Exactly how eighteen month old Wien Jock managed to climb into the space between the elevator and the elevator shaft in a two storey building in Dandenong, a Melbourne suburb in south-eastern Australia, remains unclear.
What is clear, however, is that the toddler surviving unharmed was a miracle. And only occurred because his father was able to cling onto him until he was rescued by the Country Fire Authority.
Something else is also clear: the design of the elevator was such that it was possible for a toddler to squeeze into the gap between the lift and the wall.
This latest incident comes on top of the tragic death last month of a 41 year old woman in a twenty-five storey office building in New York, who was crushed after stepping on board an open elevator as the lift shot up. In that case, the cause of the malfunction which caused the lift to rise before the door closed was unclear.
These types of incidents prompt questions about the safety or otherwise of modern elevators in office and apartment buildings. In the US, around 30 deaths and 17,000 injuries are caused by accidents in and around elevators each year, the Consumer Product Safety Commission says. In England, according to a BBC report in 2010, Health and Safety Executive figures indicated four deaths and 266 injuries in ‘elevator accidents’ between 2002 and the time of the article publication, with a further 182 injuries occurring in shafts, service ducts and cellar hatches.
Put into perspective, however, these figures are not that bad. In Britain, the Lift and Escalator Industry Association (LEIA) estimates that there are around 250,000 lifts and elevators operating throughout the country, with most of these making multiple trips each day. This means that the numbers of reported injuries referred to above are tiny in the context of overall lift journeys. Furthermore, LEIA says that the vast majority of lift accidents are minor, involving trips, bumps and pinched fingers. Elevator travel, it seems, remains a very safe way to move people and goods within buildings.
Of the more serious accidents, a large number occur from people getting themselves or their clothing (e.g. scarves) caught between the doors or between the door and the shaft. Indeed, a significant number occur not from passengers being hurt, but rather from cleaning or maintenance workers falling into shafts. Some of the most serious incidents result directly or indirectly from electrical and mechanical failures. The case of the incident in New York was one such example.
No Bruce Willis
Contrary to the perception sometimes crafted in Hollywood, the type of mass accident resulting from elevators crashing to the floor is extremely rare.
In the past, there were significant dangers associated with early hydraulic elevators which had only single bottom hydraulic cylinders, whereby a cylinder breach could cause uncontrolled falls. Over time however, safety standards were improved though devices such as ruptures and ‘life jackets’ (a device which, in the event of excessive speed, clamps onto the cylinder and stops the car).
Moreover, modern cable-borne elevators enjoy an excellent safety record. According to Wikipedia (though the online encyclopedia does not quote any sources for this), cable-borne elevators have an ‘anomaly rate’ of just one anomaly for every 12 million rides. Even then, many of these anomalies are minor issues such as doors failing to open.
In addition to being supported by six to eight cables, each of which on their own is capable of supporting the entire elevator load plus twenty five percent, modern elevators are equipped with a range of other safety features. These include ‘governors’ which detect elevator speeds and causes the elevator to stop (not so abruptly as to cause injury) when the elevator descends faster than maximum design speeds, and hydraulic buffers at the bottom of the shaft to cushion the impact of any fall.
“You’ve been watching too many Bruce Willis films” says Terry Potter, safety and training manager for LEIA. “Lifts don’t plummet down as you see in films. It would have to be a massive failure” .
By Andrew Heaton