Pedestrian handrails (also referred to as safety railings) are a ubiquitous architectural element commonly seen on stairways, raised platforms, sidewalks, and other pedestrian access ways. Proper placement and installation of handrails increase safety and accessibility in many indoor and outdoor facilities.
Types and Purposes
Handrails exist mainly to provide safety to pedestrians. The most common types include:
- Stairway handrails serve as safe supports in stairways or sloped access ways. They prevent people from falling or causing health and safety incidents if they lose balance, suffer from health issues such as fatigue or vertigo, or have reduced mobility.
- Horizontal handrails are useful to separate walkways from vehicular access ways and guiding pedestrians into the right areas. They also provide additional safety and support if the floor is slippery or dangerous to cross because of inclement weather like rain, ice, or snow.
- High-visibility handrails feature bright paint, typically yellow or orange, to stand out from the background. They provide additional safety through increased visibility, particularly around ramps, loading docks, and other potentially unsafe zones.
Differences Between Handrails and Guardrails
Although similar in form and safety purposes (preventing falls), handrails must not be confused with guardrails.
Handrails guide and support pedestrians up and down slopes, stairs, or around dangerous areas. In contrast, guardrails signal a fall or a drop, stopping people from falling.
OSHA employs the term “stair rail” to refer to guardrails used outside of open-ended stairways. Although stair rails and guardrails of any type may be graspable and serve as handrails, they are not strictly defined as such and should not be confused.
Depending on the design, stairways and sloped access ways may require both guardrails and handrails. For example, the guardrails can serve as the element defining the stairs’ outer edges, which can be fitted with purpose-built handrails at the proper height for grabbing and holding onto.
In the United States, the OSHA and the International Code Council (authors of the International Building Code, or IBC) are the central regulatory bodies covering standards and guidelines related to handrails.
Depending on where you intend to install the handrails, other building codes and regulations may apply, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act.
OSHA, IBC, and ADA standards are stringent. They define where to install handrails, what constitutes proper installation, proper dimensions, and more.
Failure to meet these standards exposes personnel and visitors to significant safety risks. For instance, OSHA violations are costly and range from hefty fines (ranging between $10,000 and $130,000) to inspectors ordering the shutdown of your business’s operations.
Although the OSHA does not have the legal authority to close worksites down, they can issue citations for safety violations and request court orders to cease operations, especially if the inspectors believe there is an imminent risk.
Where to Place Handrails
Handrails are mandatory on both edges of any stairway featuring at least four complete steps or featuring at least 30” of rise, whichever is less.
Different standards apply depending on the practicable width and the presence or not of exposed sides.
- If the stairway is exposed and features less than 44” of practicable width, it must employ a railing system composed of a guardrail with handrails.
- If the stairway is fully enclosed and features less than 44” of practicable width, a descending rail must be present on the right side.
- In stairways with more than 44” of practicable width but less than 88”, any exposed side must be enclosed with a guardrail, and any enclosed side must possess a handrail.
- In stairways with more than 88” of practical width, the same rules as above apply, but with the additional requirement of a central railing running the entire length of the stairway, creating two lanes.
Handrails are also mandatory along the edges of ramps, such as handicap ramp railings or sloped walking surfaces, if the total rise is greater than 6” or the horizontal projection is 72” or more.
Handrails must also be installed around any walking surface with a running slope of 1:20 or more. The 1:20 ratio corresponds to a rise of 1” for every 20” of run.
Specialized handrail types called grab bars may also be necessary for bathrooms, restrooms, and toilets to meet ADA requirements regarding handicap accessibility.
Handrails are defined and regulated by OSHA Standard Number 1910.29 and ADA Section 505. They are a type of fall protection system which must meet strict standards, ranging from their position, dimensions, anchoring, and surface texture.
To be considered safe for use by a person about to fall or lose balance, all handrails must be capable of withstanding at least 200 pounds-force in any outward or downward direction and at any point without damage.
The ADA and the OSHA have different minimum height standards (ADA 505.4 recommends 34”, OSHA 1910.29 recommends 36”). For dual compliance, use the strictest of the two standards and keep your handrails’ height between 36” and 38” above the walking surface.
Each handrail must run continuously along the entire length of the stairway or ramp, with sufficient clearance between the inside edge of the gripping surface and the nearest wall. Hand clearance is another case where the ADA and the OSHA have different minimum standards (the ADA recommends at least 1.5” of finger clearance, whereas the OSHA recommends at least 2.25”). For dual-compliance, install handrails with at least 2.25” of clearance.
In stairways with stair railings, openings between each rail must not allow a spherical object with a diameter of 19” to pass through. This standard exists to encourage the use of mid-rails, which can prevent safety hazards such as large items falling through a stairway.
In buildings used mainly by children, such as schools or child care facilities, a secondary set of handrails suitable for a child’s height should be installed.
The maximum height for a set of child-height handrails is 28”, with a minimum of 9” of clearance between the two handrail sets. This prevents potential health and safety hazards, such as children getting stuck between the railings.
The gripping surface is the element on a handrail that provides the users with a comfortable and secure handgrip, intended to be grabbed to prevent or mitigate a fall.
Although gripping surfaces must feature an appropriate shape to allow for a firm, full-handed grip, they do not have to be circular. There are dimensional standards for circular and non-circular cross-sections (as defined in ADA 505.7.1 and 505.7.2):
- Circular cross-section gripping surfaces must feature an outside diameter measuring between 1.25” and 2”.
- Non-circular cross-sections, such as oval-shaped or square-shaped gripping surfaces, may have a perimeter dimension of no less than 4” and no more than 6.25”, with a cross-section of no more than 2.25” across the widest points.
- Large cross-sections are handrails with a non-circular cross-section with a diameter of over 6.25”. They are permissible only under specific building codes, typically with the condition that they feature finger recesses capable of providing a safe and secure handgrip.
The length of a gripping surface must not feature any obstructions along the top or the sides. The bottom quadrant may not feature obstructions (either from necessary supports or decorative elements) for more than 20% of the handrail’s total length.
Any horizontal projections, such as elements connecting the handrail to a support wall, must be located at least 1.5” under the bottom edge of the gripping surface, with some variance allowed, depending on the building code.
For example, ADA 505.6 allows for reducing the horizontal projections’ height if the gripping surface diameter is increased to compensate. For every 0.5” of gripping surface diameter above 4”, the horizontal projections are allowed to be 0.125” shorter.
A gripping surface must have rounded edges and cannot feature rough or textured surfaces to minimize the risk of hand injuries. They cannot be allowed to rotate or wiggle within their fittings, as it represents a significant safety hazard that can worsen the consequences of a fall.
Materials and Installation
Quality handrails should use the most robust and maintenance-free materials available.
Although non-metallic materials such as wood, PVC, or concrete may offer more attractive looks or styling, particularly in homes and residential buildings, they are less durable, vulnerable to wear-and-tear, and expensive to replace.
Ideal railing materials for public or workplace use include stainless steel, aluminum, and vinyl. These materials offer high tensile strength, low maintenance requirements, immunity to rust, termites, and general wear-and-tear. With proper care, they can remain in use for decades.
Certain handrail types may feature additional elements to enhance safety, styling, and aesthetics, such as extra railing, safety netting, wire meshing, wire cables, tempered glass panels, or kick plates.
Handrails should be anchored securely to the surface or a sturdy supporting wall to provide the maximum amount of safety. The mounting wall or surface should ideally be concrete or asphalt, using steel anchors, bolts, and screws for the most secure fit.
There are also modular handrail and railing systems, fully compliant with building codes and safety regulations but easy to remove for repairs or maintenance.
Handrails intended for use in public areas must feature safe extensions, compliant with ADA 505.10 regulations.
Handrails for ramps must feature extensions measuring at least 12” past the landing on both ends of the railing. These extensions must be fixed to the wall, the walking surface, or be continuous with another adjacent ramp handrail (forming one continuous rail across multiple levels).
Extensions at the top of a stairway must extend horizontally for at least 12” above the landing, measured starting from the last riser’s nose, or be continuous with an adjacent handrail.
Extensions at the bottom of a stairway must extend diagonally for at least the equivalent of one full step’s length past the first step. For example, if the tread depth (the distance between the noses of the first and second riser) is 12” the bottom handrail extension must extend at least 12” past the first step.
Avoiding Snag Hazards
Specific handrail designs may feature projections or details which pose a snag risk, which can cause falls or worsen the consequences of falling.
A snag risk refers to an element of the stairway or its railing system (including the handrail) that can snag into a person’s clothing or accessories, such as purses, belt loops, or straps, but also parts of a wheelchair or a walker.
Examples of snag risks include, but are not limited to:
- Exposed projections or edges
- Sharp corners
- Exposed screws
- Decorative elements such as those seen on older wrought-iron railings
- Worn or damaged railings
- Any other part or element an OSHA inspector may determine is a snag hazard or at risk of causing lacerations and punctures, as per OSHA 1926.1052(c)(8)
Although OSHA and ADA standards are the law nationwide, you may also have to comply with additional local- or state-level regulations, which can be stricter than nationwide or international standards.
Proper design, installation, and maintenance of your handrails and grab bars are a matter of complying with the law and saving lives.
At Shelving + Rack Systems, Inc., we have the expertise to help your project be productive and successful, from the planning phase to construction and equipment fitting. Our in-house manufacturing department allows us to build and modify equipment such as handrails, guardrails, racks, shelves, mezzanines, platforms, and other fittings to your exact specifications.
Call us at 1-800-589-7225 for a consultation and free quote.