In the U.S., there are an estimated 35,000 escalators, each serving an average of 12,000 people per year. Collectively, U.S. escalators make 105 billion passenger trips per year. The vast majority of these escalators are located within commercial, retail, and public buildings such as airports and hospitals.
Escalators are used in many single- and multiple-floor buildings. Escalators assist with the transportation of a great number of passengers very rapidly from floor-to-floor (in a much greater capacity and frequency than elevators), or from point-to-point along one floor to speed up travel on that floor (as in airports). Standard floor-to-floor escalators are referred to as “J Type,” as a reference to their shape like the letter “j.” Flat, one-floor elevators are referred to as “moving walks.”
Escalator Defects and Malfunction
Escalators speed up our ability to get from one point to another in a building, but they may also cause injury or death if they are defective or not properly maintained. Defects associated with escalators include:
- Missing teeth on the escalator track
- Loose or missing screws
- Excessive space between the moving walk area (the steps) and the escalator sides
- Broken or missing steps
- General malfunction
Accidents that may result from escalator malfunction include:
- Finger entrapment, particularly with children, if the handrail entry at the balustrade has an opening too large
- Comb plate entrapment
- Between-step entrapment
- Personal effects such as hair, clothing, or shoes becoming lodged in the escalator
- Slip and fall accidents, particularly with elderly passengers
Cases of Escalator Failure Causing Injury or Death
There are some reported cases in which people have suffered injury or even death from escalator defects or malfunction.
In March 1997, asphyxiation was determined to be the cause of death for a 37-year-old man in Washington, DC, whose coat became entangled in the moving steps and stationary bottom comb plate of an escalator at a subway station.
In September 2000, an elderly woman suffered fatal blunt impact trauma to her head, trunk, and extremities in a fall onto an escalator in a retail store in Richmond Heights, Ohio, in September 2000.
In July 2002, a 12-year-old boy sustained major injury to his big toe when his shoe became caught between the step and side rail of an escalator following a baseball game in Anaheim, Calif.
In 2003, a five-year-old girl had her hand caught in the comb plate on an escalator as she was trying to remove her shoe that had also become caught in the plate. The girl had to have three fingers and part of her hand amputated.
In January 2005, 71 children suffered minor injuries in New York City when a theater escalator abruptly stopped and shifted backwards, causing the children to fall.
In 2003, it was determined that there is a significant risk to bystanders and passengers if a step or pallet breaks or falls out of the return strand of an escalator. Although new technologies were developed to address the issue, it is unlikely that all escalators have been upgraded with the patented item or a similar solution. If a broken step or pallet continues to go through the continuous mechanism in the escalator, injuries may occur due to a locking up of the tracks or the projection of the broken parts of the escalator.
Besides broken steps, damaged comb plates and wear defects are a significant risk to escalator passengers, particularly children who might insert a finger into a comb plate hole. Comb plates can also become worn and sharp or protrude from the treadway.
Statistics of Escalator Failure
In a study of escalator deaths from 1992 to 2003, the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) reported 24 non-work-related escalator deaths of passengers in the U.S., for an average of about two deaths per year. Eight of these deaths were the result of passengers having their clothing caught (“caught in/between” injuries) at the top or bottom of the escalator, or between the stair step and the side wall of the escalator. Sixteen deaths were a result of falls, some of which involved major head trauma. The CPSC estimates that falls cause 75 percent of the 6000 escalator injuries per year in the U.S., with entrapment causing 20 percent, and other causes at the root of the remaining five percent. “Caught in” injuries tend to be more serious and are more frequently seen in children under the age of five.
Escalator design is typically questioned in regard to injuries and deaths on escalators. According to a consumer alert issued in 1999, the high number of entrapment injuries may be a result of the faulty nature of their design. Escalators designed and manufactured before 2002 do not likely meet the more stringent requirements for escalator skirt safety that were enacted through the revised ASME Safety Code for Elevators and Escalators that year.
City and state governments are fairly diligent in ensuring that annual public escalator inspections are carried out and reported. However, the CPSC is not authorized to regulate escalators as it does other products such as automobiles or personal equipment, so escalators and escalator parts are not subject to federal accident inspections or parts recalls. Without a requirement of public parts recalls due to defect, there is little widely available printed information regarding escalator defects.
When an escalator product is identified by the manufacturer as having a design defect, it is only required to send out a product letter by certified mail to equipment owners. Thus, the press and general public rarely find out about such faulty products until deaths or several injuries have occurred.
Escalator Brands with Documented Failures
Examples of some of the escalator parts and systems that have been defective and included within legal action due to death or injury of passengers or workers include:
Wiring design issues are believed to have caused an escalator accident at Coors Field in Denver, Colo., which injured 30 people.
Westinghouse Elevator Company (now Schindler)
The 460 Westinghouse escalators at the Metro stations throughout Washington, DC, are reported to repeatedly have broken steps which then become lodged at the end plates at the top or bottom of the escalator through misalignment. When the steps become lodged, the escalator steps buckle and fracture, which abruptly halts the operating walkway and jars the passengers who are additionally at risk of injury due to metal fragmentation. Seven such incidents occurred in one month alone in December, 1990.
The Westinghouse Elevator Company was found negligent in inspection and maintenance of an escalator on which a three-year-old boy was injured while shopping with his mother in an Indianapolis, Ind., JC Penney store. The boy sat on a step and his arm became lodged in the space between the step and the side panel of the escalator.
Schindler Elevator Company
A faulty component of the Schindler escalator at the St. Louis Blues Stadium is suspected as the cause of the three-story escalator’s malfunction in which several steps collapsed into each other as a result of an increase in the escalator’s speed and subsequent collapse of the side rails. Thirteen people were injured in the October 2009 accident.
Elevators Are Not Exempt
Thinking you should take an elevator after reading all of this? Here are the figures and causes for elevator accidents and deaths.