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Elevator inspection backlog persists despite state funding

  • The glass elevator in the Holyoke Mall in Holyoke Wednesday. <br/>JOSH KUCKENS
  • The temporary inspection sticker inside the glass elevator in the Holyoke Mall in Holyoke Wednesday. <br/>JOSH KUCKENS

The inspection placard on the elevator in the building expired in September 2011, and while Regish acknowledges he was late filing his paperwork, he’s since spent months trying to figure out why the state has not scheduled an inspection for his lift.

“We’ve been kind of getting the run around,” said Regish, president of CBR Realty Corp. in Hadley. “It’s unfortunate they can’t keep up with the inspections.”

Regish is hardly alone in waiting for an annual state elevator inspection, which is required annually as a public safety service to prevent serious accidents and injuries.

In the greater Northampton area, dozens of other elevators are operating with expired inspection certificates, from libraries and courthouses to multi-story residential buildings and shopping malls, a Gazette review has found.

The backlog in inspections, which the newspaper detailed two years ago, was expected to improve with a $1.5 million boost in funding for up to 15 additional state elevator inspectors in 2010. But the results have been lackluster, interviews with elevator owners, inspectors, local officials and a Gazette review of local elevators finds.

“I’m convinced they are spending the money properly, but I’m not convinced we’re getting the results we thought the investment would produce, and I want to know why,” said state Sen. Stanley C. Rosenberg, D-Amherst. He contacted state public safety officials when the Gazette began inquiring about the elevator inspection program.

“I told them I was surprised ... that we had understood that by adding 15 staff we could get out of the backlog and be current,” he said. “I want to make sure western Massachusetts is getting its fair share of resources so that our users of elevators and escalators and other devices are safe.”

The Gazette spot-checked more than 60 local, public elevators and found that nearly half of those units are operating with expired state inspection certificates, some of which lapsed more than a year ago. The newspaper’s review also found clerical errors on the dates of some inspection certificates and other temporary certificates that warranted return visits by inspectors within 90 days, but which never occurred.

“Generally, across the state, the number of expired units has not dramatically changed since 2010,” said Thomas G. Gatzunis, state Commissioner of Public Safety, who oversees the state’s elevator inspection services.

Gatzunis said the elevator inspections division added 13 new inspectors after Rosenberg helped provide $1.5 million for the program to address the backlog and recoup what a former state auditor determined was millions of dollars in lost revenues. The program also hired a supervisor for those new inspectors, an inspection scheduler and a cashier to process inspection payments.

The number of inspectors for western Massachusetts doubled from three to six, though two of those inspectors went out on extended leave and there was staff turnover, which has not helped reduce the backlog, Gatzunis said. There are now five inspectors covering the region. They can inspect four elevators a day on average.

“Obviously, in the Springfield area, that hurt in our compliance rates and getting elevators inspected out there,” Gatzunis said, adding that without the additional money Rosenberg helped secure, “the compliance rates would have fallen dramatically.” In addition to elevators, state inspectors are responsible for inspecting escalators, automatic people movers, wheelchair lifts and a variety of other devices in the elevator industry that totals nearly 40,000 units.

Of those, the state classifies 8,437 as operating out-of-compliance with annual inspections ranging from a day to a year or more.

Waiting game

“It’s the same old story,” said David Pomerantz, director of Central Services in Northampton where all but one city elevator is operating with state inspection certificates that lapsed four months ago. The city filed its paperwork and paid fees to the state for those inspections in April through its elevator maintenance company.

“I don’t like to see it because we’re paying with taxpayer money to do the preventative maintenance and do the inspections,” he said. “I don’t think there’s any excuses. We should be entitled to the service on the other side and an up-to-date certificate.”

Elevators at City Hall, Memorial Hall, the Puchalski Municipal Building, the Fire Station on Carlon Drive and the four-level downtown parking garage are all overdue for state inspections. Pomerantz said he occasionally fields calls from people concerned about the expired inspection certificates, which are posted in all elevators.

Meredith McClay Baker, president of Associated Elevator Co. in West Yarmouth, which Northampton hired for its elevator maintenance, said the company typically issues paperwork for state inspections on behalf of its clients at least 60 days in advance of expiration dates. From her vantage point, Baker said she believes the state’s elevator inspection backlog is getting worse.

“Absolutely no improvement,” she said. “Right now, we’re on the cusp of having to lay people off because we’re not getting the testing that needs to be done. That’s jobs.” She said the company maintains 174 elevators that the state should have scheduled for inspections in October but did not, including 40 in the greater Springfield area that will fall deeper into the backlog.

Elsewhere in Northampton, the elevator inspection certificate at Forbes Library expired seven months ago and users of the elevator at the Hampshire County Courthouse are traveling on an elevator that is two months overdue for an inspection.

At the Northampton Housing Authority, all four elevators at the Walter Salvo and McDonald houses are overdue for state inspections, including one elevator with a certificate that expired a year ago.

“Eagle Elevator informed us that the state knows they’re overdue and they are coming to inspect them as soon as they can,” said Jon Hite, the housing authority’s executive director, who was referring to the authority’s maintenance company. “I think maybe the office of elevator inspectors is running behind again.”

Property owner Ed Jendry’s elevator maintenance company, Bay State Elevator Co., applied to have the state inspect the elevator used by patrons in his three-story medical building in Florence months ago, but the request languishes. Meantime, his elevator continues to operate with a state inspection certificate that expired last January.

“We’re still waiting,” Jendry said. “It’s not that we don’t want to be up-to-date. This has been an issue for the last couple of years. They’ve been behind ... we hope they’ll get here pretty soon.”

In Amherst, the Gazette found that elevators at Town Hall and in the downtown parking garage had the same issue and expiration dates on inspection certificates, which the state said must be “clerical errors.”

An elevator at the soaring W.E.B. Du Bois Library at the University of Massachusetts, where a serious elevator accident in 2007 raised public safety concerns, but injured no one, is operating with an expired inspection certificate, along with regular and freight elevators at mill buildings in Easthampton and Holyoke.

The large, glass elevator at the center of the Holyoke Mall at Ingleside received a temporary, blue inspection sticker in December 2011 after inspectors found a non-life threatening issue that needed to be addressed. A re-inspection was supposed to occur within 90 days, but 10 months later, state inspectors appear to have never returned.

“Very troubling,” said Gatzunis, the state’s public safety commissioner of the mall elevator, which is used constantly by people with small children. “We’re going to follow up on that.”

Bill Rogalski, manager of the mall, said in recent years the state has put an emphasis on escalator and elevator inspections at large shopping centers, which he believes was a reaction to a 2011 escalator accident at the Auburn Mall, which left a 4-year-old boy dead. An investigation in that case led to the suspension and removal of two state inspectors and a sweeping review of the state’s escalator inspection work.

“They’ve been really working hard to make sure everyone is in-compliance,” Rogalski said. “They’ve been straight out, in their defense.”

Dan Crowley can be reached at dcrowley@gazettenet.com.

Kristin Palpini can be reached at kpalpini@gazettenet.com.

Related

State details barriers to eradicating elevator inspection backlog

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

NORTHAMPTON — State public safety officials say they face many barriers to eliminating the elevator inspection backlog, from staff turnover and more new units to inspect each year, to a down economy that has some elevator owners deferring maintenance, which causes more time-consuming inspections. In western Massachusetts, the state doubled its elevator inspectors from three to six when the state … 0

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