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Editorial: Elevator inspections - A fix that foundered

Two years after the state provided an extra $1.5 million for elevator inspections, the problem of lapsed reviews remains, with nearly half of 60 elevators spot-checked by the Gazette out of compliance. That’s not what state Sen. Stanley Rosenberg had in mind when he helped engineer an infusion of money for the Department of Public Safety in 2010.

Rosenberg said he was surprised the Gazette’s reporting turned up so many expired inspections. The senator said he believes the money provided to the department is being spent properly, but isn’t yielding “the results we thought the investment would produce.”

While the public safety department can cite a lot of reasons it isn’t keeping current with inspections, that additional money was laid out two years ago for a specific reason: to get results. The funding allowed the Board of Elevator Regulations to hire 13 inspectors and other support workers. Even so, Thomas G. Gatzunis, commissioner of the Department of Public Safety, acknowledged to Gazette reporters Kristin Palpini and Dan Crowley that his staff has been unable to reduce a big backlog.

That’s the case across Massachusetts. Of about 40,000 devices that require inspections, 8,437 were said by the department to be out of compliance last week. It is simply unacceptable that the state cannot ensure the safety of so many elevators used by so many people, including one in the W.E.B. DuBois Library at the University of Massachusetts, the location of a 2007 accident.

Letting inspections and paperwork slide is no joke. People get hurt using elevators and escalators. An accident at the Auburn Mall in 2011 resulted in the death of a 4-year-old boy. That tragedy spurred a review of the state’s escalator oversight system and cost two inspectors their jobs.

As that illustrates, a crisis tends to bring results. Must it take injuries or deaths for the department of take seriously its obligation to ensure safety on elevators?

In coverage Saturday, the Gazette documented large gaps in inspections and detailed the frustrations of elevator owners, including municipalities. They are weary of the state’s sluggish handling of inspections, for which they themselves pay.

Gatzunis said he sees a bright spot. The extra inspectors hired since 2010 were able to perform services that have brought in $4.5 million in revenues through the $400 annual inspection fees charged.

Gatzunis promised to follow up on the gaps detailed in Saturday’s stories. That’s good, but we’re troubled by what seems to be the board’s can’t-do attitude. The commissioner explained that even as it set out to reduce backlogs, the board took on responsibility for devices called reciprocating conveyors used in warehouses and distribution centers.

But new responsibilities don’t appear overnight. We think Rosenberg had it right when he said public safety officials should have insisted on being able to achieve the results the public deserves, even with the added workload.

The commissioner bemoaned the fact that three new inspectors left their jobs early, and he noted they can make more in the private section.

If he was as intent on solving this problem as he is in explaining it, why isn’t the additional $4.5 million in fee revenue being used to expand the inspection force, or pay its members more to keep them on track?

An inspector handling four field visits a day produces fee revenue of $1,200, more than enough to cover his or her own costs.

The private business sector would see a solution here. Why can’t the state?

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