Industrial Safety Blog

Guardrails vs. Handrails for Industrial Workplace Safety

To ensure efficient operations, the lowest possible costs, and, most importantly, employee health and wellbeing, manufacturing facilities across all types of industries must adhere to various safety standards.


In particular, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) helps ensure such workplace safety and health standards are met and workers are kept safe by providing training, outreach programs, educational resources, and general assistance for companies and organizations across the United States.

Safety best practices vary depending on the specific scenario and facility risk. Both safety handrails and guardrails, for instance, must meet specific OSHA standards to be considered effective in protecting workers.

These standards can often be confusing, however, as “handrails” and “guardrails” are used interchangeably in OSHA and other building codes. These two products (Guardrails and Handrails) are in fact very different, and companies should be sure to have a solid understanding of the unique properties and benefits of both; guardrails and handrails before purchasing either product.

Defining Guardrails and Handrails

OSHA and many building codes use the term “guardrail” to refer to fall protection for raised platforms and stairways, but the industrial safety industry uses the more specific term “handrail,” with “guardrail” used only to refer heavy-duty beams of formed steel.

In highway applications, for instance, guardrails are designed to absorb the energy of collisions from moving vehicles and are designed more for glancing blows and to keep a vehicle in its lane of traffic. In industrial plants, guardrails serve to protect workers, equipment, and structures from accidents caused by moving vehicles or machinery and are specifically designed to be able to absorb impact energy from a forklift, for instance, or a sweeper. Many times this heavy equipment weighs in at an excess of 10,000 lbs. and are operating in close proximity to pedestrian traffic.

Handrails, on the other hand, prevent people from falling off platforms, stairways, walkways, or landings. These structures must be able to sustain an outward or downward point load force of at least 200 pounds horizontal force at any point along the top rail. Also referred to as safety railing, handrails’ must have a smooth surface to prevent worker injuries — from potential injuries such as lacerations and punctures — and also eliminates the risk of hair or clothing catching on the railing. Providing people with an accessible handhold in areas where falls and slips are a risk, handrails are designed to improve users’ stability.

OSHA Requirements For Handrails

Handrails on stairways cannot be any more than 37 inches high, nor can they be less than 30 inches from the upper surface to the tread surface, in line with the riser face at the tread’s forward edge. If the top edge is serving as a handrail, the top edge’s height cannot be any more than 37 inches, nor can it be any less than 36 inches from the upper surface to the tread surface, in line with the riser face at the forward edge of the tread. For fall protection from raised platforms or working surfaces, handrails must be a minimum of 42” above the finished floor height, have at least (1) intermediate rail, and a 4” kick plate is required where objects on the floor could create a hazard if they roll or are inadvertently kicked off the platform and cause injury from a falling object.

The Importance of OSHA Guidelines in Preventing Injuries

OSHA guidelines for handrails and guardrails (though OSHA refers to both as “guardrails”) are critical in reducing the risk of falls and other injuries. As per standard 1910.28(b)(15), for instance, employees working on surfaces 4 feet or more off the ground must be protected by handrails, safety net systems, or personal fall protection systems.

Also, all walking and working structures in a workplace must be deemed by employers to have structural strength and integrity; employees will be not allowed to work on structures that fail to meet these requirements. As a final example, take standard 1917.120(a), which specifies that every fixed stairway — not just those connected to equipment — must be secured.

In all cases, these standards serve to protect workers while keeping facility operations running as smoothly as possible. Safety is as much a culture as its rules and guidelines. A strong safety program shows workers that it responsibility management takes seriously. This commitment affects employee morale and contributes directly to any organization’s financial health.

Learn More

Since 1987, Omega Industrial Safety Products has been an innovator, working to create safer workplaces for businesses and organizations of all types while optimizing productivity; in addition to guardrails and handrails, we also manufacture pipe bollards, door guards, and industrial stairways and pedestrian safety products.

Still, have questions about the differences between handrails and guardrails? Contact our team today for help. Or, to learn more about the importance of OSHA guidelines for ensuring optimal safety in your workplace, download our new eBook, “3 OSHA Safety Guidelines Your Facility Should Be Meeting.”