Outdated elevator inspections, permits may pose problems, 2 Investigates finds

SAN FRANCISCO (KTVU) -- The state is responsible for inspecting and permitting more than 150,000 elevators across California but 2 Investigates has discovered that more than 10,000 of them have outstanding issues, possibly affecting millions of riders.

“I pressed the button and the door shut and then, all of the sudden it just stopped,” George Soudah said after getting stuck in an elevator in San Francisco. “I started screaming, ‘Get me outta here! Get me outta here!’” I started hyperventilating a little bit, getting a little claustrophobic. My hands started sweating.”

Firefighters got him out safely several minutes later. His relief, though, was short-lived.  He saw the permit on the elevator expired on June 1, 2012.

“They should bring it back up to date, as a matter of fact, they should put a whole new elevator,” Sousa said. “I don’t know why they still have this one.”

State records show that elevator was inspected two months before his incident, but a new permit wasn’t issued.

Cal/OSHA records show the inspector listed six problems. Some problems were as simple as a broken light, one dealt with earthquake preparedness, and one cited the actual hoist ropes as needing attention. A week after the inspection, the state sent a preliminary order warning the building that no permit would be granted until those issues were corrected.

Six weeks later, the state then sent an “order to correct unsafe conditions.”  Seven days later, Soudah’s accident happened.

“I was panicked a little bit, yeah,” Soudah said. "I think someone should look into it."

Across California, 2 Investigates discovered that by the end of last year 11,252 elevators had “inspections with outstanding requirements," according to data provided by the state. Of those, 756 are in San Francisco.

Assistant Chief Council for Cal/OSHA Nathan Schmidt confirmed that buildings listed on that database were not complying with the law. The California Department of Industrial Relations would not allow 2 Investigates to interview an actual inspector, but offered only Mr. Schmidt to speak.

When asked whether the public should be worried about the number of elevators with outstanding issues, Schmidt replied, “I would not be overly concerned."

The ultimate responsibility, however, rests with state. California regulates, inspects, and issues permits for elevators across the state.

Schmidt said he's confident the elevators on the database list are safe, but when pressed about the gaps in inspection records said, “Like I say, the duty resides with the building to keep them safe… to shut them down if there’s any problems.”

While checking the outstanding jobs on their list throughout the city, 2 Investigates found several expired permits that were all still posted in elevators.

One was eight months overdue at the Montgomery BART station. One was two years and eight months overdue at the Union Square Nike Store. At a gym on Van Ness Avenue had a posted permit was  four years and five months overdue. A parking garage below a theater had a posted permit that was two years and seven months overdue. Several elevators had no permits posted at all.

“I think that a problem,” Schmidt said. “It should be on display in the elevators.”

All of the above elevator owners eventually told 2 Investigates that they did, in fact, have valid permits that just weren’t correctly posted.

There were other issues, however at San Francisco General Hospital.  Four elevators inside had posted permits that had been expired for nine months.  A Whole Foods on California Street had a posted permit expired for more than two years.

“Oh, it has been inspected,” Frank Lannon said.

Both the hospital and the grocery store said the state either didn’t inspect their elevators in a timely fashion, or didn’t process the permit paperwork quickly enough.

“They just don’t process the permits, it takes forever,” Lannon said.

“It does take time at the back end to get permits issued,” Schmidt told 2 Investigates. “It should not take years to do that. I don’t have specific numbers as to how long it takes to process the permits. I know that there are a lot of them.”

There are 70 inspectors across California.  Eight inspectors are assigned to San Francisco. The state says it needs more to be faster.  Currently, three more are in training.  While acknowledging that it could do better, the state also adds that inspector  performance is up 15 percent in the last four years.

“We have made great strides in that regard,” Schmidt said. “I don’t believe it is a critical problem.”

“If an elevator’s out of compliance, there’s always going to be a sense of heightened security, especially during a rescue,” San Francisco Fire Department Spokesperson John Baxter said.  SFFD performed 836 elevator rescues last year alone.  That’s up 40 percent since 2010.

Asst. Dep. Chief Jeff Columbini said, “It’s absolutely dangerous if you don’t know what you’re doing.” Knowing what they’re doing means knowing the risks and knowing that the permits are up to date.

“Because if it’s out of compliance or it hasn’t been inspected, there is a potential for failure,” Baxter said, explaining that such a scenario could increase the danger for firefighters.

Firefighters were called to one former public housing high rise at 1750 McCallister at least 18 times in the last 18 months.

“It was pretty hard, it was breaking down on a regular basis,” resident Marco McKneely said.

The one temporary permit 2 Investigates found there had expired more than five years ago.  Another elevator had no permit.

Community Housing Partnership took over the building five months ago and says the elevators have now been expected.  And, they say, they’re making repairs and waiting now for state inspectors.  The state says, however, that there is still an outstanding issue and if it’s not corrected the elevator will be ordered closed.

“The elevator guys are really slow to get out sometimes, too, when you call them because I guess there are just a few guys for the city,” building maintenance manager Don Solomon says.

When asked if Cal/OSHA's inspectors are overwhelmed, Schmidt told 2 Investigates, “We do need to, uh, get more inspectors hired and up to speed and we’re working on that.”


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