More to Emergency Exits Than Meet the Eye

Everyone has seen an emergency exit sign before. They’re so commonplace that when people look up and see the green- or red-colored EXIT they don’t even think twice. Nevertheless, emergency exits are key in making safe evacuations of buildings as efficient as possible. Shouldering such a heavy burden, there is much more policy and many more regulations surrounding emergency exits then one might suspect.

Emergency exits are actually just part of an “exit route,” which has three components. The first part is known as the exit access, and this is whatever passageway leads to the emergency exit itself. With that in mind, the emergency exit is not the ends in and of itself, but it is a means. The goal of an emergency exit is to lead evacuees to the exit discharge. The exit discharge is whatever leads occupants of a building outside and out of harm’s way.

Given that emergency exits are more complex than they may seem at first glance, it should come as no surprise that emergency exits are governed by several rules to ensure safety and efficacy.

In terms of the actual construction of the exits, the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OHSA) requires that exit doors are at least 28 inches wide and 7 feet and 6 inches tall. The doors must open outward so as to prevent crushes and cleared of anything obstructive on the outside. For emergency exits that do not open onto the ground floor, there must be guardrails on the landing to which it opens, and other natural hazards—like snow and ice—must be removed regularly to prevent injuries during an evacuation.

Because emergency exits see the bulk of their use in the event of a fire, the OHSA mandates that exits be separated from the main building by some sort of fire-resistant material. In addition, emergency exits must be enclosed by a fire door that automatically shuts in order to prevent non-emergency traffic from using emergency exits.

There must be at least two permanent emergency exits in any workplace, and these exits must be maintained. This includes keeping them well-lit, unobstructed, free of flammable materials, clearly marked and free of any obtrusive decorations or markings. Also, doors that do not serve as exits (such as one opening into a boiler room) should be marked as such.

Emergency exits are a common sight, but just because they are common does not mean that they are not strictly regulated. The OHSA has a number of strictures pertaining to emergency exits to keep workers and other building occupants safe in case these exits need to be used.