Stair rail snag hazard (C) 2013 Daniel Friedman Tlaxcala, MexicoCatch & Snag Hazards at Stair Railings / Guards & Handrailings
Inspecting stairways for snag - trip hazards

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Catch & snag hazards along stairways: S

tair rails or stair guards as well as some handrailings may be built with designs or even protrusions that can catch a person's clothes, handbag, or briefcase strap, contributing to a fall.

This article series provides building code specifications, sketches, photographs, and examples of stairway catch and snag safety defects used in inspecting indoor or outdoor stair railings or handrails and related conditions for safety and proper construction.

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Snag Hazards in Stair Railings or Stair Guards

Definition of snag hazard

Stair rail snag hazard (C) 2013 Daniel Friedman Tlaxcala, Mexico

A stairway snag hazard is any projection or construction detail that is likely catch and hold components of a person's clothing or commonly-carried strapped and suspended items (briefcases, handbags), thus possibly causing or contributing to a fall along the stairway.

Let's be clear about the difference between a handrailing and a stair railing or stair guard.

A handrailing or handrail along a stair is intended for a person to grasp to stop a fall or to guide a person.

Handrailing codes do address catch & snag hazards

For handrailings (as opposed to residential stair guards or stair rails)_ there are ample and clear guidelines about handrailing size, height, shape, graspability, mounting, strength, continuity, smoothness etc. Indeed there can be a snag hazard at a handrailing, particularly at the railing ends, which is why handrailing returns are required at those locations. Details are at HANDRAILS & HANDRAILINGS.

Code Citations Warning of Stairway Snagging Hazards Along Stair Railings or Guards

A guardrailing or stair railing or stair guard, which is what we are discussing here, is a vertical guard erected along the open side of a stairway to prevent people from falling off, and has somewhat different requirements.

The space between the handrailing and the walking surface of the steps is partly (or fully) enclosed for fall-safety, typically using vertical balusters, sometimes with a mid rail. Other guardrail enclosures are permitted such as certified plastic or glass.

Stair rail snag hazard (C) 2013 Daniel Friedman Tlaxcala, Mexico

A 2013 survey of model residential building codes and building codes for several U.S. states (CA, CT, NY, PA) left us looking for expert citations warning about snag hazards caused specifically by snag hazards along stair railings or stair guards.

Rules for residential stairway handrailing are clear about handrail continuity, projections, smooth graspable surfaces, and returns. But model and state building codes that we surveyed did not explicitly address snag hazards built into the guardrail itself.

We did find some general references to stair rails (railings or guardrails, as distinct from handrails) that imply continuity and smoothness.

Example Residential Building Code for Stair Railings (Stair Guards) do not Explicitly Cite Snag & Catch Hazards

This excerpt is from the Pennsylvania Building Code, § 47.232 shows that even within the codes there can be confusion about whether we are talking about the railing top - being used as a handrail - and the railing itself - being used as a safety enclosure.[39] And search of the entire PA code for "stair AND snag" produced no hits.

(a) Railings shall be not less than 42 inches in height from floor or ground level to the top of the top railing and shall be provided with an intermediate railing the center of which shall be midway between the floor or ground level of the space guarded and the top of the top railing. Railings shall be constructed in a permanent and substantial manner of wood, pipe, metal shapes or metal bars.

Reference should be made to Plates 1, 2 and 3 of the Appendix to this Subchapter. One or more sides may be hinged or supported in sockets if a rigidity equal to that of fixed installation is obtained. Railings shall be smooth and free from large or loose knots, protruding nails, bolts, splinters, fins, slivers and cracks.

All sharp corners shall be rounded and smoothed. The ends of railings shall not overhang the terminal posts unless such overhang does not constitute a projection hazard.

(b) Posts or uprights shall be spaced not more than 8 feet center to center. Reference should be made to Plates 1, 2, 3 and 5 of the Appendix.

(c) Railings made of wood, metal shapes or metal bars shall be placed on that side of the posts or uprights which afford the greatest support and protection. Reference should be made to Plate 3-B,C of the Appendix. - [39]

Similarly the Pennsylvania state building code on stair towers (§ 50.25. Stair towers) also does not describe snag hazards:

(h) Stairways, landings, balconies, open sided floors, and the like shall have well-secured handrails. The clear distance between handrail and wall or other obstruction shall be not less than 1 1/2 inches. Longitudinal rails or balusters or both shall be provided. Balusters shall be spaced not more than 6 inches apart.

Longitudinal rails shall not exceed 6 inches measured at right angles to the rails. The lowest rail shall be measured vertically from the tread nosing. - [40]

OSHA Workplace Building Codes Include Reference to Snag Hazards

Spiral stair around an oil storage tank (C) 2013 Daniel Friedman

The OSHA code, which pertains to workplaces not residential buildings, does indeed warn about stair railing snag hazards. In our exterior spiral stairway photo at left, these stairs, representing a workplace environment, viewed at least from this distance, are not showing an obvious snag or catch hazard from the stair guard.

From OSHA(1926.1052) Requirements For Stairs

Stair rails must be installed on any stair way with 4 or more risers or rising more than 30", whichever is less.

Must be installed along unprotected or exposed edges of stairways.

Midrails or equivalent must be provided.

Must be able to withstand 200lbs force applied within 2' of top edge.

Top rail must be no lower than 36" or higher than 37".

All parts must be surfaces so as not to cause lacerations or punctures, and not to present a clothing snag hazard. [Emphasis ours]

Unprotected sides and edges of stairway landing must have guardrail system. - [41]

Other References to Snag Hazards Along Stair Railings

Snag hazard at broken stair baluster (C) Daniel Friedman 2013

Leibrock & Terry, in "Exterior Planning, Ramps, Stairs, and Elevators", a discussion of the construction of ramps that are wheelchair accessible, cite the importance of avoiding snag hazards that can catch clothing but also wheelchairs,walkers, etc. but as with the building codes, these writers address handrailings, not stair guards.

Each handrail should have an outside diameter of 1 ¼ in for the strongest and most comfortable grip for both children and most adults.

It must have rounded ends or return to the wall, floor, or post to minimize the chance that it will snag clothing and cause a fall. [42]

Our opinion is that stair guards should be constructed to avoid snag hazards that might catch a person's clothing, bag strap, or briefcase, but there is little doubt that there are many thousands of decorative stairways, especially ones built with wrought-iron detail-work, where this hazard was not considered.

Our potential stairway snag photo above illustrates that grab and trip hazards along a stairway can arise from damage or deterioration, in this case an exposed nail head, not just from ornate scroll work or design details.

The proper construction and physical condition of the stair rail at any stairway should be an important part of the investigation conducted to understand the cause & extent of stair falls and fall-related injuries. 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 stairrail in stair fall injuries is underestimated or missed entirely by people investigating such accidents.


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