The death of a Montreal commuter provides a tragic reminder that escalators are hazardous equipment that must be used with care. From Canadian Property Management’s archives, we revisit the topic with a feature first published in the September 2009 issue focused on security, safety and risk management.
An aging population, footwear trends and basic human nature underlie safety concerns for escalator passengers and create liability risks for building owners and managers who are responsible for maintaining potentially dangerous machinery in typically high-traffic areas.
Regulators, safety advocates and escalator manufacturers/service providers are now pondering equipment safeguards or regulatory changes that could reduce the likelihood of entrapment. Finding effective strategies to influence passenger behaviour is a more elusive goal, however.
“It’s interesting that people will stand in line patiently at the coffee shop for several minutes, but they won’t just stand still and ride the escalator for 20 to 40 seconds,” reflects Ian Wisdom, the Canadian health, safety and risk manager for Schindler Elevator Corporation. “It’s a mindset.”
Licensed elevators outnumber escalators by approximately 20 to 1 across Ontario, yet the provincial agency that oversees regulatory compliance routinely investigates more than twice as many escalator-related incidents every year.
“That really illustrates the magnitude of the issue,” says Roland Hadaller, director of elevating and amusement devices safety programs with Ontario’s Technical Standards & Safety Authority (TSSA).
Escalators are ubiquitous in public facilities and fundamental to managing large volumes of pedestrians and/or dispersing sudden influxes of people, but their very prevalence may contribute to users’ inattentiveness. The changing level of the steps, missed footing or accidental jostling can make users lose their balance and, despite posted warnings, many passengers do not hold the handrail.
“An escalator is a high-traffic device. Probably the number of incidents compared to the number of users is very, very low, but the fact remains that it is a potential liability,” says Cliff Ayling, a principal with ACSI-Elevator Consulting and a member of a task force the TSSA has struck to study and make recommendations on escalator entrapment. “In Ontario, the TSSA is concerned with a trend of entrapment or people getting their feet caught when they are wearing a particular type of shoe.”
Soft rubber or gel-like shoes are malleable and can conform to and be pulled into seemingly small gaps. Maintenance technicians with Schindler were recently surprised to find such a shoe embedded in the mechanism of an escalator at a Toronto area shopping centre, but almost anything could be a potential entrapment hazard. The TSSA’s task force is examining historical data of entrapment incidents and looking for patterns and possible solutions.
The gap between the steps and the side panels (known as the skirt) of the escalator’s stationary frame is the most common area where footwear, garments and/or items passengers carry could become caught. Areas where passengers mount or dismount (known as the comb) can also be hazardous. Broken teeth in the comb interlaced with grooves on the tops of the steps create extra spaces where something could become caught between the step and the covering plate at the step-on/step-off point.
Escalator owners, designers and maintenance contractors all have a role to play in guarding against such hazards. The Canadian Standards Association’s CSA B44 safety standards for elevators and escalators are incorporated into all provincial safety regulations.
In Ontario, operators must perform daily start-up inspections before escalators are turned on. If two or more adjacent teeth are missing, the device must be taken out of service. However, as a best practice, maintenance contractors should be called to repair the escalator if even one tooth is missing.
Other safety requirements depend on the age of the escalator. Newer models in buildings constructed or renovated in compliance with building codes after the mid 1980s would have a mandated permanent anti-friction coating adhered to the side panels. Owners of older equipment that predates this requirement must ensure that a friction-reducing agent is freshly applied every month.
This isn’t considered a labour-intensive task since silicone-based, anti-friction substances can typically be applied in 10 to 15 minutes on escalators of a standard height. Rather, the monthly requirement is more often overlooked due to poor communication between equipment owners and service contractors.
Many service contracts stipulate that the contractors will not take on the responsibility – often because they have concerns about accountability if cleaning staff subsequently remove the anti-friction substance. Meanwhile, owners/managers who haven’t looked closely at the contract may assume that the application is an element of regular maintenance. The TSSA stipulates that all maintenance work must be documented in the escalator’s log book so it should be easy for owners, as well as inspectors, to monitor if the anti-friction substance has been applied on schedule.
“We want to make sure that owners know that this has to be done,” Hadaller stresses. “One of the things we’re finding when we’re investigating incidents is that the friction-reducing agent isn’t being applied on a regular basis, and that’s a deficiency that is pretty easy to correct.”
Retrofits are more cost-prohibitive so owners typically don’t replace an escalator’s skirt panels unless they are rebuilding it entirely and that’s a rare event given the equipment’s lifespan, which can be several decades. Some owners of older equipment are instead opting to add brushes to the skirts – a feature that is standard in newer escalators.
“The logic behind that is that when somebody’s foot gets too near to the edge of the step they will contact the brush and pull it back,” Ayling explains. “A lot of owners have installed those and I believe there is merit in it.”
Bad habits, careless behaviour
Regardless, overt reinforcement should go hand-in-hand with subliminal triggers. “Posting of rules and cautionary signage would definitely be part of your due diligence and is required by regulations,” Wisdom says.
This should include a prohibition of strollers, mobility assistance devices like walkers and other types of carts. Boxes and other freight are similarly dangerous for people who are carrying them and for anyone who would be in the path of a falling object.
The aging population is causing increasing safety concerns in general. People with impaired mobility or slower reflex responses need more time to step on and off the moving equipment and are more at risk of losing their balance, particularly as they navigate rising steps.
“A person holding a walker tends to get pushed backward or fall forward,” Wisdom cautions. Pedestrians with walkers or pushing strollers should use elevators instead.
Many potentially dangerous practices are simply habits that safety advocates are now attempting to alter. Passengers aren’t alone in bad habits, though.
“It’s also important to not use a non-operational escalator as a stairway,” Wisdom adds. “That’s something that a lot of buildings still do, but escalators should be barricaded when they’re not in service.”
An actual safety incident or injury must be reported to the applicable regulatory authorities for the province. In Ontario, TSSA inspectors will investigate and determine the cause of the incident – a requirement that Hadaller maintains ultimately protects property owners and managers because it creates a documented trail of evidence.
“We would write up an order if there is an equipment-related reason, but sometimes incidents are just misadventure,” he says.
Barbara Carss is the editor-in-chief of Canadian Property Management.