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Guard rail & handrail strength requirements & strength testing requirements specified in various building codes & standards. This article provides details about standards, requirements & testing procedures for handrailings & guardrailings in or on the exterior of buildings. Our page top photo shows an odd guardrail along a tiny walking space - the DIY owner-installer never considered that someone (a housepainter) might actually need the railing to be secure and functional. The result was a serious injury. See GUARDRAILS on BALCONIES, DECKS, LANDINGS for details about guardrails and see HANDRAILS & HANDRAILINGS for details about handrails along stairs. Also see STAIR RAILS, STAIR GUARDS.
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In their 2001 study of an unsafe wooden deck railing assembly, Barnett and Switalski point out that the first American safety standard to address railing design (except residential railings) was the American Standard Safety Code for Floor and Wall Openings, Railings and Toe Boards, ASA A12-1932. 
That study and other sources cite an array of standards that address some but most-likely not all of the considerations in building or testing a safe guardrail or deck rail system. By 1967 in the U.S. there were national standards for railings and guardrails, and by 1973 ANSI standards were available.
The railing must be strong enough to resist horizontal loads from people leaning on it.
The 2000 IRC (IRC Table R301.5) and other typical building codes requires that a guardrail or a handdrail be able to resist a 200-pound concentrated load applied along the top in any direction, while some local codes still in effect specify a smaller load of 20 pounds per linear foot.
After an above-ground swimming pool was removed, the owners continued to use the deck in our photo (left). Deer netting was installed across the open edge of the deck - and it worked fine until someone fell thorough it. The torn remains of the deer netting can be seen on the left side of this photograph.
Continuing from from Best Practices Guide to Residential Construction:
Under the IRC, the infill or balusters must resist a concentrated horizontal load of 50 pounds applied to a square foot area. The baluster requirement is easily met with standard fastening techniques, but meeting the IRC guardrail requirement is difficult without adding steel hardware. The majority of residential decks, which rely on notched posts lag-screwed into the band joist, do not meet the 200-pound requirement.
Watch out: at least some of the standards & procedures specified for testing handrailing & guardrailing or stair rail strength focus on static strength testing. Dynamic testing such as the forces exerted when a person is falling and grabs onto a railing may be important for further consideration. An additional warning from ASTM explains how you can or cannot use the standards summaries listed here and in further detail at the ASTM website. Quoting: This abstract is a brief summary of the referenced standard. It is informational only and not an official part of the standard; the full text of the standard itself must be referred to for its use and application. ASTM does not give any warranty express or implied or make any representation that the contents of this abstract are accurate, complete or up to date. 
Guardrailing strength specifications & testing procedures & standards
Glass & Laminated Glass Railings, Guardrails: strength & testing codes & standards
In-Situ Testing of Guardrails & Handrails
Metal Railings, Guardrails, Handrails testing standards
Plastic Railings, Guardrails, Handrails testing standards
Wood-Plastic Composite Railings, Guardrails, Handrails testing standards
Wood Railings, Guardrails, Handrails, testing & strength standards
Railing & Handrail Strength & Failure Studies
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A complete guide to building decks, porches, & exterior stairs can be found at Related Topics above. Key articles include:
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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about stair landing, porch, deck, or balcony guard railings
Question: stair landing platform size correction
In your sketch entitled "Handrails and guards" of 2011, the accompanying text (Stair landing minimum size in direction of travel (<=36"))incorrectly uses the "<" ""less than" arrow instead of the ">" "greater than arrow". - David Gillis 9/21/2011
Question: limits of projection of handrailing into the stair walking space
I want to install a hand rail on an exterior staircase. Is there a code that will prevent me from installing the hand rail 6" out side of the staircase? - Joe Garcia 10/28/2011
Question: do I need railings on attic stairs or at stair top?
I am trying to find out if rails should be in attics - Anon 8/7/2012
An attic, that is an area not considered living space, in some jurisdictions has different rules for stairs and rails - depending on the local and higher level code authorities in your area.
But in any case, if there is an attic stairway with actual stairs, that is, not just a pull-down ladder or an open hatch and no stairs, and considering that attic access stairs are often steeper than recommended between occupied floors, for safety it would make perfect sense to be sure there was a railing along the stairway and also on the attic floor, a safety railing & balusters surrounding the stair top so someone in the attic doesn't step backwards and fall down the stair opening.
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