Quality Material Handling Inc. Logo

Call QMH Inc. Today (800) 404-RACK

Over 30 Years of Material Handling Excellence

Contractor License #731100 (B, D34)

Posted by Stephanie on March 25, 2024

When constructing any commercial building, you must take specific safety measures to prevent falls. Installing guardrails along elevated surfaces is essential to ensure occupant and worker safety. Before installing a guardrail system, remember that the International Building Code (IBC) details requirements for implementing guardrails in commercial construction projects.

During construction, there often needs more clarity over when to use handrails and guardrails. While both systems offer similar benefits, you must use them in different situations. Before starting work on a commercial building, you should know when to use handrails and guardrails.

The following article provides an in-depth look at maintaining safety and compliance in commercial construction. You’ll learn all about the IBC code for guardrails in commercial buildings.

Guard Rails

Understanding the Difference Between Handrails and Guardrails

There’s a clear difference between guardrails and handrails. However, both systems should be installed in commercial buildings. Handrails provide support along stairs and ramps. On the other hand, guardrails are life-saving devices explicitly designed to prevent falls from elevated surfaces, which include everything from a deck to a mezzanine. While you can buy guardrails in many different styles, each version bolsters commercial or industrial facility safety.

When you properly install guardrails, they should be durable enough to stop a person from falling. While guardrails are often installed on walls, they may require support. It’s common for commercial construction crews to use handrails and guardrails together. While the guardrails provide life-saving protection, the handrails will deliver much-needed support.

Handrails are often placed along stairs to provide support as well. Anyone walking up or down stairs can reach for a nearby handrail to slow a fall. If the power goes out and causes a person’s vision to be limited, handrails can be used as a guide. These items must be placed on each side of the new stairs and ramps. However, they usually don’t need to be installed on landings. The only instances when handrails are required on landings are for a horizontal extension of a stair handrail or inside turns.

There are times when handrails will only be allowed on a single side of a ramp or stairs, which include:

  • Existing ramps
  • Existing stairs
  • Ramps in guest rooms and dwelling units
  • Stairs in guest rooms and dwelling units

The IBC distinguishes between guardrails and handrails, which every commercial construction crew must follow to ensure the final structure meets all local building codes. When handrails or guardrails aren’t correctly installed, the city may not only keep the building open until costly changes are made, but it may also keep the building open until costly changes are made.

Overview of the International Building Code (IBC) and Its Significance

The International Building Code (IBC) is the model code for commercial construction. While some cities and jurisdictions choose to implement stricter guidelines than the ones maintained by the IBC, it’s impossible to set more lenient ones.

The IBC aims to safeguard the safety, health, and welfare of the occupants in existing and new buildings. Remember that the initial iteration of the IBC was created in 2000. The IBC has extensive requirements for adhering to guardrails and handrails in commercial buildings. These specific requirements can be updated every three years.

The International Code Council, which maintains the IBC guidelines, incorporates suggestions made by the ADA, FHA, OSHA, and NFPA. Section 1015 of the IBC focuses on guardrails. The IBC guidelines are designed to ensure that all guardrails administer effective fall protection and limit the number of tragic accidents that occur.

It also identifies where guardrails should be placed and the requirements for their installation. These are considered life-saving devices, so they must adhere to minimum quality standards. If guardrails can’t support a person’s weight, they’re worthless and must be replaced with ones with more durability and a higher weight capacity.

Guard Rail

Four Essential IBC Code Requirements for Guardrails

The IBC code lists four primary guardrail requirements. These requirements ensure safety and compliance by providing designers and architects with comprehensive instructions on how to install guardrails correctly.

Guardrail Location Requirements

Section 1015.2 of the IBC code indicates where guardrails need to be installed. For example, they should be placed along all open-sided walking surfaces, including ramps and stairs to landings and aisles. Guardrails must be installed if these surfaces have a height measured at 30 inches or more vertically. There are, however, some exceptions to this rule, which include the following:

  • Near vehicle service pits
  • Around the loading side of piers and docks
  • Near the cross aisles of assembly seating
  • Along vertical openings of stages or platforms
  • Around the audience stage, different types of raised platforms
  • Near raised platforms or stages, which include ramps and runways

Height Requirements

IBC Section 1015.3 outlines the height requirements for guardrails. They can’t be less than 42 inches vertically. The IBC has also established conditions for measuring guardrails. For example, they must be measured vertically from an adjacent walking surface.

These measurements must also be made on ramps or ramped aisles from the surface near the guard. You can take guardrail measurements from the line directly connecting the leading edges of the nosings on stairways or stepped aisles. If at least a 30-inch drop from the surface, you’ll need to install a handrail around 34 inches above the nosing.

Opening Limitations

Before installing guardrails in a commercial building, you must adhere to some opening limitations. For example, the four-inch rule states that an opening must be large enough to allow a sphere of this size to pass through from the surface to the max guard height. A few exceptions to these guardrail requirements may apply to your project.

If guardrails are positioned at a height of 36-42 inches, they can’t have an opening of more than 4 3/8 inches. When a riser creates stairs, they’ll have triangular openings along the open side. These spaces can’t be large enough to accommodate a six-inch sphere. When installing elevated walking surfaces for access to maintenance or electrical surfaces, the gap is limited to 21 inches.

Guardrail Loads

IBC Section 1607.8.1 also indicates the loads all guardrails must handle without breaking apart. Guardrails and handrails must be built to maintain a linear load of at least 50 pounds for every linear foot and support a concentrated load of around 200 pounds. Let’s say that a removable guardrail spans around 50 linear feet. The system will need to be capable of handling 2,500 pounds of concentrated force.

OSHA has set minimum strength requirements for these systems similar to those of the IBC. These requirements indicate that guardrails need to resist 200 pounds or more of pressure applied directly to the entire system.

Additional Considerations and Key Specifications for Guardrails

Additional considerations and requirements apply to your commercial project. For example, guardrail support is necessary on glass balusters. IBC Section 2407.1.2 states that each guardrail needs to be supported by three or more glass balusters. There must also be enough support to ensure the guardrail remains intact if a glass panel fails. Each glass baluster must have an attached guardrail.

The IBC has also made guidelines for the maximum loads needed to bear 50 pounds per linear foot. The loads need to be positioned at the uppermost portion of the guard. The handrail isn’t located in this area, which means that the edge of the glass will require additional reinforcement. When searching for the ideal guardrails for your commercial building, consider location, height, and openings.

Guard Rail

Ensuring Compliance and Safety in Commercial Construction Projects

During the guardrail installation process, adhere to IBC standards to avoid having your work torn down. If you comply with these guidelines, the potential consequences are manageable. When guardrails aren’t correctly installed, the affected areas are safety hazards that may eventually give way. If someone falls on a guardrail that doesn’t support them, you could be liable if you didn’t meet IBC standards.

OSHA can fine you up to $16,000 for each violation and assess additional fees of $16,000 per day until the issue is fixed. If the same errors are willfully repeated, the fine might increase to $161,000. During construction, architects, designers, and contractors must work together to ensure guardrail safety and compliance.


Correctly installing guardrails during your commercial construction project is crucial to ensuring safety and compliance with IBC requirements. By prioritizing these guidelines, you’ll avoid significant fines and possible legal issues. All stakeholders in a commercial construction project need to adhere to IBC standards to ensure the safety of occupants and workers.


QMH is committed to providing end-to-end solutions for companies
with distribution, logistic and warehousing needs.

What material handling solution can we help you create?

Contact Us (855) SEL-RAMP

About Us

With over 32 years of experience in material handling, QMH is committed to providing end-to-end solutions for companies with distribution, logistic and warehousing needs. From permit approval management to full-service execution from the ground up, QMH delivers unique solutions providing distinct value in record time.