What Are the Chances You Will Die in a Philadelphia Elevator?

When it comes to the thing that whisks many of us to the office each day, PA's safety and inspection process is lacking.

Every day in and around Philadelphia, hundreds of thousands of office workers, FedEx drivers, tourists, and bike messengers ride up and down skyscrapers, mid-rises and squat suburban business complexes in elevators. The conveyances range from the Comcast Center’s 37 state-of-the-art ThyssenKrupps, which include seven hydraulic models and 30 speedy and ultramodern gear-less designs, to more shaky old-school lifts like the four-person Otis car that transports City Hall visitors on their way to see the 40-mile view from the William Penn statue. By and large, these claustrophobic steel contraptions work perfectly, taking us exactly where we want to go, without incident or injury. Except when they don’t.

Deaths by elevator are almost always referred to as “freak” accidents by the press, because they almost never occur. But in December, the topic of elevator safety made national news, as it does every so often. A 41-year-old New York woman got caught in the door of a Midtown elevator, and was dragged to her gruesome, untimely death. “FREAK,” went the headlines. Months earlier, a man died after a fall down an elevator shaft on the 700 block of Chestnut Street in Philadelphia. In 2007, a food service worker tumbled down a shaft at Citizens Bank Park and died days later. And way back in 1990, a nine-year-old boy was crushed by an elevator in his Southwest Philadelphia apartment building.

Chances are, you’ll survive your next elevator ride; on average, elevators kill just 20 to 30 people in the United States each year. But injury is another story, as accidents and malfunctions are relatively common. Just last week, two Bucks County police officers who fell 30 feet down a shaft at a local winery were awarded a combined $4 million in a legal settlement. Also last week, a nurse filed a personal injury suit in Philadelphia’s Federal Court alleging that a faulty elevator at work led to serious injury. On March 12th, the New York Times science pages posed the question, “What is the best option in a free-falling elevator?” Answer: Lie flat on the floor.

With this recent spike in negative elevator publicity, is there any reason to think that we have more of a reason to be worried now? Perhaps, says Philadelphia-based personal injury attorney Jeffrey Reiff, who has represented some 25 plaintiffs in elevator accident claims. “In this economy, the less responsible building owners are cutting corners,” observes Reiff. “And nearly every elevator injury can be traced back to insufficient maintenance or downright negligence. There are very, very few product design defects. I’m not so concerned with the bigger, more modern office buildings in the city, but these days, there are so many older buildings in Center City—I’m thinking about some on Chestnut and Sansom—and newer ones in the suburbs that have many vacancies. And I’m worried that the elevators aren’t being maintained as well as they should be. In fact, I know they’re not in many cases. The bottom line is that in a tough economy, building managers are looking to save money wherever they can, and they take safety shortcuts.”

Reiff says that there’s one small office building that he visits every few months, and that every time he visits, he sees the same elevator malfunction. “When the doors open, the elevator floor is not level with the building’s floor,” Reiff explains. “It never evenly lines up with the floor, and the elevator jerks. That’s not catastrophic in and of itself, but it indicates that something is amiss, and the fact that no one is addressing the problem month after month points to serious issues. If that were happening in my office building, I’d be taking the stairs every day. If you notice anything unusual with an elevator, just don’t get on.”

Of course, someone must be checking up on all these elevators, right? The answer is: maybe. Pennsylvania maintains an Elevator Inspection office, part of the Department of Labor & Industry’s Bureau of Occupational and Industrial Safety. The office has a $2.4 million annual budget and a staff of 23 full-time inspectors. But when I mentioned the state inspectors to Reiff and one Center City building manager, they both snickered. “Good luck getting in touch with them,” said the manager.

Indeed, merely getting someone at the elevator inspector’s office to answer the phone proved difficult, let alone getting any useful information out of them. Finally, after more than a week, I learned that while building owners are required to get their elevators inspected twice annually, in many cases, it’s not the state that does the inspections but independent contractors certified by the state. So while the city and state don’t farm out restaurant inspections to private contractors, they’re willing to let some guy with a van verify that the mechanical monster you take to work every day is safe for you to ride. In Florida, elevator accidents increased dramatically when the state privatized its inspection process.

Feeling worried yet? Reiff thinks you should be. “In my experience, a lot of these so-called ‘inspections’ are as negligent as the maintenance work itself,” warns Reiff. “These guys just want to get in and out. And a lot of it amounts to a building manager pulling an inspector aside and saying, ‘Hey, buddy. You wanna take your wife to the Olive Garden this Friday night? Here ya’ go. Here’s a 50-dollar gift card.’ Hell, my wife won’t even take elevators any more.”