After Suzanne Hart's Death, City Admits Elevator Safety Regulations Flawed
CITY HALL — The city's Buildings Commissioner admitted Monday that current regulations overseeing elevator technicians are inadequate and voiced support for new licensing aimed at preventing tragic deaths like that of Suzanne Hart.
New York is one of the few states that has no licensing system in place for elevator technicians, who service and repair commercial and residential buildings.
"If you're going to work on an elevator, you need to know what you're doing and you need to be trained," Commissioner Robert LiMandri told members of the City Council at a hearing Monday afternoon.
It comes after the tragic death of Hart, an advertising executive who was boarding an elevator at the Madison Avenue building where she worked last year when it suddenly shot up with its doors open, crushing her between floors.
The incident, along with several other recent accidents, have put the focus on elevator safety and the backgrounds of technicians like the ones who serviced Hart's elevator just hours before she stepped inside.
"Right now my cousin Vinny could be [working on] the elevator in your building. He would need a license to work on the lights, to work the paint and the walls, but not to work on the elevator,” said Queens City Councilman Peter Vallone, who co-sponsored the licensing legislation and said changes are overdue.
"As we learned too tragically recently, that may have life-or-death consequences," he said.
City Council Speaker Christine Quinn agreed.
"I think if you ask New Yorkers, 'Is there a license, is there a standard?' ....Most New Yorkers would look at you like you were crazy and say, 'Of course there is.'
"That there isn't and that so many other jurisdictions have that... really does beg the question: Why don't we have that in New York?" she said.
LiMandri said that, while the department has some concerns with specific wording in the bill, the administration supported its aims.
"We think that licensing ... makes sense," he said, noting that the vast majority of elevator fatalities seem to occur during or near inspections and repairs.
Pressed on why the department hadn't proposed a licensing system if it believed existing rules were inadequate, he stressed that the city already has some of the most stringent elevator safety standards.
"What we have to remember is that this city, with 60,000 elevators, has had a tremendous safety record,” he said, adding that legislation has been pending at the state level for years.
There were 43 elevator accidents in 2011, down more than 60 percent down from 2007, when there were 105 accidents, according to DOB numbers. Elevator-related fatalities have also held steady, with three deaths recorded in 2009, 2010 and 2011 each.
LiMandri said he hoped to see the new standards, which have not yet been formally introduced in the council, in place as soon as this summer.
Several industry advocates, including the Building Trades Employer's Association, voiced support for the licensing legislation which follows many of the requirements that unions, which many mechanics belong to, already demand.
But others expressed concerns about how the city might go about licensing the estimated 5,000 to 7,000 union and non-union mechanics that currently do various types of elevator repairs.
Some, for instance, complained that it already takes, on average, more than a year to receive the certification for those who inspect elevators for violations on the city's behalf.
Others voiced strong opposition to the premise of the bill, arguing that safety lapses were the fault of inspectors, not mechanics, whom they argued already go through extensive training.
The city employs just 22 inspectors, down from 33 in 2007, who are tasked with conducting approximately 155,000 inspections a year on an estimated 60,000 elevators city-wide. The city also contracts with two outside companies to ease its load.
"It is shocking that they have so few staff doing thus,” said Kevin Fullington, of the Elevator Industries Association which represents mechanics. He slammed the proposed licensing as a “distraction" and said what's really needed are more inspections and more oversight of their work.
The council also considered another bill, which was introduced before the recent incidents, that would require residential and mixed-use building owners to install an extra safety mechanism in elevators that would keep cars from hitting the ceiling if elevators suddenly shot up.
But industry experts raised concerns about the cost of the installations, which Peter Balzano, one private building inspector with decades of industry experience, estimated be between $7,000 and $17,000 per elevator shaft.
Finding the necessary labor to complete the installations within the required year could also be a huge headache, said Mary Ann Rothman, executive director of the Council of New York Cooperatives & Condominiums, who slammed the bill as an "unfunded mandate" with an "impossible deadline."
Following the hearing, Brooklyn City Councilman Erik Dilan, chair of the buildings committee, said that, after listening to owners' concerns, he would be working to revise the bill whose costs, he feared, could be "prohibitive."