Ensuring the Safest Ride: Elevator Risks, Operator Insights
From snapping cables to flooding hazards, elevators pose a variety of safety risks for residents and workers alike. HappyCo explores key concerns so that multifamily operators can ensure the safest climb for their communities.
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“It’s such an expensive apartment building, they can at least provide a safe environment and instead they killed my son.” Charles Waisbren didn’t mince words when speaking to the New York Times about the elevator accident that took the life of his 30-year-old son, Samuel C. Waisbren, earlier this month at a Manhattan luxury high-rise apartment building.
Noting that the building had a long history of elevator complaints, the New York Times describes how Waisbren: “was crushed to death after the elevator dropped suddenly as he was exiting into the lobby.” CBS New York touches on potential root causes, revealing: “currently, there is no government-regulated training requirements for mechanics who work on the state’s elevators.”
Fortunately, public officials are pointing out an irony that may finally effect change in the realm of elevator inspections. As Sen. Diane Savino made clear to CBS, “We have no idea who’s working on them. You can’t cut hair in New York state without a license. It is somewhat absurd that you can fix elevators and work on other people movers without having a license.”
Against this backdrop, HappyCo offers explores the realm of elevator safety — from overall trends and evolving risks to legal dynamics and operator insights.
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According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “elevators injure 17,000 and kill 27 people a year in the U.S., with half of those deaths relating to workers performing installations or repairs.” While these numbers appear alarming, the likelihood of getting stuck seems oddly reassuring; CNN cites an estimation from engineering firm KJA revealing: “the odds of being trapped, for someone who takes an elevator an average of 8 times a day, are 1 in 5,000 each month.”
However, recent numbers out of New York suggest some multifamily operators in the metro area are struggling mightily to provide safe, reliable elevators. Following the accident that killed Waisbren in Manhattan, Curbed published a piece highlighting the worst NYC-area offenders in the world of elevator complaints, revealing: 92 elevator complaints at one Brooklyn apartment complex and 75 complaints at a building in the Bronx.
Needless to say, faulty elevators present more than sobering statistics; there’s always a distressing human equation once stairs become the only option available. A Connecticut news station noted the consequences in Bridgeport, where a residential building’s elevator broke down this summer. The writer describes how a 58-year-old paraplegic man living on the 5th floor of the complex was among “dozens of disabled residents… facing one medical emergency after another amid the outage.”
This June in Philadelphia, meanwhile, 14 people heading to a wedding reception at one of the city’s noteworthy high-rises found themselves “trapped in the elevator car amid sizzling temperatures and little air to breathe for 3 ½ hours.” At one point, as the Inquirer author describes, the people inside got so desperate for fresh air that they “stood on top of each other and pressed their faces to a small opening in the car’s door to suck in any available oxygen.” While the group eventually emerged safely, the rescue was a harrowing one.
To be sure, multifamily operators want to avoid both the safety risks and glaring headlines linked to significant elevator accidents. Thus, it’s useful to pull back the curtain on the legal and operations side of elevator safety.
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A recent piece from the Toronto Sun serves as a helpful starting point to gauge a key elevator safety hurdle. After describing a spike in skyscrapers and high-rise condo buildings across the Toronto area, the writer poses the question: “are there enough elevator mechanics to handle the increasing workload?”
Yet, Jane Stevenson soon provides some clarity, noting that the Technical Standards and Safety Authority suggests there are “55,812 elevators regulated by the TSSA and 4,634 licensed technicians to fix them.” However, Stevenson also turns for comment to public official Han Dong, who “disagrees there are enough elevator mechanics to meet demand in a timely manner.”
Stevenson goes on to note that Dong is working to fill a critical void on this front; he introduced a bill that requires elevators “must be fixed within a maximum of 14 days.” Unfortunately, though it passed through one stage of government, it’s unclear when it will become law. Thus, as high-rises grow in popularity, multifamily operators would be wise to gauge the repair possibilities in their region — so that residents don’t fall victim to an elevator accident without hope of a speedy rescue.
To be sure, politicians are applying increasing pressure to strengthen the requirements for elevator technician training and licensing. Indeed, Sen. Savino wants to spell an end to the status quo, wherein only “36 states plus the District of Columbia require mechanics to be licensed.” Working with a 30-year veteran elevator mechanic to craft the legislation, Savino has devised a New York state bill that would mandate 144 hours per year of training for four years, in addition to on-the-job training.
In the same vein, there’s currently a bill in the Ohio statehouse that would establish a board dedicated to elevator safety review, in addition to requiring that mechanics and contractors have licenses. Michael Halpin, Coordinator for the Elevator Industry Work Preservation Fund, explains that “the highly technical field encompasses many trades,” ones often evolving. As he puts it, “Often times your problems are electrical. They can be mechanical too, so you really do need to be fluent in mechanics and electrical to be a good maintenance mechanic.”
As legal advances begin to change the nature and complexity of elevator inspections, multifamily operators would benefit from keeping a careful eye on their local, county, and state regulations.
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Before featuring an operator perspective on elevator inspections, it’s helpful to cover an elevator hazard that’s only set to worsen in the age of climate change. In a word: flooding. A recent Bisnow piece set the stage, noting: “as sea level rise increases lead to more flooding concerns in coastal areas, the Emergency Operations Committee of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers… is developing new guidelines that will state precisely how building operators should address flooding issues in elevators.”
Unfortunately, the article reveals: no government organization is currently dedicated to tracking flooding in elevators. Stressing that the “intensity” and frequency of hurricanes have been on the rise since the 1980’s, Bisnow quotes elevator safety expert Kevin Brinkman, who emphasizes: “the reality is, any time your building is subject to flooding on a lower level, your elevator is subject to flooding as well. You’ll start to get water into the pit as soon as you get water into that building.”
Tragically, as Bisnow describes, a spa director died during Hurricane Harvey because she was stuck in an elevator on the basement level at her workplace when the power went out and “flood waters continued to rise.” Ultimately, the author reveals: “her body was found 11 days later in the ceiling tiles” after she managed to escape the elevator but drowned in flood waters. However, Bisnow goes into great detail about the water sensor options operators can choose so that elevator cars are able to adapt in real-time should devastating flooding strike.
Needless to say, elevators present a wide range of hazards — from traditional stalling to climate change consequences. Thus, it’s very important that multifamily teams carry out diligent inspections and monitor their equipment on a portfolio-wide basis. To this end, HappyCo shares insights from Alex Cuenca at Maxus Properties.
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“More preventative maintenance on elevators means fewer problems and fewer repairs, and that’s enormously helpful because elevator expenses are through the roof.” Alex Cuenca, Operations Analyst at Maxus Properties, is quick to answer when asked about best practices for elevator safety.
Indeed, Cuenca and Maxus are big believers in taking preventative measures on a consistent basis rather than working only to meet bare minimum elevator requirements. It’s why Maxus teams carry out weekly elevator inspections — even though this interval is much more frequent than what’s required by law. All the while, Cuenca says mobile software has added unprecedented transparency to these safety checks. “We have a really straightforward Happy Inspector template to make sure these weekly checks get done — that everything looks good and functions as it should.”
Using Happy Inspector through a phone or tablet, Maxus employees (typically maintenance supervisors) check for a variety of items during elevator inspections. These include the inside and outside of cars, walls, ceilings, handrails, panels, lighting, and, importantly, machine room conditions. “Ideally, the machine room is very clean and free of clutter. So, our inspectors are always checking carefully for accessibility.”
Cuenca says having real-time access to these elevator safety reports adds a sense of accountability for both internal staff and third-party vendors. In his view, “going from paper to mobile gave us the capability of closely tracking these important inspections. The transition also ensured that Maxus employees who do the weekly elevator checks can hold our third-party elevator company accountable, because they have to provide a detailed log when they complete a thorough monthly inspection of their own.”
Additionally, Cuenca emphasizes the value of a big-picture view, one with standardized data, as Maxus works to ensure nothing slips through the cracks with elevator safety. “We also use Happy Insights, and it offers us a dashboard to highlight these inspections. That way, our regional managers can see each week if they’re completed at a given property.” To Cuenca, this level of transparency ensures Maxus’s hefty investment in elevator safety (several hundred dollars a month to its third-party vendor) always pays off.
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Besides using mobile tools that allow for oversight and collaboration, Maxus recommends that operators also develop cooperative arrangements with locally-based elevator companies. As Cuenca explains, “We try and work with smaller regional companies to have much more flexibility in contracts, and we’ve also found that local companies are far more responsive to requests than larger ones.”
After all, resident safety is the number one priority for Maxus in the realm of elevator inspections. As Cuenca stresses: “We always want to provide a positive experience for our residents, and we never want them to deal with a broken elevator whether they’re rushing to get to work or heading out to pick up their kids. No matter what it takes, we value compliance in every aspect related to maintenance.”
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