Exit Signs and Lighting

While inspecting any existing building these elements are typically already present and looking for them is something that is typically excluded through contract and agreement or through omission but these are very important elements that should be part of every inspection.  Because they are excluded they are often overlooked during the inspection process.

Before inspecting this devices you need to understand that there are several regulatory agencies and codes that govern the emergency lighting and exit sign requirements.  These authorities are:

  • Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)
  • National Fire Protection Association (NFPA)
  • Joint Commission on Accreditation Health Organization (JCAHO)
  • International Fire Code
  • International Building Code

Depending on jurisdiction or use of the building, any or all of these agencies may have precedence for creating the exact locations necessary to keep the occupants safe and direct them out of the buildings during emergency events.  As an inspector you will not have to know the exact standard that was used.

An example of one standard:

OSHA under 29 Code Federal Regulation (CFR) 1910.34(c) defines “exit route” as, “a continuous and unobstructed path of exit travel from any point within a workspace to a place of safety (including refuse areas).”  These exits routes include vertical and horizontal areas along the route.

There are three parts to this exit route.  

Exit Access – the portion of an exit route leading to an exit.  

Exit – the portion of an exit route that is generally separated from other areas to provide a protected way to travel to an exit discharge.  

Exit Discharge – the part of the exit route that leads directly outside or to a street, walkway, refuse area, public way, or open space with access to the outside.

Understanding Location


Commercial, industrial, institutional, educational, religious, medical, and many other building types generally require emergency lighting.  This is lighing that maintains an internal power source for at least 1.5 hours at an average of one-foot candle lighting but never too bright to potentially cause night blindness in any one location or be dark in others.

These lights should illuminate the exit routes in the building including: hallways, stairwells, and corridors.  The lighting also should illuminate internal rooms, bathrooms, and storage areas larger than a broom closet and have no windows.  Sometimes allowances can be made for areas with large windows that supply high levels of natural light.


OSHA requires there to be lighting and markings to exit routes and states that each exit route must be adequately lighted so that an employee with normal visibel can seel along the exit route and each exit must be clearly visible and marked by a sign reading “Exit.” 

Each door exiting into a hallway that leads to the primary building exit must be clearly marked with an Exit sign.  Exit signs must be illuminated at all times and include a battery backup.  The sign must consist of plain, legible letters and be a distinctive color that stands out from the background.  These signs can be red or green.

Exit doors must lack furnishings, decorations, or equipment that obscure the line-of-sight.  If a hallway turns, additional exit signs with directional arrows must direct the way out to the neares exit.

Whenever there are doors, along and exit route, that could be mistaken for an exit door it must be marked with a “Not an Exit” or “No Exit.” sign.

Inspection Tips

While inspecting a building you should imagine yourself in the building and the exit signs need to lead you out of the building.  If you feel you cannot stand in a location and see an exit sign or cannot find your route outside the building then there is most likely an issue with the signage plan. 

The inspector needs to keep their eye out for broken or missing lights and sign fixtures.  The test buttons should illuminate the lights and the exit signs should always be on.  If the interior space has been redefined or designed and the signs must be updated.  All signs and lighting should point the way out of the building.  Any opportunity to inform the client to potential issues should be pursued.