Handrails are mostly a little noticed but important part of a building’s layout. When properly installed and maintained, they increase the welcoming feel to seniors, persons with disabilities and others with mobility issues. Handrails are frequently a visitor’s first physical interaction with the building structure and can set the tone for the person’s experience with the facility they are about to enter.
Inside a building, handrails provide needed support on staircases and in hallways and common spaces. While an incident-free experience will probably go unnoticed, an accident caused by improper handrails will command unwanted attention and leave the building owner possibly facing a costly litigation.
Handrails are a key safety device in the prevention of slips and falls. Most people normally associate them with stairways and elevated surfaces, but they also are very important on level surfaces as a provider of additional support.
Handrails also make a facility more accessible. A mandatory inclusion in wheelchair access ramps, handrails help those utilizing mobility enhancement devices safely navigate entry into facilities which are higher than street level. They also provide important support for seniors and other people who have a difficult time walking.
Handrails play a pedestrian management role at large events by channeling guests in an orderly fashion through desired entry points. They are an important safety consideration on wide staircases. Additional railings must be erected if the staircase is more than 88 inches wide, but operators of arenas and other public venues install them in much narrower areas to encourage guests moving in opposite directions to use separate sides. They also ensure a safety point is close by for those needing it.
There are several important safety considerations to keep in mind when choosing and maintaining handrail systems. The first is to make sure they are kept free of locked bicycles. This is most easily accomplished by having sufficient bicycle stands nearby. Eliminate the need to use the handrails and you have less need for patrolling or signage requesting patrons not lock their bicycles on them.
The site owner must be vigilant in keeping the protected area free of snow, ice, and debris which can obstruct the pathway, increase the slippery feel of the handrail and heighten the chances of an accident.
Handrail placement must also facilitate easy use by small children. In areas where small children are likely to use the stairs, an initial unit should be placed no more than 28 inches high, as measured from the floor to the top. Mandatory rails at a height between 34 and 38 inches must be present for adults.
Handrails must also extend beyond the top and bottom of a flight of stairs. This curtails the risk of clothing, purses and other possessions getting caught on them. While they naturally have to be interrupted at each floor, handrails must be closed off at each end to prevent objects from catching on them and to allow a hand continuous access to the railing so people with walking difficulties are never without needed support.
There are steps you can take to make handrails safer to use for persons with visual impairments. The most important factor to consider is the color contrast between the rail itself and the background. This is measured by Light Reflectance Value (LRV), where jet black is given a score of 0 and perfect white is 100. The LRV difference between the two surfaces should be a minimum of 20 points to be of benefit to people with visual impairments. The previous standard was 30 points so try and use that as your benchmark.
The quality of grip is another factor frequently ignored by facility designers. Railings need to be able to be securely grasped by a complete range of hand sizes, and quickly, in the event of a fall, so they cannot be too large or they will not be easily gripped. The recommended width range for railings is between four and six and one-quarter inches in diameter. If the grip area is too small it is liable to put the hand in constant contact with the railing supports underneath, meaning the hand will need to be frequently off the rail in order to move past each support. This increases the chances of a fall.
Handrails also need to be a specified distance from the wall. This is to ensure hands can quickly reach around them in the event of a fall, to prevent someone from getting stuck, or when extra support is needed. The minimum distance between the railing and the wall is 1.5 inches.
When selecting and installing a handrail system make sure you pay attention to the amount of weight pressure the unit can withstand. Most safety standards mandate that handrails must be able to support at least 200 pounds of pressure.
It is important to note that variations in building codes may exist depending on where you live. Your municipality’s property or planning department should have staff and building inspectors available to answer any questions related to the local building codes. It is best to check before installation in order to avoid a costly renovation and service disruption later on.