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Elevator experts push for stricter codes, enforcement as residential accidents continue

Updated: Jun. 3, 2021 at 10:45 AM EDT
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SOUTHEASTERN NORTH CAROLINA (WECT) - This summer, you or someone you know may be renting a home at one of our area beaches, or you may be fortunate enough to own one. As new homes continue to be constructed along our coast, homes are getting taller to protect against storm surge, and more people are choosing to install residential elevators. The trend has elevator inspectors and mechanics raising concerns about what they consider to be a growing public safety hazard: residential elevators in North Carolina are effectively unregulated.

Commercial elevators, including those in apartments and condominiums, are regulated in North Carolina and must be inspected every year. Many people assume private residential elevators are required to be inspected, too, but that is not the case in most states, including the Carolinas.

Not regulated

“There have been unfortunately some fatalities, there are some serious incidences that happened that I have been involved with personally,” said Jonathan Brooks, the former Bureau Chief for the North Carolina Depart of Labor Elevator and Amusement Device Bureau, which regulates commercial elevators. He now works in the private sector inspecting elevators. “It happens more often then you would think. My personal opinion is that it’s not brought to light because it’s a private residence elevator and they’re not regulated.”

A number of recent accidents and lawsuits out of Brunswick County have drawn some public attention to this issue, but residential elevator accidents resulting in serous injury and death often do not make the news. There is no central location where these types of accidents are tracked in North Carolina, so WECT would typically only find out well after the accident if a lawsuit is filed, or someone contacts us. Brooks said because of his line of work, he’s aware of a dozen accidents over the last two years in home elevators resulting in serious injuries along the Carolina coast alone.

In 2006, Brooks was called to inspect an elevator at a private residence in Carolina Beach, after a 10-year-old girl was crushed by the elevator while attending a birthday party. She died after getting caught between the wall and elevator. The safety gate on the elevator cab had been removed. That’s against code, but with no regulatory agency enforcing code compliance, the family was unaware of the danger.

In 2008, a man in his 70′s summoned the home elevator to the ground floor at a home he was staying in Surf City. He walked into the shaft before the elevator had reached the ground, and was crushed to death when it came down on top of him. Emergency crews had to use extrication tools to lift the elevator off of him, but he did not survive his injuries. Safety features that would have prevented the elevator from moving if the ground floor access door was opened had been disabled.

In 2010, an elderly couple in St. Simons Island, GA, died of heat exposure, after their home elevator got stuck between the second and third floors. The elevator was not equipped with a phone, and they had no way to call for help. 90-year-old Sherwood Wadsworth and his 88-year-old wife Caroline were found dead on the floor of their elevator, after a newspaper carrier got concerned about the growing pile of untouched newspapers at their front door.

And around 2018, Brooks was called by a vacation rental company to inspect an elevator near Murrell’s Inlet, SC after another tragic accident. A pre-school aged girl got into the elevator shaft on the ground floor of a vacation home there, and she died when the elevator came down on top of her. Elevators are not supposed to operate if the access door on the ground floor is open to prevent this kind of accident, but the mechanical system had been modified after the elevator was installed, and that safety feature had been bypassed.

Catastrophic injuries are also happening. In the last year alone, there have been two cases in Brunswick County where residential elevators crashed to the ground with passengers inside them, leaving them with broken bones and unable to walk. Even with homes being used for short-term rentals to the public, there is currently no requirement that elevators in those homes be inspected for safety. Brooks believes that needs to change.

“In my opinion, there’s no difference in that then you going and getting a condo or hotel room or what have you [where elevators are required to be inspected]. And it needs to be because we are subjecting those people to possibly - not saying all private residence elevators aren’t safe - but there is a potential that it’s not safe and it doesn’t meet the code,” Brooks explained.

He also believes elevator inspections should be required when private homes with elevators are sold to new owners, since the buyers may not be familiar with the elevator’s maintenance history.

Protecting yourself

There are a variety of problems that experts say are contributing to the danger. A big one is elevator design. Geared elevators, like the ones involved in the recent Brunswick County accidents, can go into free fall if the motor fails. By contrast, Charter Elevator Vice President of Field Operations Tyler Knox said hydraulic elevators are safer to use.

“If [a hydraulic elevator] were to lose control or leak it would come down at a very slow rate, contrary to the geared machine where once a gear gives, it’s just gravity. How fast can it hit the ground is really unfortunately the only thing stopping it,” Knox explained. With a residential elevator typically weighing at 2,000 pounds, plus the weight of the passengers inside it, the amount of force involved when the elevator falls roughly 20 feet in a residential elevator shaft can cause devastating injuries.

Knox said direct drive elevators that have a counter weight system that also prevent free fall.

According to Knox, hydraulic elevators are not necessarily more expensive than other designs that many elevator experts deem less safe. For new construction, Knox estimates a residential hydraulic elevator will cost between $20,000 - $25,000. He says geared elevators run between $25,000 - $30,000. But for homeowners who already have geared elevators installed, there is the added expense of having the old elevator system removed. The space needed for the hydraulic and direct drive elevators is also larger than the geared elevator design, so for existing homes, that may mean reducing the size of the elevator cab to accommodate the extra equipment. That can be problematic for folks who need a cab big enough to fit a wheelchair, for example.

Knox and some others in the elevator industry feel so strongly that the geared elevator is an inferior design, they will no longer install them. And when it comes to the Waupaca geared elevators that have been the subject of a recall and were connected to the recent elevator accidents in Brunswick County, some technicians will not even service them.

“I would say the great majority of people that are providing service in this area have decided not to even touch them. We are one of those companies,” Knox explained. “Even one accident will take our business and remove us from doing work again. It’s important for us to know 100% guaranteed your elevator is going to be safe every single time it’s used or it renders itself out of service.”

“Take the steps”

Adding to the danger, particularly for children, is the novelty of a home elevator.

“Its almost like an attractive nuisance. It’s ‘Hey! This house has got an elevator in it, lets go play,’” Brooks said of the magnetic draw of a residential elevator. “Just be aware that it’s not inspected. I wouldn’t use it, I don’t know if it’s code compliant, I don’t know if the door locks work, that kind of thing. I would just - if I have small kids, if I have teenage kids, they are inquisitive, they’re going to want to go look. Tell them just take the steps.”

Despite the significant number of injuries, Brooks thinks getting North Carolina to regulate elevators in private homes is still an uphill battle. Michigan is the only state he is aware of that currently regulates home elevators, but he hopes that will change. In the meantime, local elected officials could take their own measures to increase safety for residents and visitors alike.

“There is a section in the code that regulates private residence elevators but typically the authority having jurisdiction doesn’t enforce an inspection on a private residence elevator because it’s in a single-family dwelling,” Knox explained. “I think local counties and local areas need to get more stringent on enforcement or the state itself has to, and until that time I think you are going to continue to see accidents and injuries.”

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