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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 construction.
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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.
Graspability 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.
Common Causes of Non-Graspable Handrails
A handrailing may be non-graspable for many reasons but most commonly because of these handrailing safety defects:
Notice that a handrail may be horizontal or sloping. That is, if the railing is intended to be able to be grasped to help protect against a fall, it is called a handrail regardless of where it is installed. Handrailings or hand rails may be commonly found installed
Watch out: If you build stairs with a non-graspable stair rail or guard (STAIR RAILS) you must provide a graspable handrailing (HANDRAILS & HANDRAILINGS) and the dimensions, spacing, height, projection, etc. for handrails must still be maintained.
Handrailings must meet these installation spacings
Handrailing Graspability Details: OSHA's requirements
CA & OSHA Codes for [Graspable] Handrails Along Stairs & for Stair Rails Along Open Stairways as Guards
Some building stair codes (CA/OSHA Title 8 Section 1626) leave readers a little confused between the definition of handrail (green arrow) and guardrail, by adding a third term, stair rail (red arrow in our photo).
A stair rail is basically a guard rail along an open stairway. A stair rail may itself be graspable and serve as a handrailing, or the stair rail might be higher, larger, and not-graspable, as shown in our photo at left. [When these stairs were first constructed, the handrail was not present.]
This separation of handrail from stair rail appears intended to permit the construction of the equivalent of a "guardrailing" along open stairways and consisting of not just the horizontal members described in (B) above.
But along an open stairway there will also be a requirement for vertical balusters or other means of enclosing the open or unprotected side or edge. Here "unprotected" side or edge means an "open" stairway - that is, stairs that do not run along an enclosing building wall.
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).
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 at left illustrates a stair railing that is much to large to be securely grasped. It 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. 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.
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.
Profiles & Dimensions of Graspable vs Non-Graspable Handrailings
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 .
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:
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:
505.7.1 Circular Cross Section [handrailings].
505.7.2 Non-Circular Cross Sections [handrailings].
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.
Stair Handrail Dimensions & Shape - A Photo Guide to Save Compared with Unsafe & Unacceptable Handrails & Stair Railings
Below our photographs illustrate a properly designed & installed graspable stair railing or handrail. At below right, a photograph taken from the under-side of the handrail shows that when the railing is of a proper dimension and profile the hand can make a secure grasp with thumb and fingers.
At left, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 (left) 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 be of a size and shape than can be easily grasped, must be at the proper height above the steps (measured at the tread front nose), must be separated from the side wall (if present) at an adequate distance to permit the hand to grasp the railing, and must be continuous.
And of course the railing must also be secured soundly to the structure. 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
One of my [DF] daughters fell down these curved stairs at the Galleria shopping mall (DC-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.
The original "fat" hand railing that no one could grasp when falling remains installed but we do not recommend relying on it.
Above we show photographs of two more non-graspable handrails that are unsafe: at left at Carnegie Hall in New York City, and at right demonstrated by Asta in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. The "stair rail" at right is not just too big, it's also too low.
Handrails made out of 2x Lumber On-Flat are Usually Unsafe: Too Wide, and Not Grasp-able
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.
Notice that in the Carson Dunlop sketch, baluster separating space is specified as 4 - 6" (in NY the inspectors require 4") to avoid a head trap for small children.
More Examples of 2x4" or 2x6 "Handrails" Set on Edge (or flat) & that are Unsafe
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 Stair Handrail or Guardfrail May be Too Low - and also not graspable
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:
International Building Code 2000 (BOCA, ICBO, SBCCI) Handrail Rules
1003.3.3.11.3 Handrail grasp ability. Handrails with a circular cross section shall have an outside diameter of at least 1.25 inches (32 mm) and not greater than 2 inches (51 mm) or shall provide equivalent grasp ability. If the handrail is not circular, it shall have a perimeter dimension of at least 4 inches (102 mm) and not greater than 6.25 inches (159 mm) with a maximum cross-section dimension of 2.25 inches (57 mm). Edges shall have a minimum radius of 0.125 inch (3.2 mm).
100333.11.4 Continuity. Handrail-gripping surfaces shall be continuous, without interruption by newel posts or other obstructions.
BOCA National Property Maintenance Code 1993 Handrailing Requirements
PM-305.5 Stairs and railings: all interior stairs and railings shall be maintained in sound condition and good repair.
Commentary: Handrails, treads and risers must be structurally sound, firmly attached to the structure, and properly maintained to perform their intended function safely. During an inspection the code official should inspect all stringers, risers, treads, and handrails.
Uniform Building Code Stairway, Railing, & Guardrail Specifications (UBC 10.3.3.36)
Using 1997 UBC version as a model 
California Building Code Handrailing Specifications (CBC 1003.3.3.6)
California CA/OSHA Title 8 Building Code Stair & Railing Safety & Construction Details
Note: this code establishes minimum occupational safety & health standards that apply to all places of employment in California. This is not a residential building code requirement, but this text in our OPINION models stair construction safety & design specifications. Also see STAIR TREAD DIMENSIONS and the other stair measurement parameter subtopics outlined in our detailed article links listed at Related Topics .
CA OSHA Title 8 Section §3214. Stair Rails and Handrails 
(a) Stairways shall have handrails or stair railings on each side, and every stairway required to be more than 88 inches in width shall be provided with not less than one intermediate stair railing for each 88 inches of required width. Intermediate stair railings shall be spaced approximately equal within the entire width of the stairway.
Note: Intermediate stair railings may be of single rail construction.
(b) A stair railing shall be of construction similar to a guardrail (see Section 3209) but the vertical height shall be in compliance with Section 3214(c). Stair railings on open sides that are 30 inches or more above the surface below shall be equipped with midrails approximately one half way between the steps and the top rail.
Note: Local building standards may require 4-inch spacing of intermediate vertical members.
(c) The top of stair railings, handrails and handrail extensions installed on or after April 3, 1997, shall be at a vertical height between 34 and 38 inches above the nosing of treads and landings. For stairs installed before April 3, 1997, this height shall be between 30 and 38 inches. Stair railings and handrails shall be continuous the full length of the stairs and, except for private stairways, at least one handrail or stair railing shall extend in the direction of the stair run not less than 12 inches beyond the top riser nor less than 12 inches beyond the bottom riser. Ends shall be returned or shall terminate in newel posts or safety terminals, or otherwise arranged so as not to constitute a projection hazard.
(d) A handrail shall consist of a lengthwise member mounted directly on a wall or partition by means of brackets attached to the lower side of the handrail so as to offer no obstruction to a smooth surface along the top and both sides of the handrail. The handrail shall be designed to provide a grasping surface to avoid the person using it from falling. The spacing of brackets shall not exceed 8 feet.
(e) Handrails projecting from a wall shall have a space of not less than 1 1/2 inches between the wall and the handrail.
(f) The mounting of handrails shall be such that the completed structure is capable of withstanding a load of at least 200 pounds applied in any direction at any point on the rail.
Exception: Handrails and stair rails on flights of stairs serving basements or cellars that are covered by a trap door, removable floor or grating when not in use, shall stop at the floor level or entrance level so as not to interfere with the cover in the closed position. (Title 24, Part 2, Section 1006.9.2.7a.)
Note: Authority cited: Section 142.3, Labor Code. Reference: Section 142.3, Labor Code; and Section 18943(b), Health and Safety Code.
In What Locations Must Handrailings Must Be Continuous to Be Considered Fully Graspable?
If I live in a 3 stories home having an internal stair of 3'-0" wide.
Is this fully complied with Building Regulation and Code of Practice of Canada ?
Reply: Yes handrails should be continuous. And should return to the walls too. But between floors, depending on landing conditions, railings may be interrupted by doors, floors, etc.
As we stated more succinctly at the top of this article, guard railings should be continuous, but the railing can stop or be interrupted at a newell post or return at the railing ends at the bottom or top of the stairs. Railings should not be interrupted by posts within the "run" of the railing.
And where there is no newell post (railings are attached to the building wall) most jurisdictions will also require a handrail "return" that connects the end of the hand railing to the interior wall so that someone who grasps the railing during a fall won't have their hand slip off of the railing end. Our stair rail photo (above left) is from a stairwell that we just completed at a home in New York (courtesy of Eric Galow Homes, Lagrangeville, New York).
Stairways that end at a landing surrounded by walls or at a building floor are likely to have their handrails stop too at each level. Then the rail along stairs to the next floor will begin anew. Of course if your landing also has handrails (as would be required at least on a landing that had an open side (that is, no building wall), then we'd expect the stair rail to connect to the landing or balcony railing except where interrupted say by a doorway or an open floor on that level.
What I mean to say is that there may be practical reasons for a railing to change sides from one stairwell to another in a building. In the stairwell shown above, safest would have been a stair railing on both sides of the stairway but we didn't want to give up the passage space to a second rail. The building department accepted a continuous handrail with returns on the left side of the stair as shown. See GUARDRAILS on BALCONIES, DECKS, LANDINGS where we describe details about railings on landings and open hallways or other horizontal walking surfaces.
Continue reading at STAIRS, RAILINGS, LANDINGS, RAMPS - INSPECTIONS, CODES or select a topic from the More Reading links shown below.
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