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Handrail bracket clearance: Past, Present & Future

This article was originally published in NOMMA’s Fabricator Magazine, January/February 2003

The confusion over handrail bracket clearance has plagued our industry for 15 years. The good news is that the new ADAAG is acceptable to our industry and will likely remain law for another 12 years. However, the ICC and NFPA codes are revised more regularly and require NOMMA’s continued vigilance.

By Tony Leto
The Wagner Companies

Anyone concerned with handrail bracket clearance over the years would be hard pressed to use the word “clear” in referring to the variations and interpretations in use. With the long-awaited release of the Americans With Disabilities Act Accessibility Guidelines (ADAAG), it seems like an appropriate time for a review.

The first reference to a handrail clearance requirement appeared in an Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) publication in the early 1970s. It noted that there was to be a clearance of 1-1/2″ between a wall surface and a handrail. This dimension was interpreted as being absolute with no variation permitted. It was general practice at the time to use 1-1/2″ nominal pipe (1.90″ outside diamter, or OD) with a bracket that was 2-1/2″ to center. The resulting clearance of 1.55″ was being tagged as not meeting OSHA.

On behalf of Wagner and the National Association of Architectural Metal Manufacturers (NAAMM), Henry Bills attended an OSHA meeting in Florida where he raised the issue.

He was assured by OSHA that the document was incorrect and that the 1-1/2″ was considered de minumus. De minimus risk is the philosophy that the government takes when the probability that a product or practice is slightly detrimental to human welfare. If the chance is very small, then it is not considered worth the trouble of wasting public time and funds controlling the product or practice.

Bills was able to get OSHA to issue a letter to this effect and all was right in the world — until 1986. In 1986, the Council of American Building Officials (CABO) published CABO/ANSI A117.1, Accessible and Usable Buildings and Facilities. They carried the 1-1/2″ clearance between the wall and handrail over into the new document without clarification and added the additional reference that handrail had to be between 1-1/4″ and 1-1/2″ outside diameter. This dictated the use of 1-1/2″ OD tubing with brackets that had a projection to center of 2-1/4″. At the time of the publication, there were no commercially available brackets that met this requirement.

When questioned, CABO’s position was that the 1-1/2″ dimension was meant to be a minimum and the OD dimensions were to allow for pipe size. True to their word, when the 1990 A117 revision was published, it clearly stated that there was to be a 1-1/2″ minimum clearance between the wall and the handrail. Further, it also allowed for 1-1/4″ to 1-1/2″ nominal pipe size (1.66″ to 1.90″ OD).

And again, the railing world was happy — but not for long. In 1992, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) became law. Part of the ADA was a published set of guidelines — ADAAG. As it turned out, The Access Board — the group assembled to create the ADAAG — had great respect for the contents of CABO/ANSI A117.1 and, in essence, duplicated their publication. Unfortunately, they incorporated the 1986 version and not the 1990 version of the standard.

This resulted in two standards being applied to commercial construction. We began to receive reports that railing jobs were being rejected because of issues relating to clearance and handrail size. While The Access Board provided clarification on the OD dimensions of the handrail (allowing for pipe sizes), they would not budge on the 1-1/2″ absolute dimension between the wall and the handrail. The only hope was to become involved in the review process and see to it that the dimension was corrected in any subsequent version of ADAAG.

In the meantime, ANSI 117.1 was going through its normal review process and they published a new version of their standard in 1998. While they kept their standard of a 1-1/2″ minimum between the wall and handrail they added a new reference that the horizontal bracket arm had to be 2-1/2″ clear from the underside of the handrail. We were again in a situation were 98 percent of commercially available handrail brackets did not meet this requirement.

The proponent of this horizontal clearance was also using his success with CABO to turn his attention to adding the same requirement to the International Building Code (IBC), International Residential Code (IRC), and ADAAG. It was at this point that NOMMA and member companies such as R & B Wagner, Julius Blum and Artistic Railings stepped forward and began attending hearings to refute the evidence being referenced by the code bodies.

The first task was to stop the 2-1/2″ clearance requirement from being incorporated into the 2000 IRC and IBC. While we were unable to have the clearance requirement eliminated, we were successful in having the requirement reduced to 1-1/2″ to coincide with the minimum requirement from the wall.

With this victory, attention was turned to the ICC/ANSI 117.1 Committee and The Access Board. Following months of hearings, both chose to incorporate the less restrictive 1-1/2″ horizontal clearance requirement into their final documents in 2002. A review process followed that postponed the publication of both documents until 2004. The new ADAAG was finally released on July 23, 2004.

The 2004 ADAAG states:
505.5 Clearance. Clearance between handrail gripping surfaces and adjacent surfaces shall be 1-1/2 inches (38 mm) minimum.

505.6 Gripping Surface. Handrail gripping surfaces shall be continuous along their length and shall not be obstructed along their tops or sides. The bottoms of handrail gripping surfaces shall not be obstructed for more than 20 percent of their length. Where provided, horizontal projections shall occur 1-1/2 inches (38 mm) minimum below the bottom of the handrail gripping surface.

The 2004 ICC/ANSI 117.1 states:
505.5 Clearance: Clearance between handrail gripping surface and adjacent surfaces shall be 1-1/2 inches (38 mm) minimum.

505.6 Gripping Surface: Gripping surfaces shall be continuous, without interuption by newel posts, other construction elements, or obstructions.

The 2003 IBC states:
1009.11.3 Handrail graspability. Handrails with a circular cross section shall have an outside diameter of at least 1.25 inches (32 mm) and not greater than 2 inches (51 mm) or shall provide equivalent graspability. If the handrail is not circular, it shall have a permiter dimension of at least 4 inches (102 mm) and not greater than 6.25 inches (160 mm) with a minimum cross-section dimension of 2.25 inches (57 mm). Edges shall have a minimum radius of 0.01 inch (0.25 mm).

1009.11.6 Clearance. Clear space between a handrail and a wall or other surface shall be a minimum of 1.5 inches (38 mm). A handrail and a wall or any surface adjacent to the handrail shall be free of any sharp or abrasive elements.

The 2003 IRC states:
R311.5.6.3 Handrail grip size. All required handrails shall be one of the following types or provide equivalent graspability.

1. Type I. Handrails with a circular cross section shall have an outside diameter of at least 1-1/4 inches (32 mm) and not greater than 2 inches (102 mm). If the handrail is not circular it shall have a perimeter dimension of at least 4 inches (102 mm) and not greater than 6-1/4 inches (160 mm) with a minimum cross section dimension of 2-1/4 inches (57 mm).

2. Type II. Handrails with a perimeter greater than 6-1/4 inches (160 mm) shall provide a graspable finger recess area on both sides of the profile. The finger recess shall begin within a distance of 3/4 inch (19 mm) measured vertically from the tallest portion of the profile and achieve a depth of at least 5/16 inch(8 mm) within 7/8 inch (22 mm) below the widest portion of the profile. This required depth shall continue for at least 3/8 inch (10 mm) to a level that is not less than 1-3/4 inches (45 mm) below the tallest portion of the profile. The minimum width of the handrail above the recess shall be 1-1/4 inches (32 mm) to a maximum of 2-1/4 inches (70 mm). Edges shall have a minimum radius of 0.01 inches (0.25 mm)

Helpful Tips

  • Check with your local authorities as to what code applies
    • Some installations may be considered ornamental in which case code restrictions do not apply. Always confirm with your local people as to what they are using and how they interpret the codes.
  •  Don’t be surprised to continue to see references to obsolete codes
    • An immediate switch does not occur when a code is changed. It trickles through the system as each state decides what codes to adopt or revise
  • Be prepared to educate your local officials on current information.
    • The code books are hundreds of pages long; bracket and railing references are only on a few pages.
  • Confirm bracket dimensions.
  • Just because a supplier shows a bracket in a catalog does not guarantee that the bracket meets any code requirement. Many brackets that have traditionally been used will not meet the new clearance requirements but are still suited for applications that don’t have these restrictions. Suppliers are adding new brackets to expand design options but it is incumbent upon the fabricator to purchase product appropriate for their application. Request CAD or dimensioned drawings when specifying.

Looking ahead
With the release of the 2010 ADA Standards for Accessible Design, we can breathe a sigh of relief. It took 20 years to get an updated ADAAG and what is presently there is well within our industry’s ability to abide for another 12 years. However, the IBC and IRC codes come up for review every 18 months and ICC/ANSI A117.1 is under continuing review. Additionally, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) is working on its own set of code documents. The original proponent of the 2-1/2″ vertical bracket clearance sits on the NFPA Means of Egress committee and the current version of that code does require a 2-1/4″ vertical clearance.

Updated on June 12, 2018

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