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Handrail Systems

An often overlooked and neglected item is the handrail of most stairs. During my conversations with Oregon OSHA staff, they have begun to look at handrails with a renewed vigor. One reason they are showing interest is a special district had an employee fall while walking up a flight of stairs and was permanently injured. The suspected reason was that the stair rail at the site was not adequate.

What is a stair rail system? A stair rail system or stair rail is a barrier erected along the exposed or open side of stairways to prevent a fall. According to Oregon OSHA’s fact sheet on Guardrail systems, “Guardrails, stair rails, and handrails are common fall protection solutions. All three prevent slips, trips, and falls, but they serve different purposes and have different requirements.”

There are some simple things you can check on to help ensure that individuals in your facilities are protected:

  1. Stair rail heights - The top-edge height of rails must be 42 inches above the walking and working surface if installed on or after January 1, 2018. Guardrails with a top-edge height less than 39 inches are not permitted. Midrails must be installed at a height midway between the top edge of the guardrail system and the walking-working surface. Any opening in a stair rail system must not exceed 19 inches, however building codes do not allow the passage of a 4-inch sphere.
  2. Railing strength - Guardrail systems must be capable of withstanding, without failure, a force of at least 200 pounds applied in a downward or outward direction at any point within two inches of the top edge of the top rail. The guardrail system must not deflect to a height less than 39 inches.
  3. Handrail design – Minimum handrail height is 30 inches. Maximum height is 38 inches. Height is measured from the leading edge of the stair tread to the top surface of the handrail. The minimum clearance between a handrail and any other object is 2.25 inches. Handrail surfaces must be smooth. Handrails must be designed so that they can be grasped firmly. The end of a handrail must not present a projection hazard.

These items are not an exhaustive list. In order to limit your district’s liability, you need to consult with local building officials to ensure your stairs and rails are properly built. If you need additional help or have questions about any kind of fall prevention, contact the SDAO Risk Management Department at or 800-285-5461.