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When is a Handrail Required for Stairs?

Friday, June 2, 2023
When is a Handrail Required for Stairs?

Handrails are integral to stairway safety, providing support and stability for individuals as they navigate steps. Whether you’re a homeowner, a business owner, or simply curious about the requirements and benefits of handrails, this post will provide you with valuable information.

We’ll start by answering the fundamental question: What is a handrail? You’ll learn about the purpose and function of handrails and how they contribute to keeping you safe while using stairs. We’ll then delve into the specific handrail requirements according to building codes, both for residential and commercial stairs. Understanding these requirements is crucial when considering handrail installation or ensuring compliance with existing structures.

We’ll also explore handrail placement guidelines, addressing common questions such as whether a handrail is required for three steps or when there are six steps in a stairway. Additionally, we’ll touch on whether handrails need to be on both sides of the stairs, considering factors like accessibility and safety.

Lastly, we’ll touch on the requirements for handrails as per OSHA regulations, particularly in workplace settings. Understanding when handrails are required in accordance with OSHA standards will help you ensure a safe environment for employees and visitors.

So, if you’re curious about handrails, their requirements, and their role in keeping you safe, you’ve come to the right place. Let’s dive into the details and empower you with the knowledge to make informed decisions regarding handrails for stairs.

What is a handrail?

A handrail is a horizontal or sloping bar alongside a staircase, walkway, or ramp. It is designed to provide physical support and stability to individuals as they navigate these elevated structures. Handrails are typically made of durable materials such as wood, metal, or plastic and are securely attached to the structure.

Handrails are positioned at a height that allows most people to grasp them comfortably, typically around the waist or chest level. The primary purpose of a handrail is to offer a secure handhold for individuals to grip while ascending or descending stairs or walking along elevated surfaces. It serves as a means of support, helping to maintain balance and prevent falls.

Handrails are important safety features, particularly in areas with a risk of slipping, tripping, or losing balance. They provide a physical barrier and aid individuals in maintaining their stability. In addition to their functional role, handrails contribute to a space’s aesthetics, adding a decorative element and complementing the overall design of the staircase or walkway.

Handrails are commonly found in various settings, including residential homes, commercial buildings, public spaces, and transportation facilities. They are essential for promoting accessibility, ensuring the safety of individuals with mobility challenges, and complying with building codes and regulations. Handrails play a crucial role in creating inclusive environments where people of all abilities can navigate with confidence and security.

How Do Handrails on Stairs Help Keep You Safe?


Handrails on stairs play a crucial role in keeping individuals safe by providing support, stability, and guidance. Here are several ways in which handrails contribute to safety:


  • Support and Balance: Handrails offer a secure grip for individuals to hold onto when ascending or descending stairs. People can steady themselves, distribute their weight evenly, and maintain balance by grasping the handrail. This support is significant for those with mobility challenges, the elderly, or individuals recovering from injuries, as it helps them confidently navigate stairs.
  • Fall Prevention: Handrails act as a physical barrier, helping to prevent accidental slips, trips, or falls on stairs. A handrail is a constant reminder and encourages people to be cautious while using the stairs. If someone loses their balance, they can quickly grab the handrail to regain stability and avoid a potential fall.
  • Stability on Uneven Surfaces: Staircases can have uneven or irregular steps, increasing the risk of stumbling. Handrails provide additional stability by giving individuals something to hold onto as they navigate these variations in step height or width. This stability is particularly beneficial in outdoor settings where stairs may be exposed to weather conditions or have uneven surfaces.
  • Assistance for the Visually Impaired: Handrails offer tactile guidance and can assist individuals with visual impairments in navigating stairs. By running their hand along the handrail, individuals can follow its path and determine the number of steps, curves, or landings. This tactile feedback helps create a more secure and confident experience for those with visual limitations.
  • Emergency Situations: In an emergency, handrails can serve as a guide to lead people safely out of a building or to an exit. They provide a designated path for evacuation and can aid in the orderly movement of individuals during times of urgency or panic.


Handrails are an essential safety feature that promotes secure movement and allows individuals of all abilities to navigate stairs confidently. Handrails on stairs help keep individuals safe by providing support, stability, and guidance. They contribute to fall prevention, assist those with mobility challenges, enhance accessibility, and offer reassurance during emergencies.

Handrail requirements according to building codes


The specific requirements for handrails on stairs may vary based on local building codes and regulations. It’s important to consult the building codes applicable to your jurisdiction to ensure compliance. However, here are some general guidelines commonly found in building codes:


  • Height: Handrails must typically be installed at a specific height above the stairs. Commonly, the height range falls between 34 to 38 inches (86 to 96.5 cm) measured from the nosing of the treads. This measurement ensures that the handrail is within comfortable reach for most individuals.
  • Grip Size: Building codes often specify the minimum and maximum diameter or perimeter for the handrail grip. The typical range is between 1.25 to 2 inches (3.2 to 5.1 cm) in diameter. This requirement ensures that the handrail is graspable and easy to hold onto.
  • Continuity: Handrails are typically required to extend continuously along the entire length of the stairs, with no interruptions or gaps. This ensures that individuals have consistent and continuous support as they navigate the staircase.
  • Structural Integrity: Building codes may include requirements for the structural integrity of handrails. This includes guidelines for the materials used, proper anchoring and attachment to the structure, and load-bearing capacity to withstand the force applied during normal use.
  • Clearance: Building codes often specify the required clearance between the handrail and adjacent surfaces, such as walls or other objects. This clearance allows for sufficient space for individuals to grasp the handrail without interference.


It is important to note that building codes may vary depending on the location and type of building, so it is always a good idea to check with your local building department or consult a professional before installing or modifying handrails on stairs. By adhering to these building codes, you can help ensure the safety and accessibility of your stairs for everyone who uses them. When installing handrails on stairs, it is also important to consider the material and style of the handrail. Common materials include wood, metal, and plastic, each with unique advantages and disadvantages regarding durability, cost, and aesthetics. Some common handrail styles include round, square, and decorative, and the choice of style can depend on the overall design and theme of the building.

In addition to following building codes and choosing the right materials and style, placing handrails in the correct location is important for optimal safety and accessibility. Handrails should be placed on both sides of the stairs and continue along the entire length, including landings or intermediate platforms.

When is a handrail required for residential stairs?


The requirements for handrails on residential stairs vary depending on local building codes and regulations. While it’s important to consult the specific codes applicable to your jurisdiction, here are some general guidelines regarding when a handrail may be required for residential stairs:

  • Number of Steps: In many cases, building codes specify that a handrail is required when a staircase consists of a certain number of steps. The specific threshold may vary, but it’s common for handrails to be required for stairs with three or more steps. However, some codes may require handrails for two-step stairs as well.
  • Stair Height: Building codes may also consider the overall height of the staircase when determining the need for a handrail. For example, if the total rise of the stairs exceeds a certain measurement (e.g., 30 inches or more), a handrail might be required.
  • Occupancy and Use: The requirements for handrails can also be influenced by the occupancy and use of the residential property. For instance, if the property is intended for occupancy by individuals with disabilities or elderly residents, handrails may be required regardless of the number of steps.


Residential Handrail Height: In residential settings, the typical handrail height requirement is between 34 to 38 inches (86 to 96.5 cm) from the surface of the tread. This measurement is taken from the stair tread’s leading edge to the handrail’s top. The purpose of this range is to provide a comfortable grip and adequate support for individuals of varying heights.

A handrail is required for all residential stairs with more than three risers, but it’s always a good idea to consult local building codes for specific requirements. When choosing a handrail for your home, consider the style, material, and placement guidelines to ensure safety and aesthetic appeal.

When is a handrail required for commercial stairs?

The requirements for handrails on commercial stairs are typically more stringent than residential stairs. The specific regulations can vary depending on local building codes and regulations, as well as the type and occupancy of the commercial building. Here are some general guidelines regarding when a handrail is typically required for commercial stairs:

  • Number of Steps: Similar to residential stairs, building codes often specify a minimum number of steps required by a handrail. While the exact threshold may vary, it’s common for handrails to be mandated for stairs with three or more steps. Some codes may also require handrails for two-step stairs, particularly if they are part of an accessible route.
  • Stair Height: Building codes may consider the staircase’s overall height or vertical rise when determining the need for a handrail. A handrail is typically required if the total increase exceeds a specific measurement, typically around 30 inches or more.
  • Occupancy and Use: The type of occupancy and use of the commercial building can also influence the handrail requirements. For instance, buildings accessible to the public or intended for occupancy by individuals with disabilities generally have more stringent regulations. Handrails may be required in these cases, even for shorter staircases or single steps.
  • Building Code Specifics: It’s crucial to consult the specific building codes and regulations applicable to your jurisdiction, as they may include additional requirements and exceptions for commercial stairs. These requirements include handrail dimensions, clearance, grip size, materials, and structural integrity.


In general, commercial stairs require handrails when they meet any of the following conditions:

  • The stairway has four or more risers.
  • The stairway is over 44 inches in height.
  • The stairway is over 88 inches in width.

Commercial buildings generally require handrails when stairs have four or more risers, are over 44 inches in height, or are over 88 inches in width. The material and style of the handrail should meet building code guidelines and complement the building’s overall aesthetic.

Handrail placement guidelines

Handrail placement guidelines are essential to ensure the proper installation and functionality of handrails. While the specific requirements can vary based on local building codes and regulations, here are some general guidelines for handrail placement:

  • Handrails should be continuous and unbroken from the top of the stairs to the bottom. This provides consistent support for those using the stairs.
  • Handrails should be installed on both sides of the stairs – this ensures that people can use the handrail regardless of which side they are walking on.
  • Handrails should be positioned between 34 and 38 inches above the stair tread – this allows for comfortable use by most adults.
  • The handrail should be located 1.5 inches away from the wall – this provides enough space for a person’s hand to grip the handrail comfortably.
  • There should be a space of at least 1.5 inches between the handrail – any other surface, such as a guardrail or wall.
  • The handrail should extend beyond the top and bottom stairs – this allows a person to hold onto the handrail before they begin to climb the stairs or after reaching the top.
  • Handrails should be securely fastened to the wall or supporting structure – this ensures that the handrail is sturdy and can support the weight of someone using the stairs.

It’s important to note that these guidelines are general, and specific requirements may vary based on local building codes, regulations, and the intended use of the handrail. To ensure compliance and safety, it’s recommended to consult with local authorities or a qualified professional, such as a building inspector, architect, or engineer, who can provide accurate guidance based on the specific requirements of your jurisdiction.

Do I Need a Handrail for 3 Steps?

The requirement for a three-step handrail on a set of stairs can vary depending on local building codes and regulations. In some jurisdictions, a handrail may not be mandatory for a three-step staircase, while it may be required in others. Here are some factors to consider:

  • Building Codes: Consult the building codes specific to your location to determine the handrail requirements. Some codes may specify the number of steps at which a handrail becomes mandatory, while others may have different criteria based on the height or use of the stairs.
  • Accessibility: If the stairs are part of an accessible route or are intended for use by individuals with disabilities, the handrail requirements may be more stringent. In such cases, even a three-step staircase may require a handrail to ensure accessibility and safety.
  • Safety Considerations: While not always required by code, installing a handrail on a three-step staircase can enhance safety, particularly for individuals with balance issues, mobility challenges, or the elderly. A handrail provides support, stability, and confidence while ascending or descending the stairs.

6 Steps Make Up A Stairway. Do I Need a Handrail?

According to most building codes, a handrail is not required for a stairway with six steps or less. However, it is still recommended to install one for safety purposes.

Even though a handrail may not be legally required, it can provide support and stability to those using the stairs, especially those with difficulty with balance or mobility. A handrail can also help prevent falls and injuries, which can be costly and even life-threatening.

When installing a handrail, make sure it is securely attached to the wall or structure and is at a comfortable height for users. The handrail should extend beyond the top and bottom steps to provide continuous support.

To ensure compliance and safety, it’s recommended to consult the building codes specific to your location and consider the intended use of the stairway.

Do Handrails Need to Be on Both Sides of the Stairs?

Handrails are an important part of staircase safety. They provide support and stability for people using the stairs, especially those with difficulty with balance or mobility. The question that often arises is whether handrails need to be on both sides of the stairs.

According to building codes, handrails are usually required on both sides of the stairs. This is to ensure that people have support and stability on both sides of the stairs, especially when going up or down steep or narrow staircases. Handrails also provide a visual cue for people to stay on the correct path and help prevent falls.

However, there are some exceptions to this rule. For example, if the staircase is less than 44 inches wide, only one handrail is required. In some cases, it may not be possible to have handrails on both sides due to space limitations or other design constraints. In these situations, it is important to consult a professional to determine the best solution for stair safety.

Handrails are essential to staircase safety and are typically required on both sides of the stairs. However, there may be exceptions to this rule based on specific circumstances. It is always best to consult a professional to ensure your staircase meets all safety requirements.

When are handrails for stairs required per OSHA regulations?

Under OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) regulations in the United States, handrails for stairs are required in certain situations to ensure worker safety. The requirements are outlined in OSHA’s general industry standards, specifically in 29 CFR 1910.23 – Walking-Working Surfaces. Here are the key points regarding handrails for stairs according to OSHA regulations:

  • Four or More Risers: According to OSHA regulations, handrails are required on stairways with four or more risers (steps). Handrails may not be mandatory under OSHA rules if a staircase has three or fewer steps, but local building codes or other regulations may still require them.
  • Construction and Installation: OSHA requires handrails to be suitable, capable of withstanding a certain amount of force, and securely fastened. It should be installed the handrails height requirement of 30 to 38 inches (76 to 96.5 cm) above the leading edge of the stair tread.
  • Continuous and Graspable: Handrails must be continuous along the entire length of the stairway and extend at least 12 inches (30.5 cm) beyond the top and bottom riser horizontally. The handrails should provide a graspable surface with a shape that allows a person’s hand to grip it easily.
  • Slip Resistance: Handrails should provide a slip-resistant surface to minimize the risk of accidents or falls.
  • Handrails must be installed on both sides of the stairs and withstand a force of at least 200 pounds.
  • Handrails must also be continuous, meaning they must extend the full length of the stairs and not have any interruptions or breaks, except at the top and bottom of the stairs.
  • Handrails must also be able to provide a firm and stable gripping surface, and they must not have any sharp edges or projections that could cause injury. If the handrails are made of a material that could become slippery, such as metal or plastic, they must be covered with a slip-resistant material to ensure adequate traction.

It’s important to note that OSHA regulations are specific to workplace safety and may differ from local building codes or regulations that govern other structures. It’s advisable to consult both OSHA standards and local regulations to ensure compliance with all applicable requirements for handrails on stairs in a given workplace setting.



Material posted on this website is for informational purposes only and does not constitute a legal opinion or medical advice. Contact your legal representative or medical professional for information specific to your legal or medical needs.