O Canada

Distinctions in Handrail Code between the U.S. and Canada

Recently, I spent a week in Toronto doing “Lunch and Learns” at architectural firms. I’ve been doing this for years in the U.S. – focusing on the building codes as they apply to handrail and guards. But, the International Building Codes don’t apply to our northern neighbors. This meant I needed to learn about the differences.

Here’s what I learned.

In the U.S., the various code bodies got together in 1999 to create the International Code Council (ICC). But, it is important to determine if the I-Codes, NFPA or OSHA apply. In Canada, things are simpler. The National Building Code (NBC) governs all construction.

Canada’s National Research Council assembles the NBC. Published on a five-year cycle, 2015 is the most recent. As with the I-Codes, the NBC is a minimum standard for safety and a model code. Local jurisdictions and provinces don’t have the human resources to write code. Instead, they will adopt the model code and may choose to make it more conservative or liberal.

The NBC doesn’t apply until adopted by the local jurisdiction. Thus, the more current version may not be in effect in your province.

This reinforces the need to check with the authority having jurisdiction. Confirm expectations before construction.

Canadian codes are “prescriptive”. The wording is often open to interpretation by the local inspector.


A handrail provides guidance and support.

Refer to this table to determine the number of handrails required:

Location of Stair or Ramp

Handrail Serving Stairs

Handrails Serving Ramps
Stairs <1100mm (43”) Wide Stairs 1100mm (43”)  Wide Ramps < 1100 mm (43”)  Wide

Ramps ≥ 1100 mm (43”)  Wide


Curved All

Straight or Curved


Number of Sides Required to Have a Handrail

Within a dwelling unit or a house with a secondary suite


1 1



All other locations


2 2



Handrails must be continuously “graspable”. The expectation is that the user does not have to release the handrail to continue to the next flight of stairs.

Stairs ≥ 2200mm (87 inches) require an intermediate handrail such that a user is no more than 825mm (32 inches) from a handrail.

Minimum-height-of-handrail-2Handrail Height

A handrail must be between 865mm and 1070mm (34  and 42 inches) above the nosing. In the U.S., the I-Codes require handrail placed between 34 and 38 inches. In commercial applications, the NBC permits the top or a guard (42″ minimum height) to also serve as handrail. In the U.S., once a stair has a 30″ drop, a guard (42″ minimum) and a handrail (34″ to 38″) would both be required.

Handrail Graspability

In the National Building Code, handrails must be “graspable”. In keeping with the prescriptive nature of the NBC, that is not defined. The NBC notes Graspable portion of a handrail should allow a person to comfortably grab hold by allowing their fingers and thumb to curl under part of the handrail . . . Or have a recess that is sufficiently wide and deep to accommodate a person’s fingers. 
But, Ontario does have specific requirements on handrail size. Always confirm local requirements.

NBC clearance requirementsHandrail Bracket Clearance

The National Building Code requires a 2-inch minimum clearance between the wall and handrail. If the wall surface is considered “rough”, that clearance should be 2-3/8 inch.

Handrail Extensions

In the NBC, handrails must be terminated in a manner that will not obstruct pedestrian travel or create a hazard. . . One approach to reducing potential hazards is returning the handrail to a wall, floor or post.

While the NBC leaves room for interpretation, Ontario has very specific requirements regarding extensions which are more in keeping with those in the U.S. Confirm with your local jurisdiction.


Guards are in place to prevent accidental falls. Generally not required unless there is a 600mm (24-inch) drop (The I-Codes require guards once there is a 30-inch drop). Minimum Height of 1070mm (42-inch) in commercial applications and 900mm (36-inch) in residential applications.

Minimum Height of 1070mm (42-inch) in commercial applications and 900mm (36-inch) in residential applications.

Guards have an opening limitation 100mm (3-7/8-inch).

Climbability Restrictions

Unlike the I-Codes, the National Building Code does have climbability restrictions for guards.

The 2015 National Building Code does note, however, that climbability restrictions are required for levels above 4.2 meters (13′-9″) above the adjacent level. This is a change from the 2010 NBC which required climbability restrictions on all guards. Confirm with your local jurisdiction as at the time of this writing, Ontario had not yet adopted the 2015 NBC and still requires climbability restrictions on all guards.

Climbability restrictions do not apply for guards in industrial applications where children are not expected to be present.

Acceptable Design Examples

The following are design examples which the NBC has determined to be non-climbable.

Protrusions that are greater than 450mm (18”) apart horizontally and vertically are considered sufficiently far apart to reduce the likelihood of climbing.

Climbable Railing Exceptions Canada

Protrusions that present a horizontal offset of 15mm (1/2-inch) or less are considered to not provide a sufficient foot purchase to facilitate climbing.

Climbable Railing Exceptions Canada

Designs incorporating spaces that are not more than 45mm (1-3/4”) wide and 200mm (3/4”) high is considered not to facilitate climbing.

Climbable Railing Exceptions Canada

Protrusions that present more than a 2-in-1 slope on the offset are considered to not facilitate climbing.

Climbable Railing Exceptions Canada

Load Requirements for Guards

Location of Guard Minimum Specified Loads
Horizontal Load Applied Inward or Outward at any Point at the Minimum Required Height of the Guard Horizontal Load Applied Outward on Elements Within the Guard, Including Solid Panels and Balusters Evenly distributed Vertical Load Applied at the Top of the Guard
Guards within dwelling units and exterior guards serving not more than 2 dwelling units. 0.5 kN/m (34 lb/ft) OR concentrated load of 1.0 Kn (225 lbs) applied at any point 0.5 kN (112 lbs) applied over a maximum width of 300mm (12”)  and a height of 300 mm (12”). 1.5 kN/m (103 lb/ft)
Guards serving access ways to equipment platforms and similar areas where the gathering of many people is improbable. Concentrated load of 1.0 kN (225 lbs) applied at any point. Concentrated load of 0.5 kN (112 lbs) over an area of 100mm by 100mm (3-7/8” by 3-7/8”) located at any point on the element or elements so as to produce the most critical effect.
All other guards 0.75 kN/M (51 lb/ft) OR concentrated load of 1.0 kN (225 lbs) applied at any point.

Load Requirements for Handrail

  1. Handrail and their supports shall be designed and constructed to withstand the following loads which are not to be considered to act simultaneously:
    1. a concentrated load of not less than 0.9 kN (202 lbs)
    2. or a uniform load of 0.7 kN/m (48 lb/ft)



  • I’m designing a laser cut guardrail. Can an opening width be larger than 45mm if the height is under 200mm?

    • I had originally posted a response but realized your question was different from the what I had responded to. I don’t know if Canada provides leeway on this in relation to the area of the opening vs. those hard dimensions they note. I would think not. The dimension relates to the size of a child’s foot so it’s likely that both are hard limits. The only way to confirm is to consult with your local authority having jurisdiction.

  • Hello Tony,
    I’m wondering if there is any distinction between commercial and industrial when it comes to guard openings ? In an industrial setting is the 3 7/8″ opening requirement (baby’s head 🙂 still required ?
    Great post by the way. Thank You.

    • In relation to climbability restrictions, the NBC does note that they do not apply for guards in industrial applications where children are not expected to be present. I would expect the same applies to the opening limitation. In the US, this would be covered by OSHA and the opening limitation is significantly higher. Your best bet is to confirm with your local authority having jurisdiction.

    • I don’t know of any reason why a stringer to ceiling structure will not meet the building codes. Guard requirements generally state an opening limitation, a minimum height, and a load requirement. As long as those provisions are met, then it should be acceptable. I would ask your contractor to show you the section in the applicable code which would support his position.

  • In my house the stairs go up 3 steps with the left side being a wall and the right side is open with a handrail/guard that terminates into a wall that runs perpendicular to the railing. Is there any guidance in the code regarding how close to the end of the wall/beginning of the opening this rail has to be placed? It seems to me that it should be close enough to the opening that someone on the landing can easily grasp the railing but my contractor says we can tie it into the wall anywhere we want. He’s proposing 8″ away from the landing opening.

    • Your contractor may be right but it’s a matter of what you feel you need to feel safe. A railing which meets that letter of the codes can still be rejected by an inspector if the inspector considers it unsafe. You should confirm with your local authority having jurisdiction to confirm whether this would be acceptable.

  • My contractor has built a hand rail that you have to reach around the wall to grasp (the rail is approx. 8 inches from the landing). It’s very awkward to use. Is this against code?

    • By definition, a handrail is required on a stair and needs to be located above the nosing. If this handrail is not above the stair treads, then it is not a handrail. An inspector can also make a judgment call and determine that a railing is not safe and therefore does not meet the code.

  • For wide architectural stairs in the front of a building (under 10 risers), does the width requirement for additional rail apply?

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