On any construction site, whether it’s a new home or a remodel, one thing you can’t help but notice are the various warning signs and protective devices that seem to be everywhere. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has a huge volume of rules pertaining to protection of workers on the job, and their requirements are certainly something that the home handyperson can learn from in order to remain safe and injury free.

One often-ignored area of home construction safety is the installation of temporary guardrails to protect against accidental falls. Temporary guardrails are very easy and inexpensive to construct, and let you work safely and more comfortably in a variety of situations. Some common areas of the work site that would require a temporary guardrail include:

  • Along the open edges of a second-story floor, before the walls are erected;

  • Along the open edges of unfinished stairways;

  • Around the stairway opening in an upper floor before the stairs are installed;

  • Across open door openings prior to installation of the deck or other landing that will service that door;

  • Across low window openings (closer than 39 inches off the floor), prior to installation of the window;

  • Around upper-floor decks and porches;

  • On roof structures around large skylight openings, prior to installation of the skylight;

  • Around or alongside other openings in floors, walls, or roofs where the possibility of stepping through the opening and falling a distance of more than 30 inches is possible.


Most temporary guardrails are constructed from scrap lumber found on-site, typically 2×4 and 2×6 material. The lumber needs to be solid – free of large cracks and knots – and also free of protruding nails, large splinters and anything else that might jab you or snag your clothing. Screws, nails and bolts can all be used in the assembly of the components.

For most situations, the guardrail should be between 39 and 45 inches in height, measured off the level of the surrounding floor. A top rail is placed along the top edge of the guardrail, and a second rail should be installed at the midpoint of the railing, 21 inches off the floor.

For a typical installation, wood posts are attached around the opening first, then both the top and the midrails are attached to the posts. As a guide to how stable your construction should be, OSHA regulations require that the railing be able to withstand “a force of at least 200 pounds applied within 2 inches of the top edge, in any outward or downward direction.” This may require the installation of some intermediate bracing as well.

Do not use thin wire, metal or plastic strapping, or other material that could seriously cut you if you fell against it hard enough. Also, ropes are too elastic to provide adequate fall protection when used for a temporary guardrail. If you chose to use metal cables for the rails, the must be tight enough to prevent deflection and also flagged with some type of high visibility material at least every 6 feet.

Remember that these are just some general guidelines for the construction of your temporary guardrail. You safety is at stake here, so you should seek specific construction advice for your particular applications from OSHA or an experienced, licensed contractor.


Send tips, feedback or a letter to the editor to newsroom@inman.com or call (510) 658-9252, ext. 124.

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