WASHINGTON – Nearly a quarter of the elevators in Maryland are chronically under-inspected, and in some counties that number nears 50 percent, according to an analysis of the state’s elevator inspection database.
Every state elevator is supposed to be inspected annually, although officials concede that they typically do not get to about a third of them every year.
But a Capital News Service analysis of Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation records showed that 4,531 of the state’s 18,564 elevators were only inspected in two of the last five years — and some had not been inspected since 1998.
“The resources we have are so challenged that we are unable to get to those,” said Craig Lowry, of the state’s Elevator Safety Inspection division. “For the last two decades that’s been a challenge.”
Elevator inspections are divided into two categories: annual and final. Final inspections are those conducted before an elevator can open for the first time.
Lowry said the state currently has 20 inspectors to examine the thousands of elevators in the state, down from as many as 24 inspectors. From 1998 to March 2003, the period covered by the database, they did more than 100,000 inspections, averaging as many 900 per inspector per year.
Despite the seemingly high numbers, Lowry said many elevators are neglected because of a large number of repeat inspections of troubled elevators.
“When we’re going back out five times, six times that’s a problem, that’s a very big problem” Lowry said.
But Delegate John Trueschler, R-Baltimore County, said the problem lies with the inspectors, not the building managers who keep calling them back.
“This department, in terms of its inspections, has been thousands and thousands of units behind for a decade; we’ve got a problem,” Trueschler said.
He called the inspection backlog “a public safety issue” that he tried to address with a bill that would have made elevator maintenance companies responsible for annual inspections, with random follow-up inspections by the state.
“In talking to people who inspect elevators and maintain elevators, there is a feeling that the people who maintain them could do the annual inspections,” Trueschler said.
His bill, which he withdrew during the just-ended legislative session, would still have left final inspections to state inspectors.
But Lowry said that many building contractors do not have their elevators ready when inspectors arrive and often use inspectors to identify problems they should have recognized before calling.
State inspectors are allowed to charge between $250 and $500 for repeat visits, but that has not deterred some owners, Lowry said.
“It could present a safety risk if the owner does not do the job,” Lowry said. “The answer is to make sure people are ready when we get there, hold them accountable.”
The state conducted over 9,500 repeat inspections from 1998 to March 2003, with one elevator inspected 23 times in that period, according to the data. The safety division said in a recent audit that its inspectors are called back to an elevator an average of 3.5 times before it is allowed to open for the first time.
But Trueschler does not believe that companies are willing to spend thousands of dollars on repeat visits instead of hiring elevator code consultants.
“There is no incentive on the private side to run these inspections up,” he said.
Trueschler said he has received complaints of inconsistency among inspectors, and finds it suspicious that repeat final inspections only increased after the elevator safety division was asked recently about its backlog by the Maryland Office of Legislative Audits.
He noted that the audit also found that the safety division neglected to collect nearly $1.4 million in charges for repeat visits.
Lowry attributed the failure to collect those fees to a lack of staff, and said the division also disputes the numbers.
One industry official said the problem probably lies somewhere between the state and the landlords.
“They (contractors) are not going to do any more than they have to, and then you have more time wasted for everybody,” said Richard Atkinson, executive director of the National Association of Elevator Safety Authorities.
“I have also noticed a trend that when states cut back on their budgets, elevator inspections are the first thing to go,” he said. “Unfortunately, it comes down to dollars vs. safety.”