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What are the differences between guards and handrails and when are they required

For many of us, walking up and down stairs is a routine part of our day. We may use stairs at work, at entertainment venues, and in our home without thinking twice about how their design and function contribute greatly to life safety in both emergency and non-emergency situations.

Stairs can be dangerous if not designed properly and in compliance with the many dimensional and design criteria found in NFPA 101, Life Safety Code. Depending on user’s age or physical ability, stairs can be a challenge for some. Occupants may also have different levels of comfort and speed of travel on stairs. To accommodate these variables, details of stair design addressed in the Code include maximum riser height, minimum tread depth, minimum stair width, and design and construction uniformity in order to create a safe path of travel when using the stairs to move throughout the building. It is important to note that there is a great deal of Code details comprising stair design, and none should be overlooked. Here, we will focus only on where handrails and guards are required and the differences in their function.

What is a handrail and where are handrails required?

Perhaps, one of the most important safety features of stairs are handrails and guards. Handrails provide support for people using stairs, act as a feature that stair users can hold or reach for to prevent or slow a fall, and can serve as a guide for stair users if smoke or a lighting system failure reduces vision. Handrails are required on each side of new ramps and new stairs, but they are not required on landings, except at inside turns on stairs and as a short horizontal extension of the stair handrail. Handrails are allowed on only one side of a stair or ramp under the following conditions:

Existing stairs regardless of occupancy
Existing ramps regardless of occupancy
New and existing stairs within dwelling units and within guest rooms
New and existing ramps within dwelling units and within guest rooms

For handrails to be effective, they must be within reach of a person using the stair. So, in addition to providing handrails at the sides of stairs, intermediate handrails are required so that no portion of the stair is more than a 30 in. (760 mm) (or 44 in. (1120 mm) for existing stairs) horizontal reach from an available handrail. The 30 in. distance from a point on a new stair to the nearer handrail is based on the fact that people can only reach approximately 24 in. to the side to grasp a handrail and that a person’s arms extend from the side of the body, not from the centerline.

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