injuries than if s/he might have had the opportunity to use a grasp on the handrail to stop the fall or to reduce its extent.

Too Wide or Too Fat Handrails Cannot be Grasped When Falling

Stair_Rail_Cant_Grasp (C) Daniel Friedman

One of my daughters fell down these curved stairs at the Galleria shopping mall (Poughkeepsie, NY) where the triangular tread hazard was combined with a beautiful, architect-designed handrail 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.

Bad handrail at Carnagie Hall (C) Daniel Friedman

The original "fat" hand railing that no one could grasp when falling remains installed but we do not recommend relying on it.

Bad handrail cannot grasp (C) Daniel Friedman

Above we show photographs of more non-graspable handrails that are unsafe: at Carnegie Hall in New York City, and just above, demonstrated by Asta S. in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. The "stair rail" above is not just too big, not graspable, it's also too low.

Handrails made out of 2x Lumber On-Flat are Usually Unsafe: Too Wide, and Not Grasp-able

Bad Stair Top Railing (C) Daniel Friedman

Click to enlarge any image]

Handrail cross section and size specifications

One of the most frequent fall hazards we encounter are home-made railings that are too small or too large to grasp, or handrails that do not permit continuous grasping along their length.

A handrail made out of a 2x6 set flat and run along a stairway cannot be grasped.

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.)

2x handrail profiles - CA CBC - DF

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.

Reader 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 [37] - 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.

Examples of Unsafe Non-Graspable Handrailings: examples of non-graspable 2x lumber handrails

Graspable stair railing (C) 2013 Daniel Friedman

The photographs above and below illustrate a non-graspable 2x6 wooden handrailing.

Above, the thumb is pressed against the vertical side of a 2x6, relying on friction alone for security - there is no mechanically-locking grasp of this railing - it is unsafe. Railings of this design are not approved by any of the model building codes.

In the next photo of this 2x6 "handrailing" of the same railing design you can see that the four fingers of the hand also must rely on friction alone, as there is no groove that might give a mechanical purchase, and certainly the wood rail is far too large to be grasped around by the hand.

Graspable stair railing (C) 2013 Daniel Friedman

These examples of mis-using 2x lumber as hand railings or stair railings are important because it is so common to find them on exterior stairways. In short, as we demonstrate here, a simple 2x4 or 2x6, placed on edge along a stairway is not a graspable railing and so is not safe. It also will not comply with any of the model or actual building codes we cite above.

Graspable stair railing (C) 2013 Daniel Friedman

More Examples of 2x4" or 2x6 "Handrails" Set on Edge (or flat) & that are Unsafe

Exterior stair with 2x6 handrail on edge (C) D Friedman

A handrail made out of a 2x6 set on edge and run along a stairway also cannot be grasped. The author along with Art Cady built this exterior stair in the 1970's. The stair railing is unsafe because

By giving up some stairway width it's easy to fix this problem by adding a round or similarly-profiled handrailing at the proper height and fixed to the sides of the 2x6 by using handrail brackets.

Some installers route a "thumb groove" into the sides of a 2x6 to make an attempt at improving graspability.

In our OPINION this remains an over-sized handrailing and even if approved by some inspectors, it is not as safe as one that can be grasped securely by wrapping the hand and fingers around the railing.

Your thumb and fingers simply cannot adequately encircle and hold securely on to such a hand rail. It may seem safe ... until the added forces of a slip, trip, or fall are added.

While a thumb groove may make it possible to obtain local building offical approval of the handrailing, try watching an elderly, frail person using the railing .She or he will lean on the railing but will not be able to grasp it adequately to arrest a fall - in my OPINION - DF.

A Handrail or Guardrail May be Too Low - and also not graspable along the stair

Low rail on stair landing (C) Daniel Friedman

Click to enlarge any image]

It is surprising how many installations we find of guardrails that are so low as to be ... well, a joke. It's funny until somebody trips or steps backwards and falls over such a psuedo-guardrail such as the one shown in my photo.

Here is a quick list of related guardrail or railing safety SNAFUs:

Handrailing is Too Close to Wall - not graspable

We find a surprising number of handrailings that the installer must himself never have tried to grasp as they are so close to the wall that grasping is impossible. Just hooking a few fingers over the lip of a too-tight-to-wall handrail is not going to arrest a fall. Below, the brass handrailing along the stairs of a New York City concert hall transition from the open side of a stairway to running along the stairway wall.

New York City Carnagie Hall Handrailing (C) Daniel Friedman

Click to enlarge any image]

As you can see just below, the lower portion of this handrailing is graspable, though maybe a bit fat. But when the railing meets the wall along the upper stairway side the situation changes.

Non-graspable handrailing in New York City (C) Daniel Friedman

And as you can see below, my fat fingers don't fit into the space between the handrailing and the wall.

New York City Carnagie Hall handrail too close to wall (C) Daniel Friedman

At this point (above) the handrailing is no longer graspable. Below is another example of a handrailing too close to the wall and not graspable, this one is in San Miguel de Allende, in Guanajuato.

Grooved handrail close to wall is not graspable (C) Daniel Friedman

The shallow groove along the top of this handrail does not compensate for it being jammed up against the stairway wall. It is not graspable.

Below we show how Intercam, a bank in Mexico, solved the a different problem: affixed at a normal distance from the wall, the handrail would be out of reach due to the presence of an antique and very wide lower stair rail.

Widening the stairway handrail to put it within reach (C) Daniel Friedman

The builder widened the handrailing to put it within reach of someone using the stairway.

Handrail clearancde to wall

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:

However it's up to the local building officials to interpret the building codes and to tell you what they require. Since stair falls are one of the most common injury hazards in buildings it's worth a call to your local building department for an answer to your question. Let us know if your local building inspector agrees that railings should indeed be continuous.

Handrailing Too Small or Too Loose

Handrails that are too small in diameter cannot be safely grasped and may fail to give a stairway user the opportunity to arrest a fall. We see small diameter handrails of many materials: plastic or steel pipe, copper pipe, wooden dowels and even rope as we illustrate below.

Unsafe steps and handrail Poughkeepsie NY (C) Daniel Friedman

Above: this 1-inch iron pipe handrail at a Poughkeepsie NY home is the icing on a cake baked of entirely unsafe stair conditions: narrow treads, tall step rise, very slippery algae on the steps, uneven step riser height, a loose wobbly handrail that is too small and with no balusters though the top of the stair is more than 36" above the ground.

A round handrailing needs to be between 1 1/4" and 2" in diameter, as we discuss at HANDRAIL DIMENSIONS & PROFILE GUIDE. And if the "handrail" is soft, flexible, or even floppy rope, that loss of rigidity addes to the hazard as when grabbed by someone who is having trouble walking or who is falling, that wobble and insecure grip can certainly contribute to a fall. Yet in some locations such as the stone tower shown below, not much more than a rope even fits in the walking space.

Rope handrail in stone tower stairwell, Goodrich Castle, Ross on Wye, Hereford, U.K. (C) Daniel Friedman

Above and bleow: a rope "handrail" in a stone tower at Goodrich Castle, Ross on Wye, Hereford U.K. [DJF] illustrates the situation described below by a reader. Below you can see how much space these stair treads give for my foot: a secure handhold is essential for safe use of this stairway.

Rope handrail in stone tower stairwell, Goodrich Castle, Ross on Wye, Hereford, U.K. (C) Daniel Friedman

Reader Question: best solution to missing handrail on spiral staircase in tower?

We have a Grade 1 Listed Building 900 years old with a spiral staircase up the tower.

There is no handrail, and when we have previously consulted regarding provision of a rope, it seems that we have to insert special cast iron bolts in the mortar (not the stonework) and the rope has to be fixed on the inside surface where the tread of the stair is at its narrowest.

We think it is more dangerous on the central pillar than on the outer wall where the tread is widest. We have had one quote which has been accepted by the Diocese and our architect but the cost in 2008 was £2270+ Vat. This seems such a large amount to find, and we do not allow people to go up the tower unless the Captain of the Bells needs to go to the bell chamber, or one or two people need to check on the lead roof, or for maintenance.

We would like to ascertain whether there is any way round this problem which would give some kind of handhold that is allowable but not so expensive. - Church Warden

Reply: ropes or cables make dangerous handrailings - don't rely on a rope handrail at publicly-used stairs

My OPINION is that I agree emphatically with you that a railing on the inner side of a circular stair is more hazardous than the opposite in that it forces the stair user to walk on the inner and thus smaller portions of the stair treads - a more likely area for falls. On the other hand if someone IS walking in that area, for sure that's the more hazardous area and so they'd want access to a railing.

In general, ropes do no make very safe handrails because of their obvious lack of rigidity - better than nothing but not as secure as a solid material.

Rope handrail cable handrail safety (C) D Friedman

Our photo immediately above shows use of a rope or cable "handrail" at the Pyramid of the Sun in Mexico. When the steps were first constructed, A.D. 2, railings were not installed.

When we first climbed these stairs in 1960 there were still no handrailings. When we visited the Pyramid of the Sun in 2012, a flexible rope or cable hand railing had been installed - of a sort - to assist tourists climbing these steep and tall stone steps.
For mounting the fasteners there are many systems for connecting to masonry; typically contractors drill into the mortar joints (much softer, avoids damaging the stone), and insert either an expanding bolt (cheap, quick), or a rapid-set epoxy-bolt combination.

Article Series Contents


Continue reading at GRASPABILITY of HANDRAILINGS or select a topic from closely-related articles below, or see our complete INDEX to RELATED ARTICLES below.

Or see GUARDRAILS on BALCONIES, DECKS, LANDINGS where we describe details about railings on landings and open hallways or other horizontal walking surfaces.




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