Catch & Snag Hazards at Stair Railings / Guards & Handrailings
Inspecting stairways for snag - trip hazards
SNAG HAZARDS on STAIRWAYS - CONTENTS: snag or catch hazards along stairs, walks, ramps etc. What do building codes or good construction practices require to avoid catch, snag-related trip and fall hazards?
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Catch & snag hazards along stairways: stair 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
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.
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. 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. - 
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. - 
OSHA Workplace Building Codes Include Reference to Snag Hazards
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. - 
Other References to Snag Hazards Along Stair Railings
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. 
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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The Illustrated Home illustrates construction details and building components, a reference for owners & inspectors
Eric Galow, Galow Homes, Lagrangeville, NY. Mr. Galow can be reached by email: firstname.lastname@example.org or by telephone: 914-474-6613. Mr. Galow specializes in residential construction including both new homes and repairs, renovations, and additions.
Thanks to reader Craig Sharp who contributed technical review & clarifications regarding the distinctions among handrailing, stair rail and guardrail 2/1/2-13.
 Electrical Safety in the Theatre, Broadway Press, web search 8/9/11, original source: http://www.broadwaypress.com/PDFs/LTSpdfs/LTSchpt13.pdf - quoting: Referring to the NEC will provide the technician with details
specifically related to the theatre and moreover, these regulations will
be better suited to the needs of the theatre.
 Illustrated theatre production guide, John Holloway, Focal Press, 2002, ISBN 0240804937, 9780240804934
 How to Build Theater Stairs, an Illustrated Guide, Ben Teague, www.benteague.com, Amateur Theatre Division, December 2004, web search 8/9/11, original source: http://www.benteague.com/features/Stairs.pdf
Note that Mr. Teague warns that his designs and advice do not comply with building codes.
 OSHA Publication 3124 - Stairways and Ladder, web search 12/21/11, OSHA Publications Office
U.S. Department of Labor
200 Constitution Avenue, NW, N-3101
Washington, DC 20210
Telephone (202) 693-1888 or
fax to (202) 693-2498. Original source: osha.gov/Publications/ladders/osha3124.html
 "The Elimination of Unsafe Guardrails, a Progress Report," Elliott O. Stephenson, Building Standards, March-April 1993
 "Are Functional Handrails Within Our Grasp" Jake Pauls, Building Standards, January-February 1991
 "The Elimination of Unsafe Guardrails, a Progress Report," Elliott O. Stephenson, Building Standards, March-April 1993
 Lighting, proper use of: proper aiming of a good flashlight can disclose hard to see but toxic light or white mold colonies on walls.
 The Stairway Manufacturers' Association, (877) 500-5759, provides a pictorial guide to the stair and railing portion of the International Residential Code. [copy on file as http://www.stairways.org/pdf/2006%20Stair%20IRC%20SCREEN.pdf ] -
[11a] "Visual Interpretation Of The International Residential Code (IRC) 2006 Stair Building Code", The Stairway Manufacturers Association, [Portions of this document reproduce sections from the 2006 International Residential Code, International Code Council, Falls Church, Virginia.},
The Stairway Manufacturers Association website stairways.org provides free downloads of stairway handrailing profiles and dimensions
 A HREF="http://astore.amazon.com/inspectapedia-20?node=14&page=2">Slips, Trips, Missteps and Their Consequences, Gary M. Bakken, H. Harvey Cohen, Jon R. Abele, Alvin S. Hyde, Cindy A. LaRue, Lawyers and Judges Publishing; ISBN-10: 1933264012 ISBN-13: 978-1933264011
 Falls and Related Injuries: Slips, Trips, Missteps, and Their Consequences, Lawyers & Judges Publishing, (June 2002), ISBN-10: 0913875430 ISBN-13: 978-0913875438 "Falls in the home and public places are the second leading cause of unintentional injury deaths in the United States, but are overlooked in most literature. This book is unique in that it is entirely devoted to falls. Of use to primary care physicians, nurses, insurance adjusters, architects, writers of building codes, attorneys, or anyone who cares for the elderly, this book will tell you how, why, and when people will likely fall, what most likely will be injured, and how such injuries come about. "
 Slips, Trips, Missteps and Their Consequences, Second Edition, Gary M. Bakken, H. Harvey Cohen,A. S. Hyde, Jon R. Abele, ISBN-13: 978-1-933264-01-1 or
ISBN 10: 1-933264-01-2,
available from the publisher, Lawyers ^ Judges Publishing Company,Inc., www.lawyersandjudges.com email@example.com and also from the InspectAPedia Bookstore (Amazon.com)
 Arts, Crafts, & Theater Safety (ACTS), 181 Thompson Street, #23
New York, NY 10012-2586
Telephone: (212) 777-0062
E-Mail: ACTSNYC@cs.com, web search 5/9/12, website: http://www.artscraftstheatersafety.org/ - Quoting:
ACTS is a not-for-profit corporation that provides health, safety, industrial hygiene, technical services, and safety publications to the arts, crafts, museums, and theater communities. A part of the fees from our consulting services goes to support our free and low-cost services for artists. We gratefully accept donations, but do not solicit them from the artists who call here for help and advice. We recognize that artists and performers are among the least affluent groups in society.
ACTS also will not accept money or take advertising in our publications from manufacturers of artists materials or businesses whose interests could conflict with ours. We want artists to know that we have no financial incentive to make our product and safety recommendations.
 Access Ramp building codes:
 Access Ramp Standards:
ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act), Public Law 101-336. 7/26/90 is very often cited by other sources for good design of stairs and ramps etc. even where disabled individuals are not the design target.
ANSI A117.4 Accessible and Usable buildings and Facilities (earlier version was incorporated into the ADA)
ASTM F 1637, Standard Practice for Safe Walking Surfaces, (Similar to the above standard
"The Dimensions of Stairs", J. M. Fitch et al., Scientific American, October 1974.
 Mobile Home Inspections common defects unique to factory built housing, inspection methods,
The National Institute of Standards and Technology, NIST (nee National Bureau of Standards NBS) is a US government agency - see www.nist.gov
 BUILDING, FIRE, RESIDENTIAL CODES - The 2007 & 2010 California Building Code (Part 2), California Residential Code (Part 2.5) and the California Fire Code (Part 9) of Title 24 are available for viewing online via the following International Code Council web site link: California Codes, Title 24, Part 1, 6, 8, 10, 11 & 12 are also available for viewing and download in PDF form on the California website: 2007 Edition of the California Building Codes or see2010 Edition (Effective Jan. 1, 2011) of the California building codes. For a summary page accessing all of the California building codes see http://www.bsc.ca.gov/pubs/codeson.aspx
 "Guard Rail Height", CREIA, California Real Estate Inspection Association, Website: http://ask.creia.org, web search 8/1/12 original source: http://ask.creia.org/index.php?topic=424.0, December 2009
 California Department of Industrial Relations - CA/OSHA: California Stair & Railing Code details: Subchapter 7. General Industry Safety Orders,
Group 1. General Physical Conditions and Structures Orders,
Article 2. Standard Specifications, Section 3214. Stair Rails and Handrails, web search 8/1/12, original source: http://www.dir.ca.gov/title8/3214.html
 California Department of Industrial Relations - CA/OSHA: California Stair & Railing Code details: Subchapter 4. General Industry Safety Orders,
Article 17. Ramps, Runways, Stairwells, and Stairs, Section 1626. Stairwells and Stairs., web search 8/1/12, original source: http://www.dir.ca.gov/title8/1626.html
 California Building Code, Nonstructural Design Requirements, web search 08/01/12 original source: http://sanbruno.ca.gov/comdev_images/California_Building_Code.pdf
 Uniform Building Code Stair Specifications: UBC 1003.3.3.6 1997 or later specify handrail requirements, railing heights, rail widths, baluster spacing, stairway types, and guardrail specifications.
 Subchapter G. Railings, Toeboards, Open-Sided Floors, Platforms and Runways, Pennsylvania Code,
retrieved 2/7/2013, original source: http://www.pacode.com/secure /data/034/chapter47/subchapgtoc.html [copy on file]
 Pennsylvania Code, , 034 Pa. Code § 50.25. Stair towers., retrieved 2/7/2013, original source: http://www.pacode.com/secure/data/034/chapter50/s50.25.html [copy on file]
 OSHA(1926.1052) retrieved 2/7/2013,
 Cynthia Leibrock & James Evan Terry, "Exterior Planning, Ramps, Stairs, and Elevators", Universal Design: Exterior Wheelchair Ramps - Disaboom, retrieved 2/7/2013, original source: http://www.disaboom.com/wheelchair-ramps/exterior-planning-ramps-stairs-and-elevators copy on file]
Books & Articles on Building & Environmental Inspection, Testing, Diagnosis, & Repair
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