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Big elevator companies blast Ontario bill, safety agency in new report

Last Updated Oct 18, 2017 at 10:40 am PST

TORONTO – Canada’s major elevator companies, which have come under scrutiny for breakdowns and delayed repairs, are warning that proposed Ontario legislation aimed at enhancing reliability of the devices in the country’s largest market could have dire consequences if enacted.

In a new report that casts a wide net of blame for “real and perceived” problems with the industry, the companies also take aim at what they see as stifling rules enforced by Ontario’s safety authority.

“There is a fundamental misunderstanding in Ontario regarding elevator reliability and availability, and the root cause of any down time,” the report states. “Specific isolated instances of elevator problems have created a misperception of widespread elevator outages and unresponsive service companies that are both inaccurate and irresponsible.”

Instead, the National Elevator and Escalator Association — dominated by multinational giants Kone, Otis, Schindler, and ThyssenKrupp — blames any problems on a multitude of factors that include building owners who can’t or won’t maintain elevators and who don’t keep unhappy users in the loop; voltage fluctuations for causing elevator shutdowns; and traffic congestion and parking issues in Toronto that hamper timely service calls.

An in-depth investigation by The Canadian Press last year found soaring numbers of calls to firefighters to free people trapped in elevators, reports of frequent and lengthy outages and harried technicians who have little time or financial incentive to do preventative maintenance.

In an attempt at addressing the problems the association says are overblown, Ontario Liberal Han Dong introduced a two-part private member’s bill this year that would mandate analyzing how many elevators are needed in new buildings, and set time limits for contractors to get the important devices back in service.

But Dong’s effort, the association argues, is misguided and the legislation, if enacted, could impose huge costs on building owners that might see tenants “priced out” of their homes.

The legislation could also lead to increased safety issues, the association argued, due to potential rushed repair jobs in order to meet time limits.

Citing internal industry statistics that could not be independently verified, the association report also states that only a tiny fraction of elevators in Ontario go out of service, and that more than 98 per cent of those are up and running within 24 hours.

The report also claims elevator entrapments in Ontario have steadily decreased by 18 per cent in the last four years — stats that run counter to those provided by Ontario authorities whose figures show calls to firefighters from people stuck in elevators have doubled since 2001 and now number in the thousands every year.

And while the report supports traffic studies to ensure buildings are built with enough elevator capacity, it calls for a “voluntary standard” for appropriate equipment levels.

Toronto-based consultant Rob Isabelle called the report self-serving, political, and some of its contentions ridiculous.

“Blaming everybody and the world and not themselves,” Isabelle said.

One key area in which the report is silent, Isabelle said, is on tight union control on the number of certified technicians — most of whom work for the big companies.

The personnel shortage, he said, provides little incentive for technicians to provide superior service, hampers the ability of contractors to get rid of poor performers, and acts as a barrier to smaller companies from entering the field.

In July, as Dong’s legislation moved forward, the Ontario government directed the province’s safety regulator to commission its own review of the elevator reliability issue. Led by retired justice Douglas Cunningham, the Deloitte study for the Technical Standards and Safety Authority — TSSA — has yet to be finalized.

The elevator companies make no mention in their report of successful safety prosecutions against them, such as one in January in which ThyssenKrupp was fined $375,000. Instead, they argue the TSSA has created one of the most highly regulated environments in North America — to little effect.

“Many existing regulations do not increase safety or reliability, and in fact may serve to decrease availability,” the report states. “There is a lack of collaboration and mutual distrust between the (TSSA) and industry.”

The TSSA, which says elevator incidents have risen significantly since 2011 and serious injuries are up eight per cent annually, had no response to the association’s broadsides. A spokesman said the agency would wait for Cunningham to issue his report.

Dong said he was glad his proposed legislation has drawn attention to the issues.

“Something needs to be done,” Dong said, adding he is skeptical of the association’s reliability figures. “This is a big problem.”

Doug Guderian, president of Elevator One based in Barrie, Ont., agreed with the report, but said it didn’t address underperforming contractors who he said hide behind long-term contracts.

“Owners feel that they are locked into a undesirable situation with no options,” Guderian said.

The technician’s union did not respond to a request for comment.