The installation of handrails make a building safer and more accessible to everyone. In North Carolina, a variety of regulations govern the construction of handrails and define what a handrail is. Any business or home with ramps or stairs needs to review these requirements to ensure construction projects are within code for both personal safety and compliance reasons.
TL;DR (Too Long; Didn't Read)
Handrails in North Carolina must be installed a minimum of 34 inches above a stairway and a maximum of 38 inches high.
Guards Versus Handrails
For safety considerations, North Carolina does not allow a handrail to take the place of a guard. Guards are barriers that help prevent a person from falling from an elevated surface, such as a stairway or a balcony. Handrails provide support for individuals walking up stairs or on inclined surfaces, such as handicap accessible ramps. In the state, a handrail cannot take the place of a guard. State laws regarding heights of these supports require a guard to be 4 to 8 inches higher than the handrail requirement. A guard should be 42 inches high on open sides of stairs over 30 inches tall. Handrails, however, are required on both sides of a stairway with a height requirement of 34 to 38 inches.
Stairs over 30 inches in height require handrails, but policies also cover other structures. Ramps with a rise greater than 6 inches must have handrails and are required on walking surfaces with a slope exceeding 1 foot every 20 feet. For slopes of a lesser degree, if handrails are installed, they must comply with North Carolina statutes regarding height and construction.
Handrail specifications extend beyond a basic height requirement to include other safety considerations. For example, the law requires the size of the gap between the handrail and the wall to be 1 1/2 inches in order to keep hands from getting stuck in the gap. Exceptions include newel posts at stairway corners. The circular cross section of a handrail should be a minimum of 1 1/4 inches, but not over 2 5/8 inches to maximize the gripping surface. State code also specifies that handrails can be installed at a lower height for children, but a second handrail must still be installed at least 9 inches above the children's rail.
When county codes and state codes differ, it is best to put your building in compliance with both sets of rules. For example, in Mecklenburg County, handrail height is specified at 30 inches to 38 inches measuring up from the stair treads. State Fire Marshal requirements specify a height of 34 to 38 inches. Using the Fire Marshal requirements keeps the building project in compliance with both codes.