Ontario plans elevator availability law; report makes 19 recommendations

TORONTO – Ontario plans to pass legislation in the spring aimed at addressing elevator availability and reliability as part of its commitment to tackle what has become a growing vertical mobility issue across the country, The Canadian Press has learned.

The planned legislation is in response to a report to be released Thursday that aims to define and enhance elevator reliability by ensuring building owners perform preventive maintenance – seen as key to minimizing thousands of annual entrapments and other unscheduled shutdowns.

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“There are currently no minimum preventive maintenance standards in Ontario to minimize future availability issues,” retired justice Douglas Cunningham writes in his 57-page report obtained by The Canadian Press. “Compliance with minimum maintenance standards for safety, shown to signal more effective preventive maintenance practices, is at an all-time low.”

In fact, Cunningham reports, only one in five residential buildings are meeting minimum rules for scheduled maintenance tasks.

READ MORE: Elevator company ThyssenKrupp fined $500K for violating Ontario safety rules

Other recommendations include forcing contractors to report outages over 48 hours or when half the elevators in a building are out of service – 80 per cent of buildings have only one or two lifts – and having a defined plan to restore service. Outage information should be publicly available, Cunningham says.

Cunningham says that while the four big elevator companies have painted a somewhat rosy picture of the situation – some critics have referred to multinational giants Kone, Otis, Schindler, and ThyssenKrupp as an oligarchy – there is widespread concern about elevator availability, which he wants to see defined as “the ability of a building’s elevating devices to transport persons as and when required.”

Overall, Cunningham finds a “diverse and complex set” of interrelated issues underlie outages, including maintenance, capacity problems and labour shortages. He also notes in passing cases in Europe, Israel and Japan involving systemic anti-competitive practices by the big elevator companies.

The Ontario government last year ordered the provincial safety regulator – the Technical Standards and Safety Authority – to commission the study after The Canadian Press found increasing problems with residential, nursing home and other elevators across the country and a private member’s bill aimed at addressing the issue gained all-party support.

READ MORE: Elevator companies warn Ontario bill could have ‘dire consequences’ if enacted

The latest available figures, for example, show firefighters in Ontario responded to 4,577 calls by people trapped in lifts in 2016. Industry figures peg entrapments that year at 9,649. Additionally, the report notes, elevator outages are enormously problematic for people with mobility issues, and can hamper first responders in emergencies.

Part of Cunningham’s study – carried out by consulting firm Deloitte – involved a survey of building owners. Condominiums reported the biggest availability problem. Overall, one in five respondents reported having an elevator out of service for 18 days or more in any given year. Elevator age appears to play little role.

The study also reviewed jurisdictions such as Vancouver, New York and Singapore.

Liberal backbencher Han Dong introduced his private member’s bill last year that would punish contractors for extended elevator downtime and mandate “traffic studies” to ensure new residential buildings have sufficient elevator capacity. No standards exist at the moment.

Cunningham, however, asserts Dong’s bill is based on anecdotal rather than “robust” evidence. The problem, he finds, is the “acute absence” of reliable data that undercuts efforts to comes to grips on the extent of the problem and potential fixes.

READ MORE: Ontario-mandated research focusing on elevator problems, solutions

Gathering needed data and tackling the issue will take years, involve several ministries, the safety regulator, contractors and building owners, the report finds.

One issue is that no regulatory authority is responsible for elevator availability – as long as the devices do not pose an active safety threat to users.

Nevertheless, sources have told The Canadian Press that Consumer Services Minister Tracy MacCharles – also responsible for accessibility issues – was expected to announce on Thursday plans to begin tackling the issue by introducing enabling legislation this spring and regulations in the fall.

Longer-term government plans call for setting timelines for returning devices to service – which Cunningham and the province say would make the province the first jurisdiction in the world to do that. Other planned initiatives include stronger enforcement tools and fines around maintenance, and tackling a shortage of qualified elevator mechanics.

Building code amendments would ensure new highrise buildings have a suitable number of elevators, according to the government.

READ MORE: Man sues elevator company over mishap in Toronto condo; says he hurt leg in fall

The government also plans to ensure data on elevator uptimes are publicly available, sources said, suggesting would-be tenants for example would have information about a building, and authorities would have a better idea of where the problems are.

The government is also looking to develop education and awareness materials for building owners and residents on compliance with requirements for notice of service disruptions.

One thorny issue is whether the current safety authority should be given responsibility for availability. The fee-for-service authority, seeing itself caught potentially in a conflict between enforcing safety and ensuring availability, opposes taking on the extra mandate.

Cunningham was given an earful from disaffected contractors and owners about their lack of trust in the safety agency, which he said needs to act as a “modern regulator” that incorporates broad and frequent industry input into its decision-making.

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