Aired on Market Place: November 12, 1996
Escalators are very prevalent in large modern buildings. In fact over 1700 of them are presently in use in Canada. But escalators can also be dangerous. Hundreds of people have been injured by them, most victims being children.
The problem area is the gap between the steps and the side wall. Small hands and feet can become trapped in this space and pulled in by the friction. A simple safety device, which has proven its effectiveness in the last decade, could be installed to prevent this kind of accident, but the escalator manufacturers have been strangely reluctant to install or even consider this new technology.
A running shoe touches the wall of the escalator and the friction created pulls the entire foot through the tiny gap. The foot becomes entrapped and minor injuries result. A child slips on the escalator, their hand goes in the space between the side of the steps and the wall. The fingers are crushed, the hand is sliced through and cannot be saved. These scenarios are just two examples of the more than one-thousand estimated side wall entrapments that occur in the United States every year. No one knows exactly how many there are in Canada but the limited figures we obtained, suggest the numbers are significant. And that the majority of those injured are children. Canada's safety code allows for a maximum gap of one-quarter inch between the step and side wall - enough space for the stairs to move smoothly and easily. Most entrapments happen on escalators that are within the limit. Alberta Labour has investigated a dozen incidents in the last five years. In every case, the side wall clearances were to code.
In Vancouver, a Canadian inventor may have found a simple and inexpensive way of preventing the hundreds of side wall entrapments that happen every year. It's called the escastrip. Pieces of flexible plastic that glue into the edges of the step. Its colour is a warning to stay away. If you do step on it, the strip fills the gap and prevents entrapments. Easy to install, it only requires part of the complate be removed to create a gap for the strip to pass through. Bob James invented the escastrip over a decade ago but James is still running his business from the back of his car. He blames the big escalator manufacturers. They've warned perspective buyers away from his product and said they won't be responsible for any problems that might result from its use.
Otis, one of the largest escalator manufacturers says it's already dealing with the entrapment risk, by using a low friction coating on the side wall to prevent foot wear from staying. In a memo to its staff Otis states that the escastrip "could come loose and leave an exposed gap and consequently present a hazard to the fingers of small children." James says both the subway system and shopping malls around British Columbia's lower mainland, have been using his device on their escalators since the late eighties. Where it's been installed, there have been no reports of entrapments or any other problems.
There is also a brush designed to prevent entrapments. It's faced similar opposition from manufacturers. The brush comes in contact with escalator riders when they get too close to the gap. Entrapments have been all but eliminated in Great Britain, where the use of the deflecting device like the brush has been required for more than a decade. A four year pilot project in a Toronto subway station had similar results. Norm Benn, Ontario's chief inspector for escalators, has had to investigate over 90 side wall entrapments in the last five years. Benn believes devices like the brush and escastrip could prevent those incidents. He tried to get the product approved for use in Canada but was turned down. The joint Canadian-American committee that sets the standards for escalators has so far resisted changes to the code that would require the use of devices like the escastrip. We've wanted to talk to Otis about why they've opposed the use of these devices on escalators but the company refused our repeated requests for an on camera interview.