In the U.S., there are an estimated 900,000 elevators, each serving an average of 20,000 people per year. Collectively, U.S. elevators make 18 billion passenger trips per year. The vast majority of these elevators are located within commercial, retail, or residential properties with an average rise of 40 feet (4 to 5 floors). Each elevator averages about 5 people per trip.
There are five primary types of elevators that can vary in size and capacity: passenger, freight, LULA, home, and personnel. Passenger elevators can be hydraulically-driven, for a maximum travel height of 50 feet, or traction-driven, for medium- and high-rise architecture over 50 feet. Freight elevators are more durable and light on aesthetics, being able to carry heavy loads with a primary purpose of lifting general freight, carrying motor vehicles, and loading industrial trucks. A LULA elevator is named for “Limited Use/Limited Application,” in response to legislation requiring equal access to all individuals within multi-level buildings. LULA elevators are meant to be utilized by a small number of people on a light, as-needed basis, and they are designed to fit in very small spaces. Home elevators are used as a solution for convenience or accessibility within the home, such as for people with limited mobility. Personnel elevators are designed for limited use by maintenance, mechanical, or operations personnel in places such as grain elevators, towers, power plants, dams, and underground facilities.
Elevator Defects and Malfunction
Elevators are subject to defects or malfunction in the following ways, many of which can be dangerous and even fatal to users:
- Pulley system malfunction, or a mechanical breakdown or defect causing an elevator to drop rapidly within the shaft
- Open shaft, or the risk of fall due to faulty doors or other failures to protect passengers from entry
- Faulty wiring, elevator control malfunction, or a risk of electrocution
- Incomplete repairs, maintenance, or inspections by unqualified personnel
- Unbalanced leveling and the failure of the elevator to line up with the floor
- Wiring malfunction or entrapment due to the heat from fire or water from emergency sprinklers or hoses
Injury and Death Caused by Elevator Failures
There have been some reported cases of death and injury caused by elevator defects or malfunction. In Maryland in September 1996, a 53-year-old construction foreman was killed when a hydraulic elevator that he was working under fell onto him. He died from asphyxiation and head trauma, and his helper was also injured.
In May 1997, a four-year-old girl was killed in Chicago when she became wedged between a floor and the elevator. She had stepped off of the elevator after her mother when the elevator began to move to a different floor.
In July 2001, an 88-year-old woman tripped as she was exiting the elevator of a medical clinic in Edina, Minn. The woman sustained a pelvic fracture and died soon after.
In May 2002, a 35-year-old man was hospitalized in critical condition after falling four floors in an elevator shaft in Mobile, Ala. He had pried the elevator doors apart and slipped through.
In 2002, two sisters aged six and seven years old, were killed in New Jersey when a safety feature in the residential elevator failed to stop ascension of the car as the girls’ heads stuck out past the gate.
Statistics of Elevator Failure
City and state governments are fairly diligent in ensuring that annual public elevator inspections are carried out and reported properly. However, the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) is not authorized to regulate elevators as it does other products such as automobiles or personal equipment, so elevators and elevator parts are not subject to federal accident inspections or parts recalls. Without a requirement of public parts recalls due to defect, there is little widely available printed information regarding elevator defects.
When an elevator or escalator product is identified by the manufacturer as having a design defect, it is only required to send out a product letter by certified mail to equipment owners. Thus, the press and general public rarely find out about such faulty products until deaths or injuries have occurred.
What is known is that about 27 people are killed in elevator accidents each year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and the CPSC, which does report on injury and death associated with elevators. Injuries from elevators affect about 10,200 people per year, with the majority of these accidents being related to elevator door malfunction, carriage misalignment with floors, and passenger safety vulnerabilities.
The U.S. Labor Department’s Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries reports that half of the annual elevator-related fatalities occur in repair or maintenance workers who service elevators, or people who use elevators as part of their employment, such as in an office building. Of those, half of the fatalities result from falls into the shaft. In the occupational-related elevator deaths category, 53 percent occur during installation or repair, 17 percent occur during work in the shaft or car, and 30 percent occur during performance of work adjacent to (but not on board) the elevator.
For passengers using elevators while not at work, such as in apartment buildings, almost half of the deaths were due to falls in the elevator shaft, and the other half occurred as a result of being caught between the elevator and the shaft wall. The underlying causes of the fatal incidents may be due to one of several defects or malfunctions, such as in the wiring, pulley systems, door operation, or improper maintenance procedures.
Elevator Brands with Documented Failures
Some elevator parts and systems have been shown to have defects, with legal action following due to death or injury of passengers. Companies and products affected include:
Abell Elevator cars and brakes
Abell Elevator manufactured the elevator car and brakes that led to the death of an Ohio State University freshman in 2006. The Ohio Department of Commerce (which tracks elevator safety) determined that a brake failure occurred, and a post-accident mechanical review revealed that the elevator would not hold the amount of weight for which it was marketed and sold.
Otis Electronic Detector system
Otis Elevator manufactures, installs, and maintains the Otis Electronic Detector as a proximity-type door detractor, which is currently in use in many buildings. The door detractor has been proven defective through its nature and maintenance, leading to legal action against Otis (including James T. Wyatt v. Otis Elevator Company in 1991).
Schindler Elevator cars suddenly dropping
Otis Elevator maintained the Schindler elevator car that an Atlanta maid was riding when the car failed to properly stop at the first floor. The car continued to drop and bounced off the ground of the shaft several times, injuring the maid’s back permanently (Jones v. Otis Elevator Company).
Viola Industries-Elevator Division cars suddenly dropping
Viola Industries-Elevator Division, Inc.’s elevator mechanisms, now owned by International Elevator brand, failed in a Freeport, Texas office building in 1999. The elevator fell several floors and crashed into the shaft floor, injuring one passenger (Garcia v. International Elevator).
Otis Elevator cars misaligning with the floor
In 1986 in Midland, Mich., an apartment co-manager fractured her ankle when the elevator doors maintained under contract with Otis Elevator did not initially open as they should (to allow her to exit upon reaching the floor), and when they did open, the car was misaligned with the floor. The plaintiff then tripped and broke her ankle (Krueger v. Otis Elevator).
Arundel Elevator Company systems with defective springs
In 2007, the University of Maryland Medical System sued Arundel Elevator for defective springs that caused massive mechanical failure of a bank of six elevators in the University Hospital for a total of three weeks. The System claimed negligence due to both the failure and the potential risk to passengers.