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The Persistent Threat of Uninspected Elevators

In August, 18-year-old JauMarcus McFarland was killed when the elevator they were in collapsed to the ground. The victim’s family highlighted the fact the high-rise apartment building in Atlanta’s Old Fourth Ward was more than a year overdue for inspection. State regulators didn’t even know the building was behind on its permits. An investigation by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution revealed government regulators are clueless as to how many of Georgia’s 34,000 lifts, escalators, and moving sidewalks are behind on inspections. 

Georgia is far from alone. Michigan Auditor-General Douglas Ringler found that 78 percent of the 74 routine inspections required between October 2018 and May 2020 had not been performed. Investigations also revealed 14 of the annual inspections were one to three years overdue, three were three to five years overdue, and one was more than five years overdue, according to reporting from the Detroit Free Press. In Texas, local news station WFAA found missed inspections, neglected elevators, shoddy record-keeping, and failing oversight throughout the state. More than half of Washington’s 18,000 conveyance systems were not inspected in 2018. CBS 17 in North Carolina found 14 percent of elevators in the state were overdue for inspection. According to data from the L.A. Department of Buildings and Safety, roughly 45 percent of the city’s 21,000 elevators were past due for an inspection prior to the pandemic. 

Missed elevator inspections are becoming endemic. Ensuring elevators are meeting the rigorous American safety standards is critical to the safety of high-rise building occupants. In several U.S. states, elevator inspections are woefully behind, threatening the near sterling reputation of lift providers. Keeping elevators and escalators one of the safest forms of travel will require states to work through the backlog quickly. 

No one to inspect

This problem is clearly widespread and only getting worse. Inspections were years past due prior to the pandemic, which has only slowed inspections down further. Most inspection departments are understaffed, if staffed at all. In L.A, the LADBS employs 15 people, meaning each must inspect roughly 1,400 elevators every year, almost four per day if you don’t work weekends. Anyone who has ever tried to drive anywhere in L.A. knows how impossible that task is. Texas doesn’t employ any inspection at all, relying on 150 independent contractors to cover the entire state. A $50 state fee and three-day class are all you need to inspect potentially lethal devices in the Lone Star State. North Carolina has the opposite problem, requiring five years of experience in the trade before someone is eligible to become an inspector but not offering competitive pay, leading to inspector shortages for different reasons. Washington has been losing inspectors to the private industry for years. The Michigan Auditor General found 40 percent of the states’ inspector positions were vacant. 

“Recruiting qualified elevator inspectors, along with other trades professionals, is a problem across state governments and not unique to Licensing and Regulatory Affairs,” the agency said.

This is a worrying problem. In vehicles that already give people anxiety, missed inspections don’t help. A typical passenger elevator is required to be inspected once a year with a more rigorous test once every five years that tests a lift with 25 percent more weight than its limit. Once you start to see the problem of under-inspected elevators, you see it everywhere. My eye is trained to check an elevator’s permit every time I enter one. I often don’t like what I see but I’m no longer surprised. 

“The problem lies with the fact that if something bad happens with an elevator it gets really bad, really fast,” Ken Pixley, an elevator safety consultant with 40 years of experience, told WFAA. “So there’s just no room for error.”

Remote work order

The elevator industry is using technology to fight back against the backlog and lack of inspectors. Many states and municipalities now allow remote and virtual inspections for routine yearly checks. Last year the Chicago Department of Buildings conducted over 500 virtual inspections. National Elevator Industry Inc., a trade association for the elevator and escalator industry, is calling for more video inspections, citing lowered cost and the lack of travel required as keys to maximizing inspection resources without compromising safety. Regulators have been open to the idea during the pandemic but whether the temporary guidance becomes permanent is not certain. 

“From the standpoint of interfacing with jurisdictions, I’m optimistic that video inspections will stay in place,” Executive Director of the National Elevator Industry Inc. Amy Blankenbiller said. “There’s some cost issues around inspections, and video inspections are saving money and are less disruptive.”

A video inspection is certainly better than no inspection at all. If a video inspection raises concerns, inspectors can travel to the site for further investigation. The industry is also working to eliminate the need for inspections and maintenance by building safety technology into the devices themselves. Like many original equipment manufacturers, the elevator industry is going big on maintenance-as-a-service, which already represents a sizable portion of the manufacturers’ revenue across the globe. Instead of requesting maintenance or relying on an inspection to flag issues, OEMs use built-in sensors to monitor their own equipment and notify the property when they need to make an on-site visit.

It’s important to highlight that elevator injuries are rare. Per mile of distance, elevators are one of the safest forms of transportation; but accidents and incidents do happen. A couple of recent incidents in New York City, one involving 25 people, many of them NYPD officers, were attributed to freight elevators, which are not designed to move people and most have posted safety warnings warning against doing so. While isolated incidents, the headlines prompted the New York City Department of Buildings to announce safety sweeps of the city’s building sites. 

Dense cities full of high-rises rely on the excellent safety record of elevators to facilitate daily life. Some urban residents ride in elevators more than they ride in cars. That makes getting inspections back on track by any means necessary the highest priority. Even one death is too many. Bringing them to zero will require continued commitment from the vertical transportation industry and building owners to insure timely inspections.

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