As many as 5,000 elevators, escalators and similar equipment in Hawaii haven’t undergone safety inspections this year.

That’s more than 70 percent of the 7,000 such machines that the state is supposed to check annually for compliance with safety regulations.

Bill Kunstman, spokesman for the Department of Labor and Industrial Relations said that the backlog has been building for nearly 20 years.

“The last time we were able to stay on top of things and the branch was fully staffed was 1995,” Kunstman said.

After that, state budget cuts forced the agency to hire fewer elevator inspectors.

“That’s when we first got knocked down,” he said. “We’ve been playing catch up ever since.”

The latest figures for backlogged elevator inspections came up in the State Auditor’s recent report on whether the state should regulate ziplines.

Part of the analysis found that the Department of Labor and Industrial Relations is too backlogged in missed elevator inspections to take on the additional task.

“The DLIR lacks the capability to ensure public safety for its existing elevator and boiler inspection program,” the report states.

“If this law [regarding ziplines] were passed, they’re not capable of carrying it out,” Hawaii State Auditor Marion Higa told Civil Beat.

Hawaii’s 1980 Boiler and Elevator Law requires that the state inspect elevators and other equipment — such as escalators, escalators and stage lifts — each year for safety regulation compliance. Elevators in private residences are exempt.

With its limited resources, the agency prioritizes which elevators to check based on factors such as how old the equipment is and where it’s located. This means that neighbor islands bear the brunt of out-of-date inspections. Last year, Maui reportedly had the highest number of uninspected elevators.

Kunstman said he couldn’t say how many years may have elapsed since some elevators were examined. But in some cases, it’s been more than 10 years.

“When I went to the state audit office to drop off our response for the report [on ziplines]…there was a sticker on the elevator saying when it was last inspected,” he said. “And that was from 2003.”

Agency On Its Way Up — But It’s Slow Going

The main reason for the backlog has been lack of funding for elevator inspectors. But a new law seeks to change that.

Act 103, introduced by Sen. Clayton Hee, created a special fund for the elevator and boiler safety division of the DLIR, effective July 1. It also appropriated $1 million for the agency, allowing it to add 10 new positions, six for additional inspectors.

Kunstman credited the law with adding much-needed manpower and helping the agency digitize the permit application process. The agency is also in the process of updating state equipment standards to meet national guidelines.

“We haven’t adopted any updates since the 1996 code,” he said. “Since then four new codes have been issued. [We’re trying to] leapfrog three codes and get up to the 2010 code.”

In addition to the new law, Kunstman said that it’s also helped that the Department of Human Resources allowed the agency to get a shortage differential. This increased the salaries of current inspectors by about 50 percent, from $40,000 to $60,000.

“It’s really the recruitment and the retention that was the biggest problem,” he said. “We didn’t have any applicants [when the salary was $40,000].”

In the private sector, elevator inspectors can earn more than $100,000 a year. Because of its comparably low salary, the state is effectively forced to recruit from retired mechanics who are older and likely to work for a shorter period of time.

“It’s a vicious cycle,” Kunstman said. But he doesn’t see a solution for that issue at this point — right now, the agency is trying to catch up on the backlog by the end of next year.

“The important thing now is bodies,” he said. “We just really needed more inspectors.”

The Danger of Being a ‘Slipper-Wearing State’

Kunstman said that despite the huge backlog, most of the 200 reported incidents in the past 10 years involved misuse, such as a person’s shoe getting stuck in an escalator.

“That’s one of the downsides of being a slipper-wearing state,” Kunstman said.

He said that of the incidents reported, 50 percent involved medical care and 90 percent involved escalators. Only 10 percent involved elevators. None included fatalities.

Captain Terry Seelig from the Honolulu Fire Department couldn’t say immediately how elevator-related incidents occurred in the past year. He described it as an “obscure category”.

No one actually knows how often elevators, escalators or similar machines get stuck because not all incidents are reported.

“Anecdotally there happens to be one elevator in the Capitol — I know Carol Fukunaga got stuck in it,” Kunstman said.

Missed Inspections Affecting Hawaii’s Poor

But the implications of elevators not working can be a lot more serious than a torn slipper or a few minutes waiting.

Hee said he was motivated to introduce Act 103 because of the importance of public safety.

“In some areas it seems likely that … the state could be in violation of the American Disabilities Act,” Hee said.

Hee cited Kuhio Park Terrace (KPT), a public housing project, as an example of a development where elevator safety is integral.

The state was the subject of a class action lawsuit regarding the elevator safety at KPT between 2008 and 2011.

“There were a lot of serious problems [that KPT was having],” said Victor Geminiani, executive director of Hawaii Appleseed Center for Law and Economic Justice, formerly known as Lawyers for Equal Justice, one of the plaintiffs. “The most serious was the failure of the elevators to operate.”

The public housing project consists of two towers built in the early 1960s. Each has 16 floors.

“I’ve had people with all sorts of serious medical problems [telling me about] walking up thirteen, fourteen floors and it took them an hour,” said Victor Geminiani, executive director of the organization. “It was absolutely horrendous.”

After three years of litigation, the state settled. Geminiani said the state paid for new elevators for the housing project last year.

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