The hearing room was full and the overflow room was overflowing at the New York City Council’s offices at 250 Broadway this afternoon. Maybe it was the fact that this was the first elevator safety hearing since two New Yorkers lost their lives in elevators in the past year. Maybe it was the fact that this was the first oversight hearing on elevator safety since 2003.
This in a city where most people live and work in high-rise, all serviced by some 60,000 elevators.
The main issue of the afternoon was two new elevator safety bills proposed by the council: one that would require existing elevators to be furnished with more safety devices and another that would require elevator workers to be licensed.
“We require licensing of our plumbers. We require licensing of our electricians. And the lack of elevator licensing is a major loophole,” said councilmember James Vacca, a sponsor of the licensing bill. “It is also a threat to the safety of millions of New Yorkers.”
The council was largely motivated to hold the hearing because of the elevator-related deaths of Suzanne Hart, 41, an advertising executive who was fatally injured on Dec. 14, 2011 when she walked into an elevator that shot upward unexpectedly; and Ed Bradley, 45, who was electrocuted on March 28 while working on an elevator. Council Speaker and expected 2013 mayoral candidate Christine Quinn briefly stopped by to comment on these deaths and voice her support for the bills.
“The Department of Buildings, the elevator industry, and the union have all worked to make elevators safer,“ she said. “But when New Yorkers continue to lose their lives, it’s clear that more needs to be done.”
The tone of the hearing occasionally turned heated between members of the council and representatives from the Departments of Buildings, responsible for the inspection and oversight of the city’s elevators. Although Buildings Commissioner Robert LiMandri said in his testimony that he felt the city was “moving in the right direction” with the two bills and later agreed that elevator mechanics should receive more training and undergo a more stringent certification process, his department still came under sharp criticism from councilmember Peter Vallone, Jr., a cosponsor of the licensing bill, and councilmember Robert Jackson.
Councilman Vallone, when he was questioning Buildings Department officials, mockingly commented on its current standards of qualification for elevator mechanics. “The mechanics have to be periodically trained as well as be able to provide the health and fitness to carry out their duties,” he said. “That may be the most minimum requirement I’ve ever heard of for any position, let alone a mechanic. I think anyone in this room has the health and fitness to carry out their duties.”
The questioning got more intense under Councilman Jackson, who became angry with the department over what he viewed as its vague responses to questions about whether or not elevator agency directors were allowed to contract out work to other companies.
“Are we running a safe business if in fact you can’t answer my simple question?” he asked. “I want an answer. Are you contracting out work?”
Commissioner LiMandri eventually said that, yes, the department was contracting out work, prompting Mr. Jackson to respond, “Well then how come you didn’t say that, then? That was a very simple question that demanded a simple answer.”
Mr. LiMandri apologized for the confusion, and subsequent councilmembers’ questions were much calmer.
Public opinion on the bills was mixed as that of a crowded elevator.
Steven Rakowski, speaking on behalf of Teamsters Local 237, said that the union supported the council’s desire to ensure that elevator workers were properly skilled and qualified. However, he expressed concern over whether or not the bill would result in job losses for current city employees.
Mary Ann Rothman, executive director of the council of New York Cooperatives & Condominiums, said that, while the apartment owners she was speaking for wanted their buildings to be safe, they were concerned about the costs that would be imposed by new standards for elevators and by how quickly the council planned to implement these new standards.
One thing’s for sure: Law and Order: Elevator Inspectors Unit may have just been a Simpsons gag back in 2002, but in 2012, it’s an issue New Yorkers aren’t laughing about.