State auditor faults Department of Labor on elevator inspections

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Violations found throughout NC, including several at a Buncombe County public building

In response to an investigation by the office of North Carolina State Auditor Beth Wood, the state Department of Labor has pledged to enhance its procedures for addressing violations of elevator requirements.

Buncombe elevator certificate

The N.C. Department of Labor’s certificate of operation for an elevator in the Buncombe County Courthouse building. A state inspector noted five violations in his most recent inspection — including problems with the emergency phone — but more than two months later, the elevator has not been re-inspected. Jon Elliston/Carolina Public Press

Notices of the violations are available on a publicly available but little-known website that offers the latest reports on the vast majority of the state’s elevators.

According to Department of Labor data, in 2012 the department inspected almost 24,000 elevators statewide, and more than 13,000 of them were cited for at least minor violations of maintenance and safety requirements.

The department said, in its latest annual report, that there were 84 elevator accidents in the state last year, 74 of which were attributed to “patron error” and 10 of which were attributed to mechanical problems.

None of the incidents caused serious injury, but Wood asserted in her report that enforcement of elevator rules is lacking.

The report, issued June 13, said that “only 3 percent of the elevators with violations in 2012 had a follow-up inspection” to determine if the violations were corrected. It added that the department’s Elevator and Amusement Device Bureau “assesses few penalties against noncompliant elevator companies,” issuing fines in only 36 cases, or 0.3 percent of the elevators cited for violations in 2012.

During the period 2010 to 2012, the report said, some 1,150 elevators “had the same violations for at least two consecutive years.”

Wood’s full report, which also criticized the Department of Labor for lax enforcement of wage and hour violations by employers, can be read below. It includes a response from the labor department, which pledged to evaluate its penalty-assessment policies and implement a new software system for tracking elevator violations and financial penalties.

In response to an email query from Carolina Public Press, Department of Labor spokesperson Dolores Quesenberry wrote: “Most of the elevator violations are minor violations such as dirty pits, a light burned out or using the elevator for storage. If a violation puts the public in danger, the device is shut down. I tell you this to put the audit in its proper perspective as these were not issues that were life-threatening to the public.”

How to check an elevator’s inspection records

Minor or not, all violations are noted in inspection reports for every elevator in the state, except those in federally owned buildings or private homes. The reports are available in a database on the Department of Labor’s website.

Carolina Public Press used the database to review the reports for elevators in Buncombe County, including a random sample of the five heavily used ones at the Buncombe County Courthouse.

At that building, a relatively new elevator installed in April 2012 had five violations a year later, according to the latest inspection report. Among them: The elevator’s emergency telephone was not in “proper working order,” the report said.

Regarding another Buncombe courthouse elevator installed the same month, the inspector used capital letters and exclamation points to drive home the risk of a violation.

“Put the in-car stop switch in proper working order,” he wrote in an April 18, 2013, report. “DO NOT USE THE CAR STOP SWITCH TO HOLD THE ELEVATOR AT THE FLOOR. CANNOT ANSWER FIRE RECALL WITH SWITCH TURNED OFF!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”

(In the event of a building fire, an elevator’s “fire recall” setting takes it to the floor thought safest for the situation and then stops it from moving until it’s reset.)

More than two months have passed since those violations were noted. According to the latest notices posted in those two elevators and on the Department of Labor website, neither elevator has been re-inspected yet.

About the Author

Jon Elliston

Jon Elliston is the Investigations and Open Government Editor at Carolina Public Press. Contact him at jelliston@carolinapublicpress.org.

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