Politics & Government

Washington state weighs new escalator safety rules following strangling death

Marcus Soo didn’t cry when his hand got stuck in the escalator. The 7-year-old boy was in shock, his father said, as the force of the machine crushed three of his fingers.

“It looked horrifying,” Winston Soo said in a deposition following the July 2010 accident. “He looked at his hand and he just couldn’t believe his fingers, part of his finger was missing.”

The Soos were riding an escalator at the J.C. Penney store in Bellevue Square when Marcus’ shoe got stuck where the escalator steps meet the floor. When the boy tried to free his foot, his hand got caught.

Winston Soo later asked a state inspector “if there was a device to stop the escalator from running,” according to the inspector’s report.

Such automatic stop-switches not only exist, they are mandatory on all escalators installed in Washington since 1995. But older escalators – including the one that injured Marcus Soo – aren’t required to have the safety feature, which is known as a comb-impact switch.

Now, the state Department of Labor (L&I) and Industries is considering a rule change that would require comb-impact switches on all escalators in Washington, regardless of when they were installed.

A comb-impact switch works by activating the escalator’s brake and stopping the motor if it detects tugging where the steps disappear into the floor – an area known as the comb plate.

State officials said a comb-impact switch could have made a difference for 42-year-old Maurecio Bell, who died last year in downtown Seattle when he fell on an escalator in a King County Metro bus tunnel.

After Bell fell, his clothing caught between the steps and the escalator’s bottom comb plate, strangling him. That escalator, installed in 1987, lacked a comb-impact switch.

L&I estimates that as many as 44 percent of the escalators and moving walkways under its jurisdiction don’t have comb-impact switches, judging by their installation date.

But the state doesn’t track which escalators have the devices and which don’t, meaning some older escalators may have been upgraded with the safety feature since their installation.

L&I inspects 509 escalators and moving walkways throughout the state, mostly outside of Spokane and Seattle. Those cities conduct their own escalator inspections, though state inspectors still are responsible for inspecting escalators in some of their public buildings, including the Seattle transit tunnel where Bell died.

Jack Day, L&I’s chief escalator and elevator inspector, said his department has identified 17 accidents in the past four years where people were hurt when parts of their body or clothing got caught in escalators.

Those incidents represent only a small fraction of the 249 escalator accidents that injured people on L&I-inspected escalators between 2010 and 2014, according to the department.

But a comb-impact device can greatly reduce the severity of injuries when people’s limbs and clothing get trapped, Day said.

Day said he began thinking about proposing new requirements for comb-impact devices after Bell’s death last year.

“We’re always looking at what can be done to ensure people have an uneventful ride from point A to point B, without worrying about whether they are going to go to the hospital or not,” Day said. “If we can prevent some of this with a comb-impact device, why wouldn’t we?”

Besides requiring comb-impact switches on older escalators, Day’s proposal would also make the devices more sensitive, meaning fewer pounds of upward pressure would be required to activate the safety mechanism. That could help stop the escalators more quickly when someone gets trapped, he said.

Day’s idea to require comb-impact switches on all escalators is modeled after a policy New York City adopted in 2011. New York City also changed its rules to make the devices more sensitive, like Day is proposing.

Donald J. Franklin, an official with the New York City Department of Buildings, wrote in a recent email to L&I that all escalators in New York City now have comb-impact devices installed. The new policy is already having a positive effect, said Franklin, who is the deputy director of field operations and training in the department’s elevator division.

“The comb-stop switch has decreased the amount of lost toes and fingers being ripped off due to escalators continuing to run while the person is entrapped,” Franklin wrote. “The comb-stop switch is also instrumental in preventing serious injury and strangulation due to clothing being pulled into the comb area.”

Should Washington state mandate the installation of comb-impact devices on all escalators, it would go beyond the national standards set by ASME, an engineering group that publishes safety codes for escalators and elevators. Many states – including Washington – adopt the ASME code as the basis for their escalator and elevator regulations.

Yet discussion of new rules for comb-impact devices is also taking place at the national level.

The ASME committee that deals with escalator standards “is considering requirements to require combplate stop switches,” wrote ASME spokeswoman Deborah Wetzel in an email.

“However, a revision has not yet been approved,” Wetzel wrote.

For building owners, adding comb-impact switches to their escalators won’t be cheap.

The district manager of an escalator maintenance company recently told several customers in an email that the upgrade will cost at least $20,000 per escalator.

That figure doesn’t include the cost of installation, which could require widening the pit below the escalator to accommodate the equipment, wrote Phil Martin, the local district manager for Schindler Elevator Corp.

Changing the sensitivity of comb-impact devices could also cost building owners by causing their escalators to shut down unexpectedly, “resulting in more billable callbacks and greater amounts of (escalator) downtime,” Martin’s email said.

“From a customer service standpoint, customers are going to be very upset about the cost,” Martin said in a May interview with The News Tribune.

David Gault, the engineering director at the Fairmont Olympic Hotel in Seattle, said he would support an effort by the state to improve rider safety by mandating comb-impact switches. It may take time, however, for building owners to scrape together the money to upgrade their escalators, he said.

“We don’t typically have that in the coffers, so we have to get funding for those special safety improvements,” Gault said.

Day said he is seeking comments from escalator owners and maintenance companies before deciding to proceed with a new rule for comb-impact devices. It is possible that such a requirement would be phased in over time, he said.

Any new rule would need to go through a public comment period before it could be finalized, meaning it would probably be two years before the state law could change, Day said.

The Soo family recently settled their lawsuit against J.C. Penney and Schindler, which was hired to maintain the escalator where Marcus Soo was injured four years ago.

Marcus, now 11, had to go through several surgeries, which still left him unable to fully move the fingers in his right hand, according to a lawsuit his parents filed in King County Superior Court.

The family received $600,000 in the settlement, though much of that money went toward paying attorney fees.

Neither the family nor their attorney would talk to a reporter for this article, citing a nondisclosure agreement they signed.

Yet in a deposition in 2012, Winston Soo said the memory of his son’s accident will stay with him for life.

“To see my 7-year-old son, fingers all pancaked together, tip of a finger missing,” Winston Soo said. “That facial expression on his face I will never forget until the day I die.”

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