Ensuring Means of Egress Under the ADA

Published September 25, 2020

When designing a building, is important to consider accessibility standards mandated by the International Building Code (IBC) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Accessible means of egress are required under the IBC and the standards of the ADA apply to various aspects of means of egress. The standards mandated by the IBC only apply to new construction and do not apply to modifications of existing structures. Accessible means of egress are unobstructed paths for individuals to leave buildings, structures, and spaces.

Means of egress are comprised of three components: exit access, exits, and exit discharge. There are some exceptions, but the IBC requires all buildings to have at least two accessible means of egress. Small buildings with few occupants may be permitted to have one means of egress, while larger buildings with more occupants may be required to have several means of egress. Accessible means of egress must lead to public areas such as a street or sidewalk.

In buildings where the exit discharge may be on different floors, it is required that accessible means of egress lead to exit stairways, horizontal exits, or elevators with standby power. Buildings without emergency sprinkler systems are required to have areas of refuge where people who are unable to use the staircases can wait safely for emergency responders. Like other accessible means of egress, areas of refuge must provide direct access to exit stairways or elevators with standby power.

Section 307 of the ADA standards addresses protruding objects in areas of circulation such as means of egress. In general, objects may not protrude more than 4 inches into the path of circulation. The sole exception is handrails that may protrude 4½ inches. Objects mounted on posts or pylons may protrude up to 12 inches.

The IBC requires that exit stairways have fire and smoke protection, as well as stairways, handrails, and signs that comply with the ADA.  Sections 504 and Section 505 of the 2010 ADA standards address the required specifications for stairways and handrails. All stairs in a stairway are required to be of uniform height and tread depth and must have the same nosings. Handrails are required on both sides of a stairway and must continue for the entire length of the stairway. Handrails must also meet standards for height from the stairway, diameter, and knuckle clearance.

Signage is an integral part to any accessible means of egress. Visual and tactile signs are required to indicate exits and areas of refuge. According to Section 703 of the 2010 ADA standards, these signs must include both visual and tactile characters. The visual and tactile characters may be included together on one sign, or there may be two signs, one with visual characters and one with tactile characters. All characters, whether visual or tactile, must comply with ADA regulations.

Visual and tactile signs are also required to identify permanent spaces such as staircases, and to indicate floor levels. The IBC has similar standards requiring visual and tactile signs next to the door to an egress stairway, exit passageway, and the exit discharge. The IBC also requires illuminated signs at exits and exit access doors.

Other signs are only required to meet the ADA standards for visual signs. These signs include directional signs, instructional signs, maps, and rules of conduct.

The building codes provided by the IBC and the accessibility standards of the ADA serve to make buildings safer and more accessible for all occupants. Compliance with building codes and the ADA is not simply a recommendation, and failure to comply can lead to lawsuits and fines. The requirements of the IBC and ADA are rather extensive, and one may consider consulting an expert on accessibility when developing a new structure.

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