Handrail Safety FAQ
Handrails serve at least four distinct purposes:
- Act as a safe barrier along open sides
- Serve as a visual flag to alert the pedestrian
- Assist the pedestrian in maintaining or regaining his balance in case of incident
- Provide physical support to some individuals ascending the stairways.
All building codes require handrails along open sides of stairways. The need for a physical barrier at this location is obvious. The critical area of a stairway is the edge of the landing and the top three risers. This is the area where most falls occur. The handrail assists the pedestrian in determining the top and slop of the stairway. The vertical edge of the handrail alerts the pedestrian to the change of elevation. The slope of the railing follows the slope of the stairway. The ability to grasp the handrail provides a means of keeping one’s balance while descending a stairway or regaining balance in case of a slip or misstep. Elderly pedestrians frequently use the handrail to “pull” themselves up the stairway. Without a sturdy and stable handrail, many individuals could not use the stairway.
Location and Configuration
Modern building codes require handrails on both sides of a stairway with few exceptions. Stairways in single family dwellings, and stairways less than 44 inches in width and serving occupancy loads of less than ten usually must have handrails on one side only. Some of the codes do not require handrails for stairs with less than four risers. Others require handrails when the risers number two or more.
To be effective, the handrails must be of such a dimension and configuration as to enable the pedestrian to grasp the railing. Rails that are too wide or too high are not an effective means of providing minimum levels of safety and are considered defective. The Building Code requires that the handrail be approximately 1 ½ inches in width and offset from the wall 1 ½ inches to permit the hand to grasp the rail. Handrails of stairways should be 30 to 34 inches above the nose of the stair tread. Guardrails along balconies should be at least 42 inches high with intermediate members no greater than 6 inches apart.
Walls, balustrades, parapets or other architectural features abutting stairways are not handrails and do not provide the level of safety required by the code.
Handrails must be secure to the building wall or stanchion and be able to withstand the normally anticipated forces generated by the use of pedestrians. All codes require that building be maintained in a safe condition. The courts have held that a failure to maintain the handrails in a secure manner was a violation of the code, and a negligence per se instruction was warranted to the jury. They can also be grounds for strict liability claims of Breach of the Implied Warranty of Habitability.
The two or three steps at the top and bottom of each flight of stairs is the area where most accidents occur. It is the transition between level landings and the steps which require the greatest concentration and physical ability in order to negotiate this area safely. To provide adequate support in this critical area, the handrail must extend at least 6 inches beyond the nose of the top and bottom steps. The termination or end of the handrail must be turned back to the wall or turned under to prevent catching of clothing or injury due to bodily impact.
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