We're trying to pick out railings for our house. Our stairs are going to have an open side and we want to use a modern railing system such as this one:

enter image description here

You can find plenty of similar images for similar systems out there. However, this seems to contradict a requirement in the code that my contractor pointed out:

The ends of the handrails must either be “returned,” or end in safety terminals.

Is the above image in conflict with that code? I see a lot of examples of this modern style of railing system, but are they all against code? Is there an exception to code for these newer types of railings that don't use a large bulky newel post at the bottom to terminate everything into?

  • Is that rounded cap on the end of the rails in the picture not a "safety terminal" ? I think they just don't want sharp, unfinished edges on the "cut" end of the rail, but I'm not an expert on that.
    – JPhi1618
    Jan 9, 2020 at 19:16
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    I'm not sure anyone knows what a "safety terminal" is. There appears to be substantial disagreement over this; it might just be one of those things that got added to the code at some point, and nobody ever bothered to remove. Jan 9, 2020 at 19:26
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    Underhanded solution - install the cheapest wooden railing possible for any inspection then install what you want later as an "upgrade".
    – JPhi1618
    Jan 9, 2020 at 19:38
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    I wonder if "safety terminal" means something to indicate to visually-impaired users that they've reached the end before their hand slides off the rail unexpectedly.
    – isherwood
    Jan 9, 2020 at 19:45
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    hm .. I'm no construction engineer - but personal experience says .. the handrails don't look concerning - but the lower "sticks" look absolutely dangerous - especially if you have / plan to have little kids at some point... They are too small to hit the nicely rounded tube rail - but they have perfect height to hit their eyes out with the lower sticks reaching further than the post
    – eagle275
    Jan 10, 2020 at 8:53

3 Answers 3


That handrail does not meet code, because it is not continuous from top to bottom of stairway and the ends do not terminate correctly at the bottom.

The Code (ICC R311.7.7) requires handrails:

  1. Height to be between 34” and 38” above the nosing of the tread, and

  2. Be continuous on at least one side of a stairway with 4 or more risers and be from a point directly above the top tread to a point directly above the lowest tread. (It can be interrupted at turns,) and

  3. The size is to be between 1 1/4” and 2” if it’s round. If it’s not round, then it needs to be 4” or more around but not more than 6”. If it’s bigger than that, it needs finger grips. (It gets complicated because the finger grips are restricted too.)

  4. If it’s located next to a wall it shall have a minimum of 1 1/2” clear space to the wall, and

  5. The handrail end must terminate to the wall, newel post, or safety terminal. Safety terminal is not defined in the code.

The intention of returning handrails is to keep it from catching someone’s pocket, etc. Btw, we design a lot of handrails and when only one is installed, we prefer it on the right side descending.

The code does not require tube handrails to be capped, as Ed indicated.

  • If the code doesn't define safety terminal, how are you sure the ends in the picture do not terminate correctly? For the continuous requirement, does the rail have to come all the way down the wall and into the rails pictured?
    – JPhi1618
    Jan 9, 2020 at 20:43
  • @JPhi1618 Yes, I’m sure they are illegal, because the rails need to be continuous from top tread to bottom tread. Just because the code doesn’t define “safety terminal” the rail still needs to terminate in something. This one does not. As the code says, “the handrail end must terminate to the wall, newel post, or safety terminal.” I don’t see the end terminating at anything. It ends in space.
    – Lee Sam
    Jan 9, 2020 at 21:24
  • Yes, #5 is the question. Not so much concerned about it being continuous (that's a different topic). So, in your opinion, are all of these modern railing systems sold in the US not to code because of the termination?
    – DA01
    Jan 9, 2020 at 22:02
  • Yes, handrail ends that do not “terminate to the wall, newel post, or safety terminal” then they do not meet code. (See ICC R311.7.7.) One of the largest number of slip and fall lawsuits are because of stairs, handrails, etc. I’d be careful to follow the code exactly. Your liability insurance may not cover you if there’s a problem and you knew you installed a non compliant handrail.
    – Lee Sam
    Jan 9, 2020 at 22:44
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    @aroth The intent of a handrail is so someone can catch themselves if they stumble while on the stairs, or so someone who has a hard time negotiating stairs can hold onto something while climbing or descending. Neither of those would be effective if there wasn't a handrail the entire length of the stairs, at least on one side. While handrails can be decorative, their primary purpose is safety.
    – Makyen
    Jan 10, 2020 at 6:50

I believe if tubing is used the end of the hand rail must be closed. We use square tubing quite a bit and close the ends at top and bottom I believe this is what the code is referring to.

  • From my understanding, the handrail needs to go from the top of the stairs to the bottom. The ends either need to end attached to a wall, post or have a loop.
    – user68386
    Jan 10, 2020 at 21:34

Most stair railing code requires the ends to terminate in such a way as to not catch or snag a fireman's strap. This railing poorly demonstrates that.

  • Hi Danny, are you able to quote a reference to this ? Nov 26, 2023 at 2:15

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