Handrail compliance: Overcoming physical barriers

Disabled people continue to be affected by the lack of access into public and commercial buildings. Christian King of Kee Systems discusses the regulations around disabled access and explores how an upgrade in handrailing systems can ensure buildings are compliant

There are an estimated 13.3 million disabled people in Great Britain, making up almost one in five of the overall population. With such a significant number of people requiring assisted access to commercial and public buildings, it is essential to have the correct facilities in place.

Laws tackling the discrimination and inequality against disabled people in the UK have existed for many years. These regulations state that “reasonable steps” need to be taken to ensure disabled people are not at a disadvantage when accessing public buildings. However, it seems that building owners are still not upgrading or refurbishing their properties to meet the required standards.

In an attempt to enforce this issue, the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) was superseded by the Equality Act 2010, to simplify the law, remove inconsistencies and make it easier to understand and comply with. This Act supports the existing Building Regulations.

Under the terms of the Act, building owners are legally required to provide non-discriminatory balustrading and handrailing systems on stairways and ramps, as without suitable handrails, ramps and lifts, access can be extremely limited. Previously, adjustments to premises had to be made only where it would otherwise be ‘impossible or unreasonably difficult’ for a disabled person to access the property. Under the DDA, it was possible to legally justify failing to provide a reasonable adjustment in certain circumstances. Now, the only question is whether the adjustment is a reasonable one to make.

A common solution can involve taking out physical structures like steps and replacing them with ramps, or simply providing handrails to aid wheelchair or other disabled users. In these cases, the obligations set out in Building Regulation Approved Document M specify that handrail heights on all building stairways and ramps do not discriminate against any disability group.

For a wide flight of steps, handrails should be used to divide the flight into channels. On flights of steps wider than 1800 mm, it is recommended that handrails are used to divide the flight into channels between 1000 and 1800 mm. If the flight of steps involves two or more risers, then a continuous handrail should be provided on either side. Where the stairway consists of two or more flights separated by landings, where possible handrails should be continued throughout the series of the flight.

On access ramp gradients, varying from two through to five degrees, handrails need to be positioned on both sides, or centrally for a wide path of 1 metre, to allow a choice of which arm to use for support. They should be installed on both sides of the ramps that are longer than two metres and should, where possible, extend 300 mm beyond the top and bottom of the ramp or staircase. The Building Regulations stipulate an outside diameter tube size for such installations of between 40 to 50 mm, and must be offset in the case of a mid-height handrail.

Architects must satisfy these regulatory requirements, yet also be able to meet customer demands on building aesthetics and cost-effective options. One option is to adapt the existing handrails to meet the requirements of Part M and the Equality Act. There are many solutions on the market which are ideal for heavy traffic environments and allow both speedy and seamless retrofitting as well as hassle-free and simple installation in a new build. This is hugely important to those businesses where there is no option of down time.

There are fittings available which provide versatility depending on the installation. These ensure that handrails can be assembled at any required angle, or to offer a midpoint connection to dual handrails, when required. One piece 90 ̊ corner elbow and adjustable elbow fittings, meanwhile, ensure that any new handrailing structure created can cope easily with different angles and changes in direction. Product ranges which include ‘add-on’ offset fittings remain popular; they lend themselves well to retrofit projects, where the new handrail can simply be added onto an existing structure of the appropriate size.

Given the requirements of the Equality Act and Building Regulations, and the number of people who require access to commercial and public buildings, companies should aim to create a safe handrail system which children, the elderly, the disabled and even able-bodied adults can benefit from.

Christian King is the general manager at Kee Systems