Get Gephardt: Some Utah elevators and escalators operate on expired permits

Get Gephardt investigations reveals 721 lift owners written up by the State for safety violations in the past year. Those owners are told they have 30 days to fix the problem and request a follow-up inspection. Only about half meet the deadline. (Photo: KUTV)

(KUTV) — Have you ever hopped on an escalator or elevator and thought to yourself, "That was a weird noise," or "That sudden jerk felt a bit ... off"?

Jake Smith has.

Smith is the chief inspector for Utah’s Division of Elevator Safety, which is a part of the labor commission. The division’s job it is to inspect every single elevator and escalator in the state. If the lift passes, it is given a permit to operate, which is good for two years.

“These are very dangerous, very powerful machines,” Smith said. “If they're not treated the way they are supposed to be, bad things can happen."

That said, Smith says, in Utah, people should not worry going for a ride.

"These are very good products,” he said. “Very safe."

Still, Smith’s team does find safety violations.

In the past year, the division has written up 721 lift owners for safety violations. Those owners are told they have 30 days to fix the problem and request a follow-up inspection.

Only about half meet the deadline.

382 times, the state sent a second notice, this time warning business owners to get the issues fixed within 60 days or else the permit to operate the elevator or escalator wouldn't be renewed and the owner can face criminal charges.

A handful still don't get it done.

In the past year, 53 lift owners have missed their second deadlines.

Yet, despite the state’s authority to do so, not a single one of those 53 has been forced to shut down, nor has its owner faced charges.

“We haven't done that because we haven't had to," said Eric Olsen, spokesman for the state labor commission.

He says all deadline-missers eventually fix their safety issues.

"They get those things done, so we really don't have to take it past that level," he said.

The reason elevator and escalator operators haven’t been forced to shut down for either the safety violations or for missing their get-fixed deadlines is because “most of the violations are very minor," Olsen said.

That's true. Reading through all 53 of the notices sent to those who missed both deadlines, Get Gephardt found the vast majority of violations were for things like burnt out bulbs, junk being stored in the elevator room or emergency phones that didn't work.

If a state inspector sees the type of violation he or she thinks could be an imminent threat to the folks who ride, they have the authority to shut it down right there on the spot. Olsen and Smith say that virtually never happens.

The only consequence a lift operator has faced from the State in recent years is having their permit to operate suspended. Olsen admits that, usually, the elevators and escalators just keep running anyway.

Olsen says that making sure the “minor" safety violations are fixed and the elevator or escalator is safe is the responsibility of the person who owns it.

“The state's required to do the inspection. The safety is completely up to the building owner or business owner. The onus is on them," he said.

Pressed on whether or not the soft-hand approach incentivizes business and building owners to act quickly to repair issues, Olsen said the incentive comes from not wanting to be responsible for a rider getting hurt.

“I think the incentive is there if you're a responsible business owner or building owner because if something happens in your elevator, that can be a very serious accident," he said.

When someone is hurt on an elevator or escalator, it can become a public relations nightmare, Olsen said, in addition to a potential personal injury lawsuit.

Adelene Moreno is proof of that. She lost two fingers last year after they became stuck at the top of an escalator inside a Salt Lake City business. The story made national headlines and the little girl’s parents filed a lawsuit against the business that owns the escalator.

Adelene was two years old and had wandered away from her mom, says her dad, Ramon Moreno.

"My daughter lost fingers. She has to live with that the rest of her life,” he said. “There's a lot of surgeries. A lot of medical bills."

According to the lawsuit, the escalator's "permit to operate" was "expired," on the day of the accident.

Nate Morris, the family's lawyer, says that an elevator or escalator that doesn't have a permit to operate should not be operating. The permit shows the machine has been inspected within two years, as required by state law.

Ramon agrees and hopes a jury will, also.

There is no law that requires an elevator or escalator to post its permit to operate in a place where a rider can see it. Smith showed Get Gephardt the permit for the elevators inside the Heber Wells Building, where the labor commission is housed. It was hanging on the wall in the elevator room, which is on the building’s roof and not accessible to the public.

Olsen says folks who are curious about whether a particular lift has its permit can ask the building owner or call and ask the labor commission.

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