On Thanksgiving day last year, a large family gathering at a home outside of Salt Lake City became a living nightmare for the parents of a young child who became pinned under a residential elevator car.
Four-year-old Kaleb Rice was at his grandmother’s house for the holiday and somehow slipped into the elevator shaft and under the lift. The elevator had been installed in the home for Kaleb’s grandmother, who is unable to use the stairs.
At first, Kaleb was screaming, then he began gasping violently. Within moments he fell silent as his frantic family struggled to free him. The boy’s grandfather ran into the garage and retrieved an automobile jack, which was able to force the lift up a couple of inches. The family pulled Kaleb out and he began to breathe again. A trip to the emergency room confirmed that the accident had bruised and scraped the boy, but he had escaped serious injury. His family pulled him out without a moment to spare.
Other children haven’t been as fortunate.
The wider problem of elevator entrapments
Mike and Brandi Helvey of Atlanta were driving to a therapy session for their 12-year-old son Jacob, who was badly injured in a similar residential elevator accident nearly a decade ago, when they read about Kaleb’s accident in Utah.
Like the parents of other children killed and maimed by home elevators, the parents want the elevator manufacturers, the broader industry, and U.S. regulators to take action to prevent future accidents. They even went to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) headquarters in Bethesda, Maryland, to urge the agency for help.
“It will happen again,” Mike Helvey told the Seattle Times.
There is no way to know how many kids are injured or killed in residential elevator accidents each year because no centralized mandatory reporting system for consumer product injuries is in place. The CPSC database shows at least eight children have been killed in elevator entrapments since 1981, but elevator safety experts say that number is likely significantly higher.
The five-inch gap
The problem stems from a five-inch gap between the elevators’ inner and outer doors. The gap is large enough for small children to fall through or get stuck in. Should someone unsuspectingly operate the elevator, the trapped child can be seriously injured or worse.
According to the Washington Post, Otis Elevator first identified the child entrapment problem decades ago and took action after a child was killed in Maine in 2001, retrofitting thousands of its swing-door elevators with space guards to eliminate the gap. Otis officials also tried to warn other manufacturers that the problem was not unique to Otis. They sent safety brochures and warning letters across the elevator industry in the mid-2000s, but so far few if any have corrected the problem.
Residential elevators with these gaps can be retrofitted with an insert that closes the space. Such inserts cost the manufacturers about $75-$100. But despite the low cost, the CPSC decided over the summer not to mandate them, encourage manufacturers to voluntarily recall the elevators, or force a mandatory recall.
Regulatory failure, industry inaction
Regulatory inaction, incompetence, and corruption have plagued the CPSC under the Trump administration, much as it has the Federal Aviation Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), to name a couple.
In an earlier story, the Washington Post “detailed how elevator industry groups argued to regulators that the problem was complicated and often not their responsibility, successfully resisting pressure from the CPSC, an agency mired by internal divisions over what to do.”
Safety advocates have also pressured the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME), which sets voluntary standards across industries. After a boy was crushed to death in a home elevator in Michigan in 2003, elevator experts urged the ADME to reduce the five-inch gap to four inches – the maximum gap usually allowed between the railings of balconies and stairways and enough to prevent many of the accidents.
The ASME at first declined to act but agreed to the four-inch rule in 2016 as children continued to be killed and injured in elevators. Not all states adopt the ASME codes as law, however, and the new standard only applies to elevators made after 2016.
According to the Washington Post, there are 300,000 to 500,000 residential elevators already in use in homes and buildings throughout the U.S.