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.

Stair users might not all hold a handrail while moving on a stair, but they often stay within a comfortable reach of a handrail as they walk up and down stairs. The intent of mandating additional handrails is to ensure that users are never too far from a handrail when its needed. The intermediate handrails are required only along the natural path of travel to and from the building, regardless of the actual width of the stair and so that a person on the stairs has a handrail accessible to them should they need one, without having to travel too far to one side of the stairs, particularly on wider stairs. The two stairs below illustrate two different examples of handrail placement for a new stair, depending on the natural path of travel and required egress width.

The Code doesn’t expect, nor want, a person to have to reach too far, or move horizontally or vertically across or down stairs without a handrail available to them for stability. It is not the intent, and is often misinterpreted as a requirement, that intermediate handrails are required every 30 in/44 in (new/existing). Occupants tend to stay to within their natural path of egress travel which is along lines nears the sides of the stairs or in line with exit doors emptying out onto the stairs. Handrails at a greater number than that is too conservative and not a practical design, as occupants do not equally use all the stair width on wider stairs. Too many handrails may even have an impact on the effective stair width and obstruct efficient egress.

What is a guard and where are guards required?

While handrails are there to help slow or prevent a fall on a stair or ramp, guards are to help prevent a fall over an open side of a walking surface. Guards are required along the open sides of means of egress paths where there is a vertical drop of at least 30 in. (760 mm). On stairs guards may be integrated into the handrail design, such that taller stair users cannot fall over the top of the handrail. In addition, open guards (below the handrail, if present) will require intermediate rails to prevent children from falling.

As opposed to being in the same numbered subsection as handrails, the requirement for mandating the presence of guards is found in the general requirements of Section 7.1 of the Code because the open sides of means of egress paths occur in places other than just stairs and the intent of the Code is to protect occupants from falling from an open side of a walking surface beyond just stairs. The details of guard design are located after the provisions for handrails and applicable to anywhere guards are required. Other than stairs, areas in a means of egress that might require protection with guards include landings, escalators, moving walks, balconies, corridors, passageways, floor or roof openings, ramps, aisles, porches, and mezzanines.

In conclusion, both handrails and guards play distinct and important roles that contribute to the life safety of occupants while traveling throughout the means of egress. The next time you use stairs, think about your reliance on the handrail and guard and notice how uncomfortable you may feel to not have a handrail or guard nearby. For these reasons, NFPA 101 provides great detail to ensure the stability and confidence of occupants when using stairs and when traveling along elevated portions of the means of egress.

Please let us know in the comments below what your experience has been with handrail and guard design. Have you encountered any common challenges? Misconceptions?

Sign up for the NFPA Network Newsletter
Kristin Bigda
Technical Lead and Principal Fire Protection Engineer with a focus on building and life safety related content.

Related Articles