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Stair Safety - Continuous Stair Handrails

The main purpose of building codes is to provide minimum requirements to safeguard life and limb, health and public welfare. The overriding concept of safety should be at the forefront in the planning, design and building phases of new construction.

The concept of stair safety is specifically noted in sections R314 - R316 of the International Residential Code. The code requirement for regulating stairways is an effort not only to make them useable, but also to help in reducing the number of injuries caused by stairway accidents.

The occurrence of an accident due to improper stair installation can be both an emotional and financial hardship for the builder. Strict adherence to the code is and essential first step in limiting builder liability.

While there are many regulations pertaining to proper stair construction, the requirement of a continuous stair handrail is one that is most often misunderstood by the builder. The International Residential Code Commentary offers these observations concerning stair handrails:

"One of the best means of creating safer stairs and assisting stairway users is to provide a graspable handrail, which can be used for support and guidance as people travel from one level to the next or to assist in arresting a fall should they slip while they are on the stairs. Other than controlling the people who use stairs by making them pay attention and not carry things while on the stairs, the handrail probably will provide the greatest benefit in increased safety for the least amount of cost. It will never be known how many mis-steps, accidents, injuries, or even fatalities have been prevented by having a properly installed, sturdy handrail.

The IRC requires that a handrail be provided on at least one side of any stairway that has two or more risers. The code does not provide any exemption for the elimination of handrails once the stairway has two or more risers. This required handrail is to be "continuous" for the length of the stairs. The term "continuous" means not only that a single handrail must run from the top riser to the bottom riser, but it also indicates that users should be able to grasp the handrail and maintain their grasp without having to release the rail where it is supported. There is no requirement within the code for a second handrail to be installed, but depending on the design and the placement of the required handrail, Section R316 and the requirement for a guard should be reviewed. The two exceptions in Section R315 create situations where the graspable portion of the handrail may not end up being completely continuous from the top riser to the bottom riser. These traditional situations have routinely been accepted in the past and therefore are permitted by the code.

In view of the desire to make the handrail graspable, and considering the requirement that the handrail be continuous, it is necessary to provide a clear space of at least 1 inches (38 mm) between the handrail and any abutting wall. This distance will under normal use permit the fingers to slide past any adjacent rough surface that may cause injury, and it will provide an adequate distance so that the handrail may be quickly grabbed to help arrest a fall.

Where handrails are required, they must be installed at a height of at least 34 inches (864 mm) and not more than 38 inches (965 mm), measured vertically from the nosing of the stair treads. This height should be measured to the top of the handrail at the point that it is directly above the nosing. Although the IRC does not contain the requirement that the handrail be at a "uniform" height as does Section 1003.3.3.11.1 of the IBC, the height should not vary by more than a normal construction tolerance."

Difficulties in providing continuous stair handrails frequently occur where guards on open sides of stairs intersect walls and as stairs wind or turn. These situations can often lend themselves to an interruption in the continuity of the stair handrail.

Again, the true test of any continuous stair handrail is "can the user grasp the handrail and maintain their grasp without having to release the rail where it is supported for the full flight of stairs". If this is not the case, the builder is in violation of the intent of the code and could suffer serious consequences should an accident occur.

Qualified Inspection Services provides third party residential inspection services designed to identify code violations before they become a builder problem. To find out how our services may benefit your company, please contact us today.


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