Young Kids and Old Elevators Don't Mix

Jan. 1, 2003
An elevator is not material handling equipment.

Chances are that your kids don't ride in many elevators, and even those they do ride are pretty new. So they probably won't end up like eight-year-old Joseph Tucker Smith who was crushed to death in an old elevator at Bethel Inn in Maine.

The fatality took place two years ago but the fallout that included changes to elevator legislation didn't hit the Portland [Maine] Press Herald until last January and is ongoing.

Of course, when safety boards clear their desks to change elevator legislation, one of the first things they regulate is the state's population of vertical reciprocating conveyors -- even if VRCs weren't involved in the fatality. (A vertical reciprocating conveyor is an enclosed platform that mechanically or hydraulically lifts and lowers freight in guides between two or more levels. The Department of Professional and Financial Regulation, which licenses elevators in Maine, gets involved with vertical reciprocating conveyors, even though a VRC is a material handling device.)

Young Joseph Tucker Smith was riding in an old elevator that had accordion-type inner gates on the car; there was another gate that guarded the hoistway on each floor. You had to pull the inner gate back manually. If the gate were not closed, the elevator would not move. On these elevators there was a gap between the inner and outer doors that was limited by regulation to four inches. The elevator at the Bethel Inn, however, had enough space for young Joseph Tucker Smith to squeeze into. This gap had been overlooked during a number of elevator inspections.

The upshot was that Smith, alone in the elevator except for his sister, somehow got outside the car and closed the gate behind him. If the elevator had remained stationary, all he'd have to do to get back inside was reopen the gate. But the elevator was called upstairs and began to move; the gates were locked and Joseph Tucker Smith was crushed between floors.

At a hearing held by the Department of Professional and Financial Regulation, all the procedures for licensing elevators were gone over with a fine-tooth comb. All the old elevators were brought up to compliance with a shield affixed to inner doors to close the gap. The Bethel Inn, the elevator manufacturer and the company that did the inspections have been sued.

Depending on who's talking, the revised elevator code in Maine is: (a) ready to be rolled out; (b) just needs some tinkering; (c) is being argued about. I'd pick (c) because I'm sure that the rules for installing and inspecting vertical reciprocating conveyors are still being argued. If the past is any guide, the manufacturers and users of VRCs should be wary.

It used to be that safety authorities in some states would simply call VRCs "illegal elevators" and slap a red "do not use" tag on them. Now it's a matter of applying restrictions that discourage users from buying them. For about 10 years, from 1985 to 1995, the VRC community struggled to get out from under elevator domination. There were hearings, legislation and court cases. Elevator safety authorities became known as "The Red Tag Gang." I still have a plaque that reads "An elevator is anything I say it is" -- a favorite expression of an elevator inspector in Michigan. Finally, the anti-VRC movement subsided, after the most aggressive safety authorities retired or died.

Maine was one of the states that had no anti-VRC legislation. That could change, depending on the outcome of the hearings. The Department of Professional and Financial Regulation would do well to focus on what caused the fatality in that old elevator and leave material handling equipment alone.

Bernie Knill, contributing editor, [email protected]

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