Notes from the field: Oh, I see, that crumpled piece of paper is your EXIT sign!

By: April 16th, 2010 Email This Post Print This Post

During two of my recent mock inspections, both facilities lacked OSHA approved EXIT Signs. I always review the EXIT signs as part of my general health and safety review.

In one office, the only EXIT sign was a piece of paper taped to the glass next to the front door. The crumpled paper had been smoothed out and the word “EXIT” was printed on it. The second office lacked any type of signage stating where there was an exit out of the facility.

OSHA has very specific rules regarding where and when EXIT signs are required. One of the major requirements is for marking fire exits and means of egress. Each exit should be clearly visible or the route to reach it should be conspicuously indicated. OSHA insists that entire paths of escape should be arranged and marked so that the way to a place of safety outside is unmistakable.

Exit signs must have the word “EXIT” in plain legible letters no less than six inches high, with the principal strokes of letters no less than three-fourths of an inch wide. You can’t go wrong with the standard red and white lettering. You should have an illuminated exit light if your building is occupied at any time that requires the use of interior artificial lights.

In both of these facilities, there would need to have extensive wiring done to accommodate electrically powered signs. OSHA also allows for photoluminescent materials or self luminous exits signs. These signs store light and maintain clear, OSHA compliant visibility in cases of emergency. These signs literally “glow in the dark”.

These two offices have opted for the less expensive “glowing EXIT signs.”

Go to the Tools page to download an Exit Compliance Checklist.


It is unfortunate that these facilities had no easy way to run electricity to the exit sign location. Two tests, that I am aware of, show that these self luminous exit signs grossly fail to provide any level of exit path identification in a smoke filled area. The Building and Fire Research Lab at NIST and TEEX fire facility at Texas A&M University have both conducted tests on the visibility of photoluminescent exit signs in smoke. The results I have seen show a fully charged photoluminescent exit sign become completely invisible in a dark room as soon as smoke was introduced into the environment. This type of exit sign can be useful in identifying an exit in clear air but is this the level of safety that an exit sign should provide?

I too am very interested in the use of exit signs in the workplace. As an attorney it is my job to mitigate my clients liability through site inspections of large facilities. One of my pet peeves is exit signs. I always make note of the type being used and whether the light output appears code compliant. I cannot think of an inspection that I could not point to at least one non-code compliant exit sign.

Furthermore, I have done research on this topic and have found several interesting facts about the various exit signs commonly being used today. First, photoluminescent exit signs should not be a consideration for your workplace. As the previous poster has pointed out, visibility of the sign through smoke is virtually impossible. Isn’t this when you need an exit sign the most? Secondly, photoluminescent exit signs fall under a different classification and therefore are required to have a light output that is only 12% the minimum requirement of traditional, internally lit exit signs. And within 10 minutes of blackout conditions, the photoluminescent sign loses 80% of its original light output! How are these signs legal? Furthermore, they claim to save energy. Unfortunately, the sign has to be in a lighted room for at least 90 minutes to store enough energy for their necessary glowing requirements. This means the building has to turn all its lights on an entire hour before it is occupied. This requirement will waste more energy in one hour than a more efficient exit sign will in an entire year! Needless to say, I never recommend photoluminescent signs unless there is absolutely no way to get electricity to an egress location.

LEDs are a good alternative, but their lifespan has been proven too short and therefore their yearly maintenance cost is elevated.

Fortunately, for me and my clients, I have found a new form of exit sign that I am very excited about and I feel should catch the attention of the industry. It is Light Emitting Capacitor (LEC) technology that is years ahead of the competition. LEC only consumes several cents a year in electricity and last 3 to 5 times longer than an LED. Here is the site where I found my information about LEC exit signs. These are the only signs I recommend to my facilities.


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