Steel Railings for Commercial Use and Applications

Custom steel 2 line pipe railings / flush mounted ADA compliant. (Long Island, NY)
Custom steel 2 line pipe railings / flush mounted ADA compliant. (Long Island, NY)

From staircases to balconies, parapets, entrance ramps, and steps, steel railings serve essential purposes in commercial, industrial, and institutional settings. Of course, choosing the right steel railings for a specific application can be more than a little challenging, particularly if you are unfamiliar with the various types and how each is suited to specific situations and use cases. Working with an experienced steel railings manufacturer will help ensure that you get the right type and design and that your railings will stand the test of time and hard use.

Location, Location, Location

Choosing a railing type and material is a lot like buying real estate. It’s all about location, location, location. For instance, you will need to consider additional factors when choosing a railing for use with a set of outdoor stairs than you would with an indoor stairwell or balcony.

Indoors, the railings will need to contend with oils from human skin, but they will be exposed to lower humidity levels and less extreme temperatures. Outdoors, the railings could be exposed to the elements, including freezing temperatures, scorching sunlight, rain, sleet, and snow, to name just a few threats. There are also installation locations that blend indoors and out, such as beneath a portico or an overhanging roof.

Consider the Type

As mentioned, you’ll find many different types of railings used today, depending on the specific situation. These include the following:

  • Staircase Railings – Staircase railings are used on stairs, including concrete and steel stairwells. They can also be used indoors or outdoors and are often used with steps that might not be considered “stairs”, including at building entrances, in municipal settings like parks and amphitheaters, and much more.
  • Parapet Railings – Parapet railings run across the top of a building’s roof and provide fall protection for anyone using the space. Parapet railings are often fully exposed to the elements throughout the year and must be exceptionally durable and resilient.
  • Balcony Railings – Balconies can be indoors or out, but balcony railings always serve the same function: providing protection and adding to the overall aesthetics. If used indoors, balcony railings do not require the same resistance to weathering and temperature extremes as they do when used on outdoor balconies.
  • Guard and Pipe Railings – Guardrails (or guard railings) are usually made from metal pipes and can serve as handrails, protection against falls, and more. Often, they are installed singly or in pairs in outdoor locations where there is a fall or trip-related hazard. Guard and pipe railings do not have to be used with stairs, ramps, or steps, either.

Consider the Material for Commercial Railings

Railings used in commercial, industrial, and institutional settings must be strong, durable, and resilient. Many different materials are used today, but not all of them offer the right mix of characteristics.

  • Glass Railings – Glass is often combined with steel or iron and is used as an attractive yet durable railing of guard solution in some instances.

However, for glass to be durable in everyday use situations and yet not pose a threat to users if the glass were to be damaged, specialty materials and procedures must be used.Thick tempered glass is the only type that should ever be considered for use as railings, but it is one of the most expensive options available.

  • Wood – Wood has been used to make railings for thousands of years. It’s the most affordable option but is the least durable and has the shortest lifespan.

What’s more, wood must be treated and stained regularly to preserve it for as long as possible, making it the material with the most maintenance required.

      • Of course, wood also has other drawbacks, including not being as strong or resilient as other materials.
  • Composite – Composite materials mimic the look of wood but provide greater durability thanks to the synthetics included in the makeup. They’re also capable of withstanding extreme weather and temperature fluctuations and work well indoors and out. However, they do not have the lifespan or imperviousness found with other construction materials, such as steel.
  • Metal – The most common material for railings today is steel, whether we’re discussing steel stair railings, balcony railings, parapet railings, or something else. Steel is immensely durable, affordable, and virtually impervious to weathering and temperature extremes when properly treated and installed. With that being said, you will need to choose the right type of steel for your application.
  • Stainless steel is highly resistant to corrosion and also withstands significant wear and tear experienced through normal use. Polished stainless steel offers those same characteristics but in a more aesthetic package. However, polished stainless steel will need to be cleaned regularly to maintain its mirror-like properties, which makes it better suited to indoor installations.
    Painted and powder-coated steel railings are also very popular. Paint is affordable and offers many years of protection, while powder-coating offers even more resistance to wear and weathering.

Steel’s superior performance, lower cost, and easy accessibility make this the go-to solution for most municipalities, businesses, and institutions when it comes to creating and installing railings of all types.

Exploring the Parts of Your Railings

When many people think of railings, they imagine a handrail, probably with vertical uprights for support. However, there are many other components required to make railings usable, safe, and durable. These include:

  • Handrail – The handrail is usually the top horizontal portion of the railing, although some railings have a separate handrail installed lower than the top rail.
  • Top Rail – For modern railings manufactured/installed after January 17, 2017, OSHA requires there to be a separate top rail and handrail. The top rail is the top-most horizontal portion of the railing.
  • Baluster – Balusters are uprights that provide support for the handrail and rigidity for the railing overall. They are usually attached to the bottom of the handrail/guard and the installation substrate (the surface of a concrete step, for instance). They should be welded to the railing and secured to the installation surface properly.
  • Pickets – Pickets, also called spindles, are uprights that provide rigidity and durability but are supported by a lower bar that is part of the railing, rather than attaching to the installation surface. They should be welded in place for security and durability.
  • Bottom Rail – If a railing has pickets, it will also have a bottom rail. This is the bottom-most horizontal portion of the railing and supports the pickets/spindles.|
  • Post – While balusters are technically posts, not all posts are balusters. The end-most vertical pieces of the railing are called posts. Posts are also called newel posts.

    In addition to these components, your railing may also include:

      • Swivel fittings
      • Brackets
      • Couplings

    Understanding the Rules and Regulations

    Railings are installed for safety purposes, but they must be designed correctly. The Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) sets mandatory requirements for the design and installation of stair railings, parapet railings, and more. Below, you’ll find OSHA’s requirements for railings, as well as those of the International Building Code (IBC) and those for ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) compliance.

OSHA Rules and Requirements

OSHA mandates that all stair railings, parapet railings, and guard rails must be 42 inches tall, plus or minus three inches, above the walking or working surface in question (rooftop, balcony surface, or stair surface). This is to provide adequate protection against accidental falls.

Additionally, all railings must be able to withstand 200 pounds of force at any given point without collapsing lower than 39 inches from the walking/working surface. Note that if this is a guardrail, but not a handrail, the op edge height may exceed 45 inches as long as the system meets all other OSHA requirements.

For all handrails installed after January 17, 2017, there must also be a separate top rail and handrail. The handrail can be no higher than 38 inches and no lower than 30 inches from the walking/working surface and is measured to the top surface of the rail.

Mid-rails (a rail installed midway up the railing between the handrail and the walking/working surface below) should be located at the midpoint between the top edge of the guardrail and the working/walking surface. Balusters and spindles, as well as any other intermediate vertical members, can be no more than 19 inches apart.

Any intermediate vertical members (a term used to describe things like screens, mesh, solid panels, etc.) cannot leave gaps larger than 19 inches. They must also be capable of withstanding a force of up to 150 pounds downward or outward at any point.

IBC Requirements

IBC requirements mirror those of OSHA, with a couple of differences:

  • Handrails must be used on both sides of IBC stairs
  • Handrails and guards must be at least 34 inches and no more than 38 inches in height

ADA Requirements

  • Handrails must be at least 34 inches and no more than 38 inches above the walking/working surface.
  • Handrails must extend at least 12 inches beyond the top and bottom of a ramp unless they continue to another ramp. For stairs, handrails must extend at least 12 inches before the first stair tread and 12 inches after the top stair tread.

Shape and Form Factor

Railings can take many different shapes and forms. For many, round steel tubing is the ideal option, particularly when it comes to handrails. However, square and decorative steel railings are also available.

Clearance and Safety

All railings require certain types of securement.

For instance, the spindles/pickets must be attached to the top rail and bottom rail. All balusters will need to be attached to the installation surface – the stairs, rooftop, ramp, etc. OSHA, the ADA, and the IBC all set forth important rules regarding how far out securement elements can stand to ensure safety for people using the railing.

For instance, if someone is gripping the railing, they should not have to worry about the end of a bolt injuring their hand.

Likewise, someone should not be able to catch their foot on bolt heads or ends used to secure the uprights to the stairs, roof, or ramp. Flush installation and high-quality welding ensure not just compliance with these rules – but also a smooth, professional appearance and the safety of anyone who uses the railings.

The Question of Style

Too often, people assume that steel railings used in commercial, industrial, or institutional settings must be utilitarian and sacrifice form for function.

However, that does not have to be the case. Yes, there is an argument that too much ornamentation would simply be impractical and wasteful in terms of costs. But it does not mean that all railings must be bland and boring. In fact, the right manufacturer can design aesthetically pleasing railings that offer an appealing visual appearance while minimizing costs and ensuring compliance with OSHA, IBC, and ADA requirements.

In Conclusion

The first step toward installing railings is to ensure that you consider all building requirements and safety regulations. Then you should think about the overall aesthetics of the project.

Is there an overall design that must be maintained? Do you need to tie it into existing railings? Are you replacing aging railings, or will this be a new installation?

Next, consider the material you’ll use. For most projects, high-quality steel railings will be the most affordable and the most durable option. You’ll also want to think about the overall design of the railings themselves. Will you need only a top rail, handrail, and the minimum number of uprights? Do you need a bottom rail and pickets?

Choosing the right steel railings for a commercial, industrial, or institutional building does not have to be frustrating. Use the information above to identify your needs and familiarize yourself with the OSHA and IBC requirements.  Then choose the right style and design for your specific application, frequency of use, and aesthetic considerations. At Steelmasters NYC, we’ve worked with clients large and small to create custom steel railings for stairs, parapets, balconies, and more.



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