Hawaii’s elevator standards are on their way up — but they have further to go.

Two years ago, Hawaii’s elevators were on a downward trajectory. The Department of Labor and Industrial Relations (DLIR) was way behind on elevator and boiler inspections, and working with an “archaic” code that some experts said was a threat to public safety. More than 5,000 of the more than 7,000 elevators in the state required inspecting, meaning that no one knew for sure how many needed repairs.

But, since the Legislature passed Act 103 in 2012, DLIR has eliminated a large portion of the backlog. As of Dec. 31, 2013, it has inspected 4,139 of the state’s 7,031 elevators. The remaining backlog for the year was 2,892.

So there are still many elevators that require inspection and that aren’t getting them, but far fewer than before.

As for the boiler inspections, of the 10,101 required per year, 5,910 were completed in 2013, leaving 4,191 undone, a backlog the department is still working to catch up on.

Hawaii’s 1980 Boiler and Elevator Law states that elevators must be inspected every year to make sure they are in compliance with safety regulations.

Act 103 provided a special $1 million loan of seed money for the Boiler and Elevator Branch of the Occupational Safety and Health Division. That money, according to DLIR spokesman Bill Kunstman, helped the department get back on track with its inspections, hire more people, update its safety codes, and gave it the ability to become financially self-sustainable by increasing fees.

Rep. Karl Rhoads was instrumental in bringing the issue to the forefront back in 2012, when he was the chairman of the House Committee on Labor and Public Employment. “It’s pretty basic if you don’t have a functioning elevator,” he told Civil Beat. “Life pretty much grinds to a halt if you’re on the 30th floor of a building.”

Ready to Move Forward

One major concern of building and safety experts is that the elevator code in Hawaii wasn’t updated for 14 years.

Hawaii’s current elevator code, from the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, was written 18 years ago. It was adopted by the department in 1998, with only a slight update in 2000. Since then, the national code has gotten several updates, most recently in 2010, but Hawaii has so far stuck with the old 1996 code.

Hawaii’s boiler code was updated in November 2012 for the first time in 13 years, but a new elevator code is only now moving toward full implementation, Kunstman said. “We spent the last two and a half years working with stakeholders, leapfrogging all of those different code updates,” he added.

There will be a public hearing on May 14 with Gov. Neil Abercrombie, to get input and feedback on the new rules, and if all goes well they will go into effect on July 1.

Implementing the new code is vital for many reasons, said Kunstman.

“Not only is it important, from a public safety perspective, but a lot of entities, when they buy an elevator now, it costs them more because [new elevators] are manufactured according to the 2010 (national) code,” Kunstman explained. “We have to special order things to meet the 1996 code. That’s really backwards, yeah?”

With the new elevator code for Hawaii, there will be some increased costs for building owners because of the more modern technology requirements. “The elevator world has changed since 9/11,” Kunstman said.

“Elevators used to stop, and you weren’t supposed to get in them in an emergency. Now, they are designed to evacuate people [from buildings],” he said.

Firmer Financial Footing

The department is on more stable financial ground. It is well positioned to pay back the seed money loan it received through Act 103, with the first installment due at the end of the fiscal year. At the end of 2013, the balance was $1.2 million — up from the original $1 million — because of fees that have been collected.

Those fees may make it easier for the department to become self-sufficient, which is important given that it no longer receives general funding, which is another stipulation of Act 103.

The department has also been able to hire 10 more people, including six new elevator inspectors, thanks to money from Act 103. There are a total of 22 positions, although three are currently unfilled and the department is actively recruiting.

Recruiting and retaining workers has historically been a challenge for the department. Before Act 103 was implemented in 2012, the entry level salary for the inspectors was $40,000. Now, it’s $60,000.

“We couldn’t get people in the door at $40,000,” Kuntsman says.

Comparatively, those who work in the private sector doing elevator inspections make upwards of $100,000.

Progress Report

During the 2012 calendar year, the department was going at a clip of 249 elevator inspections per month; that number climbed to 344 in 2013, a 38 percent improvement.

Oahu has the vast majority of elevators in the state.

County Required Inspections
Hawaii 697
Maui 851
Honolulu 5,208
Kauai 275
Total 7,031

DLIR has also been updating its permitting process, with the end goal of having everything online this year, which is estimated to save 2,000 hours in labor costs per year.

Phase one of the new online application and payment process, for individuals or companies applying for elevators, was completed last August. Unless obstacles arise, the rest of the the full system is slated for completion in about two months.

According to Kunstman, the department is still on track to completely eliminate the backlog by 2017.

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