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Dear LAist: Why Does It Seem Every Elevator In LA Has An Expired Safety Permit?

Elevators at a parking garage in Chinatown. (Courtesy Omar Bárcena via Flickr)

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The next time you get on an elevator, look for a certificate posted on one of the walls. This piece of paper indicates that the metal box you're riding in has passed its annual safety inspection and is fit to lift you hundreds of feet above the ground.

Well, that's what it should show you. But as LAist reader and Studio City resident Ed told us via email, a lot of these safety permits seem to be expired in the city of Los Angeles.

"I've made a habit of looking at the elevator inspection certificates while I'm riding in elevators in LA. They're almost ALWAYS out of date," Ed wrote. "This isn't hyperbole, they are. It really doesn't matter where either, apartment buildings, corporate buildings, malls, etc."

Turns out Ed wasn't too far off. As LAist has learned, nearly half of the elevators in L.A. have gone more than a year without being inspected. And many others that might have been checked are still displaying expired permits, because property owners aren't posting — or paying for — new ones.

There are approximately 20,974 elevators within the city of Los Angeles, Kim Arther, the chief inspector at the L.A. Department of Building and Safety's elevator division, told LAist. According to LADBS' most recent count, 9,486 — roughly 45% — are past due for their annual inspections.

So, why the backlog? How often are people getting hurt or killed? And what happens during an elevator inspection anyway? We went down a deep, convoluted rabbit hole (feels more like an elevator shaft) to find out.

We discovered an understaffed inspection department that has racked up millions in overtime, using an antiquated system that's a patchwork of electronic filing and paper forms — some of which city officials say "do not provide enough assurance that (elevator) inspections were thorough."

WHY IS THERE SUCH A BACKLOG?

The temporary safety permit in this elevator is expired and warns that the Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety now has cause to seal off the elevator until a permanent permit is paid for and posted by the property owner. A recent city audit found that LADBS does not enforce that rule and has failed to collect hundreds of thousands of dollars in fee payments. (Chava Sanchez/LAist)

In order to be up to code, each of the 20,974 elevators in the city of Los Angeles needs to be checked once a year.

But there are only 15 inspectors to do it. That works out to nearly 1,400 elevators per city worker.

Each inspector would have to complete roughly four inspections per day, every single day, for every elevator in the city to be checked within a year.

And that's not even counting the 1,290 escalators in the city, which the same 15 inspectors are also tasked with checking annually (a third of those are past due for inspection, Arther said).

Simply put, L.A. just doesn't have enough inspectors. Arther told LAist a notable share of his staff has retired or left the department for other jobs in recent years.

At the same time, Los Angeles is in the midst of a development boom — and more buildings means more elevators. According to Arther, "(In) the last five years, over 2,500 new conveyances have been added to the number of elevators inspected annually."

And initial inspections for newly installed elevators take longer than the yearly check-ups — sometimes up to three days.

LADBS says it's trying to bolster its inspection team. The department recently hired five new elevator inspectors who are currently training to take their state certification exams, Arther said, and two additional positions have been allocated in the department's budget for the next fiscal year.

L.A. is the only city in California with its own elevator inspection department. That's because the city started inspecting them in 1898 — nearly 20 years before California founded a statewide department to do so, according to Arther.

Elevators in Los Angeles County that aren't within L.A. city limits — as well as elevators throughout the rest of the state — are inspected by the Division of Occupational Safety and Health, better known as Cal/OSHA.

State inspectors are responsible for inspecting the remaining 19,141 elevators in L.A. County — and they have more than double the number of inspectors to do it.

About 28% of those elevators are past due for their annual inspection, according to data provided by Frank Polizzi, spokesman for the California Department of Industrial Relations, the agency that oversees Cal/OSHA and its elevator unit. The agency provided numbers showing permit expiration rates are as high as 63% in neighboring SoCal counties.

(Dana Amihere/LAist)

SO, SHOULD I BE WORRIED ABOUT RIDING ELEVATORS?

Statistically speaking, no, they're exceptionally safe. In fact, the majority of accidents and injuries reported to the city of L.A. in recent years involved escalators.

It's not uncommon to get stuck in an elevator in the city, though. Last year, the L.A. Fire Department responded to more than 3,930 calls for elevator-related incidents, "typically an immobile elevator car entrapping occupants," according to department spokesman Brian Humphrey. That averages out to nearly 11 incidents each day of 2018.

But just because an elevator stalls doesn't mean you're in imminent danger. It's likely the conveyance has been locked as a safety precaution, meaning the features designed to keep you safe are working. As Polizzi explained, elevators are designed to "shut down a conveyance before it will operate in an unsafe manner."

This elevator in a Koreatown office building does not have an inspection certificate on display. (Chava Sanchez/LAist)

Citing LADBS records, a recent audit of the city's elevator inspection unit noted that in the 10-year period from 2007 to 2016, "an average of 144 accidents with injuries were reported annually, from a low of 112 in 2008 to a high of 189 in 2014." Those figures include escalator-related incidents.

In the two-year period from 2015 through 2016, 311 accidents were recorded by the department. Approximately 71% were escalator accidents and "the largest portion of accidents and injuries [in that period] involved escalator passengers losing their balance and/or falling," auditors said.

The vast majority of accidents in those two years were the result of passenger error, according to investigators. But 16 of the 311 reported accidents — about 5% — were found to be caused by equipment or code violations.

Arther told LAist there were no deaths in that two-year period, adding that any fatalities are investigated by LADBS along with Cal/OSHA. But according to that same city audit, released last January, one person did die in that time — an elevator mechanic who was electrocuted. Because the death was classified as work-related, it was investigated by Cal/OSHA, not the city.

In a letter introducing the audit, City Controller Ron Galperin characterized elevator accidents in L.A. as "modest in number given the number of conveyances upon which people ride daily."

"Notwithstanding," he said, "progress can be made to improve the City's inspection program and to, hopefully, reduce injuries."

INSPECTING THE INSPECTORS

The massive backlog at LADBS is a big challenge, but it's not the only one the agency faces, as the recent city audit explains in detail. You can explore the full report here, but here are a few findings that stand out:

  • The forms elevator inspectors fill out when conducting safety checkups don't include specific spaces to note the major areas that inspectors should be checking, and therefore "do not provide enough assurance that the inspections were thorough," city auditors said.
  • Some elevator companies and property owners have been requesting specific inspectors, which creates a blind spot because "experience and familiarity... can potentially lead to less rigorous inspections."
  • The elevator unit has a weak system for tracking major code violations and what's been done to fix them. When inspectors identify major code violations, they issue an Order To Comply (OTC) to the elevator company or building owner. "LADBS reported issuing 10,994 OTCs from 2012 and 2016, but was unable to easily identify why the OTCs were issued, or the number of OTCs that remained outstanding," the auditors found.
  • There's not enough advertising in elevators about how people can report safety concerns on elevators (and the process for informing people of the status of their complaints is spotty at best).
  • "LADBS does not adequately enforce payment of elevator inspection fees," which means the city has basically been waving goodbye to hundreds of thousands of dollars each year meant to fund the inspection program. After an invoice goes unpaid for four years, LADBS deems it uncollectable and moves to write it off. Between 2011 and 2014, they waived more than $362,000 in such fees, the audit found.
  • An elevator with an unpaid inspection fee and expired safety permit is in violation of city and state law and can be sealed off, but LADBS doesn't enforce that, arguing it could inconvenience people and possibly affect a building's occupancy permit.
  • LADBS management "allows its elevator inspectors to work overtime on a voluntary basis on the weekend to help reduce the backlog," according to the report. Roughly 20% of annual inspections were conducted by inspectors working overtime. In the span of three fiscal years, the department racked up nearly $1.8 million in overtime costs.
  • The city controller's office suggested the possibility of a two-year permit system and rethinking the inspection scheduling system.

Asked for comment regarding the findings, Arther said LADBS "has implemented several items noted in the audit, including adding logs for complaints and accidents within a common drive, hiring (five) new inspectors, adding two additional inspector positions for the coming fiscal year, expanded the Elevator Division to 16 districts, re-located inspectors as needed for the Elevator Division, and working with Department on developing a new [digital] system."

The department has also drafted an ordinance to enforce stricter consequences for past-due inspection fees and is working to update their complaint system so those who file can check the status of their report, he added.

WHAT IS INVOLVED IN AN ELEVATOR INSPECTION?

All elevators in California have to comply with the state's elevator safety codes and an inspection is typically a one-person job, as both Polizzi and Arther explained.

"During initial and renewal yearly permit inspections, Cal/OSHA's investigators look inside, under and on top of all conveyances," Polizzi said. "They check the machine room, elevator locks, panels and ride the elevator to check its operation on each floor."

Inspectors even ride on top of the elevator cabin as they take it from floor to floor, checking for things like proper door locks, fire hazards and storage issues. Annual re-inspections can take anywhere from one to four hours, Arther said.

Inspectors will also request and review maintenance and safety records kept by the building's owner. Some elevator functions, like earthquake or fire safety measures, might be checked separately, according to Polizzi.

If code violations are found, "the inspector will issue an order to comply," Arther said. And if the elevator is found to be in an unsafe condition, its red-tagged and removed from service until the responsible party (typically the building owner, but sometimes the elevator company) makes the proper fixes.

OK, BUT WHAT HAPPENS WHEN THINGS GO WRONG?

Visitors to the Broad Museum take an elevator. (Courtesy Ron Gilbert via Flickr)

Elevator accidents might bring to mind the cliche of a cable snapping, sending people plummeting down a shaft, but based on the available data, serious accidents involving elevators are rare. And those rare accidents where an everyday passenger is killed typically make the news, but, after weeks of research, all we can safely say is that the most documentation of fatalities is of those working on or near an elevator.

Elevators are considered so reliable ("one of the safest forms of transportation," as Arther assured) because of the fail-safes in place. Electromagnetic brakes keep the elevator locked when it's not moving. And if the car starts moving too fast, the brakes engage, locking the elevator.

And it's important to note that the "elevator-related deaths" being tracked include far more than that extremely rare plummeting scenario. The more common deaths include — trigger warning, folks — falling down elevator shafts, being struck by an elevator, being struck by something in a shaft, body parts getting caught between moving parts, and electrocution.

The federal OSHA keeps a searchable database of all serious injuries (basically anything that leads to hospitalization) and fatalities reported by employers. It showed 9 deaths in the Southern California area over a 10-year period (2009-2018). The majority involved construction, maintenance or elevator installation/repair workers.

In California, employers are required by law to report workplace accidents, including any involving elevators, to Cal/OSHA. But the agency is not made aware of every elevator-related accident or malfunction in the state, according to Polizzi.

"If Cal/OSHA's elevator unit is notified of an incident, they would look into it," Polizzi told LAist. "But owners and service companies are not required to notify Cal/OSHA of any malfunction or incident."

The city of L.A. also tracks accidents, as property owners are required by city code to report them. But accidents and malfunctions are not the same — and Arther said LADBS doesn't have data on faulty elevators.

SAFETY IS ON THE PROPERTY OWNER

We're about to shatter your universe: an inspection certificate — up-to-date or not — is not a guarantee of absolute safety. Officials from both the city and state reiterated that the day-to-day safety of an elevator is the responsibility of the building or elevator owner.

That means having an elevator mechanic or engineer check the conveyance and fix any issues between those annual (or not) visits from a city or state inspector.

"An expired permit does not necessarily mean that the owner is not taking steps to keep the elevator safe and maintain it properly," Polizzi said.

So, what can you do if you notice an expired permit or have safety concerns about an elevator you ride in? First contact the building manager or owner to ask them to post the current operating permit, or to report any issues with the elevator to the proper inspection agency.

If that fails, Arther suggested calling the LADBS Elevator Code and Information Desk at 213-202-9844 for elevators within the city to make a safety complaint (you'll have to leave your phone number and specifically request a call back if you want the chance that someone from LADBS will get back to you with an update). An LADBS official told us "there is not a form or complaint site for elevators" through city services.

For anywhere else in Southern California, contact information for Cal/OSHA's regional elevator inspection offices can be found here.