A Washington Post report about safety issues with residential elevators that have resulted in serious injuries and deaths to children over several decades has prompted U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell to call for an investigation into the government’s handling of home elevators. The problem could be fixed by installing a $100 space guard in the gap, but elevator companies have been reluctant to recall the elevators and retrofit them, much less warn owners of the entrapment risks.
An estimated 300,000 to 500,000 U.S. homes and other buildings have residential elevators, which have an outer swing door and an interior accordion or gate door, and are different from commercial elevators with siding doors.
The gap between the two doors is too small to pose risks to most adults, but they can be fatal to children. At least eight children have been killed and two seriously injured in home elevator entrapments since 1981, according to the Consumer Protection and Safety Commission (CPSC) database and Washington Post search of news reports and lawsuits.
A separate analysis by CPSC found 131 cases of residential-elevator door accidents among both adults and children.
In 2001, 8-year-old Tucker Smith died after suffering severe head trauma when he got stuck in an elevator installed at an inn in Bethel, Maine. The elevator was made by Farmington, Connecticut-based Otis Elevator Company, the world’s largest elevator company. When the Smiths realized the design flaw, they sued Otis and received a $3 million settlement and a promise that the company would fix the problem.
During legal proceedings, however, it was discovered that Otis elevators had killed or injured 34 children in New Jersey and southern New York from 1983 to 1993. Most of those incidents involved entrapments. Internal documents showed the company was well aware of the dangers posed by the gap between the swing door and the gate on its elevators, and reminded its workers that there was a solution – a space shield that could be installed between the two elevator doors.
Otis sent warning letters to those in the elevator industry explaining that the problem was not just with its elevators.
“The fact that a child can still die as a result of a hazard that has been known within the industry for at least 70 years is cause for the entire elevator industry to address this issue collectively with a heightened sense of urgency,” Otis’s director of code and standards, Lou Bialy, wrote in an article in the trade magazine Elevator World in May 2003. He reiterated this concern again in 2006. The company paid for space guards to be installed on its elevators that posed an entrapment risk. But many elevators were never fitted for the guard.
The CPSC is the federal agency charged with regulating the safety of consumer products, including residential elevators, yet it has done little to address the problem despite having been made aware of child entrapment fatalities since 1981, and having closely studied the problem since 2013. CPSC spokesman Joe Martyak said the agency is working to come up with a solution.
But precious time is wasting, and more children are being seriously injured or killed by residential elevators, including 3-year-old Fletcher Hartz in 2017.