The “Mean” Means of Egress Audit Guide

Dec. 13, 2021
It’s crucial to know how to identify and resolve violations that could impede a safe exit.

Although doors and hardware make up only a small portion of the means of egress, they’re where code violations typically are found. #Doorks in this industry might be familiar with some of the more common violations, but as we’ve learned, a correct means of egress can mean life or death. This article will address the basics of egress code and walk you through a process to identify violations and how to resolve them. Let’s get started with the “mean” means of egress.

Accessing Egress

Anywhere you go, you can find exit signs that direct you toward the nearest escape. Most of us have practiced exit drills since kindergarten, but that wasn’t always the case. It wasn’t until after New York City’s deadliest industrial fire broke out that policies, codes and laws started to be implemented. 

On March 25, 1911, a fire broke out at the Triangle Shirtwaist Co. factory, a 10-story building in the heart of Manhattan. The main reason that 146  lives were lost that day was that workers didn’t have a way to escape. As the sweatshop workers flooded stairwells to escape the flames, they became trapped in the stairwell, inches from safety but blocked by a locked door. They didn’t have a means of egress.

Out of the ashes of that fire came change that eventually led to creation of the U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OHSA) and  the building, fire and life-safety codes we use today. 

Before we dive in, it’s important to better understand what a means of egress is. The NFPA (National Fire Protection Association) 101, better known as The Life Safety Code, defines it as a continuous and unobstructed way of travel from any point in a building or structure to a public way and consists of three distinct parts:

Exit Access: A clear and unobstructed path from any location in the building to an exit.

Exits: The doors to the outside, enclosed exit stairways and horizontal exits. A horizontal exit is an exit component that consists of fire-resistance-rated walls, floors, ceilings and fire-rated door openings. These are used to compartmentalize smaller portions of a building and create refuge areas that keep people safe from smoke and fire. 

Exit Discharge: The path from an exit to a public way, such as a street, alley or designated emergency assembly point. 

Most of what we will focus on here will deal with the doors along with the exit access and exit doors themselves, but it’s important to understand the whole means of egress, because you can’t have one without the other.

A helpful exercise when inspecting facilities for life-safety and egress code violations is what I call an Egress Audit. It might seem overly thorough, but such an audit can be helpful to calculate what the mean (average) means of egress might look like in a given facility. Keep in mind that NFPA 101, under maintenance, states: “Means of egress shall be continuously maintained free of all obstructions or impediments to full instant use in the case of fire or other emergency.” This means nothing should “get in the way” of you maintaining your means of egress.

Going through this audit exercise also can help to prepare the facility to pass Building & Fire Life Safety inspections that are required annually for most entities.

If you’re auditing the means of egress in a hospital, it might be helpful to choose a random patient room in which to start your audit. If it’s an educational facility, choose a classroom or study hall. For retail space, start in the stockroom or sales floor. In office space, use one of the top floors. Think of where most of the lives might be at stake and start there.

A part of me feels a bit like Dwight Schrute from “The Office” performing extreme emergency drills when going through an egress audit: “Experience is the best teacher. Today … smoking is going to save lives!” – Dwight, as he throws a lit cigarette into a trash bin to start a fire in the backroom of the office.

Please, don’t be as extreme as Dwight and put lives in danger when performing an egress audit. But the idea remains the same: These audits are here for us to help save lives.

Occupancy Loads

Before you try to escape the facility and audit your way out, you must understand the occupancy load for that room or space. You have to understand the occupancy type of the building or space to know the codes or standards you should look for.

I could write a separate article on how to better understand occupancy types, but I’ll just give you the same tool I use to determine the occupancy of a building, room or space. If you’d like to dive in deep at another time, use your state’s most recent adopted version of the International Building Code (IBC), chapter 3, Occupancy Classifications. 

The IBC references occupancy types for different groups. Each of these types have different codes to follow, depending on the use of the occupied space:

  • Group A – Assembly: for the gathering of people for purposes such as civic, social or religious functions; recreation, food or drink consumption; or awaiting transportation.
  • Group B – Business:  for office, professional or service-type transactions, including storage of records and accounts.
  • Group E – Educational:  for educational purposes through the 12th grade by at least six people at once.
  • Group F – Factory: for assembling, disassembling, fabricating, finishing, manufacturing, packaging, repair or processing operations that aren’t classified as hazardous or for storage.
  • Group H – High-Hazard: for the manufacturing, processing, generation or storage of materials that constitute a physical or health hazard in quantities in excess of those allowed in control areas.
  • Group I – Institutional: for areas of caregiving or for people who live in a supervised environment, have physical limitations because of health or age, are kept for medical treatment or other care, or in which people are detained for penal or correctional purposes or in which the movement of occupants is restricted.
  • Group M – Mercantile: for the display and sale of merchandise and stocking goods, wares or merchandise that’s accessible to the public.
  • Group R – Residential: for sleeping purposes when not classified as Institutional or not regulated by the International Residential Code.
  • Group S – Storage: for storage that isn’t classified as hazardous.
  • Group U – Utility and Miscellaneous: for buildings and structures not classified in any specific occupancy.

After you identify the occupancy group for the function of space, the number of people in the given area, the square footage of an area and what that area is used for, you can navigate your way through the code to determine the major components to look for on your path of egress:

  • What’s the minimum clear opening width of doors?
  • What’s the swing direction of doors? 
  • Is panic exit hardware required? 
  • What’s the minimum number of exits or exit access doors necessary from that room or space?

Sounds fairly complicated and quite a bit to pull together, doesn’t it? That’s why I use the ASSA ABLOY Egress Calculator.

This calculator is a mobile-friendly free tool anyone can use to help them to calculate the major components of occupancy. Simply go to and do the following:

  1. Select the version of IBC you should use. (If you aren’t sure, the calculator has a place to look up your state.)
  2. Select the occupancy group your room or space is (Mercantile, Business, Educational, etc.).
  3. Select the function of the space or how people use the space (fixed seating, standing space, concentrated use, etc.).
  4. Enter the square footage, either the length and width of the room or the room area.

After this information is filled in, click the “Add” button on the calculator to add more rooms or the “Calculate” button to get your results. The Egress Calculator will determine your occupant load, the number of exits required, whether panic hardware is required, the clear width of egress capacity, your clear width per exit or exit access doors and the required swing direction of exit or exit access doors. These results will arm you with the information necessary to start an egress audit.

The Audit

To start the audit, pretend to be a patient, student or office worker and start with the room you’re in. Go through the three-point checklist outlined below.

1.     Check for egress access. This is the path from your current location in the building to an exit or exit access. This path should be clear and unobstructed. Please note that the minimum width of the means of egress, which you just calculated, is required for any floor of a building and shall not be reduced along the path of egress travel until you arrive at the public way or exit discharge. (IBC Ch. 10 Sec. 1005)

Does the room or space that you occupy meet all of the requirements from the egress calculator: occupant load, number of exits, clear width of egress capacity, clear width per exit or exit access doors and swing direction of exit or exit access doors?

2.      Check Egress Doors and Hardware. There are many codes and exceptions when dealing with egress doors, depending on the occupancy type. The egress calculator will specify some of these exceptions, but for more detail in dealing with egress doors, reference IBC Ch. 10 Sec. 1010 (just remember 10 10 10). I like keeping codes simple, so as you travel through your path of egress, each door you approach should be obvious, accessible and easily operated.

Obvious: Means of egress doors must be readily distinguishable from the adjacent construction, and doors must be easily recognizable as doors. Mirrors or similar reflecting materials shall not be used on means of egress doors. Means of egress doors shall not be concealed by curtains, drapes, decorations, signage or similar materials. (IBC Ch. 10 Section 1010)

That means you can’t have false doors, hidden doors or secret doors in the means of egress. Anyone should be able to tell you it’s a door and it’s marked as an exit.

Accessible: As stated earlier, the path of egress that leads to the door must maintain the approved clear width. The size of the door must provide a minimum clear opening width of 32 inches when the door is open to a 90-degree angle. Most doors are ordered 36 inches wide to leave enough space for the locking hardware to sit off the door while still maintaining a clear opening width of 32 inches (excluding Group I-2 because of the necessary extra width for hospital beds).

Hopefully, you aren’t taller than 6 feet, 6 inches, because 80 inches is the minimum clear opening height for doors. Most doors are 7 feet tall to make space for maglocks and other door hardware that might be in the door frame. There can’t be any projections (hardware) lower than 34 inches above the floor, and the projections above 34 inches can’t exceed 4 inches off the face of the door. We wouldn’t want anyone to get caught up or snagged on a lever or exit device when they try to escape. (IBC Ch. 10 Sec.1010)

If a threshold is at the doorway, it can be a tripping hazard, so make sure any threshold doesn’t exceed three-quarters of an inch in height, and make sure the threshold is beveled with a slope no more than 50%. Most manufacturers specify which thresholds are appropriate for access and egress doors. 

Door locking hardware shall not require tight grasping, pinching or twisting of the wrist to operate. A good rule of thumb is that you should be able to open egress doors by using one closed fist.

Easily Operated: Egress doors must be of the pivoted or side-hinged swinging type. Most swing in the direction of egress, but that isn’t required generally. (The Egress Calculator will let you know whether out-swinging doors are required.) Other than fire doors, the force for pushing or pulling open an interior swinging egress door shall not exceed five pounds. 

This five-pound opening force can be a  feat to overcome if you’re dealing with stack pressure. Use a door-pressure gauge to determine where your interior egress doors fall short. The quality of the hardware on these doors can make a big difference. If your door sags or binds in any way, you’ll struggle to get that five-pound opening force. You can reinforce hinges or shim them to help your door to move smoothly. The door closer should be adjusted properly, and locking hardware should run smoothly. Replace and maintain as necessary.

Egress doors must be readily openable from the egress side without the use of a key or special knowledge or effort, and the unlatching of any door shall not require more than one operation. That means STOP adding extra locks to your egress doors. If you’re concerned about back-door security, install a multipoint lock that still meets this code requirement. As we learned from the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, you CAN NOT LOCK PEOPLE IN YOUR BUILDING! (Check IBC Ch. 10 Sec 1010 for special cases and exceptions, such as delayed egress.)

3.      Exit Discharge. After following all the clear and lit signage through all exit access and exit doors, you’ll come to the exit discharge — the path from an exit to a public way, such as a street or alley. Again, make sure that this path is well-lit and clear of barriers and fences.

When the egress audit is complete, you probably will have a list of notes or violations that should be addressed as soon as possible. Don’t procrastinate on life-safety code violations. It’s called The Life Safety code for a reason. Chances are you won’t have to use that particular means of egress yourself, but you don’t want to sign off on an issue that could lead to loss of life.

Let’s recap the steps of the egress audit once more.

  • Use the Egress Calculator to understand the Occupancy Group and code compliance that comes with it.
  • Start your audit anywhere in a facility, pretending to be a person who might have to make an emergency evacuation. Follow the means of egress, and call out any issues along the way.
  • As you pass through egress doors remember that these doors have to be obvious, accessible and easily operated. This isn’t Harry Potter and the Secrets of Egress!
  • At the exit discharge, did everyone make it out safely in a timely manner?

The means of egress can be a “mean” project to tackle, so I hope that this guide can help to make the consistent maintenance and inspection process a little bit more manageable. 

Benji Bolick, The Door Dork, is senior digital communications specialist at ASSA ABLOY Opening Solutions and is “obsessed” with doors and hardware. Check out more of his content and join the Door Dork community on LinkedIn: Benji Bolick the Door Dork #doordork