Last month there were two serious accidents involving elevators in Shanghai, killing one person and seriously injuring another. On September 22 a 35-year-old tourist from Hunan Province died after walking into an open elevator shaft on the sixth floor in a shopping mall on Nanjing Road East. The elevator was under maintenance at the time and an initial investigation suggested that the maintenance worker had removed the warning sign from the front to give himself easier access.
When the Global Times reporter visited the scene two days later elevator doors on all floors in the building had been boarded up and carried prominent warning signs. The head of the mall's management company, Xu Baoguo, said that the seven-story building was being renovated and the old elevators were being replaced. He did not give any further details.
On the same day there was another elevator accident in a residential building in Songjiang district. A young couple, who lived on the 16th floor of a building in the Sun City residential compound in Jiuting town, had taken the elevator to the ground floor. As the wife was about to follow her husband out of the elevator, the doors suddenly shut. The elevator dropped to the basement and then shot up at high speed to the 27th floor, according to an employee of the compound's property management company surnamed Xu.
The elevator crashed into the top of the shaft and lodged between the 27th and 28th floors. The young woman was rescued by firemen and taken to hospital where she was treated for broken bones and a skull fracture.
Xu said the local quality and technical supervision authority had sent a team to check the elevators but said he could not comment on the situation before the official report was handed down.
Xu did add that the compound's property management company had launched a thorough inspection of all the 80 elevators in the compound. These elevators were manufactured by Schindler, a major international elevator company based in Switzerland.
The Shanghai Youth Daily reported that another resident in this compound had revealed that there had been a similar incident in his building in February when an elevator had dropped uncontrolled from the 13th floor to the basement. The car was empty at the time. Xu said his office had not received any reports about this.
Elevator accidents happen elsewhere. An elevator in a Beijing building recently panicked several office workers when it dropped several floors. In Wuhan, Hubei Province, a faulty industrial elevator on a construction site killed 19 workers when it plunged 100 meters. The Southern Metropolis Daily reported that workers said this may have been caused by violations of safety regulations and insufficient maintenance.
Shanghai now has more elevators than any other city in the world but many of these elevators are aging and out of date. City authorities have revealed that there are more than 14,000 aging elevators, one tenth of the city's total number. The elevators, one of the safest forms of transport in the city, are now under question.
A new wave
After the two accidents in the city the Shanghai Municipal Bureau of Quality and Technical Supervision told a news conference that it would begin a new wave of safety checks on elevators throughout the city.
The bureau also revealed interesting statistics including that even with Shanghai being ranked the No.1 city in the world for the number of elevators, the figure is increasing at an annual rate of 12 percent.
In 2011 the 141,000 licensed elevators in Shanghai (they account for about 8.6 percent of the 1.6 million elevators operating in China) included 101,000 passenger elevators, 13,000 escalators and 18,000 freight lifts.
The bureau also revealed that some 14,000 elevators in the city had been operating for more than 15 years. Because the equipment and components of these elevators were old and had been used constantly, there was a risk involved for the public.
Shen Weiming, the bureau's deputy director, said that the bureau had already launched a citywide program assessing the risks for elevators that could be a problem and would be advising elevators' owners and maintenance companies of any potential dangers and pushing these to be corrected immediately.
By the end of 2011, 815 aging elevators had been assessed for risks and another 700 will be assessed this year.
According to the city's new regulations for lift safety supervision, which will be introduced at the end of this year, every elevator in the city will have to have a routine maintenance check every 15 days and a thorough safety check every month along with a detailed annual assessment.
A severe shortage
However, the good intentions of this push for safety could be hampered. Qin Jiong, the chief engineer with the Shanghai Elevator Trade Association, told the Global Times that what was problematic for the government's regulations was a severe shortage of qualified professional maintenance engineers.
"For example, one of the biggest elevator manufacturers in the city, Shanghai Mitsubishi Elevator, only has 300 to 400 licensed engineers and the most elevators an engineer can work on in a month is between 25 and 30. Considering the number of Mitsubishi elevators in the city, they can only guarantee about 40 percent are kept in good repair at present," Qin said.
In principle, companies that make and install elevators are responsible for maintaining them. But because of the expansion of the market they can barely keep up with the number of elevators they make.
The reality is that most maintenance work is carried out by specialist companies. And the problem is that these companies are expensive and some property management companies can elect to choose second-rate maintenance firms who charge less.
Qin said the safe operation of an elevator depends on quality production, installation and maintenance. If any of these three factors are lacking, there is a potential risk. In reality, he said, 80 percent of elevator accidents were caused by a lack of proper maintenance.
"Unlike vehicles which by law have to be scrapped after a certain time, there are no such regulations for elevators. Elevators that have been operating for 15 or 20 years in residential compounds should be retired from service as they could incur problems."
The elevators in the Nanxing Mansions in Zhabei district are an example. One of the early high-rise buildings erected in China in the early 1980s in Shanghai, the mansions were one of the first residential buildings fitted with elevators. Nine of the Nanxing Mansion buildings have had elevators operating for more than 30 years.
The head of the neighborhood committee, Zhou Xiaojun, told the Global Times: "Almost all the elevators in our community have been overhauled or replaced."
Zhou said that for old buildings like the ones in this compound, it was common to see problems like people being stuck in elevators. The elevator maintenance company always sent an engineer out to fix these problems quickly.
The availability of money was the key for adequate elevator maintenance in most residential compounds, he said.
"Just opening a set of elevator doors takes one kilowatt of electricity. The power costs for running the elevators in our compound are the biggest expense and take the most of our monthly budget at up to 20,000 yuan ($3,182). And if we install a new elevator it will cost 300,000 yuan," Zhou said, adding that it costs some 500 yuan each month to check and maintain each elevator.
Now most of the buildings in the compound keep just one elevator functioning to save money and preserve the life span. "All the money for checking the elevators comes from our maintenance funds," Zhou said. "If we don't have the money, we can't ensure that the elevators will be safe enough for our residents."
The Shanghai Elevator Trade Association's Qin said that the biggest challenges for the city government were to ensure that the safety checks were carried out diligently and to help finance maintenance for some of the older residential compounds that were lacking funds.
Shanghai was the first city in China to install and use elevators. The first elevator in Shanghai was at the Russo-Chinese Bank, No.15, The Bund, which opened on October 26, 1902.
Some of the other earliest elevators include the American Otis installed in the south building of the six-story Peace Hotel on the Bund. The hotel, now the Fairmont Peace Hotel, has preserved the original elevators although they are not for use by the general public.
In 1935 two escalators were installed in a nine-story department store, which became today's No.1 Department Store on Nanjing Road East.
However, the real boom in elevators in modern China started in the early 1980s when a large number of high-rise buildings blossomed in the city.
The service life of a public building elevator is usually about 15 to 20 years. Many of the elevators in older buildings are certainly now due for retirement.