Elevators and escalators are so common in our lives, most of us rarely think about them. You might use one at work, at the mall, or in a parking garage. You will probably use one or the other at the airport. You might even use one at your church or at a vacation property like a beach house, because some high-end homes and resorts now have elevators.
Elevators and escalators add convenience. Indeed, the invention of elevators led to the initial creation of tall buildings (“skyscrapers”) in major cities, fueling economic growth. However, accidents on elevators and escalators result in about 30 deaths and 17,000 serious injuries a year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Consumer Product Safety Commission.
Elevators: Marvelous and Treacherous
In the days before elevators, structures were not built more than a few floors high, for good reason: no one wanted to climb the stairs to their office on the eleventh floor, let alone the 58th floor. The invention of the elevator by Elisha Otis changed all that.
Modern elevators are much safer than the original ones, as technological advancements have improved them. Still, accidents do occur. An average of ten passengers a year die in elevator mishaps. The most common reasons, by percentage, for elevator injury and death are:
- The door malfunctions (37 percent). It either does not close properly or fails to open. A rider may be thrown off balance by a door, be hit by a door, or get caught in or between doors.
- Abrupt starts or stops (27 percent). Sudden movement can cause passengers to fall or be thrown about, impacting other people or objects within the elevator. Abrupt starts and stops are usually the fault of power loss or the speed of ascent or descent being too high.
- Misleveling (25 percent). The elevator may not stop in line with the floor, resulting in trips and falls. Sometimes misleveling results in entrapment or stopping between floors. If someone tries to get out despite the misleveling, they can be injured or killed when the elevator begins moving, and it is the most common reason for elevator-related death.
- Other causes (11 percent). This category can include open-shaft falls, faulty electrical wiring that shocks passengers, or malfunctioning of the pulley system, causing the elevator to fail and fall to the bottom of the shaft.
Many elevator accidents involve those who work on them. An average of 15 elevator workers die each year in accidents. Elevator installers and repair persons have the sixth-highest death rate of occupational-related fatalities across construction industries, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries. The most common causes of death are falling into an open shaft and getting caught between moving parts.
One relatively new wrinkle involves elevators installed in private homes. There have been at least two Consumer Product Safety Commission recalls of elevators installed in private homes in the past two years because of catastrophic injuries of children. It should be noted that some states neither inspect nor regulate the use of elevators inside homes—something to consider if you rent a vacation property with an installed elevator.
Escalators: Helpful and Hazardous
A trio of men, Reno, Wheeler, and Seeberger, are generally credited with inventing and refining the first escalators or “moving staircases.” Escalators create convenience in areas where an elevator would be inconvenient or impractical, moving greater numbers of persons between floors faster than an elevator could.
However, the frequency of escalator injuries is about 15 times as common as for elevators, even though there are fewer escalators than elevators in the U.S., largely because the potential for mishap is greater. Injuries and deaths that occur while riding on an escalator generally arise from one or more of the following situations:
- Side-of-the-step or between-step entrapment of clothing, shoes, or body parts
- Comb plate entrapment of clothing, shoes, or body parts. Comb plates are the parts with “teeth” found at the tops and bottoms of escalators.
- Finger entrapment along the moving rails, especially with children
- Broken or missing steps that result in the rider’s falling into the moving machinery. There have been at least two cases of this in New York, with one at JFK International Airport, the fifth busiest airport in the US.
People can be injured or killed by falling off escalators as well. In fact, most escalator accidents are caused by falls. In 2011, a child in Massachusetts fell 18 feet from an escalator onto a display case, dying the following day. However, such falls occur more frequently in the elderly, especially among women.
In general, children five years and under and adults 65 and older are the ones most likely to be injured while using escalators, probably because of unsteadiness while standing and the difficulties of stepping on or off the moving stairs.
Elevator and Escalator Negligence
In some cases, property owners can be held liable for injuries and deaths because the elevator or escalator in question was not properly maintained. Manufacturers, too, can be held liable for faulty design and manufacturing defects. Inadequate or incorrect installation and inspection can also hold certain parties liable for injury and death. All of these come under the legal heading of negligence.