New Washington state escalator rules fall short, analysis finds

Staff writerJune 28, 2014 

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Betsy Vo and her family were riding an escalator at a Bellevue department store when the steps suddenly began to collapse beneath their feet.

Vo yelled at her 4-year-old son to jump, an accident report says. Then she too leaped over the buckling steps to reach the platform above.

Seven others, including Vo's husband and youngest son, were injured as the escalator fell apart at the Bellevue Square Macy's in December 2012.

The failure of the Macy's escalator alarmed state officials who regulate escalators and elevators in Washington.

Soon afterward, they established new rules governing elevator and escalator maintenance companies. They also began issuing new fines for escalator and elevator owners who don't promptly address problems found by state inspectors.

But nearly a year after the new regulations took effect, roughly one quarter of the 503 escalators inspected by the state still have outstanding problems that have no record of ever being fixed, a News Tribune analysis has found.

And, given the state's spotty record of completing inspections recently, dozens of other escalators may have more issues that have yet to be identified.

Less than one-third of escalators monitored by the state received annual safety inspections last year as required by state code. Some escalators, including several at the Greater Tacoma Convention & Trade Center, haven't been visited by a state inspector since 2010 or 2011.

Jack Day, the state's chief elevator and escalator inspector, said he and his staff chose to focus on revamping maintenance regulations last year, which temporarily took time away from completing safety inspections.

He said the state's escalators and elevators will be safer as a result of the state's regulatory overhaul, even if fewer escalators were inspected in the short term.

"We should be starting to turn things around here very quickly," Day said.

AFTER BELLEVUE, SOME CHANGES

Following the Bellevue escalator collapse, state inspectors found 32 code violations on the Macy's escalator, including 15 they said directly contributed to its failure.

An investigation by the state Department of Labor and Industries (L&I) found that the company hired to maintain the escalator, Schindler Elevator Corp., failed to conduct safety tests and other routine maintenance that could have prevented the accident.

Schindler disputed the state's findings, saying that its maintenance practices didn't cause the escalator to collapse.

The company "takes its maintenance obligations very seriously," wrote Schindler spokeswoman Kathy Rucki in an email to The News Tribune.

Even so, the Bellevue accident accelerated the state's efforts to beef up its regulations for elevator and escalator maintenance companies, said Day, who leads L&I's elevator and escalator division.

"The Bellevue Macy's was what first brought it to our attention specifically," Day said. "Then we started the process of looking at other companies."

ESCALATOR ACCIDENTS HIGH

Though escalators make up a small portion of the conveyances inspected by L&I, Day said they have become one of state inspectors' top priorities – partly due to how often people get hurt riding them.

While elevators in the state's system outnumber escalators 32 to 1, more than twice as many accidents occurred on escalators between 2008 and early 2014.

During that time, 318 injury accidents were reported on the 503 escalators inspected by L&I, while only 124 accidents occurred on more than 16,400 state-inspected elevators and lifts.

Those numbers don't include some conveyances in Spokane and Seattle, where the cities largely conduct their own inspections.

On Pierce County's 38 escalators, there were 10 injury accidents between 2008 and 2014. All of them were at the Tacoma Mall, and none were caused by problems with the escalators, state inspectors said.

It is rare for L&I inspectors to find that an escalator accident was the result of an equipment malfunction. The agency has made that determination only 11 times since 2008, with one of those times being the accident at the Bellevue Macy's.

More frequently, accidents on escalators happen when people trip and fall, and could have been prevented if people used the escalator hand rail, Day said.

Still, injuries from those kinds of accidents can be serious. Last April, 42-year-old Maurecio Bell died in a Seattle transit tunnel when he fell and his clothing caught in an escalator, choking him to death.

While Bell's death was not attributed to problems with the escalator, state inspectors found several code violations there when they conducted an accident investigation.

Day said that even when accidents occur on escalators that are out of step with state code, it doesn't mean those problems caused someone to get hurt.

Yet a code violation "may contribute to another accident coming up" if it isn't fixed, he said.

"The potential for one coming up is also something we want to avoid," Day said.

INSPECTIONS CURSORY

Part of L&I's job is to conduct annual safety inspections of escalators, as well as approve alteration work and investigate accidents.

During an annual inspection, L&I inspectors conduct a series of routine checks and note any code violations they find. The inspectors review maintenance records to see if safety tests have been performed, and check the escalator for visible issues such as broken comb teeth or cracked handrails.

Normally, state inspectors don't open up the escalator to check that everything is working well internally. That means that unless a mechanical problem is obvious – such as banging noises coming from the machinery – they could miss it.

New problems can also crop up quickly on escalators, since they run continuously for many hours a day.

Ten months before the accident in Bellevue, state inspectors conducted an annual inspection on the escalator that would later collapse. At the time, they found only one minor code violation that needed to be fixed: The green lights that illuminate the cracks between the steps weren't working.

MAINTENANCE: WHO DOES IT?

It's not L&I's responsibility to actually fix problems on escalators, or to perform routine maintenance work.

Those tasks generally fall to elevator maintenance companies, who are hired by building owners to perform safety tests and keep escalators running properly.

While state law says building owners are liable for any code violations found on their escalators, only licensed escalator mechanics are qualified to maintain the escalators and fix problems.

That's why building owners generally pay a monthly fee for elevator maintenance companies – which employ teams of licensed mechanics – to work on their escalators.

After the Bellevue accident, L&I inspectors reviewed Schindler and other companies' maintenance procedures, and found that not all of them complied with state code, he said.

In July, L&I started requiring maintenance companies to keep approved maintenance control programs on file with the state. The department also created stricter guidelines for how companies must document maintenance work.

At the same time, L&I gave itself new authority to yank maintenance companies' licenses if they don't follow the new rules.

NEW PENALTIES FOR OWNERS

Also in July, the state launched new penalties for escalator and elevator owners who don't fix problems identified by state inspectors.

Previously, problems had to persist for a year or more – and be noted by a state inspector in a follow-up inspection – to merit a penalty.

Now, owners must now send in proof that problems are fixed within 90 days of a state inspection or they are fined $114. Penalties go up the longer problems remain uncorrected.

So far, the new fines haven't always resulted in escalator owners fixing code violations.

In the first 11 months of the state's new penalty system, L&I fined the owners of 54 escalators for not correcting problems identified by state inspectors.

By mid-June, only 17 of those escalators had been fixed, according to the state's inspection database.

And there are many more escalators with uncorrected problems besides the ones that have generated fines, state records show.

A News Tribune analysis of state inspection data found that as of mid-June, a total of 131 escalators inspected by L&I had code violations that were overdue for correction but hadn't been reported as fixed. That number represents 26 percent of all escalators inspected by L&I.

The majority of those escalators – 114 of them – had been cited for failing to complete maintenance or perform annual safety tests, problems identified in the Bellevue escalator collapse.

Mostly, the outstanding code violations date to inspections conducted before July 1, 2013, when the state began issuing its new penalties.

Seattle attorney Lance Palmer has worked on elevator and escalator injury cases for 25 years. He's also lectured other lawyers and property managers about building owners' liability when someone gets hurt.

Palmer said as an observer, he has long believed the state's fines "do not have enough bite to change the attitude that money is saved by taking safety shortcuts."

"If there is a problem and the owner calls the maintenance company, then they have to pay by-the-hour above what they have in their maintenance contract," Palmer said. "Sometimes they call. Sometimes they don't."

David Gault, the engineering director at the Fairmont Olympic Hotel in Seattle, said building owners have ample motivation to fix problems on their escalators: They don't want people to get injured or to get themselves sued.

Gault serves on the state's Elevator Safety Advisory Committee, where he represents building owners.

"If you're not taking care of safety issues that need to be addressed, you're not being responsible," Gault said.

FEW INSPECTIONS, FEW PENALTIES

Another hurdle for the state's new penalty system is that fines are applied only if state inspectors get around to completing inspections.

In 2013, that rarely happened.

Last year, the state conducted annual safety inspections on 160 of the 503 escalators under its jurisdiction – less than one-third of the total.

An additional 107 escalators were inspected for other reasons, such as to investigate accidents and approve upgrades. But 46 percent of the state's escalators weren't visited by a state inspector at all.

Day said the state's inspectors were busy last year educating building owners and maintenance companies about the state's new regulations.

L&I was also down about five inspectors last year due to employee departures, he said.

Those inspectors have since been replaced, bringing L&I's number of escalator and elevator inspectors up to 23, Day said. The department is now working to hire four additional inspectors this year to help eliminate its inspection backlog, he said.

Even in good years, though, the state has failed to conduct annual safety inspections on all of its escalators. Between 2003 and 2012, state inspectors completed annual safety inspections on, depending on the year, as few as 60 percent of escalators and as many as 90 percent, L&I records show.

That means some escalators haven't been inspected for three or four years – including those at the Greater Tacoma Convention & Trade Center.

The convention center's six escalators were last inspected in December 2010.

Kim Bedier, the city of Tacoma's director of public assembly facilities, said that the city has a contract with Schindler to ensure that the convention center's escalators are maintained properly.

Schindler services the equipment monthly, she said, and city officials are confident the escalators are safe.

Still, it would be nice to have added assurance from L&I that everything is code-compliant, Bedier said.

"The state is the watchdog, so ideally we would like to see them inspecting more often," she said. "We're here with open arms, when they're ready."

Some states, such as Tennessee and New York, make a point of conducting more regular inspections. Both states require safety inspections on escalators and elevators every six months, rather than every year.

Ron Sidler, the chief elevator and escalator inspector in Tennessee, said the state's rigorous inspection schedule ensures conveyances are checked regularly, even when inspections are missed or late.

"We just feel like it's indicative to the safety of the riding public, because so many things can happen," Sidler said. "A lot of people don't happen to do maintenance ... but at least they have us coming back every six months."

Melissa Santos: 360-357-0209 melissa.santos@thenewstribune.com @melissasantos1

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