ESCALATORSThere are, unfortunately, no reliable statistics that inform us of the total number of elevator or escalator accidents nationwide but the “best guess” consensus is 7,500-10,000 elevator and 12,500-15,000 escalator accidents annually occur in the United States. While most of these accidents do not cause injuries that result in litigation they do point out one very significant fact; escalators are far more injurious to the public than elevators despite the fact that there are 20 times more elevators in service. We divide escalator accidents into the following categories: 



Falls attributed to stopped handrails are difficult to defend since all components that drive the handrails are subject to maintenance and available economical devices are on the market to warn the public that a handrail is stalling. Falls over the side of an escalator are more defensible since they often involve alcohol or improper use of the escalator. 

Falls between the escalator and adjacent wall often result in successful litigation against the property owner and design engineer or architect for failing to provide guarding in the subject area. 

These are the most common type of accident and often result in severe injuries. The cause of many accidents of this type can be attributed to drunkenness, playing on the escalator or other passenger related causes. All stops on an escalator are abrupt. Equipment failure, primarily a stalled or stopped handrail can cause a passenger to lose balance and fall particularly if they are using the escalator properly. Additionally, any opening of the safety circuit such as a skirt switch activation or other internal safety switches or an interruption in the power supply can cause an abrupt stop and falls. The forces imposed on a riding passenger, holding a handrail that stops running are substantial and will result in a fall and often significant injury due to body parts coming into contact with the sharp edges of escalator steps. Less frequent are falls over the side of an escalator. These again are often the result of misuse by the passenger. In one major case I was involved in it was determined that although the balustrade panel height complied with Code it was not high enough to prevent a tall person from falling over it. Additional falling accidents occur when small children wander into the area between the escalator and an adjacent wall.  




The second most frequent type of accident involves the ingestion of clothing or body parts between the moving step and stationary adjacent skirt panel. While clothing entrapments seldom results in litigation they may serve to cause falling accidents if the entrapment occurs at one of the skirt switches. One case of note occurred at Logan Airport where a 66-year-old Catholic nun traveling to Rome had her habit stripped from her, unfortunately the good sister had neglected to wear underwear. The suit settled for $150,000. Much more serious are the injuries to small children that occur when their fingers or toes are caught in the gap between step and skirt. The injuries often are catastrophic resulting in amputation or disfigurement. The most common cause is excess clearance between skirt and step. 

Defense of these types of accidents is difficult since there is a problem with maintaining the maximum allowable gap between moving stair and skirt panel. In addition several devices are and have been available to virtually eliminate the gap including the Escalator Safety Sideplate (since 1984) and the brushguard devices commonly seen in Europe and now permitted by ANSI 17.1. In addition the Code has required that all skirt panels be coated with a reduced friction substance or be treated with silicone on a regular basis, however this not always done by local maintenance providers. Recently, the escalator manufacturers when threatened with the Consumer Safety Products Commission taking over jurisdiction of escalator safety have permitted and later mandated the installation of the brushguard. 


The third category involves body parts becoming caught between the moving stair and the stationary comb plate found at the egress point of all escalators. These accidents also include severe injuries due to the shearing effect both from the pointed ends of the combfingers and the underside of the combfinger support. The primary causes of these entrapments are missing or broken combfingers, excessively worn step rollers, improper penetration of combfingers into step treads and insufficient combplate supports. While most of these accidents involve injuries to the toes and foot a recent accident involved a 5-year-old boy who fell as he exited an Orange County, CA mall escalator and was castrated by the shearing action of an improperly set combfinger. The settlement was eight figures structured.   

Defense of these suits is again difficult since an entrapment at the combplate can only occur if the comb is set too high and fails to penetrate the grooves in the steps or if the step comes in too low. The step coming in too low as a result of excessively worn step rollers or the comb being set too high are both attributable to negligent maintenance. If the plaintiff is wearing heavily worn soft soled shoes or a shoelace is entrapped then some form of defense or a claim of contribution may be made.HANDRAIL ENTRAPMENTS 

This category involves clothing or body parts becoming entrapped between the moving handrail and its guide or entrapment at the handrail brush on the newel. Injuries from the first type of accident are usually minor involving pinching injury and occasionally de-gloving. Injuries sustained at the brush are often quite severe and often involve small children who “follow” the handrail around the curved newel and have their hand sucked into the handrail brush. If the child is small enough we have seen cases where the child has been cartwheeled over the end of the escalator and slammed into the combplate or finished floor. Current Code requires a handrail shutdown device but this provision is not retroactive 


These accidents while uncommon usually result in death or very serious injury and occur when both step yokes, the main support on each side of a step to which the rollers are attached break. The result of this breakage is the creation of a trap door through which the passenger falls into the moving equipment. There have been two recent cases in New York one at the New York Telephone building on Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn and the other at JFK Airport both involving a single female passenger standing on a step alone. In the Brooklyn case the passenger died, while at JFK a freak occurrence saved the passenger from death but not significant injury. I was directly involved in the JFK accident investigation and extensive metallurgical testing was done on the step involved in the accident and numerous other steps from the same escalator. It was determined that the escalator contractor had installed used steps and failed to properly determine the condition of the steps prior to installing them, the contractor paid $1,950,000 to settle the case. It is my understanding that the Brooklyn case settled for $7,000,000 plus and as a footnote the Brooklyn district attorney kept a murder indictment open for over one year against the escalator mechanic.  




An escalator without passengers is 100% counter weighted and it does not take much weight to begin step movement if the brake is not set. 

Escalators should never be used as stairways except in case of an extreme emergency since they do not comply with the Codes for normal stairs. In addition some of the most serious injuries involve stopped escalators where the “crush load” exceeded the ability of the brake to prevent movement of the escalator. Running escalators occasionally reverse direction while running in the up direction resulting in a pile up and substantial injuries. 

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