Several of the rental companies told The Washington Post that they would issue warnings but stopped short of agreeing to require safety checks and home elevator closures.
None of the companies indicated they would fully follow the agency’s recommendations for dealing with what the commission described as an “extreme hazard.”
This was just the latest attempt by safety regulators to deal with a danger that has been allowed to persist for years — despite an easy and inexpensive solution. A 2019 Washington Post investigation showed that the elevator industry spent decades denying responsibility for devastating home-elevator incidents, with regulators divided over how much power they had to take action.
At a Senate hearing last week to consider the confirmation of three new commissioners, Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) said she sent a letter to the commission asking the agency to focus on the safety of elevators inside vacation rentals “where people may not be familiar, may just be there for a few days, may not understand the risk.”
She called the elevator incidents a “glaring safety problem” and asked the agency nominees to make it a priority. All of the nominees agreed.
Residential elevator incidents have occurred at a slow but regular pace.
An estimated 23 deaths and 4,600 injuries have been tied to residential elevators over the past four decades, according to the commission. Elevator experts suspect that the toll is significantly higher.
Children are especially at risk because they can get trapped in the space between the elevator doors, one of which moves with the elevator car, and the other — a swinging door — that sits on the floor landing. Children can be trapped between the two doors and crushed when the elevator moves.
The risk appears to be heightened when children encounter the elevators in unfamiliar surroundings, which is why the commission targeted vacation rental platforms.
The 7-year-old boy who was killed in Corolla, N.C., on July 10 was on the first day of an Outer Banks vacation with his family from Canton, Ohio, authorities said. They were staying at a rented beach home. Authorities said some close calls have occurred in other rental homes at the popular tourist destination.
The commission had issued a safety alert in 2019 about the dangers of home elevators. The warning was sent to vacation rental companies. Back then, the agency only asked the firms to warn homeowners. One result, for example, was Airbnb posting a short notice on its website about the problem two months later.
But such warnings would do little to prevent problems, elevator safety experts said.
The commission resorted to issuing that warning — rather than taking enforcement action — after it opted in 2019 to not require companies to fix the elevators or conduct an industry-wide recall campaign. It was a contentious decision under the agency’s Republican leader at the time, Ann Marie Buerkle.
The elevator industry had known about the trap risk for decades, The Post found. It also knew about the solution: $100 space guards that could be installed between the doors to eliminate the dangerous gap. The nation’s elevator code was changed in 2017 to narrow the space between the doors and eliminate the potential hazard.
So new elevator installations would be safe.
But nothing was done to address the problem in hundreds of thousands of older residential elevators.
And the incidents continued.
A few months after the commission backed off, a 4-year-old boy was crushed by a residential elevator at his grandparents’ home outside Salt Lake City on Thanksgiving Day 2019. He survived.
In early July, the commission took its first aggressive enforcement measure against an elevator manufacturer. Commissioners at the agency — now led by interim chairman Robert Adler, a Democrat — voted to sue one company to force it to fix its residential elevators.
The commission claimed in a court filing that ThyssenKrupp Access, part of German conglomerate ThyssenKrupp, should be required to inspect its elevators installed in customers’ homes and offer free repairs.
The company fired back in a court filing last week. It argued that its elevators were not consumer products and so the agency lacked authority to investigate. It also claimed that the gap between the doors was the result of how the product was installed, and the company only manufactured the elevators.
The litigation is expected to take months — maybe years — to be resolved.
The lawsuit also involves just a single company. There are many elevator manufacturers. And ThyssenKrupp Access stopped making residential models several years ago.
The North Carolina incident involved an elevator made by a different company.
In the meantime, the commission sent its July 20 letter to 10 property rental companies nationwide.
The letter asks the companies to issue prominent warnings to all renters about the potential danger and require all home elevators to be locked down until an inspector can verify that the door gap is safe.
Airbnb said it was reviewing the letter.
TripAdvisor is “developing ways to share these recommendations with vacation rental owners listed on our platform,” the company said in a statement.
Vrbo said it has updated recommendations for residential elevators on its website and will email reminders in the coming weeks.
The vacation home where the child died last month was managed by Twiddy & Co. Realtors. The Duck, N.C., company manages hundreds of beach rentals in the Outer Banks.
“We are heartbroken about this tragic death and our deepest sympathies and condolences are with the family,” Miles Daniels of Twiddy said in an emailed statement, declining further comment.
But Twiddy was missing from the list of companies recently contacted by the safety commission about the danger.
The commission said Monday that it plans to notify the company this week.