Lighting the Way to Safety: Exit Sign and Emergency Light Requirements

emergency light and exit sign

Emergency lighting and exit signs play a pivotal role in ensuring the safety and well-being of individuals within various facilities. These crucial safety measures serve as guiding beacons during critical situations, providing vital illumination and clear evacuation paths. Understanding the requirements and regulations surrounding emergency lighting and exit signs is essential to maintaining a secure environment. Compliance with national and international standards, such as those set by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) and Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), is essential for safeguarding occupants.

In this article, we’ll discuss the comprehensive realm of emergency lighting and exit sign requirements, shedding light on key aspects to facilitate informed decision-making.

Understanding Emergency Lighting and Exit Signs

Emergency lighting and exit signs are essential components of safety systems designed to protect individuals in various facilities. These measures serve the crucial purpose of providing illumination and clear guidance during critical situations, ensuring the safe evacuation of occupants.

Types of Emergency Lighting

Standby Lighting: Standby lighting serves as a backup illumination source during power failures. It is strategically employed in areas where the loss of light could pose safety risks, allowing occupants to navigate and perform necessary tasks until power is restored.

Emergency Escape Lighting: Emergency escape lighting is specifically designed to illuminate escape routes, including stairways, corridors, and exits. It ensures clear visibility and helps individuals safely navigate towards designated emergency exits, facilitating efficient evacuation during emergencies.

High-Risk Task Area Lighting: High-risk task area lighting focuses on providing targeted illumination in areas where critical activities are conducted. This type of emergency lighting is tailored to specific locations, such as medical procedure rooms or manufacturing sites, ensuring adequate visibility for safe operations.

Types of Exit Signs

Photoluminescent Exit Signs: Photoluminescent exit signs absorb and store ambient light, making them highly visible in low light conditions. These signs do not rely on electrical power, offering energy efficiency and reliable visibility during emergencies.

Electrically Powered Exit Signs: Electrically powered exit signs are connected to a power source and typically utilize LED lights for illumination. They provide consistent visibility and reliability, particularly in areas with sufficient lighting.

Exit Sign and Emergency Light Requirements and Standards

Meeting the necessary requirements and adhering to established standards is crucial when it comes to emergency lighting systems. Several organizations and regulatory bodies provide guidelines to ensure the safety and effectiveness of these systems.

Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)

OSHA does not have specific regulations regarding emergency lighting, but OSHA 1910.37 has requirements for lighting and marking exit routes. According to the standard, lighting and marking must be adequate and appropriate. The standard states that all exit routes must be adequately lighted so that any employee with normal vision can see along the route. Here are additional requirements:

  • Each exit must be clearly visible and marked by a sign reading "Exit."
  • Each exit route door must be free of decorations or signs that obscure the visibility of the exit route door.
  • If the direction of travel to the exit or exit discharge is not immediately apparent, signs must be posted along the exit access indicating the direction of travel to the nearest exit and exit discharge. Additionally, the line-of-sight to an exit sign must clearly be visible at all times.
  • Each doorway or passage along an exit access that could be mistaken for an exit must be marked "Not an Exit" or similar designation, or be identified by a sign indicating its actual use (e.g., closet).
  • Each exit sign must be illuminated to a surface value of at least five foot-candles (54 lux) by a reliable light source and be distinctive in color. Self-luminous or electroluminescent signs that have a minimum luminance surface value of at least .06 footlamberts (0.21 cd/m2) are permitted.
  • Each exit sign must have the word "Exit" in plainly legible letters not less than six inches (15.2 cm) high, with the principal strokes of the letters in the word "Exit" not less than three-fourths of an inch (1.9 cm) wide.

Under 1910.35, OSHA notes that the NFPA 101 (Life Safety Code) and International Code Council’s International Fire Code meet their compliance requirements.

National Fire Protection Association (NFPA)

Exit Signs

The NFPA 101 - Life Safety Code details their requirements for acceptable forms of illumination for exit signs, placement, and visibility.

  • Section states that all exit signs must be illuminated by a reliable light source and must be legible in both normal and emergency exit lighting modes. Externally illuminated signs are required to have a level of illumination of not less than five foot-candles (54 lux) at the illuminated surface and a contrast ratio of not less than five-tenths. Internally illuminated signs must be listed and compliant with the ANSI//Underwriters Laboratory (UL) 924, Standard for Emergency Lighting and Power Equipment.
  • The code states that any new exit signs must be located so that no point in an exit access corridor is in excess of the sign’s rated viewing distance or 100-feet, whichever is less, from the nearest sign. And exit signs with directional indicators must be placed in every location where the direction of travel to reach the nearest exit is not apparent.
  • The Life Safety Code states that sign must be located and of such size, distinctive color, and design that it is readily visible and must contrast with the background where it’s placed. It also notes that no decorations, furnishings, or equipment that impairs visibility of a sign shall be permitted. No brightly illuminated sign (for other than exit purposes), display, or object in or near the line of vision of the required exit sign that could distract attention from the exit sign shall be permitted.

Emergency Lighting

Emergency light requirements are referenced under Section 7.9 of the Life Safety Code. Here are important points:

  • Emergency illumination (when required) must be provided for a minimum of 1.5-hours in the event of failure of normal lighting.
  • The emergency lighting must be arranged to provide initial illumination of not less than an average of one foot-candle (10.8-lux) and a minimum at any point of 0.1-foot-candle (1.1-lux) measured along the path of egress at floor level. These levels can decline to a minimum of 0.6-foot-candle (6.5-lux) average and 0.06-foot-candle (0.65-lux) at any one point at the end of emergency lighting time (1.5-hours).
  • The maximum illumination at any one point can be no more than 40 times the minimum illumination at any one point to prevent excessively bright and dark spots (section
  • The emergency lighting system must be arranged to provide illumination automatically in the event of any interruption of normal lighting.

Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations (JCAHO)

JCAHO establishes requirements specific to healthcare facilities, ensuring the safety of patients, staff, and visitors. Their standards include provisions for emergency lighting, exit signs, backup power systems, and testing protocols to ensure the continuous operation of emergency lighting in critical areas.

Authority Having Jurisdiction (AHJ)

The AHJ refers to the local authority responsible for enforcing building codes and regulations. They play a significant role in overseeing compliance with emergency lighting requirements specific to a given jurisdiction. AHJs may adopt and enforce relevant codes, such as the International Building Code (IBC) or International Fire Code (IFC), which contain provisions for emergency lighting and exit signs.

Testing Requirements for Emergency Lighting

Regular testing of emergency lighting systems is crucial to ensure their proper functioning during emergencies. Section 7.9.3 of the Life Safety Code addresses the requirements for periodic testing of emergency lights. NFPA recognizes 3 types of emergency lights - traditional, self-testing/self-diagnostic and computer based self-testing/self-diagnostic. Testing requirements are as follows:

  • A monthly activation test, where the lights remain illuminated for a minimum of 30-seconds.
  • An annual test where the lights are activated for 1.5-hours to simulate a long term emergency event.
  • Documentation of both the monthly and annual test which will be inspected by the AHJ.

Installation and Maintenance

Proper installation and regular maintenance are crucial for ensuring the effectiveness and reliability of emergency lighting systems. Here are key aspects to consider:

Hiring a Professional Electrician: To guarantee safe and accurate installation, it is recommended to engage a qualified and experienced professional electrician. They possess the necessary expertise to handle electrical connections, wiring, and other technical aspects, ensuring compliance with regulations and standards.

Installation Requirements and Best Practices: During installation, it is essential to follow the specific requirements and best practices outlined by regulatory standards. These may include guidelines on the placement of luminaires, wiring connections, backup power sources, and testing protocols. Adhering to these requirements ensures proper functionality and optimal performance.

Regular Maintenance and Testing Procedures: Routine maintenance is vital to identify and address any potential issues promptly. This includes inspecting and cleaning luminaires, checking battery performance, and verifying proper operation of control devices. Regular testing should be conducted to ensure that emergency lighting systems are in working order and meet illumination requirements.

Testing Frequency and Duration: The frequency and duration of testing depend on regulatory standards and local jurisdiction. Common practices include monthly functional tests and annual full-duration tests. Monthly tests typically involve activating the system to ensure proper operation, while annual tests simulate a power outage to assess the system's performance over an extended period.

Documentation and Record-Keeping: Maintaining accurate documentation and records of installation, maintenance, and testing is essential for compliance and record-keeping purposes. Documentation should include details such as installation dates, maintenance activities, test results, and any repairs or replacements performed.


1. What is the minimum illumination level required for emergency lighting?
The minimum illumination level required for emergency lighting varies based on regulatory standards and the specific area being illuminated. It is typically expressed in lux or foot-candles and can range from 1 lux to 10 lux or more, depending on the occupancy type and safety requirements.

2. Are there any specific colors required for exit signs?
Yes, specific colors are often required for exit signs. The background color is typically green or red, and the lettering color is usually contrasting, such as white or black. These color requirements enhance visibility and ensure clear recognition of exit signs in emergency situations.

3. How often should emergency lighting systems be tested?
Emergency lighting systems should be tested regularly to ensure their proper functioning. Common testing frequencies range from monthly functional tests to annual full-duration tests, depending on regulatory requirements and local jurisdiction.

4. Can I install emergency lighting on my own, or should I hire a professional?
It is recommended to hire a professional electrician for the installation of emergency lighting systems. They possess the necessary knowledge and expertise to handle electrical connections, wiring, and compliance with regulations, ensuring the system's safety and effectiveness.

5. Are there any special requirements for emergency lighting in industrial facilities?
Yes, industrial facilities often have specific emergency light requirements. These may include higher illumination levels, additional backup power sources, specific lighting technologies for hazardous areas, and compliance with industry-specific regulations such as those set by Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

The material provided in this article is for general information purposes only. It is not intended to replace professional/legal advice or substitute government regulations, industry standards, or other requirements specific to any business/activity. While we made sure to provide accurate and reliable information, we make no representation that the details or sources are up-to-date, complete or remain available. Readers should consult with an industrial safety expert, qualified professional, or attorney for any specific concerns and questions.


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Author: Herbert Post

Born in the Philadelphia area and raised in Houston by a family who was predominately employed in heavy manufacturing. Herb took a liking to factory processes and later safety compliance where he has spent the last 13 years facilitating best practices and teaching updated regulations. He is married with two children and a St Bernard named Jose. Herb is a self-described compliance geek. When he isn’t studying safety reports and regulatory interpretations he enjoys racquetball and watching his favorite football team, the Dallas Cowboys.