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What would you say if I told you that people are still sometimes killed in elevators similar to the one you are about to board in your office lobby or doctor’s office? I suspect you would raise an eyebrow in disbelief or think that I am trying to scare you into reading this. But for the other 5% of readers who may have a severe case of claustrophobia you are probably saying yep – see, I told you so.
I too probably would have been disbelieving if I hadn’t recently witnessed a potentially dangerous situation in the lobby of an office building last week.
In this incident, Lori Stewart, a colleague of mine and I were leaving the office to call on a client. She happened to get the 2-inch heel of her shoe entrapped in the gap between the elevator door and lobby floor. Standing behind her, I was unable to see her face, but quickly realized what a predicament she was in as she struggled to free herself. I quickly tried to maneuver around her to get to the stop button. She freed herself before this became a dangerous situation.
In my line of work I look at the world and everyday experiences a little bit differently than most, as I see exposures and risks with every situation. This incident had me wondering the “what if” question, as we discussed this on our way down the elevator and out the door.
So the apparent question is: Are elevators still safe? And what should we do — or not do — to keep our elevator-riding experience a safe one?
Realizing the severity of the potential accident I could have witnessed, I decided to research this further. I was shocked to discover a rare but nevertheless similar fatal well-documented accident, which occurred in New York back in 2008. Without providing the gory details, I am sure you can imagine the severity of this accident when the victim was unable to remove her entrapped shoe.
Unfortunately the truth is there are injuries, and sometimes deaths, related to using elevators even today. Most are preventable. As I researched, the following fatalities stood out:
A woman was crushed to death last week at California State University Long Beach after trying to climb out of the elevator car when it got stuck. The elevator, which weighed 2,000 pounds, dropped down on top of her as she was climbing
out, the Los Angeles Times reported.
Back on August 16th 2003 a 35-year-old surgical resident was decapitated in a freakish elevator accident at Christus St. Joseph Hospital in Houston, Texas.
A woman on an elevator in Athens, Greece was strangled to death when her scarf got caught in the elevator door as it was closing.
Elevators have been around for a long time and according to the consumerwatch.org 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.
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 reports on injury and deaths associated with elevators. Injuries from elevators affect about 10,200 people per year, with the majority of these accidents being related to elevator door malfunctions, carriage misalignment with floors, and passenger safety vulnerabilities.
The most serious injuries and deaths involved falls into empty elevator shafts, including situations where the elevator doors opened and there isn’t an elevator car to walk into. Then other deaths have occurred with some frequency where people got struck by the elevator between floors, when trying to get out of a stuck elevator.
The U.S. Labor Department’s Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries reports that half of the annual elevator-related fatalities that occur involve repair or maintenance workers who service elevators. Of those, half of the fatalities result from falls into the shaft.
Prior to 9/11 terrorist attack the only known free-fall incident in a modern cable borne elevator happened in 1945. Today all the elevators are outfitted with safety devices which prevent the elevator from simply free-falling and crashing. A 2009 report by Occupational Health & Safety attributes the rarity of elevator fatalities to “intricate, redundant, and regulated safety features built into every elevator.” As elevators typically have four to eight times as many cables holding them up than they actually need. They also have automatic braking systems near the top and bottom of the shaft, backed up by electromagnetic brakes. Finally, “at the bottom of the shaft is a heavy-duty shock absorber system designed to save passengers if all else fails,” the report stated.
Elevator doors are also designed to not shut when there is something between them, thanks to photoelectric sensors mounted in the doors. There is also a set of contacts in the door that should keep the elevator from moving if the doors are not closed. However photoelectric sensors are also prone to malfunction and are only located near the center of the elevator door, so somebody could become entrapped below the view of that sensor.
Elevators, for the most part, are completely safe and are one of the safest designed mechanical inventions for transportations of all time. The LA Times recently calculated that elevators make about 18 billion trips a year, so the fatality rate from elevator accidents works out to about 0.00000015 percent per trip, so your odds of getting killed by a pack of wild dogs may be greater.
Even with such evidence of such safety, I would suggest the following safety tips:
• Never use an elevator in the case of fire.
• When entering an elevator when the door opens, look to see that the elevator is there and that it is level with the floor.
• When entering into an elevator, step over the threshold into the elevator avoiding the gap between the elevator and floor where a shoe heel could become entrapped.
• If your shoe/heel becomes entrapped try to dislodge or simply slip your foot out your shoe if at all possible.
• If your heel is stuck inform others so that they can hold the stop button for you.
• When entering into an elevator step away from the door and keep all loose clothing, scarves, purses and other carry-ons away from the closing door.
• If a piece of clothing such as a scarf or coat buckle, or even a carry-on happens to get caught in the door, notify somebody to hit the stop button and remove from your body as soon as possible.
• When riding hold children and pets firmly.
• Sometimes elevators will not line up properly with the floor thus causing a tripping hazard.
• Don’t try to pry open elevator doors with your fingers and stand back away from the doors when the elevator is in motion.
• If there is a problem with the doors, call for help; do not try to open them yourself.
• In the event you get stuck in an elevator, stay calm and use the emergency phone that is provided or use your cell phone.
• If the phone isn’t working or you don’t have reception, use the alarm button.
• Sit tight until help arrives. Don’t try to pry open the doors, or worse, climb up on top of the elevator through the hatch.
• If the doors are open, but the elevator is stuck between two floors do not attempt to climb up or down to get out.
• Remember don’t panic over the lack of air, as there is plenty of air to breathe onelevators.
• Don’t try to stop closing doors with anything, including hands, feet, canes, etc., just wait for the next elevator.
The truth is we actually live in the safest, healthiest and most peaceful time in human history, yet we all still need to be aware of the dangers that we face every day. If elevators still scare you, then remember that for every elevator there are usually at least two additional stairways. But before you take those stairs, let me highlight the fact that you are about 50x’s more likely to meet your death taking the stairs than riding an elevator, as on average 1307 people a year are killed by falling down stairs.
Keven Moore is director of Risk Management Services for Roeding Insurance (www.roedinginsurance.com). He has a bachelor’s degree from University of Kentucky, a master’s from Eastern Kentucky University and 25-plus years of experience in the safety and insurance profession. He lives in Lexington with his family and works out of both the Lexington and Northern Kentucky offices. Keven can be reached at email@example.com.