Steps and stairs allow nearly any able-bodied person to walk to higher levels of a dwelling, sports stadium or outdoor venue. The higher the stairs, the more the need for safety rails to keep pedestrians from falling. Although building codes differ from state to state and in municipalities, some basic tenets exist for the inclusion of handrails to comply with safety standards.
Each jurisdiction has its own interpretation; however, generally speaking, any set of steps that features more than one foot landing is technically "stairs." This means that even small two-step landings are classified the same as long, elegant staircases. As stated, local and state laws may vary in their definition of "stairs," so builders are wise to err on the side of caution and include some form of handrails in their stair-building plans, to comply with any laws.
Many laws define exterior stairs as having more than four steps, giving the builder some leeway about adding handrails. However, it still would be wise to include some form of railing, but the type of railing is more exacting. For example, a simple board hammered across a couple of supports isn't considered an actual rail, because the board doesn't allow for a sufficient grip surface. Metal-based rails and plastic or wooden railing attached to the wall by metal bracings are typical – and safe – choices.
Besides location, the only difference between exterior and interior stairs is step count. Interior stairs are, in most jurisdictions, defined by a structure containing more than one step. Handrails must be able to be gripped comfortably by everyone, from the elderly to small children, and must be made from an acceptable material.
Some building codes go a step farther and define the use of guardrails versus handrails. For example, some jurisdictions require guardrails on platforms that top off at 30 inches or higher and must be enclosed to prevent persons from slipping underneath the rail. Also, two sets of handrails must run the length of any staircase on either side should the steps measure 88 inches or more across the length of each step in the staircase.