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Most mall escalators lack full state inspections

Lapses despite fatal accident

Mark DiBona, 4, died after he fell through a gap at the top of this Auburn Mall escalator. Mark DiBona, 4, died after he fell through a gap at the top of this Auburn Mall escalator. (The Worcester Telegram & Gazette)
By Peter Schworm and Matt Carroll
Globe Staff / April 25, 2011

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State officials failed to regularly inspect three-quarters of the escalators in Massachusetts shopping malls over the past three years, state records show, raising doubts about their safety in the aftermath of the horrifying death of a 4-year-old boy who fell from the top of an escalator that lacked a safety guard.

A Globe review of inspection reports for escalators at the state’s major shopping malls found that through 2010, only 44 out of 188 had received inspections each year from 2008 to 2010, as required by law. Inspectors missed at least one review out of the last three at virtually all the other escalators at malls across the state, records showed, and sometimes missed two consecutive years.

When workers did carry out inspections, which typically take at least two hours, they found escalators in need of repair more than half the time, often finding numerous problems, and mall escalators across the state were temporarily shut down 22 times as unsafe.

The death of Mark DiBona last month at an escalator in a Sears department store at the Auburn Mall has focused public attention on escalator safety and oversight, and prompted state inspectors to conduct a sweep of about 900 escalators in offices, retail businesses, and other public locations statewide.

The inspections in that sweep were not complete, but rather quick searches for a specific violation, the state said.

The state has never had enough inspectors to examine all 34,000 elevators and some 900 escalators in Massachusetts annually. Even after hiring a dozen new inspectors in 2010 — bringing the total to 51, the most in years — each inspector would have to do 700 inspections a year to eliminate the backlog, which specialists say is a tall order.

Industry specialists say sporadic inspections are a glaring lapse, especially for escalators in shopping malls used by millions of people who likely never give a thought to their safety. They strongly advise annual checks, and say shopping mall escalators deserve top priority because they sustain constant wear and tear. State officials say they are making progress toward having all escalator inspections up to date.

The 4-year-old fell after slipping through an uncovered 6-inch-wide gap between the handrail at the top of a second-floor escalator and a plexiglass barrier. Authorities said the gap was wider than codes permit, and had no safety guard. The child was pulled through the gap after grabbing the handrail, and fell onto a display case a floor below.

Officials at the state Department of Public Safety, which regulates elevators and escalators, suspended the two inspectors who approved the use of the relatively new Sears escalator, but said recent inspections showed their overall work was as thorough as that of other inspectors.

The inspection reports, provided to the Globe in response to a public records request, suggest that failure to conduct annual inspections remains a serious issue 15 years after a Globe series found widespread lapses in the state’s oversight of escalators.

Thomas Gatzunis, the public safety commissioner, acknowledged that some escalator inspections are not current, but said the recent check showed the “absolute majority’’ of escalators were in good condition, he said. The state plans to make results of the inspections public soon.

Gatzunis described DiBona’s death as an “absolute tragedy,’’ but said the flawed inspection was an anomaly, and that public confidence in state oversight should not be shaken. “In general, the units are safe,’’ he said. “Their track record speaks for themselves.’’

In fact, nationally there were almost 12,000 injuries on escalators in 2009, according to the US Consumer Product Safety Commission.

Despite the potential hazard, some high-traffic escalators in Massachusetts have gone uninspected for lengthy stretches, according to state records. At the Emerald Square Mall in North Attleborough, where an escalator malfunction injured several people last year, several escalators were not inspected in 2008 and 2009. In the accident, the escalator suddenly stopped short, flinging backward several members of a large crowd who had come to see television star Selena Gomez.

Even before the recent statewide inspections, Gatzunis said his department has made significant progress in reviewing escalators. Over the past seven years, the percentage of escalators and elevators across the state with up-to-date inspections has climbed from 40 percent to 72 percent, he said. Since hiring a dozen new inspectors in September, the pace of inspections has quickened.

“I believe in very short order we will be close to 100 percent,’’ he said, noting that some inspections don’t occur because the owner doesn’t schedule them as required.

Over the past several years, inspections frequently discovered mechanical problems, state records show. More than 80 inspections — about 10 percent of the total reviewed by the Globe — itemized at least four deficiencies. A dozen escalators statewide have had at least four problems in multiple inspections, including escalators in Peabody and Watertown.

Gatzunis said that showed the inspections are thorough. “I don’t consider that a black mark,’’ he said. “I consider that a good mark.’’

But consultants, inspectors, and other industry specialists said the overlooked safety violation in Auburn — an uncovered large gap — suggested broader flaws in the state’s approach.

“Even a new inspector should have easily caught this,’’ said Joe Moleski, a safety consultant and licensed inspector in Florida. “If they are missing the stuff on the surface, it’s almost certain they aren’t catching the interior stuff, and that’s usually where the real dangers are.’’

The combination of inadequate inspections and chronic failure to inspect them consistently allows escalators to operate with numerous mechanical flaws for months or even years at a time.

In 2007, for example, a state inspector declared an escalator at the Square One Mall in Saugus unsafe, and shut it down for a week until it was brought up to code. But on a return visit two months later, the inspector found the escalator in such poor condition he could not administer a safety test, and shut it down for three months.

The inspector allowed the escalator to reopen in January 2008, but then no one checked on the machine for the next two years. It was approved in 2010, but the following year the escalator was again deemed unsafe.

In a statement, the mall’s general manager said the escalators are “rigorously monitored and maintained to ensure the equipment is operating properly, and the safety of our customers and employees is not at risk.’’

Sporadic inspections are a longstanding problem for the state. In 1995, the Globe published a three-part series that found that nearly 40 percent of the state’s elevators and escalators were going uninspected. Last year, a state audit found that inspections for nearly a third of elevators and escalators had expired.

Uneven state regulation places the responsibility of maintaining safety to private companies, which specialists say is ill advised. The erratic state inspection schedule threatens public safety, consultants said.

“Without regular, impartial inspections, you’re allowing the company to certify compliance on a device they have a financial interest in,’’ said Kevin J. Doherty, an escalator safety specialist in New York. “That’s the fox guarding the henhouse.’’

Gatzunis said many owners keep their escalators running well, but said inspections must be supplemented with regular maintenance to ensure safety.

“There is definitely some owner responsibility and due diligence,’’ he said.

Following the boy’s death in Auburn, the Globe requested state inspection records under the public records law for 42 shopping malls for the past few years. The state’s public safety department provided paper documents, which the Globe entered into an electronic database.

Outside analysts say the state’s failure to inspect so many escalators comes down to a basic problem: not enough inspectors

“A thorough inspection is a time-consuming process,’’ said Patrick J. Welch, a Philadelphia elevator and escalator consultant who said typical inspections can take well over four hours. “I don’t think many inspectors are given enough time.’’

Complicating matters is that most inspectors spend the bulk of their time on elevators, making them somewhat less familiar with escalators and their potential weaknesses.

“It’s a common problem for the industry,’’ Welch said.

At the same time, many companies are cutting back on maintenance or delaying purchases of new escalators to reduce expenses, specialists said.

“It’s one of the first areas they will look to cut costs,’’ Moleski said. “Most of the escalators I see are lacking.’’

Globe correspondents Jenna Duncan, Alexa McMahon, and Taylor Adams contributed to this report. Peter Schworm can be reached at schworm@globe.com; Matt Carroll is at mcarroll@globe.com.

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