Low Light Conditions in Arenas & Stadiums Expert Article

Fixed seating assembly occupancies, such as arena and stadium venues, are designed to provide entertainment to large audiences, and must make the main event easily visible for seated audience members and anyone in standing room areas. The majority of seats are accessed by climbing or descending aisle stairs, aisles and cross aisles.

With the wide array of events, variable lighting scenarios, and an occasional low light level condition in these venues, safe navigation to and from the seats becomes critical for occupant safety.

In this article, premises safety expert Mark Sullivan explains how low light level event conditions are addressed by life safety and building codes.

Arena stadium low light expert

Audience Expectations

As we discuss in this article on Sidewalk & Walkway Trip Hazards, pedestrians typically scan ahead in the direction of their travel, not directly down in front of their feet, and are not likely to see/avoid inconspicuous walkway hazards at or near ground level.

With stairways, regularity in stair dimensions and lighting on the stair tread surface provides an expectation of how and where we place our feet to reduce slips, trips, and falls. As far back as 1934, the National Safety Council study (Stairs and Stairways) cautions “Safe Practices recommend uniformity of pitch of stairs,” meaning that missteps will occur more often on the step with an odd height or depth.

Discontinuous mid-aisle handrails in seating aisle steps provide stability for a user and a means to correct lost balance should one stumble. Mid-aisle rails also divide attendee traffic moving up or down, and the open space between each section of discontinuous railing allows access to seats as well as an opportunity for passing slower traffic. These railings, combined with direct lighting on the walking surface, provide physical and visual cues for audience members to recognize and adjust to changes in their walk path while climbing or descending aisle stairs safely.

When a performance event begins, the lights will often be dimmed to signal the start of a show and may remain dimmed throughout the performance. People are generally seated during a performance, but for those audience members who are not seated, lighted aisle and stair surfaces should be there to help them safely navigate back to their seats under darkened conditions.

Code Required Lighting

Current building codes for exit stairs and other parts of a building exit require a lighting level of not less than one foot candle on the walking surface. One foot candle is approximately the equivalent of one candle’s light output as measured from a distance of one foot from the light source. For comparison, light levels measured on walking surfaces at twilight are approximately equal to one foot candle and light levels measured on an office desktop are typically forty foot candles. The International Building Code & Commentary indicates that one foot candle provides enough visibility for occupants to safely evacuate a building, and it is critical that these minimum light levels are measured at the floor or stair surface to ensure proper visibility.

“House lights” are used for general lighting of the seating area and their output levels can interfere or detract from performances and light shows. Achieving the minimum egress light level from overhead house lighting in a low light level condition would not be practical for several reasons. House lighting is typically attached to the roof structure high above the seating and therefore has a higher output designed to cover larger areas. With an overhead light source, the occupant would be between the light source and floor/stair surface; effectively blocking some of the required lighting.

Minimum required light levels for arena and stadium venues are typically provided by step lights that are either integrated with the step construction or within the end seat stanchion facing the aisle stairs. Powered, internally illuminated strips can also be used to mark aisle steps.

Building occupancy types other than fixed seating assemblies can use photo-luminous strips that are charged by exposure to a powered lighting source. Photo-luminous strips are required by code to charge for a minimum of sixty minutes prior to public use. These non-electrified luminous strips are typically not permitted in fixed seating assembly buildings because several performances often occur on the same day, and therefore may not be able to meet the code minimum required charge time prior to another event.

Code Exceptions

Life safety building codes recognize the unique requirements of assembly building types (arenas, stadiums, theaters), including low light level events, and provide an exception to accommodate. The code exception allows for a temporary reduction in seating aisle light levels to a minimum of 0.2 foot candles during a non-emergency performance/event. This code exception requires that the seating aisle lights be tied directly into an emergency alarm system and emergency power source that automatically brings light levels back to the minimum exit stair lighting requirement of one foot candle when the system is activated. These emergency power sources must provide not less than ninety minutes of uninterrupted power to allow enough time for all occupants to safely exit the venue.

What makes this code exception reasonable is that most of the audience will be seated for the duration of the event. Having a darkened seating area with a small amount of light focused directly on an aisle stair surface brings the step surface into view (similar to spotlighting a performer on stage) and allows for safe navigation should an audience member need to get up and move around.  

Stadium & Arena Premises Safety Investigations

The premises safety experts at Robson investigate instances where low lighting levels were the claimed source of a person’s fall and injury. In these cases, they will examine the incident site and measure lighting levels with calibrated light level testing equipment. This equipment provides accurate light level readings, which our experts can use to determine if the condition complies with applicable codes and reference standards, and either contributed or did not contribute to the claimed incident.

For more information, submit an inquiry or call us at 800.813.6736.

Featured Expert

Mark T. Sullivan, Architecture, Construction & Premises Safety Expert

Mark T. Sullivan, AIA, NCARB, CDT, CXLT

Architecture, Construction & Premises Safety Expert
Mark Sullivan is a Texas-based registered architect and construction administration professional with more than 25 years of practical experience. His architectural career began with single-family… read more.


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