The day after The Post’s article, Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), the leading Democrat on the Senate committee with CPSC oversight, called for an independent investigation into the agency’s handling of the elevator hazard.
Pressure grew for the CPSC to take action, as victims’ families called on the agency to issue a warning and consider recalling dangerous elevator models.
But the message Thursday night from the CPSC was not the agency’s traditional warning about dangerous products. Instead, a brief notice titled “Safety Alert to Protect Children from a Deadly Gap between Doors of Home Elevators” was issued only by CPSC acting Chairwoman Ann Marie Buerkle, along with two leading residential elevator industry groups.
The agency’s four other commissioners declined to join her message. The commissioners could not agree on the wording of the safety warning, despite several days of discussions, according to agency spokesman Joe Martyak and senior agency officials.
So Buerkle — who is stepping down from her post in October — decided to issue a warning on her own, Martyak said, because “she felt the message needed to get out.”
But that message is now being met with criticism by others within the agency and by the families of children killed or injured in elevator accidents, highlighting how the CPSC struggles to address even safety hazards that it believes deserve attention.
“It’s wholly inadequate, just so weak,” said Nicole Hartz, whose 2½-year-old son Fletcher was crushed to death in an in-home elevator accident in Little Rock in 2017. “It downplays the danger.”
Brandi Helvey, whose 3-year-old son Jacob was severely injured in a 2010 elevator accident, said the warning falls short.
“The industry needs to be held accountable for placing their customers at risk for known safety issues that can lead to death and catastrophic injuries,” Helvey said.
Buerkle’s warning notes that the agency “is aware of several tragic incidents in which children became entrapped between the doors leading to death, serious fractures, traumatic asphyxia, and lifelong injuries.” It urges consumers to hire an elevator inspector to examine their home elevators and notes that the problem can be eliminated with a simple repair.
Two leading industry groups, the Accessibility Equipment Manufacturers Association and the National Association of Elevator Contractors, endorsed the message.
At least two CPSC commissioners have indicated they support a safety recall of residential elevators and requiring manufacturers or installers to pay for repairs.
“I would like to see the agency move much more aggressively,” said Commissioner Elliot Kaye. “And there’s no justifiable reason for not moving more quickly.”
“It’s not going to solve the problem,” said Dennis Brickman, an engineer who has studied elevator entrapments and whose diagrams depicting how the accidents occur were requested by the CPSC for potential use in a warning. The diagrams were not used.
Elevator entrapments are relatively rare events, but uniquely harrowing.
At least eight children have been killed and two more seriously injured in elevator entrapments since 1981, according to a CPSC database and a Post search of news reports and lawsuits. But the true number of accidents is unknown. An estimated 300,000 to 500,000 U.S. homes and other buildings have residential elevators — including rental beach homes.
Earlier this year, as pressure from families grew, Buerkle ordered her staff to pursue some kind of action, said senior agency officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss agency business.
One solution — used by Otis Elevators as far back as the 1940s — is to install space guards: foam or plastic pieces that filled in the extra space between the two elevator doors. But some elevator manufacturers have balked at suggestions they should pay to install the space guards or that they knew how to reach customers who had installed their company’s elevators.
Earlier this year, CPSC staff held two meetings with elevator industry officials to seek their help in notifying elevator owners and potentially issuing a recall. But industry officials indicated the problem was complicated and often not their responsibility.
That left the agency to try other tactics. And the CPSC’s five commissioners could not agree on a strategy.
While the agency can issue warnings without industry’s cooperation, it can’t force a recall. It would need to file a lawsuit. The vast majority of recalls are voluntary and done with a company’s cooperation.
The day after The Post’s investigation published July 21, some agency commissioners requested that the CPSC compliance staff provide an update on the status of its long-running investigation into the residential elevators problem, according to the officials. That private briefing was held two days later — but it meant delaying the issuance of a public warning.
Clashes over the wording on the CPSC’s warning continued for days, resulting in Thursday’s announcement.
Cantwell and two other Democratic U.S. senators — Richard Blumenthal (Conn.) and Edward J. Markey (Mass.) — called on CPSC to take more decisive action to protect children.
“This is just the latest in a series of actions by the Acting Chair of the CPSC that defer to industry and leave consumers empty-handed,” Cantwell said. “A warning is not enough. There needs to be a real fix for these elevators that keeps families safe from this known hazard.”
Blumenthal and Markey sent a letter to Buerkle citing The Post’s investigation and calling for a full recall of existing home elevators.
“It is clear that voluntary efforts have fallen far short of protecting children,” their letter states.
“As members of the U.S. Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Subcommittee on manufacturing. Trade and Consumer Protection, we urge the CPSC to immediately use its authority to conduct a recall of existing residential elevators that continue to pose a risk to children.”
The senators also called on the agency to initiate “mandatory rulemaking” to set safer standards for home elevators and to review “this decades’ long negligence among residential elevator industry executives and seek civil and criminal penalties, as fit.”