Elevators Designed to Trap

NYC-building2By now everyone has heard about the woman trapped for three days in a swanky Manhattan townhouse elevator. A deliveryman was not able to drop off a package and called the homeowners (who were out of town) to find out why no one answered the door. They then had a family member go to the townhouse and discovered their housekeeper had been trapped inside the elevator car for three days with no food or water.  Firefighters were called to the scene and forced the doors open to the elevator that was stuck between the second and third floor.

Believe it or not, although extremely rare, this is not the only time a person has been stuck for prolonged periods of time in an elevator.

In 1999 Nicholas White, who was returning to his office after a smoke break, was trapped for some 40 hours in an elevator in New York City’s McGraw-Hill building. The timelapse video of his time while stuck is truly compelling. You can absolutely empathize with a person that patiently tried to call for help, then waited as best he could, but desperately pries the car doors open, only to find a concrete slab on the other side with the number 13 ominously scrawled on cement block wall. That wall was like a punchline to a sick joke; how demoralizing! The reason for the wall was he was in an express elevator. He was stuck around the 13th floor of an elevator that starts on the first floor with the next stop being the 39th, so when he got his doors open in the car, there were no hoistway doors to be found. I can’t even imagine what it must have felt like. Here is Mr. White’s story in detail in an interview with comedian Daniel Tosh.  It was interesting to note he tried the doors and the escape hatch to no avail.

Lastly, in 2005 Ming Kuang Chen, a delivery person in the Bronx for a Chinese restaurant, was stuck for 80 hours in an elevator. He was reported missing when his unaccompanied bike was found outside a high rise. Emergency personnel were scrambled and went door to door in the apartment building looking for him and even called in a dive team and cadaver dogs to search a lake in a nearby park.  Despite searching everywhere, he was found stuck in the elevator and, due to poor communication, stayed there until help arrived. To make matters worse, he had just finished his last delivery so he didn’t even have any Chinese takeout to eat.

The circumstances in each episode vary regarding the cause of the entrapment, but one thing remains the same. They could not get out of the elevator car and, to the possible shock of people reading this and not familiar with elevator code, that is exactly how elevator cars are designed to work. Once you are in, you cannot get out unless you arrive at your floor and the doors open. If you are stuck…you are stuck.

That is why elevator folks always snicker a bit when they see the latest Hollywood production that has a person stuck in the elevator or has a character that wants to get on the top of the elevator car for some nefarious or crime-fighting purpose, and they easily find their way to the car roof. The leading man or woman just reaches up and pushes the secret hatch on the ceiling of the car and like magic swing up through the opening. Despite being cliche as kissing in the rain, aliens knowing perfect English, or guns that have an endless supply of bullets, it just can’t happen; and it can’t happen for a good reason. The safest place to be when there are technical problems with your elevator is inside the car and the stats back it up.

The U. S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) reported that between 2003 and 2016 there were 117 elevator related deaths. 53 of those deaths were due to being struck by elevators or by the counterweights (usually elevator technicians) outside of the car.  Additionally when you leave the elevator car there is a risk of falling, being electrocuted, crushed between the hoistway wall and a moving elevator or being hit by falling debris. Even if you can pry the doors open, do not leave the elevator car. You never want to be half in and half out of the elevator car if it starts moving. So what do you do? Contact the person on the other end of the emergency phone and then wait.  Waiting, even if for three days, is probably your best bet.

So ultimately, every few years we will continue to hear about people being trapped in elevator cars because that is the design by intention. How the passengers got in elevators that broke down is a completely different subject for a different blog. But do keep this in mind: because there is no way out, maintenance, procedures, and attentiveness is crucial for all elevators.

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Elevator Injuries on the Rise

hoistwayElevator injuries on the rise! The headline is a bit frightening but absolutely true, and something that we have been very aware of at Phoenix Modular Elevator for some time. We have written dozens of blogs concerning the inherent dangers of elevator construction and use and how to avoid them in the elevator and construction industry. We also routinely post helpful tips to building owners about safe operation. However, in an industry that is slow to change, it is hard to be heard, even if you have solutions and truth on your side. Before we delve into the study, you need to be reassured that elevators overall are exceedingly safe. It has been said that elevators move more people safely every year, further than any other mode of conveyance, so don’t panic. With that said, a recent study by the Center for Construction Research and Training (CPWR) found the following:

  • There is an upward trend in elevator-related fatalities in construction, as the number of deaths and rate has doubled from 2003 to 2016.
  • Between 2011 and 2016, 145 construction workers died due to elevator-related injuries, accounting for more than half of such fatalities in all industries.
  • The majority (53.5%) of elevator-related fatalities in construction were caused by falls to a lower level, nearly half (47.9%) or which were falls from 30 feet or more.
  • About 46% of construction workers with elevator-related nonfatal injures require 31 days or more off of work to recover.
  • Elevator or escalator-related injuries treated at hospitals among members of the public jumped by more than 30% from 2007 to 2017.

Only the coldest of hearts could not see the tragedy in these statistics. People in the elevator industry, construction industry and riding public need to be aware that an elevator is not a toy but a means of conveyance. It is a very powerful apparatus that can move thousands of pounds at the touch of a button and is usually the largest moving object in any building.  When combined with the fact that heights are part of the equation for elevators, if not careful, you can have increased risk.

During construction and installation, old-fashioned elevator techniques maybe part of the problem.  Many of the falls from height could be avoided if modular elevators were utilized in the construction phase. Modular elevators are put in place with the elevator doors closed until the elevator is fully operational. Every time a construction worker or elevator installer falls accidentally into an elevator hoistway during the construction process due to an open door, it is a senseless death. More modern and safer means are now available. Likewise, with modular elevators, there is no scaffolding around or inside a hoistway during construction to fall off of because the shaft is pre-fabricated so you never need scaffolding, as there is nothing to build; only a pit to pour.

As far as the riding public and building owners are concerned, remember and reinforce simple steps to insure safe riding:

  • Be aware of your surroundings. Notice anything that could cause a trip and fall.
  • Being courteous is safety. Allow passengers to exit before entering. Stand clear of the doors.
  • If the elevator is full, simply wait for the next car. It is not a competition to pack people in like sardines. Every elevator has a capacity limit.
  • No horseplay. Jumping up and down or playing with the buttons can only mean trouble.
  • Don’t try to beat the door. If they are closing, please wait. Use the door open button instead.
  • In emergencies, take the stairs.
  • Watch your step; sometimes elevator cars are not perfectly level with the floor.
  • Hold and control any children in the elevator car.
  • Hold pets or keep them close. Nothing is more heartbreaking than to have the elevator doors close with you on one side and your pet on the other, especially if leashed. You gotta see this video! 
  • Use the handrails. Rides are not always perfectly smooth.
  • Do not push your way out! You could knock people down. Be polite.
  • Never climb out of an elevator that has stopped between floors. EVER! Although rare, this is the most common way passengers suffer significant injury.
  • Use the alarm button, phone or intercom if stuck.
  • Wait to be told what to do by a technician.
  • Don’t try to exit through the ceiling; those are locked from the outside.

With some common sense, courtesy and upgraded technology in the building process, we should see these disturbing trends reversed.

Boring Old Elevator Contracts

Contract PhotoI remember buying my first house. I was so anxious to move in that I barely perused the mounds of paper in front of me. The banker kept pushing documents towards me and I continued to sign. Promissory note? Title insurance? Escrow? I had no idea. I just knew to get the house, I had to scribble my John Hancock about a million times. I don’t know who said, “A signature is worth less the more it is signed.” But if that is true, mine wasn’t worth a plug nickel after that day. Or maybe it was the interest rate I agreed to?

In any case, the hard part of a major purchase is usually the contract.

Below is a list of the important components of an elevator maintenance contract and what they mean. It is our hope to help you navigate elevator ownership a bit better.

  1. Scheduled Maintenance – In basic terms, this is how often the elevator technician shows up to check on things and make adjustments to your elevator. The standard used to be one visit per month, but contracts have evolved, meaning fewer visits. Now, in some contracts, there is no specified number of visits at all. This can lead to a weird dynamic where you are paying a monthly invoice, but you are seeing your elevator technician quarterly or even less. To combat this, pay special attention to the frequency promised. Once you get the service you are paying for, always have someone assigned to check the log that every elevator should have and make sure they are doing what was promised. One ingenious building owner changed the key to the machine room so she knew exactly when the technician finally showed up. Turns out they were not living up to the promises in the contract.
  2. When will the contract end? – The longer the contract, the better the price, right? Not always. That is why it is important to shop contracts, prices and duration before you sign on the dotted line. Also, remember with longer contracts, you run the risk the company’s service will go downhill, and then you have little or no recourse.  Of course, if the same company is responsible for maintenance over a longer period of time, there is a chance that they will try to keep up with routine maintenance so larger problems won’t pop up.  A balanced approach with a trusted company is probably a better strategy than annual negotiations or a 10-plus year commitment.
  3. Automatic Renewals –  You probably can’t find an elevator contract without an automatic renewal clause. It protects the customer from a contract running out, the elevator breaking down and there not being an agreement in place to make the repairs at a reasonable price. However, this has become the most lopsided aspect of most elevator maintenance agreements. That is because most building owners are not watching the sand run through the hourglass on a five-year contract closely enough to cancel the contract according to the terms. There is usually a three month window of cancellation before the term ends, and if you miss it, too bad, so sad. You are stuck for another contract term. Our advice is cancel your contract now through certified letter. It doesn’t matter if there are still years on the deal; cancel immediately, then keep proof of the cancellation in your file.  This way, you can always get out of it at the end of the term. This can help with negotiation for the next contract as well.
  4. What’s covered? – One of the most frustrating things about elevator contracts for the building owner or manager is when a repair is needed, but the broken part is not covered. Make sure to see if ropes, motors, tanks, jacks, traveling cables, pumps and controllers are covered. This way, you can compare apple to apples when shopping the contract.
  5. Exclusions Apply –  No contract will cover everything, so it is a good idea up front to know what is not covered. Some of the most notable items usually excluded include: any damage due to vandalism, proprietary parts (never buy an elevator with proprietary parts), the machine room walls and doors, obsolete parts and buried pipes, liners and casings. Lastly, anything outside the control of the elevator contractor, including damage due to power fluctuations or leaving a dirty elevator door sill, won’t be covered. You can’t believe how many times elevators are down due to a small pebble in the sill track with repairs all at the owner’s expense.

Lastly, elevators and elevator contracts can be tricky and difficult to navigate so employing an elevator consultant may not be a bad idea. They can help sort all of this out and make recommendations based on your needs and budget before you sign your name one more time.

It is time for a new elevator when…

DSC_0025We recently installed a brand new elevator at a middle school and the superintendent was kind enough to tell us why the project was such a success. If you are thinking about a new elevator instead of wrestling the old one, this video testimonial could be the most important video you see.  It is a fantastic and honest look at why they replaced an elevator and the problems they were having that led them to the decision to upgrade with a new Phoenix Modular Elevator.

So, video has gotten us all thinking, what are the signs that your elevator needs replacing or modernizing? Sometimes it is like you are walking in the dark and guessing, so here’s a short list of considerations:

  1. You begin viewing yourself as Ahab and the old elevator as Moby Dick.  To refresh your memory, Ahab goes nutty in a search for a big white whale (Moby Dick). He starts seeing the whale as pure unadulterated evil and desires to overcome it by any means necessary. If you have ever thought about your elevator as your evil nemesis or a Moriarty to your Holmes, you need to step back and do a cost benefit analysis of a modernization or replacement. Make sure to include in your spreadsheet the cost of sleepless nights caused by lamenting over the many elevator failures. An elevator should never be your enemy.
  2. The time between repairs is getting shorter and shorter. When you start to have a deeper relationship with the person on the other end of the line of your answering service for the elevator repair company than you do with members of your own family, you either need a new maintenance company or your elevator is just well past its prime. Believe it or not the average life for an elevator is around 30 years give or take. So, if your elevator is older than the Glenfiddich, single-malt Scotch whiskey, on your shelf, maybe it’s time for something new.
  3. Parts have to be manufactured out of whole-cloth because they don’t exist any more. Strange but true, elevator parts are pretty easy to find. As a matter of fact there are companies that specialize in rare parts for all kinds of elevators. Even if the company is long out of business, you can usually get what you need. A warning, it can take some time to get them shipped and arrive in a reasonable time, but if your elevator technician is literally having your broken parts mended or fabricated because the elevator company has gone the way of the dodo, it might be time for an alternative especially if combined with point #2.
  4. The current elevator is not ADA compatible and the shaft or hoistway is too small to accommodate a modernization to a compliant elevator. People, its 2019 and time to make your building accessible. A modernization is a great way to give your elevator a complete overhaul. You can have cosmetic improvements, but also full-blown replacements of jacks and sheaves and motors depending on the need. The problem is when the existing elevator shaft or hoistway is just too small to accommodate a larger elevator car. In that case a new elevator hoistway and car are needed.
  5. You’re tired of talking to people through closed elevator doors. If you find yourself constantly shouting through a closed elevator door to people trapped inside, you may need a new elevator. But, if you like helping people through the anxiety and feeling of entrapment, then by all means keep your old one. After all it is sometimes difficult to meet new people or have a captive audience for your amateur stand-up routine. However, if your comedy act is flat you might want to look into a new elevator or modernization.

The above symptoms are just the tip of the iceberg. There can be even more reasons but, most often it is a lethal combination of all or several of the points above that spell the demise of the old white whale you have in your building. If you are not sure if you need a new elevator, feel free to contact us for a realistic discussion about when it is time to replace or modernize.

Elevator Ropes – The Basics

ricardo-mancia-582830-unsplashThere are two primary types of ways an elevator moves up and down. For low-rise applications (buildings between two and four floors) hydraulic jacks are king. The jacks can be in- ground or above ground, single stage or telescopic and can provide nearly 100 feet of travel depending on the circumstances and need (see chart below).

They are most often the wisest choice if you are wanting to go just a couple floors or so. When you hit five floors plus you have to start looking at several different options and once your elevator requirements move beyond 100 feet there really is only one way to go and that is with a roped system.  The only exception to the rule is a crazy hybrid that uses both ropes and hydraulics (roped hydraulic). These are getting as rare as unicorns. Here is where you will find all sorts of info on elevator ropes.