Page last updated at 15:43 GMT, Tuesday, 9 March 2010

How common are lift accidents?

Panicked man in lift

By Elizabeth Diffin
BBC News Magazine

A lift company has pleaded guilty after a woman was killed by a faulty elevator at her gym. But how common are lift accidents, and what can passengers do to travel between floors in safety?

On Monday, seven years after Katarzyna Woja was crushed to death when the lift at her gym in the City of London fell between floors, ThyssenKrupp Elevator UK admitted that its failure to maintain the lift and investigate previous problems had put lives at risk.

The same day, word came that Formula One racing legend Sir Stirling Moss had tumbled down a lift shaft at his home on Saturday, leaving the 80-year-old with two broken ankles and other injuries. And, about a year ago, a lift accident in Tower Bridge injured its 10 passengers.

Sir Stirling Moss
Sir Stirling Moss suffered multiple injuries from a fall down a lift shaft

Health and Safety Executive figures show 266 people have been injured in "elevator accidents" since 2002, and four killed.

The HSE categorises "elevator accidents" as those taking place in lifts, hoisting devices and elevating work platforms. Another 182 injuries took place in lift shafts, service ducts, and cellar hatches.

Lift surfing, or riding on the roof of a lift, is a dangerous practice that can lead to this type of injury.

Considering that the Lift and Escalator Industry Association (LEIA) estimates there are 250,000 passenger and goods lifts in the UK, and each makes multiple trips each day, the safety record is actually pretty good.

"If you talk about it in connection with number of journeys, then yes, you can say [lift accidents are] rare," says Terry Potter, safety and training manager for LEIA.

Hands in lift doors
Call for help via lift's call button and wait patiently
"The biggest danger is if you try to do a self-escape," Mr Potter says
Stopped lifts can be caused by power outages - if it goes back on while you're wriggling out, you can be seriously injured

The most common lift-related injuries are minor and may never be reported, such as trips, bumps and pinched fingers. "[People] just brush themselves off and walk away," he says.

More serious injuries occur when something goes seriously wrong with the electrical system or safety mechanism of the lift. Such accidents are much more rare.

As lifts are counterweighted, they shouldn't crash to the ground, says Mr Potter.

"You've been watching too many Bruce Willis films. Lifts don't plummet down as you see in films. It would have to be a massive failure. It's not just one bit of string [holding it up]."

Since 1997, passenger lifts across Europe have been governed by the Lifts Directive, which says that equipment must be maintained by the lift owner. Passenger lifts must be examined and tested every six months by a "competent" person - such as members of the Safety Assessment Federation.

Domestic lifts do not fall under the same legislation and must be maintained at the owner's discretion. "What you do with it is up to you," Mr Potter says. "But it's common sense that you maintain it."

Feel the fear

Although lift accidents are rare, the fear of riding in a lift remains a factor for many people.

Lift button
Going down

"Most phobias derive from some sort of primitive danger that's common to all of us and engrained in our psyche," says Dr Sheri Jacobson, a psychotherapist at London's Harley Therapy.

Some of the most common phobias are the fear of enclosed spaces and the fear of heights - which both play into riding a lift. Dr Jacobson thinks media coverage of lift accidents means those already wary of lifts become more afraid - even if the fault for an accident lies with the lift's owner.

"The general culture [is] of lots of things being reported, so we're aware of all sorts of hazards," she says. "It makes it seem more important, but it's actually very, very small and usually has another explanation."

Mr Potter, for his part, has a more basic theory about people's fears: "You're going into a box and have no control."

All lifts in the UK are made to the same standards. But it can be hard to spot an unsafe lift.

"There is nothing telltale about what's a good lift," Mr Potter says. "[But] if it's falling to pieces, maybe you'd have to wonder."

He says there are a few basic safety tips to keep in mind - enter and leave a lift carefully, be aware of the doors and the level of the floor, and keep your hands away from the opening. And look before you step in or out.

Below is a selection of your comments.

I don't like lifts. Years ago my wife received some copies in Japanese of her father's crime books from the publisher. Not reading Japanese and not wanting to throw them away, I decided on a Friday on the spur of the moment to deliver them to the Japanese Consulate. It was on the 3rd floor and there were workers clearing up. I used the stairs, but the door to the consulate was locked so reluctantly I returned and took the lift. No sooner had the doors closed than a loud clunk and total darkness told me that the workers had switched off the main electricity supply. I had no mobile phone, was the only person in the building and no-one would return before Monday. Total panic! I got my fingers between the inner doors and wrenched them open then did the same with the outer doors, leaving them hanging by one corner. I fled. What people thought on Monday when they saw the vandalised lift and a pile of crime novels in Japanese on the floor of the lift I have wondered about ever since.
Graham Chambers, Luxembourg

Many years ago when I was seven, I was staying in a large hotel in Malaysia and boarded a lift on the 40th floor to travel to my parents for breakfast. A Chinese couple boarded on the floor below mine and we started to travel down to the ground. Suddenly all the lights when out and the lift grounded to an almighty stop. For over an hour I sat in near darkness with two people who didn't speak my language, in a lift with no emergency help/call button. There were six lifts in the hotel, so no one really noticed ours wasn't working. Since this I have never been able to able to travel in a lift unless it's glass that I can see out off. The thought of a lift journey scares me after over 15 years.
A Davis, Kent

In general terms, accidents involving lifts may be classed as rare. I have a neighbour who fell into a lift that stopped 6/9 inches below floor level. Six years later, and £15,000 less well off with having to undergo the indignity of many medical examinations, the cost of travelling and staying overnight etc, the parties involved have at last decided to settle. The parties? The lift manufacturer. The maintenance company. The employer. The landlord, and the lease holder. If you are going to fall and injure yourself, never ever do it in a lift.
Chris Smith, Milton Keynes UK

Lifts can be really scary at times. For example (due to out fault) we didn't read the safety ratings of a lift and squeezed six into a four-person lift. We were horrified when the doors wouldn't open, as we were halfway down the exit of the top floor. We rang the fire emergency service. It was an embarrassing moment.
Yavuz Yildiz, Leicester

I love travelling by elevator, however my wife will not enter one no matter how much I attempt to explain the safety levels. As a result I have become familiar with many a stairwell. We briefly split up on a visit to New York's Empire State Building as a result, but we soon reconciled at a Broadway Theatre. I may love a lift, but I love Dorothy more.
Morris S, Manchester, UK

If people are so afraid of lifts, then why are they in them? There is a simple answer - take the stairs and leave the lifts for the people who truly need them. My wife is in a wheelchair and we waited 25 mins to get into a lift in the Bullring over Christmas. It got to the point where I was forced to physically remove people so my wife could get out of the centre, as they were all pretending they couldn't see her. Have some consideration and be grateful you can walk up the stairs.
Nathan Monkey, Brum

I was once stuck in a lift for about an hour and a half with a chain-smoking passenger who had cigarettes but nothing to light them. We were rescued safely and the experience didn't put me off lifts. But seeing the other bloke literally pulling his hair out and demanding that I examine every crevice of my pockets for something to light his cigarette, did put me off smoking for life.
Rob Davis, Telford, Shropshire

I still prefer to take the stairs regardless of how many times the lifts work. Apart from being less scary, it's good exercise, and in most cases (as I have proved numerous of times to friends, family and colleagues), just as quick.
Rachel, Winnipeg, Canada

I have twice got stuck in lifts. Once as a child growing up in Paris the lift in our building had a small beam of light running near the door. If that beam was blocked the lift stopped. My friends and I were coming back from the shops and, as a seven years old would do, one of my friends blocked it and voila the lift stopped. Normally it would restart but on that day it didn't. Instead of panicking we started shouting - I think my elder sister heard our shouts and called the fire brigade. They winched us down in the basement. A place I really hated as it was dark and dingy, at that time I thought as a punishment all three of us would be left there. Another occasion was in Delhi - I was using a lift and got stuck in it along with a boy delivering teas. The lift had stopped due to a power failure. He started to panic, I told him not to worry as his tea would last us for a little while. Then doors opened and I noticed that we were in between floors. Our rescuer asked us to jump down. I obviously refused because a wrong jump would see us falling in the shaft. The boy jumped, I did not. Power came back just a minute later and I got off that dreaded lift on the very next floor preferring to use the stairs on that day.
Rajat Thakur, London

Anyone who happens to use a walking stick or sticks should also be very careful when entering or exiting a lift in case their stick drops down in the gap between lift and outside. This happened to a relative of mine at Gatwick airport using two sticks who fell flat on her face necessitating a hospital visit and broken bone. Absolutely no compensation but sticks were posted back to her by the authorities.
Rick, Hook Hampshire

Lifts are very safe modes of transport. Fear of being trapped is a claustrophobic issue, not a death by falling issue. What this doesn't quite make clear was that all the accidents involving passenger fatalities in lifts did not involve a lift car falling down a shaft. They were all caused by people falling down the shaft because either the landing doors gave way, or the lift moved away from floor level whilst the doors were open, crushing someone between the lift car and the landing landing. You are, in fact, very safe once you are enclosed within the lift car. You may find it uncomfortable if you become trapped, but you are not likely to die... except from boredom of course.
Mark Doble, lift test engineer, Haxton, Wiltshire, England

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