Emergency Preparedness and Response

ABCs of Workplace Exit Routes

OSHA has specific requirements for workplace exit routes to be used to evacuate employees in the event of an emergency. Here’s a quick look at the highlights.

The general industry workplace rules for exit routes are located in the OSHA standards at 29 CFR 1910 Subpart E, and cover:

  • 29 CFR 1910.34—Coverage and definitions
  • 29 CFR 1910.35—Compliance with alternate exit-route codes
  • 29 CFR 1910.36—Design and construction requirements for exit routes
  • 29 CFR 1910.37—Maintenance, safeguards, and operational features for exit routes

OSHA says that employers who prefer to follow the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) Standard 101, Life Safety Code (NFPA 101-[most current year]), or the International Fire Code, will be in compliance with OSHA requirements for the design, construction, and operational features of the exit routes standard (29 CFR 1910.34, 1910.36, and 1910.37).

What’s an Exit Route?

An “exit route” is a continuous and unobstructed path of exit within a workplace to a place of safety (including refuge areas). An exit route includes all vertical and horizontal areas along the route.

Two key points of this definition are the words “continuous” and “unobstructed.” Employees must be able to escape by following a clearly marked and unobstructed route from any point in the building or work area.


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According to the regulations, an exit route consists of:

  • The exit access (portion of the exit route that leads to the exit, such as a corridor that leads to an exit stairway)
  • The exit (protected way of travel to the exit discharge, such as an enclosed stairway from upper floors that leads to the discharge to the outside)
  • The exit discharge (part of the exit route that leads directly outside or to a street, walkway, refuge area, public way, or open space with access to the outside)

Numbers, Accessibility, and Capacity

In most cases, at least two exit routes must be available for every employee, located as far away from each other as possible to allow escape in the event one exit is blocked. A single exit route is allowed, however, if the number of workers, and the size of the building and workplace are configured to allow safe evacuation of all employees from one exit.

Building and fire codes require a certain number of exit routes and certain types of exit routes depending on a number of factors. Larger buildings may have many exit routes. In all cases, a sufficient number and capacity of exit routes must be available to evacuate all employees safely during an emergency.

Employees must be able to open an exit route door from the inside at all times without keys, tools, or special knowledge. A side-hinged exit door must be used. The capacity of the exit route must be adequate for all employees to evacuate on each floor, and it must meet minimum height and width requirements. An outdoor exit route is permitted.


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Lighting, Signs, and Markings

Exit routes must be adequately lighted so that an employee with normal vision can see along the exit route.

Signs must be posted along all exit routes that indicate the direction of travel to the nearest exit. Each exit, or doorway leading outside, must be marked with a clearly visible and distinctive sign that reads “EXIT.” Typically exit signs include an arrow indicating the direction to the exit. The exit sign must have distinctive colors that do not blend into the background. The exit signs cannot be obstructed or concealed in any way.

Any doorway or passage that is not an exit but might be mistaken for one must be marked with a sign that reads “NOT AN EXIT” or a sign that indicates the door’s actual use, such as “Basement,” or “Closet.”

To get the complete list of requirements and more information about exit routes, click here.

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