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Chloe Mei checking an open landing and stair baluster (C) Daniel Friedman Stair Baluster Specifications
Building Code, Construction, & Safety Inspection of Stairway & Guardrail Balusters

  • BALUSTERS, STAIR & RAILING - CONTENTS: Stair Baluster Inspections, Defects, & Codes. Stair, railing, guardrail, landing, tread, and step specifications & codes. Stair & railing safety hazards, photos of defects. Safe spacing between stair railing or guardrailing balusters or vertical supports. Safe spacing distance between railing bottom and top of floor surface. Sketches of stair baluster design requirements
  • POST a QUESTION or READ FAQs about stair baluster safety, inspection, building codes & specifications
  • REFERENCES
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Stair baluster safety & code specifications:

This article describes procedures for performing safety inspections of the balusters used on indoor or outdoor stairs, railings, landings.

As our photo shows, Chloe Mei, a toddler (in this case very carefully held and supervised) could easily fall through widely separated open landing balusters or open balusters on a stairway.



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Balusters and Safe Spacing for Stair Railings & Balcony or Landing Rails

Chloe Mei checking an open landing and stair baluster (C) Daniel Friedman

Having investigated cases of severe injury related to falls and railing collapses we developed this field data collection checklist. We also include references to key documents on building codes and stair and railing safety.

Injuries due to stair or guardrail baluster failures do occur, it's not just theory. In 2006 a Tampa Bay Florida child, Julia Grimes, was critically injured after a glue-and-staple-constructed guardrail at the top of a residential stair gave way.

This accident could have been prevented if the home's owners had understood the implication of loose, wobbly balusters and guardrailing, but news reports of the guardrail failure also suggest that the railing in a home built in 1994 and constructed using glue and staples, was unable to withstand anticipated loads (200 pounds) or even smaller forces such as that imposed by a child leaning on the railing. - Tampa Bay Times, 18 January 2006 cited at REFERENCES

Even if the guardrailing has adequate strength it may be unsafe if it is too low or if the spacing between its balusters is too great. Horizontal guardrail enclosures are also a child hazard.

We often see guards and railings enclosed using horizontal members or mesh or link fencing materials. Because a toddler can easily climb these materials, they are not safe for guard or railing enclosures and should not be used.

We also often see decks and porches more than 30" above ground level with no guardrail whatsoever, perhaps relying on the placement of plants or furniture to discourage people from stepping too close to the edge.

Where building code enforcement was absent or lax we found a deck eight feet above ground with no railings at all. A local inspector opined that because the deck was not attached to the house (it abutted the house) it was exempt from building code enforcement.

Our opinion was that code exemption did not do much to reduce the falling hazard and that guards and railings should be provided regardless.

Damaged unsafe stair rail balusters (C) Daniel Friedman

Look closely at stair and guard rail balusters for loose, split, broken, or damaged balusters. Someone tried an over-sized common nail to "repair" this loose baluster at its connection to the stair tread.

The result is a dangerous child hazard as this baluster could easily be pushed out of place.

Balusters for Guards & Railings

Stairway Lighting requirements (C) Carson Dunlop Associates

Stairway handrail & stair balusters & guard details are in this sketch.

Balusters (vertical posts comprising the barrier in guards and railings)

Hand-railing heights are given:

Sketch courtesy Carson Dunlop Associates.

How to Fix Too-Wide Stair Baluster Spacing

Reader Question: Methods for reducing the space between stair 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 railing:

Tami:

We made this same repair recently on a circular stair that had vertical balusters that were too far apart by having our welder add additional balusters in between the existing ones so that the opening was less than 4" between baluster pairs. This was less costly than tearing out the whole rail and building a new one to exactly 4" on spec. Our new balusters varied a bit but were about 3.5" apart side to side or on center.

Watch out though: if you make the vertical balusters too close together, but far enough apart for a toddler to stick a foot through the space - say 2 1/2" they can become a foot trap. No child will fall through but s/he an get a foot stuck in the space by inserting it between the balusters, then turning it to one side.

The ensuing panic requires an adult to sort out and remove the foot - as happened with my Godson Joshua Waterman years ago. His mom called me in hysterics that his foot was stuck in the balusters at their home and he couldn't get it out. I drove like a madman across town but just as I arrived in the driveway Josh turned his foot the proper direction and extracted himself from the trap without any adult assistance.

Full Text of IRC Building Codes 2006, 2012

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Or see GUARDRAILS on BALCONIES, DECKS, LANDINGS

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