Escalator Injuries and Deaths and the Role of Design

There are about 33,000 escalators operating in the U.S. – far fewer than the number of elevators. But injuries occur more frequently on escalators, about 15 times more frequently than elevators. Although entrapment – in which a body part or piece of clothing becomes wedged in the gaps between the moving parts of an escalators – is often a high-profile issue because those incidents typically involve small children, falls on and over escalators account for three-quarters of all escalator injuries. Falls often cause more severe injuries and more fatalities.

There are two distinct groups of fall incidents – those that occur on the escalator and those that result in a passenger falling over the handrail of an escalator. Researchers have attributed the causes of falls on escalators to contact with another passenger, inappropriate footwear, balance and coordination issues in the elderly, among others. Falls over the handrails often have been tied to misuse, such as jumping from one level to another, or attempting to ride by sitting on the handrail, usually in a state of intoxication. But falls over handrails have also occurred as the result of entrapment; a passenger leaning over too far; inadvertently dropping a child who was being carried by an adult on the escalator; or a fall that begins on the escalator, but ends with the victim plunging over the side.

After collecting 305 incidents worldwide, 29 percent of which were fatal, David Cooper, a Great Britain-based escalator and elevator consultant concluded in a trade publication: “This is alarming given that many people within the industry have failed to realize that this is a major problem.”

And yet, the need for safer designs has been recognized by those who work with escalator manufacturers and purchasers. Several have called for greater attention to be paid to fall hazards in escalator designs and an overhaul of the voluntary standard. In May, the Safety Assessment Federation, a British organization representing companies which provide independent inspection and safety assessment of engineering and manufacturing plant, systems and machinery published a set of guidelines for the safe operation of moving walkways and escalators. The publication enumerated a host of reasons for raising the bar of escalator design and maintenance: “Escalators and moving walks are becoming more prevalent, and more complex…longer, higher and with increasingly exposed voids; escalators are increasingly subject to abuse, misuse and negligence; in some cases, escalators and moving walks are the primary escape route/emergency exit.”

How Bad Is It?

In 1998, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) sought incident data on escalator injuries and deaths. Using the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System (NEISS) and other incident information culled from news accounts, the commission found that an average of 5,800 escalator-related injuries were treated in U.S. emergency rooms from 1994-1997. In the last year of the study, the injury level rose to 7,000; three-quarter of those injuries were caused by falls. In addition, The CPSC found escalators implicated in 27 deaths – 21 of which were caused by falls. A subsequent CPSC study found 24 escalator passenger deaths in incident data covering 1992-2003, of which 16 were caused by falls.

Escalator mishaps are disproportionally represented by two age groups: children five years old and under, and adults 65 years and older. In 2010, the Hong Kong Journal of Medicine published research regarding escalator injuries among 104 patients. The Korean researchers found that nearly 60 percent of their sample were 65 years or older, all were injured by a slip or fall. The most common harm was a head injury. The researchers concluded: “Escalator-related injuries are not as rare as previously believed and the aged population 65 years old or above is the highest risk group. In particular, walking on a moving escalator was the main cause of injury in people under age 65.”

A 2006 study of escalator injuries involving children younger than 19, also used CPSC data to determine that 26,000 escalator injuries involving children were treated in emergency rooms between 1990 and 2002. Falls accounted for more than half of all the injuries, but more than 67 percent of injuries in the 15-19 year age-range.

In 2008, researchers from the University of Indiana reported that escalator mishaps among the elderly had surged. From 1991 to 2005, 40,000 older adults were injured; slips, trips and falls were the most frequent causes. Some 3,000 injuries were seen by emergency room staff.

Consultant David Cooper researched incidents in which passengers fell over escalator handrails. In 2007, he published his results in an article for the trade publication Elevator World. Cooper identified 305 incidents in a ten-year period worldwide in which an escalator user (most of them male and under age 18) fell from the escalator, often to a level many floors below. Cooper states that the causes of these incidents include “being taken by the handrail as a result of friction by clothing”…and “falling on the escalator with the subsequent ultimate event being a fall over the railing of the escalator.” Cooper also noted that 29 percent of the fall injuries were fatal.

Escalator Standards Don’t Address Fall Hazards

Escalators are manufactured under a set of voluntary standards developed by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. In April 1997, Scott and Diana Anderson petitioned the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission to develop mandatory standards for escalators, after their four-year-old son suffered serious injuries to his foot – including the amputation of his toes – when his shoe became trapped between an escalator sidewall and the moving steps. The Andersons’ petition followed an earlier attempt by Ad Hoc Committee for Greater Safety on Escalators of Cleveland, Ohio to press the CPSC for a standard to address escalator safety.

Both groups were interested in seeing the federal government address the entrapment dangers of escalators. The Andersons were specifically wanted a mandatory standard aimed at reducing the gap between the moving stairwell and the sidewall. Industry representatives objected to the petition. Some argued that the CPSC didn’t have jurisdiction over escalators, because they weren’t consumer products. Manufacturers also maintained that a voluntary standard would be much more effective than a mandatory one.

The CPSC staff recommended, and the commissioners agreed to reject both petitions. The Cleveland group’s 1978 petition was turned down on the basis of insufficient injury data to show that escalators pose an undue risk. The Anderson’s petition was rejected, because it spurred ASME and the industry to pass amendments to the existing standard that would resolve the entrapment issue.

Over three years, from the time the Andersons filed the petition to the Commission’s final vote in 2000, escalator manufacturers researched step/sidewall entrapments and developed a performance standard for escalators to eliminate or reduce the number of incidents.

“The staff believes that the changes to the escalator safety code, based on the results on the work sponsored by the industry, represent substantial improvements and will adequately reduce the risk of entrapment between the step and the skirt of the escalator. Therefore, staff recommends that the commission deny the petition,” CPSC officals wrote in a briefing memo to the commission.

While the CPSC has published a general interest safety brochure on escalators, it has not reconsidered mandatory standards. Since then, ASME 17.1, which governs escalator construction, design and inspection has been amended periodically. And yet, escalator and elevator consultants who work with industry and the purchasers of these transport systems have observed in professional publications that the industry could do more to reduce fall hazards.

In the European Union, escalator design is governed by EN 115. It covers a multitude of significant hazards, including five related to falls: falls caused by reduced stopping distance; falling over the balustrade, falling from sliding on the outside of the balustrade, falling due to handrail speed deviation; climbing on the outside of the balustrade or falling on the landing.

China recently looked to update its escalator standard, after a series of high-profile fatal incidents drew criticism. In July, a 13-year-old boy was killed and 30 others were injured, when a crowded subway escalator outside a Beijing station suddenly reversed direction. China’s standard was based on a 1995 European standard, which some in the Chinese press suggested, might not be adequate to meet the heavy demands placed upon escalators in China. By the end of 2010, China had 44 percent of the world’s escalators.

“The Staircase-Studies of Hazards, Falls and Safer Design” by John Templer, notes in a chapter devoted to handrails, guardrails, and balustrades that: “the model building and fire codes (in this respect) do not go far enough to protect life and limb. Around openings, they mandate the use of guardrails that are at least 42 inches high, but they permit several curious exceptions. They usually allow a lower (handrail) height if the drop is only one floor high, and they require only handrails-usually only 30 to 34 inches-for stairs and escalators.”

Escalators codes do not address guardrails at all, he said, “no doubt assuming that the handrail will serve as guardrails.” Templer also observed that victims can easily overbalance and topple sideways over a handrail because the handrail is initially higher at the point at which the fall starts, and much lower at the point of the trajectory over the stair or escalator. In the case of a Florida victim who fell over the moving handrail of an escalator, Templer concluded that “the open sides of stairs and escalators must be designed to prevent the possibility that people will fall sideways into the well. Providing a guardrail (in addition to the handrail) is one way of satisfying this imperative.”

In a 2005 Elevator World article, consultant Ronald Schloss also called upon the industry to determine how it could use technology to prevent falls. He recommended limiting escalator speeds to 50feet per minute, and the step width to 20 inches. These moves would eliminate entrapments and boost step structural integrity.

“Overloading the escalator would now be a non-issue. The probability of runaway escalators would be greatly reduced. Falls on escalators would be much less frequent. The passengers would have more time to react to escalator malfunctions such as stopped or slipping handrails.”

Last year, Lerch Bates, a British firm that consults on technical issues for the building industry called for an entirely re-written standard for escalators that would incorporate advances in technology and safer designs that would discourage escalator misuse, such as narrow handrails that are more easily gripped and discourage riding; higher level of guarding for escalators with fall hazards and flush designs without internal or external ledges that can be used as climbing surfaces.

Even with an entirely re-written standard, it could be a while before better design could lower injury and death rates. Escalators have long lives – many of the escalators travelled by millions of people today are decades old. In the meantime, the deaths and lacerations, amputations, head, foot and arms to escalator passengers will continue.

Last March a four-year-old Dudley, MA boy died after a fall from a second floor elevator in a Sears department Store in Auburn. The boy fell through a gap between the escalator and the wall, crashing into a jewelry case below. The state Department of Public Safety suspended two inspectors for failing to report the hazard.