Nearly every elevator in San Francisco has an expired permit (2023)

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Nearly every elevator in San Francisco has an expired permit (14)

There are approximately 10,800 elevators in the city of San Francisco, according to California’s Department of Industrial Relations. About 9,000 of those elevators — or 83% — have expired permits, many of which are multiple years old, according to public records reviewed by SFGATE.

Embedded in this story is a searchable database of every expired permit through June of 2022, so you can see for yourself whether the elevator in your apartment building or office or local BART station has been inspected lately.

There’s more to the story than the data itself, though. An expired permit doesn’t mean an elevator is on the verge of a major, injury-inducing malfunction, and up-to-date permits don’t guarantee a perfectly functioning elevator. Expired permits do, however, represent a totally buried government agency that relies on the private sector to pick up its slack. And there are real consequences for older or disabled people when property owners decide to skimp on elevator upkeep.

The expired elevator basics

When an elevator in California is first installed, it must undergo what’s called an “acceptance” inspection. A series of tests are performed to make sure the elevator is reacting the way it’s designed to react. Once it passes those tests, it’s issued a permit by the California Department of Industrial Relations (DIR).

From that point on, elevators in the state of California are supposed to be inspected once a year by DIR. Some elevators are eligible for every-other-year inspections, if the owner of the elevator applies for a special permit with its own list of requirements. These inspections are a snapshot in time, intended to identify any safety violations that would necessitate shutting down the elevator until the violations are resolved.

The expired elevator problem

In theory, DIR’s elevator inspections should be a useful revenue-driver for the state, since every state inspection brings in hundreds, sometimes thousands, of dollars. Instead, DIR’s elevator unit is understaffed and overworked. A DIR spokesperson told SFGATE there are just 13 inspectors in the Bay Area elevator office, which covers both San Francisco and the East Bay. They’re hoping to add “several” more inspectors in the coming months, and have 18 vacancies in all.

“Hiring elevator inspectors takes time in part because the pool of qualified candidates is very small,” a DIR spokesperson wrote in an email. “The applicants need years of experience in the elevator industry, and once they start with [us], they need training on the state’s inspection process.”

A shaky set of solutions

The onus has fallen on private maintenance companies to monitor San Francisco’s elevators.

A longtime operations manager at a Bay Area elevator maintenance company — who requested anonymity to speak freely about the state’s backlog of expired permits and was granted it in accordance with Hearst's ethics policy — says the good news is “many” privately owned elevators in the city have a maintenance contract on the books. In his estimation, a fair amount of San Francisco elevators are examined by maintenance workers (who are certified by the state) at least quarterly. “It’s in our best interest to make sure there are no safety violations or unsafe operation of an elevator,” he told SFGATE, because the maintenance company can be sued, too.

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A maintenance worker’s inspection is separate from the state inspection. In a perfect world, property owners would keep robust maintenance contracts on the books, so their elevators are regularly looked after. Then, once a year, the state would do its own inspection, essentially corroborating and supplementing the maintenance company’s work.

This is not a perfect world. As mentioned, about 9,000 of San Francisco’s elevators have expired permits, meaning the state is not upholding its end of the bargain in consistently corroborating and supplementing maintenance companies. Not every elevator in the city has a maintenance contract, either. Property owners aren’t legally required to keep a contract with maintenance companies, and some prefer only to address elevator issues after the elevator stops working.

Nearly every elevator in San Francisco has an expired permit (15)

June Bashant, a partner at the San Francisco law firm Rouda Feder Tietjen & McGuinn, has dealt with elevator-related injury cases. She says “apartment owners have what is known as a non-delegable duty to maintain a safe premises,” a duty that “includes providing safe elevators in their buildings.”

But that “duty” does not technically mean that a property owner must employ a maintenance company to keep tabs on their elevators. Other times, property owners will follow through on entering into a contract with a maintenance company, but only pay for occasional elevator checkups.

“There are some building owners who don’t want to spend the money to have maintenance done,” the operations manager told SFGATE. “When the elevator breaks, they call all the companies to try and have someone come out and fix it. A lot of the maintenance companies are hesitant to do that, because the last one to touch it is the one that ends up in court.”

And there are other odd rules maintenance companies are supposed to keep in mind. Elevators built after October 1998 have a laundry list of testing requirements from the state. DIR will pass those requirements to the elevator owner, who in theory passes them along to the maintenance company they’ve contracted. The maintenance company will perform those tests and sign off to the state of California that the elevator passed (or didn’t pass), but these tests do not replace or usurp the annual state inspection, which is still supposed to be required.

Elevators built before 1998, meanwhile, inexplicably have a much shorter list of testing requirements for maintenance companies to pass along to the state: just earthquake preparedness and making sure the emergency light and alarm bell work, according to the operations manager who spoke to SFGATE.

“It’s weird, huh?” he concurred.

Assessing the (low) risks of riding elevators

Elevators are, generally speaking, very safe. That’s true even with elevators that have expired permits. “When an elevator malfunctions, it’s because something has failed, and the elevator recognizes that it’s not safe to run, so it stops,” said the operations manager who spoke to SFGATE.

Between 2017 and 2021, there was an annual average of 12,041 elevator injuries in the United States, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission. There are approximately 330 million people living in the U.S., for comparison’s sake. And the CPSC database couldn’t even produce an estimate of the number of elevator-related fatalities during that five-year span, because the number was so low.

Bashant knows well that injuries do sometimes happen. She’s represented clients who’ve gone to court against property managers and elevator maintenance companies whom she says are not as thorough as they should be.

“I see what are known as full-service maintenance agreements where maintenance is not performed per the code, and where safety upgrades are not a priority,” she said. “Corners are cut to save money under these maintenance contracts leading to injuries that would be preventable if the work was performed and necessary safety upgrades were made.”

The biggest elevator issue

Elevator injuries, even if infrequent, are certainly notable — but the far more likely consequence of a poorly maintained elevator is that it will shut itself down, which is an enormous problem for older people and people with disabilities.

“If you’re someone who can’t use stairs, and you live above the ground floor, then a working elevator is absolutely critical,” said Autumn Elliott, litigation counsel at Disability Rights California. “If the elevator goes out, you’re essentially a prisoner in your own home.”

Unsurprisingly, property owners of buildings with lower-income tenants are more inclined to disregard elevator upkeep. In San Francisco, disability rights advocates recently staged a protest at City Hall to raise awareness about how many elevators in single-room occupancy hotels (SROs) are out of service. SRO residents have complained about broken elevators for years, as chronicled by Mission Local. The operations manager who spoke to SFGATE singled out SROs as an example of a building that, in his opinion, is more likely to not have a substantive maintenance contract on the books.

It’s not just SROs, either — in 2017, the Disability Rights Advocates group sued BART, alleging passengers’ civil rights were being violated by the filthy, too often out-of-service elevators that limited accessibility.

“From what I understand, if you have a problematic elevator, it’s generally because maintenance wasn’t done over time,” Elliott said. “The routine maintenance that elevators need is absolutely a critical disability access issue.”

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What to do?

If a property owner is diligently following elevator inspection rules, then they’ll often post notices and correspondence with DIR in their elevator, showing that they’ve attempted to have the elevator’s permit updated, but that DIR doesn’t have the resources to complete the state inspection.

Understandably, however, these notices raise the fears of tenants who use the elevator and aren’t sure what it means that the elevator’s permit is expired.

“It doesn’t help the public when they get into an elevator with a permit that’s multiple years old,” the Bay Area operations manager said. “We got a lot of calls, and as an elevator maintenance company, I can’t call the state and request an inspection of an elevator that’s expired. I’m not the owner of the elevator.”

Nearly every elevator in San Francisco has an expired permit (16)

If you’re worried about the status of the elevator you regularly use, Bashant suggests establishing a paper trail with your property owner: send along complaints of elevator issues as they unfold so it can’t be argued that a malfunction happened out of nowhere.

The operations manager also suggests contacting your property manager to ask whether they have a maintenance contract on file. That’s the surest way to figure out whether or not your elevator is at least sometimes being checked up on, in lieu of the state inspections that are rarely happening on time.

Longer term, DIR believes that filling all of its vacancies “will allow us to eliminate the backlog,” a spokesperson wrote.

The operations manager who spoke to SFGATE is skeptical of that outcome. “It’s not for a lack of trying — they’re just overwhelmed,” he said.

“But it’s rare to see a majority of the elevator permits that are actually current, and it’s been that way for the 30 years I’ve been doing this.”

FAQs

How often are elevators inspected in California? ›

The California Department of Industrial Relations oversees all elevators in the State. Annual Inspections (Reinspections) Are the Responsibility of the Elevator Owner and State safety inspection is a multipurpose activity.

Who inspects elevators in California? ›

Mission of the Cal/OSHA Elevator Unit:

To ensure the safety of the riding public and protect workers in the elevator industry, the Elevator Unit will maintain a vigilant system to meet our obligation to inspect and enforce code compliance for elevators and other conveyances.

How often are elevators inspected in Chicago? ›

Annual inspections for conveying devices are required per municipal code section 13-20-100.

Does OSHA require elevators? ›

Section 1630(a).

Section 1630(a) requires that an elevator for hoisting workers is required on buildings or structures that are 60 feet or taller.

Do elevators need to be monitored? ›

Considering the number of incidents that can occur inside an elevator, including malfunctions and robberies, it is prudent to keep them actively monitored with guards, audio and visual equipment, or both, and more. This can make a huge difference between losing customer confidence and keeping your building competitive.

What makes an elevator ADA compliant? ›

ADA Requirements for Elevators

Elevator must be easily accessible in a public space (instead of, for example, a cramped hallway) Doors must remain fully open for at least three seconds. Call buttons are a minimum of 0.75 inches in diameter. Button heights must be centered 42 inches from the floor.

How do you become an elevator inspector in California? ›

At Cal/OSHA, there is one primary job classification for elevator inspectors: Associate Safety Engineer (Elevators).
...
To join our team, the process consists of three important steps:
  1. Step 1: Passing an exam.
  2. Step 2: Applying for job openings.
  3. Step 3: Interviewing for a position.

How many elevators does California have? ›

Generally, elevators are inspected by the state in California. The inspector indicated that in the general area of the earthquake there are about 100,000 conveyance devices that include passenger and freight elevators, moving walkways, and escalators. There about 60,000 elevators (freight and passenger).

How often are elevators inspected in Illinois? ›

Who must be licensed to work on elevators or other conveyances? The company that I contract with for inspections services my location every 6 months but the State only requires an annual inspection.

Is a phone required in an elevator? ›

A residential elevator must always have an active phone that is checked for operation on a normal basis. It is required by elevator code to provide for a means of two-way communication from the cab interior.

How often are lifts serviced? ›

Most elevator companies recommend having an elevator such as a passenger lift serviced every 12 months to ensure your elevator remains safe, reliable, and efficient. This service usually includes a visual inspection as well as testing the elevator's operation functions, door safety mechanisms, and drive system.

Can anyone work on an elevator? ›

Elevator and escalator installers and repairers typically need a high school diploma or equivalent. Nearly all learn how to do the work through an apprenticeship. Most states require workers to be licensed.

Do elevators free fall? ›

First of all, elevators never plummet down their shafts. For the past century, elevators have had a backup break that automatically engages when an elevator starts to fall. If all the cables snapped (highly unlikely), the elevator would only fall a few feet before the safety breaks would activate.

Are construction elevators safe? ›

There is no doubt that by its very nature working in the construction industry around elevators can be dangerous. But when safety regulations are violated, the dangers exponentially increase and workers are more likely to lose their lives or be injured.

How often should elevators be tested? ›

Elevators and escalators shall be thoroughly inspected at intervals not exceeding one year. Additional monthly inspections for satisfactory operation shall be conducted by designated persons. Records of the results of the latest annual elevator inspections shall be posted in elevators.

How can I test my phone for elevators? ›

The unit must be push activated and the call button must be identified with the word “HELP.” To test, press “HELP” and the elevator telephone should dial a pre-programmed telephone number. The programmed phone number should call a 24-hour monitoring service.

How do you hang a phone in an elevator? ›

Yes, pressing * then # will hang up the speakerphone.

How many stories can a building have without an elevator? ›

No elevator will be installed because it is not required in a building with less than three stories.

Which of the following is exempt from ADA elevator requirements? ›

That said, private buildings with less than 3 floors or less than 3,000 square feet per floor, are not required to have an elevator, unless they are a shopping center or a professional office for a health care provider or public transportation facility or station, in most cases.

How many floors before a lift is required? ›

When does a modern housing development require a lift? For managed housing over two floors or more, to ensure the housing is suitable for all occupants, including people with restricted mobility, a vertical lift should be provided.

Is elevator mechanic hard? ›

Elevator installers and repairers are put at risk of falls from ladders, burns, and severe muscle strains associated with working in restricted spaces. A report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor reveals the most dangerous construction occupations and the five highest death rates.

How much do elevator inspectors make in NYC? ›

As of Oct 7, 2022, the average annual pay for an Elevator Inspector in New York City is $87,895 a year.

How do I become an elevator mechanic in California? ›

Elevator mechanics must complete a five-year apprenticeship program such as the National Elevator Industry Educational Program sponsored by an employer or union. The apprenticeship is a paid program that combines classroom learning with on-site training in the unique skills and tasks required.

Are elevators required in California? ›

If your building has less than 3,000 SF per floor or is a 2-story building, generally an elevator is not required. But this is based upon what types of tenants are located on the other floor(s). If there are any medical offices an elevator is required. Also, if there are any retail shops, an elevator is required.

What happens to an elevator in an earthquake? ›

o If you are in an elevator, you are probably better protected than most people. The elevator will not fall down the shaft, and nothing heavy can fall on you. o If the power fails, the elevators will stop and lights will go off. Public Safety will respond as quickly as possible and advise you how rescue will occur.

Are elevators required in apartment buildings in California? ›

Under the Fair Housing Act, if a building does not already have an elevator, it has no duty to install one. If a building was constructed by federal, state or local government bodies, or constructed with federal, state or local government funds, it may be subject to other laws.

How often does an elevator need to be serviced? ›

Most elevator companies recommend having an elevator such as a passenger lift serviced every 12 months to ensure your elevator remains safe, reliable, and efficient. This service usually includes a visual inspection as well as testing the elevator's operation functions, door safety mechanisms, and drive system.

How often do elevators get maintenance? ›

Typically, four times a year. Elevators have numerous moving parts with many safety elements and electrical components that could break down. Inspections help find those issues before they become a dangerous and expensive problem.

What makes an elevator ADA compliant? ›

ADA Requirements for Elevators

Elevator must be easily accessible in a public space (instead of, for example, a cramped hallway) Doors must remain fully open for at least three seconds. Call buttons are a minimum of 0.75 inches in diameter. Button heights must be centered 42 inches from the floor.

How do you become an elevator inspector in California? ›

At Cal/OSHA, there is one primary job classification for elevator inspectors: Associate Safety Engineer (Elevators).
...
To join our team, the process consists of three important steps:
  1. Step 1: Passing an exam.
  2. Step 2: Applying for job openings.
  3. Step 3: Interviewing for a position.

How much does it cost to maintain an elevator? ›

Maintenance Plan Costs

Elevators in small buildings usually require maintenance contracts that run between $3,500 and $5,000 per year. For high-rise buildings, the cost may get closer to between $8,000 and $10,000 a year.

How long should an elevator last? ›

Between 20 and 25 Years

Once your elevator reaches its 20th year, the elevator car operating panel, cables, and traveling cables should all be replaced for optimal efficiency and safety. Between 20 and 25 years of use is when your elevator's controller and dispatcher should be replaced.

How long does a home elevator last? ›

Typically, residential elevators last for at least 20 years before they need replacing. After 20 years, your elevator should probably at least be modernized. However, after 25 years, it's usually the end of the line for most elevators.

Do elevators need oil changes? ›

Elevators that are used more regularly and have longer hours of operation will most likely require more oil changes throughout their life span. If the oil has been used over a long period of time with high operating temperatures then the oil needs to be changed sooner rather than later.

Do elevators require maintenance? ›

It is routine maintenance that is of paramount importance for safe and efficient operation of an Apartment Lift. Annual maintenance contracts: There are generally three types of contract which exist: Comprehensive Maintenance Contract, Semi Comprehensive contract and.

How many stories can a building have without an elevator? ›

No elevator will be installed because it is not required in a building with less than three stories.

Which of the following is exempt from ADA elevator requirements? ›

That said, private buildings with less than 3 floors or less than 3,000 square feet per floor, are not required to have an elevator, unless they are a shopping center or a professional office for a health care provider or public transportation facility or station, in most cases.

How many floors before a lift is required? ›

When does a modern housing development require a lift? For managed housing over two floors or more, to ensure the housing is suitable for all occupants, including people with restricted mobility, a vertical lift should be provided.

Is elevator mechanic hard? ›

Elevator installers and repairers are put at risk of falls from ladders, burns, and severe muscle strains associated with working in restricted spaces. A report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor reveals the most dangerous construction occupations and the five highest death rates.

How much do elevator inspectors make in NYC? ›

As of Oct 7, 2022, the average annual pay for an Elevator Inspector in New York City is $87,895 a year.

How do I become an elevator mechanic in California? ›

Elevator mechanics must complete a five-year apprenticeship program such as the National Elevator Industry Educational Program sponsored by an employer or union. The apprenticeship is a paid program that combines classroom learning with on-site training in the unique skills and tasks required.

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