Evacuating safely: Signs, lighting, and assembly areas

Date Posted: 03/08/2021
Exit Signs

To evacuate safely, employees must be able to see an exit, walk to the door, and report to an assembly point. We regularly get questions about the requirements for placement and lighting of exit signs, lighting along exit routes, and the location of assembly areas.

Posting exit signs

During a fire or similar emergency, employees will identify the nearest exits by the posted signs. Self-illuminating signs are common, but not actually required. OSHA says that exit signs must be “illuminated to a surface value of at least five foot-candles (54 lux) by a reliable light source.”

Simple metal or plastic signs could be sufficiently lighted, whether from ambient or directional light. However, signs must remain visible even during a loss of power, so emergency lights may be needed to ensure that non-illuminated signs can still be easily seen.

As for the number and location of signs, OSHA says the line-of-sight to an exit sign must be visible at all times. Wherever employees are working, they should see signs to the nearest exit.

Walking the exit route

Employees must then be able to see where they’re going as they leave. Rather than listing a number of foot-candles, OSHA simply says, “Each exit route must be adequately lighted so that an employee with normal vision can see along the exit route.” Again, emergency lighting may be required to ensure adequate illumination during a power outage.

Note that OSHA prohibits placing any materials or equipment within an exit route, even temporarily. Obstructing the route could cost lives, and OSHA cites this as a serious violation, with correspondingly high fines. In addition, some doors along an exit route may need to be marked “not an exit” or otherwise identified (e.g., storage closet).

Assembly areas

Once employees are safely outside, they should proceed to a designated assembly area. OSHA does not require a headcount, but most employers want to ensure that everyone got out safely, and notify responders if someone may still be inside.

The assembly area might be in another building, outdoors, or even off the property. OSHA does not give a specific distance, but simply requires a “place of safety.” Employers must determine a safe location, since the distance may depend on the business. The safe distance from a chemical plant would be further than the safe distance from a coffee shop. Choose an assembly area carefully to make sure employees won’t interfere with emergency vehicles or responders.

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