In the film “Mallrats”, Brodie Bruce (played by Jason Lee) makes offhand remarks concerning the level of danger for people on escalators – particularly children. When he speaks of the children he hears of die each year from escalator danger , I took it as a joke. To me, it was nothing more than an urban legend placed in a movie to seem real and tickle our most dark and grim of funny bones. But the scenario was all too real. Not one person, but several die each year in America from an unsafe escalator or in escalator-related fatalities.
Surprisingly, the government actually keeps records of escalator-related deaths. The organization who keeps the statistics is OSHA, receiving information from the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC). The CPSC reviewed passenger escalator deaths between 1997 and 2003. There were twenty-four deaths: sixteen were due to falling and eight were from getting caught in the escalator (examples of both will be given below). These twenty-four deaths do not include the deaths of those repairing the escalator, only the deaths of those using them. Averaged out, twenty-four deaths in seven years is roughly three escalator fatalities a year. To validate Bruce’s point, let us assume for the moment that at least one of these three people is a child (although we have no concrete evidence to support this theory, only probability).
The states CPSC looked at were Alabama (1 death), California (2), District of Columbia (3), Florida (1), Illinois (3), Maryland (1), Minnesota (3), Nevada (1), New York (3), Ohio (1), Virginia (1), Washington (2), and Wisconsin (2). The eight “caught in/between” deaths usually resulted after clothing became trapped at the bottom or top of an escalator or between a stair and escalator sidewall; seven of the 16 fall deaths were from head injury. Four of the fall deaths occurred due to falling off the escalator while riding the escalator siderails.
In 1994, the Consumer Product Safety Commission estimated that there were 7,300 escalator and 9,800 elevator injuries that year where people were injured seriously enough that they had to be hospitalized. If we take the average year of 365 days and divide the injuries up evenly, we come up with no less than twenty injuries a day in America resulting from escalators. While still a smaller figure in comparison to car crashes or other accidents, the number is higher than one might imagine. Given that few of us see an escalator in a week or month’s time (compared to driving daily), the figure is understandably smaller.
In the case of injury, those affected are predominantly children and the elderly. For those in age groups between them (teenage to middle age), the injury rates are roughly equal between men and women. Strangely, however, when alcohol is included as a factor, we find that a large portion of the injured men were intoxicated, while only 7% of the women injured were. In other words, when sober, women are at much greater risk than men to be injured. Whether these injury statistics correlate with fatalities is not clear. Because one group is more likely to be injured may not necessarily mean the same group is likely to die.
Other statistics which may be of interest are unknown to me at this time. For example, we might be curious to know if injuries increased (due to increased population) since 1994 or if they have decreased (due to better awareness and safer machines).
The Elevator Escalator Safety Foundation
To reflect the seriousness of the dangers of escalators, there is an entire organization devoted to promoting awareness of said danger. This organization, the non-profit Elevator Escalator Safety Foundation, states their mission as educating “the public on the safe and proper use of elevators, escalators and moving walks through informational programs.” They have a few programs, Saf-T Rider for kids and Safe Ride for adults, and sponsor informational events.
One such event is the National Elevator Escalator Safety Awareness Week (in both the United States and Canada). For those interested, this takes place the second full week of November. Representatives do speaking tours in major cities to promote awareness, and free educational materials are available on their website (www.eesf.org).
While this group certainly provides a useful service, I think Brodie Bruce would be happy if parents took the simple step of telling their children rather than relying on some independent group to do the parenting for them. As he says, the accidents “could have easily been avoided had some parent – I don’t care which one – but some parent conditioned [the children] to fear and respect that escalator.”
To illustrate the reality of escalator fatalities, I am offering a few examples to drive the point home.
On September 27, 2001 at 11:30a.m., a 37-year-old man died while repairing an escalator. I quote here verbatim from California Fatality Assessment and Control Evaluation Report #01CA009: “A 37 year-old male elevator mechanic helper died when he was crushed in an escalator as he was performing maintenance. The victim had removed the escalator stairs and was standing inside the mechanism of the escalator when the power suddenly came on. The stairs began moving before the victim could get out and before the power could be turned off. There were no locks or tags on the controls that supply the electrical power to the escalator. The disconnect switch at the circuit panel that fed power to the elevator had not been locked and tagged out. The power came on when a co-worker dropped the electrical circuit box, triggering a relay that started the escalator’s movement. There was a mechanical blocking device on the escalator to stop movement during maintenance, but it was not used.”
The report is detailed regarding procedures, but vague in other ways – the man is never named, nor is the company he works for or the location of the escalator. Not even the city or county of the building is named, though we know it to be “a county court multi-story facility” in California. Cause of death was “massive internal injuries due to blunt force trauma”.
James Anthony Kolata
Madison resident James Kolata, a 48-year old employee of the Wisconsin Department of Administration, died on July 30, 2004. He was attending a baseball game at Miller Park in Milwaukee between the Milwaukee Brewers and the Chicago Cubs when he decided to sit on the rail of the escalator. Kolata lost his balance and fell 17 feet. The man did not die instantly, but his injuries lead to his demise while receiving treatment at Froedtert Memorial Lutheran Hospital in Wauwatosa. According to the Milwaukee County medical examiner’s report, Kolata “suffered fractures to his skull and vertebrae and a collapsed lung”. By the time paramedics arrived at the stadium, he was not breathing. And he never regained consciousness.
Alcohol was likely a factor, though Kolata’s wife told investigators that he was only a social drinker and did not use any street drugs or have any known health problems. Alcohol had been a factor on June 19 (barely a month before) when another man fell off another escalator in the ballpark while trying to slide down the rail.
Francisco Portillo, a prep cook for the Kaya sushi bar in Boston, died on February 21, 2005. He had left work early (9:45pm) and sat down on the escalator. The hood of his sweatshirt became entangled in the “comb plate” of the escalator and he was pulled to the ground and eventually strangled to death.
Other people on the escalator tried to help Portillo. One man hit the emergency stop button too late. Other people, including transit police, tried to help Portillo break free, but the sweatshirt had become too tight around his neck. Witnesses thought he might be having a seizure after seeing him struggling, but this might simply be because they did not understand what had happened. Paramedics and police cut him loose, but he was already dead before he reached Cambridge City Hospital.
Not surprisingly, an almost empty bottle of Korean whiskey was found in Portillo’s pocket, and police do believe that alcohol was likely a factor. During work that evening, Portillo had been dropping dishes. A sushi chef at Kaya, Kriz Chong, said, “I think he was drunk… He couldn’t even speak properly. He was mumbling almost, and we just left him alone.” Chong also noticed Portillo “walking tipsy”. The escalator was partly to blame, however, as it was not equipped with a “comb-plate sensor” which reports say is “a device required in newer models that shut them down if something gets caught.”
The escalators in this district were notoriously dangerous. Local newspapers reported that prior to replacing the older models in 2003, the escalators had caused “several” incidents. They cite a 3-year-old Cambridge boy in 1995 whose leg was severely gashed and a Beacon Hill man in 1996 whose coat was caught in the escalator and had to have his arm amputated .
More Anonymous Deaths
The CDC offers brief synapses of other escalator deaths and injuries. They are as follows:
Washington, DC, March 11, 1997: “A 37 year old male died from asphyxiation when his clothing became entrapped in the downward moving steps and stationary bottom comb plate of an escalator at a subway station. He was found, on his back, with the coat wrapped tightly around his chest, because part of the coat was dragged into the comb plate. There were no witnesses as to how the coat became entangled.”
Richmond Heights, Ohio, September 11, 2000: “A female, age 85, lost her balance and fell onto the escalator at a store. Cause of death blunt impact to head, trunk and extremities sustained in the fall.”
Anaheim, California, July 6, 2002: “A Twelve-year old male was riding an escalator down (egress) from a baseball game when his right shoe got stuck between the stationary left side of the escalator. The victim sustained injury to his right big toe. The extent of the injury was not determined.”
St. Petersburg, Florida, February 19, 2003: “A 5-year-old female was on the bottom step of a down escalator when her shoe got caught in the comb plate. She reached down to get her shoe when her hand also got caught in the comb plate. Her three middle fingers and part of her hand were amputated.”
Denver, Colorado, July 2, 2003: “About 60 people were injured when the escalator they were riding down suddenly accelerated and they fell or were thrown at the bottom of the escalator.”
Escalators, contrary to common sense, are dangerous devices and not toys to fool around with. Every year someone loses their life in a situation that could have been avoided. With the emergence of more escalators all the time, one can only assume that escalator fatalities will rise proportionately. But we can do our part to reduce escalator fatalities if we follow three simple rules.
1. Sobriety. Since accidents around escalators seem to coincide with alcohol consumption, if you are going to be involved in one, try to avoid being involved in the other.
2. Stay off the rail. The handrail is for hands and hands only. Sitting (or standing) on the handrail is dangerous and could potentially lead to a fall.
3. Keep escalators maintained and up-to-date. For store owners, please make sure your escalator has a comb plate sensor and any other modification that may improve safety. Consider ways of preventing falls, because as we all know – lawsuits can be filed by even the most incompetent of people.
 The exact wording is as follows: “Listen, not a year goes by, not a year, that I don’t hear about some escalator accident involving some bastard kid…” (the quote continues, and is quoted under the safety section above). Later, upon seeing a child sitting on the steps of the escalator, he exclaims, “That kid is back on the escalator again!” Ultimately, his concerns were correct – by the end of that day some child becomes caught in the escalator and what happens is left to our imagination.
 In relation to Brodie Bruce, we must comment that his observations occurred in 1995, suggesting that he lived in a time where the bulk of escalators were the older, less accident-proof models.