Grab Bars, also known as safety rails, handrails, shower bars, etc., are secure rails, typically mounted on the wall, ceiling, or floor, to help weakened, disabled, or elderly individuals safely access and navigate rooms and facilities. They come in a range of sizes and capacities, from small, light-duty handles to heavy-duty protruding support arms, fixed handrails to fully adjustable, track-mounted, “flexible” grab bar systems. They can be found around showers, toilets, sinks, changing tables, and any other essential facility that may present a challenge to individuals with limited mobility, balance, or strength.
Virtually anyone can benefit from the security of a grab bar nearby, especially in environments with hard surfaces and water present, but for many people grab bars make the crucial difference between being able to move around safely and independently or putting themselves at risk of injury.
Grab bars can allow people with limited mobility to perform everyday tasks that might otherwise require assistance. Handrails in or around showers and tubs can help them to safely bathe, and bars around toilets can help them to use the restroom privately and comfortably. Grab bars can also be installed in any other place that requires frequent movement—kitchens, hallways, stairways/ramps—to assist the mobility impaired.
The CDC reports that falls are the number one cause of injury among older Americans. Securely mounted grab bars in high-risk areas such as showers and bathrooms can allow elderly persons to perform day-to-day tasks while mitigating the risk of falls, thereby helping to maintain their safety, independence, and dignity well into old age.
The many professionals, family members, and friends who care for disabled individuals can also benefit from grab bars. Caregivers use safety rails around changing tables and showers to help them maintain balance and leverage while assisting their patients, reducing their risk of injury. In facilities that accommodate multiple patients, grab-bar installations—especially track-mounted, flexible systems that can be adjusted for use by different individuals—can afford patients more independence in bathroom and shower facilities, lifting some of the burden from their caregivers.
Grab bars are useful—sometimes crucial—in a variety of public and private settings.
Many places of public accommodation see an advantage in installing safety rails around toilets and sinks in their public bathrooms. They are especially popular in places that are highly trafficked and host a variety of people, such as movie theaters, airports, restaurants, public parks, etc. Taking these measures shows consideration for disabled/elderly clientele and sends the message that people of all abilities are welcome.
Naturally, settings that cater specifically to the needs of weakened and disabled individuals—including hospitals, assisted living facilities, rehabilitation centers, etc.—make ample use of grab bars in high risk locations. Grip bars in showers, handrails near toilets and changing tables, and safety rails in hallways reduce the risk of injury for patrons and caregivers alike. Facilities that see a range of patients/residents are increasingly installing “flexible” grab bar systems, which can be adjusted to accommodate individuals of different heights, sizes, and needs, and which can be moved from room to room.
Weakened, disabled, or elderly individuals find many benefits in having grab bars in their home bathrooms. Shower assist bars can allow them to enter and exit slippery showers and tubs safely, and to maintain balance while bathing. Grab bars near toilets can allow them to use the toilet without the assistance of (or with limited assistance from) a caregiver, protecting their privacy. Grab bar-outfitted bathrooms are also touted by proponents of the Aging in Place movement, which seeks to extend elderly individuals' sense of independence and dignity by allowing them to stay in their homes, rather than moving into care facilities or relatives' homes.
Grab bars come in a variety of styles and shapes, with a range of functions and capacities. Individuals, caregivers, and facilities with different needs will find certain types of grab bar arrangements will suit them better than others.
Straight Grab Bars
The most basic type of grab bar, straight grab bars range from small hand grips to wall-lining safety rails, and are typically mounted in a fixed position around strategic locations.
Support arms extend horizontally from the wall and are especially useful around areas that must be approached from a distance, such as toilets, tubs, and shower chairs. Basic models are mounted to the wall in a fixed position, but in rooms or facilities where space is limited, or where a fixed arm might impede movement in some cases, flip-up models that can be stowed unobtrusively are available.
Adjustable Support Arms
Facilities that accommodate multiple patients or residents, such as hospitals or assisted care facilities, often elect to install adjustable, or “flexible” grab bar systems. Rather than being attached directly to the wall, these support arms attach to a securely mounted track. They can be adjusted both horizontally and vertically to oblige individuals of different heights and sizes. A particular advantage of these models is that a single set of support arms can be used on track systems installed in different rooms, making them an economical choice for larger facilities. Many modern facilities feature fully flexible wet rooms with adjustable, track-mounted grab bars around the wash basin, toilet, and shower areas.
L-Shaped Grab Bars
These types of safety rails protrude horizontally from the wall, then bend down in a right angle and are fixed at the floor. They are especially useful around showers and tubs, where they provide a range of gripping options during entry and exit.
U-Shaped Grab Bars
U-Shaped support bars extend from the wall in an oblong loop and also provide a range of gripping options for balance and safety.
Suction-Mounted Grab Bars
Handbars that use suction cups to attach to walls and other surfaces are a popular option in residential bathrooms where individuals need a little help climbing into a tub or keeping their balance in the shower. They are easy to mount and can be adjusted quickly. However, they cannot safely hold as much weight as a wall- or track-mounted support arm, and should not be used in any weight-bearing capacity.
With the many varieties of grab bars available, selecting the right bar or bars will depend on where you'll be installing them, and the needs of those who will use them.
Grab bars in places of public accommodation will have to meet the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). These requirements specify that grab bars should be 1 1/4” to 1 1/2” in diameter. Handrails behind and beside toilets should be 36” and 42” wide, respectively, 30” wide beside showers, and 24” wide beside tubs.
Even if you're installing grab bars in a private residence, it's a good idea to familiarize yourself with ADA requirements, in order to understand the minimum standard of safety for these products.
Height and Length
For private residences where only one individual requires grab bar assistance, you can fairly easily customize a fixed-bar configuration that will suit their needs. In facilities that cater to multiple users, however, what works for one may not work for another, and you may consider vertically or horizontally adjustable configurations.
The strength of your grab bar setup will depend largely on the mobility needs of the user. Elderly users with balance issues will require a less sturdy configuration than disabled individuals who may need to use a support arm or handrail to hoist their full weight. A simple handbar may suffice for the former, while the latter might require a weight-rated support system.
Most grab bars are made from stainless steel or similar metals. This makes them both durable and easy to clean. For more tailored needs, however, more comfortable materials are available, such as plastic handbars with contoured and textured grips.
Once you have selected the right grab bar configuration for your needs, you will have to install it accordingly. This is an important step, as improperly installed grab bars can fail, leading to injury. For most grab bars, installation is a simple task, but if you're not comfortable with the process, you may consider hiring a professional.
Just as the ADA specifies physical standards for grab bars, it also has guidelines for their placement. In public restrooms, safety rails around toilets must be 33”-36” from the floor, and the end must be 12” from the adjacent wall. Additionally, there can be no obstructions, such as toilet paper holders, paper towel holders, waste cans, etc., between the user and the grab bar. Many public restrooms feature recessed paper towel/toilet paper holders for this reason.
In residences and facilities that don't fall under the ADA, grab bar configurations can be customized to the needs of the user. With their considerations in mind, measure the best height and placement of the bar before beginning installation.
For fixed bars or track-mounted systems, you'll want to secure the bar or track to the wall studs for optimal security. In walls that don't have studs (which is common around some types of showers and tubs), you'll want to use heavy duty drywall anchors to prevent the rail from tearing away from the wall. Similarly, for bars that mount to ceilings or floors, you'll want to attach to a joist if possible.
Suction-mounted grab bars install relatively easily, and many models have a security feature that indicates whether the bar is securely attached.
Grab bars can go a long way toward increasing the independence, dignity, and safety of weakened or disabled individuals. From simply helping an aging person with getting around their private bathroom, to meeting the needs of multiple patients in a large care facility, they can make essential and routine tasks easier and safer for patients and their caregivers. Moreover, they come in a variety of shapes, sizes, and capacities that can accommodate just about any need.