Few people think about safety issues when getting on an elevator. For New Yorkers especially, riding in an elevator is a regular and normal part of daily life. The New York City Buildings Department reports that there are over 70,000 elevators and escalators in New York City alone. For the most part, they operate smoothly and reliably, but accidents do happen. And when they do, the results usually are catastrophic. Per the Bureau of Labor Statistics, approximately 30 people are killed nationwide in elevator accidents each year and over 10,200 are injured.
About half of the elevator fatalities among the general public occur as the result of someone falling into the elevator shaft. The remaining 50 percent of the deaths are attributable to the following:
- Getting caught in the elevator’s moving parts
- Getting caught between the car and the shaft wall
- Being thrown when the elevator suddenly stops, lurches or lands
- Being trapped in the door when it fails to open sufficiently
The 50 percent figure of death by falling into the elevator shaft likewise holds true for elevator maintenance workers. For construction and maintenance workers, over half of their fatalities, 53 percent, occur while they are installing or repairing an elevator. Another 30 percent occur while they are working immediately adjacent to an elevator, and the remaining 17 percent occur while they are working on the car or its shaft.
Elevators can malfunction for a wide variety of reasons, including the following:
- The elevator fails to properly align with the floor.
- The doors open when the car isn’t there, leaving the shaft open.
- The control function’s wiring becomes frayed or otherwise defective.
- The mechanical pulley system fails, causing the elevator to drop rapidly.
- The overall wiring becomes damaged due to the heat of a fire or operation of the sprinkler system during an emergency.
- The elevator has been improperly inspected and/or repaired and maintained.
New York Elevator Safety Act
Some 35 states have laws requiring elevator contractors to be trained and licensed, but New York is not one of them. The New York Elevator Safety Act has been stalled in the state legislature for the past six years. In addition to licensing and training, this act would establish a safety and standards board for the elevator industry. Per the International Union of Elevator Constructors (IUEC), eight New York elevator contractors died in 2015 while performing elevator maintenance.
While passage of the act has many proponents, including politicians, unions and safety advocates, the stalemate continues. City&StateNewYork.com calls the proposed bill a commonsense elevator safety bill that will save lives. Since elevator construction is an industry that impacts both public and worker safety, education and training of elevator contractors and mechanics seems like a self-evident necessity. Nevertheless, New York leaves the choice of worker training up to individual contractors, many of whom come in from New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont and other states that have elevator training laws.
Labor Press and other advocacy groups go so far as to accuse Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration of “stand[ing] in the way of safety reforms that could help prevent a growing number of horrific elevator accidents around the city – some deadly.” The Fire Department of New York reports that since 2011, there has been a 160 percent increase in the number of incidents where elevator passengers had to be rescued.
Elevator Safety Precautions
The New York City Buildings Department recommends that elevator passengers practice the following elevator safety tips:
- Make sure the elevator is level with the floor before entering or exiting the car.
- Do not enter or exit if the car is more than nine inches above or below floor level.
- Never lean on closed elevator doors while waiting for the car to come.
- Never try to pry open the elevator doors if the car becomes stuck; ring the alarm bell instead and wait for help.
- Make sure that clothing items such as ties and scarves are clear of the car’s closing doors.
- Avoid overcrowding the car; too many people inside can cause the car to become stuck.
- Assist young children and elderly and/or disabled adults who are entering or exiting the car.
Most importantly, in the event of a fire, never use an elevator. Use the stairs instead.
Despite non-passage of the New York Elevator Safety Act to date, property owners have the duty to use reasonable care to keep their property free from hazards and their equipment in good working order so as to ensure a safe place for the public to be. Elevator manufacturers, including manufacturers of an elevator’s component parts, likewise have the duty to produce and sell a safe product. When elevator accidents happen, those who are injured have the right to file a personal injury lawsuit, and the families of those killed have the right to file a wrongful death action. While nothing can make up for the pain, suffering and/or grief that follows an elevator injury or death, such suits can at least compensate the victims for their financial losses and provide a sense of justice.