Stair Handrails and Guardrails Safety Issues

With guardrails and handrails on our stairs, it is the same concept as with many other safety requirements guiding our daily commute - we often believe these rules are created for others only, until we suddenly realize that there’s nothing to hold on to when gravity’s force pulls our body down the stairs with an increasing speed.

That’s why somebody came up with a list of rules (click on the pictures for details):

1. The stairs’ handrail must be graspable, and the best shape / size to put your grip on must have a 1¼” – 2” circular shape cross section (preferably circle, but square, or a section of the square with rounded edges and a groove for your fingers, is also acceptable). Flat boards, 2”x4”, or anything else that you can’t close the palm of your hand on, is not acceptable by the building code

2. The stairs’ handrail attached to the wall should not project further than 3½” into the stairway (some jurisdictions accept 4½” max distance). The distance between the handrail and the wall should not be less than 1½”. This is to keep your fingers from getting trapped between the wall and the handrail, and give enough clearance for your hand

3. Any stairs with 4 risers or more require handrails. Risers are the boards between the steps (treads); of course you may just have an empty space between each tread

4. The required stairs’ handrail height is between the 34” and 38”

5. When you attach the handrail / handrail brackets to the wall, make sure that they are secured with proper screws to the wall framing, not to the drywall sheet. This is because they have to support a 200 lb load applied at any point of the stairs’ handrail in any direction. Brackets may often be supplied with small, plastic anchors which provide no support whatsoever when used in drywall, and even a small child can pull it off the wall. As a part of your routing home maintenance, check the brackets periodically to make sure that they are properly secured.

6. The ends of the stairs’ handrail attached to the wall should return to that wall. They’re not supposed to be open like on the picture, because when you’re carrying a shoulder bag, or even wearing a jacket, it might get caught up on that section of the handrail and you’ll either ruin your wardrobe or loose balance and fall down the stairs. If you have a navel post at the end of the handrail, the handrail should return to this post or volute. Also, the stairs handrail should extend to area above the top and bottom nosing of stairs

Handrail / Guardrail

7. This one is extremely important if you or your visitors have small children. If you have a 4” diameter ball handy, it should not pass through any of the openings along the stairs’ handrail and guardrail (guardrail pickets for example). The only exception is that triangular space between the riser, tread, and base of the guardrail – a 6” max diameter is permissible in this area. If you don’t have risers and there is an open space underneath treads, the 4” max applies there as well. If your ball fit through any of the openings, a small child’s head may as well

8. The guardrails are required on any walking surface elevated 30” or higher above the floor / grade

9. Guardrails in single family properties must be a minimum of 36” high from the walking surface (balconies, decks, galleries) and no climbable / horizontal bars – kids love climbing

So how does it look in your house ?

For more important safety issues in your house check House Maintenance Advice

4 stair risers require a handrail
4 stair risers require a handrail
Extremely unsafe guardrails and NOT child proof at all
Extremely unsafe guardrails and NOT child proof at all
Free falling down to the basement guaranteed
Free falling down to the basement guaranteed
Guardrail pickets must be less than 4 inches apart
Guardrail pickets must be less than 4 inches apart
Handrail both ends should always return to the wall
Handrail both ends should always return to the wall
Handrail brackets must be secured to the wall framing
Handrail brackets must be secured to the wall framing
Handrail brackets must be secured to the wall framing 2
Handrail brackets must be secured to the wall framing 2
Handrail should extend above the top and bottom nosing of stairs
Handrail should extend above the top and bottom nosing of stairs
No climbable, horizontal rails permitted
No climbable, horizontal rails permitted
Perfect guardrail but no graspable handrail for the stairs
Perfect guardrail but no graspable handrail for the stairs
Perfect size and one of perfect shapes for the stairs handrail, but it should return to the wall
Perfect size and one of perfect shapes for the stairs handrail, but it should return to the wall
Stairs handrail height between 34 - 38 inches
Stairs handrail height between 34 - 38 inches

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Comments 2 comments

Dave Cooper 8 years ago

The residential building codes recognize three types of handrails.

Type I are basically those with a perimeter less than 6-1/4 inches (such that the ends of a dollar bill wrapped around the handrail touche or overlap) but greater than 4 inches. Type I rails must meet the perimeter requirement but can be any shape so long as no dimension across their section is greater than 2-1/4".

Type II handrails have been in the International Residential Code (the most commonly accepted across the US) since 2001. Type II rails are greater than 6-1/4 inches in perimter and may be up to 2-3/4 inches wide. Type II rails have specified recesses for the fingers and thumb that provide graspability equivalent to Type I rails. The recesses eliminate the need to contact the bottom of the rail where brackets and balusters often intefere with establishing a stabilizing grip when you need it most, as in arresting a fall. You can learn more about the specifications of the recesses at http://www.stairways.org/codes_standards.htm in the Stairway Manufacturers' Association's Visual Interpretation of the stair codes.

Finally the codes allow for a third type of rail. Rails that are deemed to be eqivalently graspable by the code enforcing authority. To meet this requirement you should provide a sample of the rail to your local building official for his interpretation and approval prior to installation.


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Home Maintenance 8 years ago from Illinois, USA Author

Good point Dave, I'll add it to my website. Thank you!

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