Why Is There No Consistency of Clearance Requirements for Handrail Brackets?
Here are two standard handrail brackets. The one on the left has a minimum 1-1/2″ clearance between the wall and handrail. It will meet International Building Code (IBC), International Residential Code (IRC), (Americans With Disabilities Act Standardards for Accessible Design) ADASAD, and American National Standards Institute (ANSI) A117.1 requirements for handrail graspability. It will not meet National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) or Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requirements.
The one on the right has a 2-1/4″ clearance between the wall and handrail and will meet IBC, IRC, ADA, ANSI A117.1, NFPA and OSHA requirements.
You may ask, “Why can’t they all just be the same?”. Here’s the history on how the difference developed.
The 2-1/4″ clearance requirement grew out of a proposal that was made to all of the code bodies and standards back in 2003/2004.
Stairs are a safety concern in both residential and commercial construction. By definition, a handrail is in place to provide guidance on a stair and must meet certain requirements for strength and graspability.
However, in many cases, the falls result from failing to use the handrail. How often do you use stairs without holding the handrail or your hands are otherwise occupied carrying groceries, or children?
If you are not holding onto the handrail and find yourself falling, your instinct would be to grasp the handrail to restrict your fall.
The proponent of the 2-1/4″ clearance for handrail brackets felt that in that situation, an individual falling would reach out with extended fingers to grasp the handrail. If the handrail is too close to the wall, their outstretched fingertips would hit the wall preventing them from closing their hand into a “power grip”.
However, there was no evidence presented that this was the case. Additionally, the increased distance from the wall would add cost as the brackets would need to be stronger or placed more closely together to meet the load requirements.
The ICC, ANSI A117.1, and ADA all chose to maintain their dimensions as they were — 1-1/2″ minimum clearance. However, the proponent was active with the National Fire Protection Association and was able to have the 2-1/4″ minimum clearance added to NFPA 5000.
NFPA 5000 is a building code created by the NFPA to compete with the International Code Council (ICC). Keep in mind that the NFPA is made up of government officials (i.e. fire marshalls), who had a great deal of influence in their jurisdictions.
As it turned out NFPA 5000 was not generally adopted. However, elements of NFPA 5000 were incorporated into NFPA 101 — The Life Safety Code and NFPA 101 is commonly applied for fire stairs across the country.
This has resulted in conflicts where a building inspector has approved a railing for meeting the 1-1/2″ minimum clearance but it has been “red tagged” by the fire marshall for not meeting the 2-1/4″ clearance.
Attempts have been made to go back to the NFPA to request they match their minimum clearance for handrail brackets to those of the other codes and standards.
This has not occurred. Here’s the problem, while the original justification for the larger clearance was to allow clearance for outstretched fingers during a fall, firefighters have discovered a new benefit to the added space — room for their bulky gloves as they race up a fire stair. As such, it is unlikely that we will ever see a roll-back of this dimension.
OSHA has recently updated their Section 1910.29 Fall Protection Systems and Falling Object Protection — Criteria and Practices and it matches up with the NFPA 101 requirements.
It should be noted that some local jurisdictions have taken it upon themselves to avoid the conflict and have accepted the 1-1/2″ minimum clearance for fire stairs. Always confirm with your local authority having jurisdiction (AHJ) to confirm their requirements.