‘Constrained by resources,’ State violates elevator code

LIHU‘E — The next time you’re in a building with an elevator, you may want to consider taking the stairs.

Of the state’s 6,700 elevators and related systems, 78 percent have expired operating permits, said Jennifer Shishido, an administrator for Hawai‘i’s Occupational Safety and Health Department. Elevators throughout the Isles must be examined and tested by a state elevator inspector annually as required by Chapter 397 of the state’s Boiler and Elevator Safety Law.

Yet, some Kaua‘i elevators — including at government facilities and a major hospital — hold permits that expired as far back as 2008, meaning the state has not inspected them in about four years.

“A lot of it is our fault,” Shishido said. “We’re just not able to get there.”

She attributed the shortcoming to departmental underfunding and a 20-year history of “chronic” understaffing.

The Elevator Inspection Section has “no acting elevator supervisor at the moment,” it is “extremely short staffed” with just seven inspectors for the entire state, and it has a three- to four-year backlog of inspections to perform “because trips to the Neighbor Islands tightened,” according to division staff members.

Permits requirements are set out in statute and in law, said Department of Labor spokesman Bill Kunstman. “We regulate (elevator operators) by issuing permits, but we are constrained by resources.”

OSH’s budget took “a pretty significant hit” during 2008, 2009 and 2010, Kunstman said, but the Legislature recently restored 10 positions. However, filling inspector positions provides an additional challenge, he and Shishido said, because of strict national testing requirements and a state compensation level that fails to compete with the private sector.

Meanwhile, OSH is giving older elevators priority as well as those that serve the handicapped, hospitals, senior homes and schools, Shishido said.

“The director is aware many of the permits (in state buildings) have expired,” she said. “As soon as the financial picture looks a little better, we’ll be able to address this. Overall, we need more people. That’s the bottom line.”

At the Kaua‘i Judicial Building, all of the building’s seven elevators have expired operating permits, according to Shishido. The oldest permit on public display expired in April 2008.

Inspectors did visit the facility in 2009 but did not perform a “drop test” for one of the elevator passenger cars, perhaps because the inspector ran out of time, Shishido speculated, and they could not therefore issue the permit.

Although the state has fallen behind in inspecting and permitting, Otis Elevator Company is providing monthly maintenance, said the Judicial Building’s chief court administrator, David Lam, on Wednesday.

The elevator in Kaua‘i County’s Mo‘ikeha Building and the 11 elevators at Wilcox Memorial Hospital are also operating without permits, although it’s not apparent to elevator passengers because permits are tucked away in office files rather than on display.

Title 12 of OSH’s Administrative Rules requires elevator operators to post an elevator car’s operating permit in a case or cabinet inside the elevator or else post a notice indicating where the permit is located and may be viewed.

The Mo‘ikeha Building permit expired in January 2009. Wilcox’s oldest permits expired December 2008 and its newest lapsed July 8, the hospital’s Elevator Permit Log indicates.

Facility managers at both locations say that although the permits are expired, the elevators receive regularly scheduled monthly maintenance. Wilcox has logged no complaints and has had no elevator-related injuries reported, Wilcox spokeswoman Lani Yukimura said.

Other states facing similar issue

While the elevator-inspection backlog appears to be a serious problem for the state, it’s a problem that is in no way unique.

In May, CBS News in Los Angeles discovered thousands of elevators across California are operating without permits. The special investigative report cited the story of a Yorba Linda woman who claims she was severely injured when a subway elevator car failed to come to a stop that was even with the ground.

When the elevator door opened, she fell forward, hit the pavement and broke several bones in her face. The elevator permit had been up to do date at the time, CBS reported, although her attorney claimed OSHA could never produce any documentation. She sued the elevator repair company, which settled out of court.

Upon review of California’s database of elevator inspections, CBS found that of the nearly 92,000 elevators statewide more than 28,000 were operating without a permit, some having expired by more than two years. OSHA told CBS it is about six months behind on inspections because it only has 67 inspectors and is experiencing a statewide hiring freeze.

• Vanessa Van Voorhis, staff writer, can be reached at 245-3681 (ext. 251) or by emailing vvanvoorhis@thegardenisland.com.

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