Adding a well-designed ornamental railing to your balcony or stairway is a nice way to combine practical usage with decorative accents. However, it is very easy to overlook many safety considerations when choosing a design. Ornamental railings that are for sale should follow specific safety rules and also common sense, but it's also up to the consumer to double-check that the railings on display really do follow those rules. Here are a few items to look at when choosing an ornamental railing.
If the railing design includes a lot of curls and flourishes, ensure the ends of those patterns are not left exposed. If you have some wavy lines, for example, you don't want a child sticking her hand into the railing and scratching it on a piece of metal. Ends should be curled in among themselves so that anyone running their hand along the design won't end up hurting themselves.
No matter the design, all railings have to conform to safety standards. There should be no openings larger than 4 inches. This can be a particular problem if you're looking at used or antique ornamental railings, which were subject to different standards. For example, before 1994, railings commonly had openings up to 9 inches wide, which are perfect for trapping a child's head or letting small children slip through and fall. If you see some fairly substantial gaps in the design, measure them.
Ornamental or not, that railing is likely to support more than a few people trying to lean on it. Therefore, the railing has to be able to support weight, and it has to be stable. Any railing that people can access has to be able to stop them from falling through if they lean on it. Part of that involves ensuring the railing is installed properly, but it also means that the materials used in the railing can't be flimsy.
Your best bet if you want an ornamental railing that meets modern safety standards is to have one made and installed by a company that specializes in these designs. If there's a particular antique design that you like, see if the company can copy it for you so you don't have to install a substandard, old railing. In addition to safe designs, a new railing will be made of better material, and it will also last a lot longer than older items.