Are horizontal railings safe?

The Building Officials and Code Administration (BOCA) National Codes set forth the minimum requirements for all aspects of building design and construction including mechanical systems, property maintenance, fire prevention and energy conservation.

While there are some local codes and ordinances that contain wording relating to “the ladder effect,” there is no wording relating to this in any of the current international codes. The original wording read: “Required guards shall not be constructed with horizontal rails or other ornamental pattern that results in a ladder effect” and appeared in BOCA’s National Building Code in 1993-2000. Upon extensive research and discussion performed by the International Code Council, the wording was removed in 2001 on the grounds that the “ladder effect” is based on perception and not reality. No hard evidence was presented to indicate there was an epidemic of injuries sustained by young children related to climbing and the ICC defines a guard as being in place to prevent accidental falls – climbing is not an accident.

Several local jurisdictions, including Chicago, Baltimore, Pittsburg and Washington D.C. apply the “ladder effect” code within their jurisdiction, however, there is discrepancy between the data analysis provided by proponents for climbing restrictions and the railing industry.

Upon further research conducted in 2007, the following conclusions can be drawn:

  • A child is built to climb and loves to do so.
  • Climbing is involved in the child’s physical, psychological and social development.
  • Climbing is part of physical education at school.
  • Difficult barrier present greater challenges to determined children.

Studies also agree that it is probably impossible and most likely undesirable to render any environment completely “safe” from children’s climbing.

The incident rate is approximately 2.5 per 100,000 children between 18 months and 4 years of age. With such low incidence rate, it does not warrant the creation of code language, so no “ladder effect” wording is present in the current International Residential Code or the International Building Code – however – this is still jurisdictional in some areas and architects, fabricators, contractors, home builders and home owners need to confirm local codes as they relate to the railing products they choose to install.