The safety recall is narrow. It involves only about 5,000 home elevators out of the estimated hundreds of thousands that could pose a risk to small children.
And it was voluntarily agreed to by just one manufacturer, Otis Elevator Co., even though the problem is seen across the industry. Otis is offering to repair for free its Otis or CemcoLift brand elevators from certain years that contain the hazard.
But the new recall notice is seen as potentially jump-starting a stalled push by regulators to force the elevator industry to finally make home elevators safe for children.
“It should serve not only to avoid needless tragedies,” Robert Adler, chairman of CPSC, said of this week’s recall, "but also stand as a strong precedent for the entire industry.”
Residential elevator deaths are relatively rare but uniquely harrowing.
The risk is hard to imagine. It is created by the few inches of space between a home elevator’s two doors, just enough to trap a child. At least eight children were killed and two more seriously injured in elevator entrapments since 1981, according to CPSC records and newspaper accounts.
But the true number is unknown. Near-misses happen, too. On Thanksgiving 2019, a 4-year-old boy narrowly escaped being crushed by a home elevator outside Salt Lake City.
A Washington Post investigation last year reported that the elevator industry had known for decades about the entrapment problem — along with a simple fix, a $100 to $200 space guard to fill the door gap. The Post also detailed how some elevator companies had spent years successfully fighting off efforts by regulators and victims’ families to force the firms to warn the public and remedy the problem.
The CPSC was first warned about the risk of home elevators in 2013, thanks to a push by the parents of Jacob Helvey, who at age 3 was seriously injured in 2010 by an elevator at his home in Atlanta. They were later joined by the Hartz family from Little Rock, whose 2½-year-old son Fletcher was killed in a home elevator accident in 2017.
The Post also revealed how elevator industry groups resisted CPSC pressure to take action and downplayed the dangers. After the article, U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), who sits on a committee with oversight of the agency, called for an independent investigation of the agency’s handling of residential elevators.
Still, the CPSC decided against forcing a safety recall.
Instead, in August the CPSC’s then-acting chairwoman posted a brief “safety alert” about the elevator door gap on the agency’s website and sent a similar notice to governors in every state.
Safety advocates warned it was inadequate.
In recent weeks, in a move that caught many by surprise, the CPSC began to negotiate with Otis on the terms of a voluntary safety recall of its home elevators.
For years, Otis had distinguished itself among elevator companies by issuing warnings about the danger and fixing many of its products. The company had been spurred to take action by the 2001 death of Tucker Smith, 8, who was crushed by an Otis elevator at an inn in Bethel, Maine, during a family vacation. The Smiths, who live in Bel Air, Md., secured a promise from Otis, as part of a lawsuit settlement, that the company would take action. And the company did. It warned other elevator companies about the danger, retrofitted some of its elevators and pushed for new industry safety standards.
None of the recent deaths or injuries involved Otis Elevators. For example, the children of the Helveys and the Hartzes — along with the boy from Utah — were trapped in ThyssenKrupp elevators.
But Otis showed a willingness to work with the agency on a voluntary safety recall. The result is Otis’s offer for a free inspection and the installation of a space guard on its elevators, even though Otis stopped selling home elevators in 2012.
“These new measures are the latest in a series of efforts Otis has taken over the past 15 years to educate residential elevator customers about potential hazards and provide no-cost solutions,” said Otis spokeswoman Jodi Hynes.
Most voluntary recalls are not voted on by the CPSC commissioners. But this one was different. It involved a death — Smith in 2001. And it is serving as the basis for a CPSC investigation into four other accidents that occurred in elevators not made by Otis.
The CPSC voted 4-0 to approve the Otis recall.
“This is great news," said Brandi Helvey, who has spent eight years pushing the CPSC to take action. “This will definitely put pressure on the other manufacturers to do the right thing.”