Stairwell Closed for Construction

Q: We have a stairwell in our hospital that extends from the 8th floor to the 1st floor, where there is a door that discharges the occupants to the outdoors. We have construction in progress on the 2nd floor, which affects the stairwell and we have closed the stairwell at the 2nd floor level, however, we have allowed the stairwell to remain open from the 3rd floor to the 8th floor. Our safety officer thinks allowing people to travel from the 8th to the 3rd floors in a stairwell that is closed on the 2nd floor is not allowed, and wants to close the entire stairwell. This would be a hardship for our staff that wants to use the stairs rather than wait for an elevator. Do we have to close the stairwell entirely, or can we allow it to remain open on the upper floors?

A: Construction projects never make it easy on facility managers and safety officers, do they! My answer to your question is dependent on the precautions and alternative measures that you have implemented. First let me say that when working with something that is such an integral part of safety such as an exit stairwell, the most effective safety precautions should be taken. If it were my decision, I would agree with your safety officer and want to shut the entire stairwell down as the construction project has caused the path of egress to be obstructed.  However, there is another option. If you implemented the appropriate Interim Life Safety Measures (ILSMs) and provided adequate signage on each floor declaring the stairwell is no longer an exit, explaining that it now terminates at the 3rd floor, and if you provided adequate signage explaining where the closest alternative exit is located, then you would be able to allow the stairwell to be used for communicating purposes to get from floor to floor, and it is no longer an exit. Any ‘Exit’ signs that direct the path of egress towards and into this stairwell would have to be covered or removed and the construction in progress would have to be separated from the occupants in the stairwell with appropriately rated materials. Other ILSMs would have to be considered as well, according to your hospital’s policy. While this would not be my first choice, I agree that this modified use of the stairwell would be permitted by the NFPA 101 Life Safety Code (LSC), 2000 edition.

Are Sidewalks Required for Exit Discharge?

Q: Are hard-surface sidewalks, such as concrete, required between the exit door and the public way in order to qualify as an exit discharge? I was told that we need to have a hard-surface sidewalk in these locations.

A: The LSC does not require a hard surface sidewalk, such as a concrete walk. However, the code does have specific requirements that need to be complied with. Section 7.7 requires exits to terminate directly to the public way or to an exterior exit discharge such as a yard, court or open space. Additional requirements are found in section 7.1.6, which discusses abrupt changes in elevation in the walking surface which cannot exceed ¼ inch. This may be difficult to maintain over a grass yard or open space. Additional requirements involving stairs or ramps are found in section 7.1.7. The path of egress must be maintained free of all obstructions and impediments, including the removal of snow and ice for those institutions that are located in cold weather areas.

The requirements for a level walking surface and the removal of snow and ice are easier to comply with when there is a hard walking surface, such as a concrete sidewalk. An open space that is already a hard, level walking surface such as a paved parking lot, or a gravel access is fine as long as you meet the other requirements.

Even though the LSC does not specifically require it, most authorities having jurisdiction (AHJ) will require hard-surface sidewalk, such as concrete, to assure the organization meets the level walking surface requirement.