The difference between a handrail and a guardrail is often confusing. However, international building codes provide a clear distinction between the two. Whereas handrails are designed to simply offer support across ramps and stairs, guardrails are slightly different.
Unlike handrails, guardrails are life-saving devices. Their primary purpose is to stop falls from elevated surfaces, like decks. Even though guardrails are available in different styles, they’re always designed with safety in mind.
Guardrails are designed to arrest people’s falls and ensure their safety. They can either be mounted directly on walls or sometimes require support. Guardrails and handrails are often used together, with handrails being used for support, whereas guardrails offer life-saving protection. At any cost, guardrails must be strong and resilient enough to support a person’s weight in case they push against it to arrest their fall.
The International Building Code (IBC) – What Is It?
The International Building Code (IBC) is a model code for commercial construction that provides minimum requirements to safeguard the public health, safety, and general welfare of the occupants of new and existing buildings and structures. The International Building Code is a model code prepared under the umbrella of the ICC, and its first iteration was released in 2000.
The IBC clearly defines the various requirements for commercial handrails and guardrails in commercial buildings. Since its first publication, the International Building Codes have formed the basis of all guardrail requirements. The International Code Council is also responsible for updating the IBC code, and they review and propose changes after every three years.
The ICC incorporates changes and suggestions from the NFPA (National Fire Protection Association), OSHA, the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act), and the FHA (Fair Housing Act). While there is a slight variation depending upon different regions, most usually rely on these model codes and use them as a minimum standard.
What is the International Building Code (IBC)?
The International Building Code or the IBC, is the most commonly adopted commercial building code in the country. The IBC, is a model code, providing minimum standards to safeguard the occupants of commercial buildings. The IBC falls under the parent organization of the International Code Council (ICC). There is also a residential version of the IBC called the International Residential Code (IRC). The International Code Council (ICC) develops and updates the IBC code after every three years. The most recent edition, as of this writing, is the 2021 edition. The ICC conducts a review to ensure that the IBC meets the requirements of the FHA (Fair Housing Act) and the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act).
Odds are if you are an architect or contractor reading this article you are familiar with both the IBC and the IRC. Local building codes may vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, but most are based on the IBC and IRC as a base minimum standard. Local codes may exceed the IBC or IRC minimums but can not be lessor than the defined codes.
The importance of the International Building Code for guardrails
The International Building Code Section 1015 specifically focuses on the use of guardrails. The standard focuses on fall protection to reduce the occurrence of potentially tragic accidents. It also specifies where guardrails will be required and the minimum requirements for their safe installation.
Since these are life-saving devices, they must be built to minimum quality standards and must conform to certain specifications.
Four important IBC code requirements for guardrails
Guards are mentioned in IBC standards 1015 and 1607.8, both of which include various code requirements and specifications that architects and designers must follow. Now, let’s discuss the four essential IBC code requirements that relate to guardrails.
IBC Code Requirement 1: Guardrail Location Requirements
As per IBC Section 1015.2, guards must be installed along open-sided walking surfaces, including stairs, ramps, aisles, and landings that are located at a height greater than 30 inches measured vertically from the floor or a grade below 36 inches horizontally towards the edge of an open side.
There are exceptions to this rule as well. Guards are not required in certain locations:
- Near the loading side around docks and piers
- Near the audience stage of a raised platform or a stage
- Around raised stages or platforms including runways or ramps
- Around vehicle service pits
- Around cross aisles in assembly seating situations
- Near vertical openings around platforms or stages
IBC Code Requirement 2: Not Less Than 42 Inches
According to IBC Section 1015.3, guards shall not be less than 42 inches in height (1067mm) when measured vertically. The codes also provide conditions for measuring the guardrails:
- The guardrails must be measured vertically from any adjacent walking surface.
- The guardrail measurements can be taken from the line that connects leading edges of the tread nosings on stepped aisles or stairways.
- Vertical measurements must be made on ramped aisles or ramps from the ramp surface near the guard.
If there is a 30” drop minimum, a handrail must accompany the guardrail and should be placed between 34 and 38 inches above the nosing.
The 4” sphere rule must also be followed, which indicates that there shouldn’t be any opening big enough to allow a sphere with a 4” diameter to pass through from the walking surface to the maximum guard height.
There are certain exceptions to this rule:
- If guards are placed on a height of 36-42”, they should not have any opening that allows a sphere with a 4 3/8″ diameter. On guard rail between the height of 36 and the top at 42 that opening must be less the 4 3/8” respectively
- The triangular openings found around the open side of a stair created by the riser must not be big enough to allow a sphere 6 inches in diameter to pass through. The opening between the stair and the guard rail creates a triangular shape that must reject a 6” sphere.
- If cables are used in a cable railing system, they must be tensioned to a point where they can resist a 4” sphere passing through.
- For elevated walking surfaces that are installed for accessing electrical or maintenance systems, the maximum gap allowed should not allow a 21” sphere to pass through. These areas none as “back of house” or maintenance access NOT public access must adhere to these OSHA rules.
IBC Code Requirement 3: Guardrail Loads – Linear Load of 50 Pounds
According to IBC Section 1607.8.1, all hand and guardrails shall be constructed to bear a linear load of 50 pounds per linear foot.
As per IBC Section 1607.8.1.1, guardrails must also be constructed to bear a concentrated load of 200 pounds, as per Section 4.5.1 of ASCE 7 (American Society of Civil Engineers). Essentially, what this means is that if a removable guardrail runs 50 linear feet in length, the entire system should be capable of withstanding up to 2,500 pounds of force.
Structural load means the ability of the guardrail to withstand different actions or forces on its design. If the guardrail is unable to bear the minimum structural load, it could break due to the applied forces, resulting in a tragic accident.
Apart from IBC, OSHA also has minimum strength requirements for guardrails. The OSHA requirements state that guardrails should be able to resist at least 200 pounds of pressure applied directly to the structure. This standard becomes all the more important for guardrails that are installed in industrial environments.
IBC Code Requirement 4: Guardrail Support on Glass Balusters
IBC 2407.1.2 states that every guardrail must be supported by at least three glass balusters. It also states that there should be adequate support so that the guardrail remains firmly in place if one glass panel fails. It also states that glass balusters shall not be installed without an attached guardrail.
IBC 1607.8.1 also states the maximum loads must be designed to bear linear loads of 50 pounds per linear foot as well. As per ASCE 7, loads must be placed at the “top of the guard.” Since the handrail is not the top of the guard, the bare edge of the glass must be appropriately reinforced.
Key Specs for Guardrails
- Guardrail location requirements: must be located along open-sided walking surfaces situated more than 30” measured vertically from the floor.
- Height: guardrails must not be less than 42 inches
- Openings: must not have openings that allow a 4” sphere to pass through. OSHA requires at least a 21” mid rail so that a 19” sphere shouldn’t be allowed to pass through.
- Load requirements: guardrails must be able to resist a linear load of 50 pounds per linear foot. OSHA standard 1926.502(b)(3) requires guardrails to withstand a 200-pound concentrated load.
GRECO Architectural Metal Products – Product Support for IBC Compliant Guardrails
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