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Elevator Innovation is Fighting Back Against Decades of Fear

As the pandemic slowly releases its grip, we’re all wondering what changes are here to stay. Over the past year-plus, procedures, policies, and technology in the office have shifted so radically many people don’t know what to expect. Elevators, in particular, have had to adapt because social distancing isn’t possible in a small box that many were already wary of before even before this terrible airborne virus. Changes in touchless access, control, sanitation, and inspections have innovation in the elevator industry picking up speed and are helping fight back against people’s apprehension. 

Elevators are infrastructure for our buildings, like infrastructure, the lifespan of elevators is measured in decades, making innovation in the industry a slow-moving affair. Elevators have come a long way since the first iterations, manually operated by a liftman, but that progress has taken decades. Through the years, elevators have often got a bad wrap from films, TV shows, news broadcasts, and folklore the industry has been fighting against. Everyone knows of a story or two that involved being trapped in an elevator. Disney even operates a thrill ride based on a free-falling elevator. Meeting the challenges of providing safe, efficient vertical transportation during a global pandemic has the elevators industry cutting edge research and development being implemented at an increased pace. The industry hopes rising to meet the challenge will help to shift perception. 

“We were really lucky because our industry is very forward-thinking,” Executive Director of the National Elevator Industry Inc. Amy Blankenbiller said. “We had many research and development areas already in place for things like touchless elevators, so we responded really quickly. People were looking at handheld apps, touchless keypads, voice control. We were fortunate to be able to move quickly to bring those to broader commercial areas.” 

Bringing that innovation into buildings has been a challenge, remote work on elevators is not possible. With limited access to buildings, sales, installation, service, and inspections have been a struggle, Blankenbiller explained. To adapt, some jurisdictions have been using video inspections when appropriate. Video inspections provide both time and financial savings, disrupting traffic less and requiring less from the inspector. Elevator maintenance can at times be counter-intuitive. Seeing someone work on an elevator can set off an uneasy feeling for some. It’s like seeing someone work on an airplane engineer before take off. Is there something wrong? Suddenly riders have questions even when the work being done is only making the equipment safer or ensuring it works properly. 

“First and foremost our concern is for the safety of the public and workers, we want to tell that story so that everyone feels confident riding on our equipment. You see movies, commercials, folklore about elevators, those perceptions last with people. We want people to know we’re taking care of our equipment,” Blankenbiller said. 

Elevators are a vital part of public transit. The average person rides an elevator 2 to 3 times per day. Most of the time, no one is thinking about the elevator. You hit the button, you wait. These days practically everyone is staring at their phone through the whole process. For some, fear is never far from their mind, terrified of getting stuck or worse, plummeting. The reality of the situation is that riding an elevator is one of the safest forms of transport, far safer than cars and even safer than taking the stairs. Elevators and escalators injure roughly 10,000 Americans a year, resulting in fewer than 30 deaths on average. The vast majority of those injuries happen to elevator workers themselves, not the riders, according to the Center for Construction Research and Training. Passengers account for less than five deaths per year out of roughly 18 billion trips. According to life insurance companies, you’re more likely to be killed by a bear than an elevator. Stairs injure over a million Americans every year, resulting in over 1,000 deaths. The numbers have a hard time breaking past perception. The elevator industry is trying to change that by showing its dedication to innovation and safety. 

The problem is changes take time. Elevator systems are costly and replacing them is disruptive. Your average elevator has a lifespan of 25 to 30 years. That timeline is finally picking up speed, according to Blankenbiller. Making returning workers feel good about returning to the office means getting them comfortable with the elevator, which is why many buildings are retrofitting elevators with touchless access control, air filters, and disinfecting UV lights, all easy enough to add to the system without totally replacing it. “I think right now, people are looking to increase the building experience to get people back to the office,” Blankenbiller said. The elevator industry is looking at innovation in other building systems like smart HVACs to be on par with an overall improved building experience. 

Elevator safety efforts may never reach the most anxious among us but for the rest, innovation is making them more efficient and safer than ever before. As cities continue to grown and populations across the world grow denser, and thus more vertical, elevators will only increase in importance and ubiquity. Netflix is working to bring Roald Dahl’s Charlie And The Great Glass Elevator to life, a rare story that puts elevators in a positive light. Soon the industry and our perception of elevators could be reaching new heights.

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