Focus/Spotlight

Elevator accident raises safety concerns

By Maheesha Mudugamuwa

A recent accident involving an elevator at a building in Nawam Mawatha, Colombo has raised serious concerns over the safety of elevators installed in public buildings.

The Construction Industry Development Authority (CIDA) said that while elevator companies in Sri Lanka have to register with the CIDA, not all companies at present have.

Every year, thousands of Sri Lankans across the country find themselves trapped in faulty elevators, while countless more suffer inconvenience due to out-of-service elevators – and the problem is worsening.

Dilshan Fernando, an employee of a private company in Colombo, is distrustful of the safety of elevators following a terrifying experience in 2016 when he used the elevator to get to the eighth floor from the 20th floor of the high-rise building in which he worked.

“After a tiring day at work, I entered the elevator to go downstairs to go home. As I was working on the 20th floor, I had no choice but to use the elevator every day. When I entered the elevator it started to move and, within seconds, it grounded to a stop and the power went off.”

“I was terrified and with the help of the light from my mobile I pressed the open button, but nothing happened. I pressed all the buttons, and still nothing. I pressed the emergency alarm and heard nothing. After almost 10 minutes of yelling and screaming, the firefighters and maintenance workers rescued me. But the cause of the elevator malfunction was not determined,” he explained to The Sunday Morning.

“This incident has turned my life upside down and now I have a phobia of elevators and was forced to change my job. I rarely use elevators now,” Fernando stressed.

Fernando is one of many people who’ve had this bitter experience at least once in their lives.

Even though he switched jobs and currently avoids using elevators, it is not a practical option for others.

Especially so at a time when the demand for high-rise building spaces increase day by day due to the lack of land in highly populated cities like Colombo.

At present however, this trend is not confined to Colombo; traditionally the city of high-rise constructions in Sri Lanka.

Many other cities too have seen the development of high-rise residential and business projects as of late.

Elevator accidents in Sri Lanka

Even though most incidents like the one faced by Fernando left no causalities or fatal injuries, there were some fatal accidents reported in Sri Lanka last year.

In March, a 32-year-old man died after he fell from the elevator at Gampaha General Hospital after it got stuck due to a power failure.

According to the Police, the victim, his wife, and their child used the elevator to descend from the fifth to the fourth floor when a power failure occurred, resulting in the elevator getting stuck between the two floors.

Hospital staff managed to safely evacuate the victim’s wife and child from the elevator but could not save the victim as he fell to the ground while trying to jump out of the elevator; he died at the scene.

A similar incident occurred in May at the Colombo Municipal Council (CMC) where an employee was hospitalised after he fell into an elevator shaft at the CMC building.

According to an official of the CMC, there are two old elevators in the building and one of the employees who tried to get into one of the elevators from the ground floor fell into the elevator shaft when the door accidentally opened.

A rescue team of the CMC fire brigade rescued the employee and admitted him to the Colombo National Hospital.

The most recent accident occurred on 29 December, which killed a young ruggerite, identified as Kokila Samandaperuma, in the early hours of last Saturday at the Green Lanka Towers at Nawam Mawatha in Colombo.

The elevator stalled at the ground floor and fell under ground.

Investigations are still being conducted by the Police to find the cause of the accidents. However, the State Engineering Corporation (SEC) was requested to conduct a separate investigation and submit their technical report.

When contacted, SEC General Manager D.T. Rajasekeram said investigations uncovered that the elevator at the Green Lanka Towers was faulty, but he refused to reveal the contents of the report as it was to be submitted to the Colombo Magistrate on Monday (7).

Learning from Singapore

Elevator accidents not only occur in Sri Lanka, but in other countries as well.

According to statistics, on average, elevator accidents are responsible for 27 deaths and seriously injure around 17,000 people annually.

Singapore is one of the many countries that have implemented strict regulations to ensure that safety standards in elevators are maintained, in order to avoid such accidents.

In 2016, the Building and Construction Authority in Singapore (BCA) introduced a series of measures to enhance lift reliability and safety.

One such measure was the introduction of a “Permit to Operate” (PTO) system, where all lift owners are required to engage an Authorised Examiner (AE) to conduct a full commissioning inspection and tests to ensure compliance with the Singapore Standard 550 (SS 550)3.

At present, a Certificate of Lift Maintenance and Testing is issued by the AE to the lift owners and is valid for a period of one year.

The BCA will replace this scheme with a new PTO system. Under this, in addition to the current checks and certifications done by AEs, every lift will require a permit to be issued by the BCA before it is operated.

Audit checks are being carried out by the BCA.

The permit has to be renewed annually, with certification done by an independent AE.

The BCA has made it a requirement for owners to display the permit in the lift, indicating the lift contractor responsible for maintenance and the name of the Authorised Examiner who inspected and certified the lift.

Still studying possibilities

However, The Sunday Morning learnt that, unlike in Singapore, Sri Lanka does not have a mandatory safety assurance certification system for high-rise buildings.

The Construction Industry Development Authority (CIDA) said that the contractors were required, by law, to maintain and repair lifts and conduct thorough inspections each year.

According to CIDA Chairman Eng. M.R. Jeyachandran, the elevator companies in Sri Lanka have to register with the CIDA, but he clarified that not all companies are registered with them at present.

“All elevator companies should register with the CIDA and if they are not, the private buildings or government institutions must not allow them to install elevators. This condition is not fulfilled by private companies,” he added.

“We can take legal action against those companies that don’t comply with regulations. What we should do is investigate, and under our Act, we can take legal action,” Jeyachandran stressed.

“When the company registers, we evaluate their performance. The consultants of the project calling bids for the elevators should pay more attention to whether safety requirements for that particular installation can be fulfilled by the respective company, and also their past experience,” he explained.

“There are some safety regulations for high-speed elevators. With low-speed elevators, the consultant designing the building has to ensure that all specifications for proper elevators are fulfilled,” he added.

Elaborating on the future plans of the CIDA, the Chairman noted that they would publish safety regulations and work together with the National Building Research Organisation (NBRO) to make sure that all elevators in government and public companies work properly and are safe for users.

Meanwhile, the NBRO said that they were currently studying the possibilities of introducing a system in which a mandatory safety certificate, which should be renewed annually, is required for buildings in Sri Lanka.

NBRO Human Settlements Planning and Training Division Director Kishan Sugathapala said: “We are investigating what happened at the Green Lanka Towers in Nawam Mawatha and we will most probably study what should be done, and give some guidelines on how elevators, especially in high-rise buildings, should work in aspects of safety.

We are in the process of studying the possibilities.

“Our main focus is the main buildings used by the general public. After that, we can look into other buildings as well. Major buildings should implement these guidelines. Even though we have a maintenance system, it’s not a mandatory system,” he said.

No safety certificate, only a service agreement

Experts say that the steep rise in incidents is partly the result of more elevators being installed as Colombo has seen rapid development over the past few years.

However, the real culprits, as they say, are the elevator companies that did not conduct timely maintenance activities and make necessary replacements.

According to Urban Development Authority (UDA) Chairman Dr. Jagath Munasinghe, when designs are made for buildings, there is list of specifications prepared by the architect, which has to be certified by an engineer as well.

In every high-rise building project, there is mechanical engineer, electric engineer, and a civil engineer. If there’s any mechanical device, there’s an engineer who has to certify the specification.

When the specification is done, the next step is to call for bids from different suppliers. Once a supplier is decided, they usually install the elevator, and also come into an agreement for a service.

He explained that it’s a kind of periodic service extended annually, or sometimes biannually, in accordance to pre-specified conditions that need to be adhered to.

He also added that inspections or repairs need to be done in line with the relevant manual, which lists out details pertaining to the specific elevator.

Furthermore, parts of the elevator covered under warranties should be replaced if damaged, and lastly, any other services deemed necessary at the time have to be carried out as well.

“Even though there is no compulsory safety certificate for the buildings, there is a service agreement.

The lift operator, or whichever company installed the lift, is bound by the agreement to report on the parts of the elevator that need to be repaired. This is the usual practice.

“We depend on all these recommendations given by the mechanical engineer because he is a professional.

And as such, the respective building owner is supposed to come into a service agreement with the lift installer,” he added.