The McHenry Library elevator inspection permits expired in May 2017. It’s the same story for a majority of campus elevators. Units in the Science and Engineering Library expired in July. Earth and Marine Sciences Building and Humanities I and II units expired in April.
For passengers in an elevator, an expired permit is jarring, and might make them feel unsafe. However, in California, permits act as a deadline to submit an inspection request, and not a deadline for a physical inspection, according to the Division of Occupational Safety and Health (DOSH) website.
Expired elevator permits are common due to the DOSH being understaffed and unable to fulfill inspection requests in a timely manner, sometimes lagging more than a year behind schedule.
This deficiency, along with aging campus elevators, leaves those with mobility impairments at risk of not being able to get around campus. For UCSC students like Sarah Mehl, a non-functioning elevator is more than a minor nuisance — it’s a potential danger.
“Walking on Science Hill is difficult because there are so many stairs and if you cannot do stairs it takes a ton of planning to find routes that are accessible,” Mehl said in an email. “For me taking the stairs is a calculated risk since it is slightly more likely that I could fall.”
Mehl is one of many students who are mobility impaired and rely on elevators. Nonfunctioning elevators can prevent Mehl and others from accessing class, dorms and other crucial services.
To prevent these malfunctions, said electrical senior superintendent Gary Riggs, contractors conduct maintenance on the elevators once per month and this maintenance is then verified by a state elevator inspector during the inspection process. Campus elevators are maintained by three private contractors: Otis Elevator Company, Elevator Service Company and thyssenkrupp.
Despite the regular maintenance, elevators on campus can and have suddenly failed in the past for long periods of time.
In 2015 the elevator in the Rachel Carson College (RCC) Academic Building went out of operation for over 100 days due to a power outage, calling the reliability of elevators on campus into question. Because of how old the RCC elevator was, several parts needed to fix it weren’t on the market, which lengthened the time needed for renovation.
Americans with Disabilities Act facilities access coordinator Susan Willats recalled many of the difficulties in getting the elevator up and running, as well as the lessons learned from the process.
“It was a huge problem,” Willats said. “[…] If we decide we’re going to replace an elevator, it takes a year. This particular elevator broke, and there were people trying to move the earth to get that thing fixed. The parts came and it didn’t fix it […] and finally they said ‘We’re going to redo the whole darn thing.’”
The RCC elevator went through a routine maintenance and checkup a month before it failed permanently, highlighting the potential for this problem to reoccur with another elevator on campus, especially older units.
“It could happen with a new or old elevator, depending on the characteristics of the outage,” said electrical senior superintendent Gary Riggs. “If it happened on one of our elevators that are 15 or 20 years old, those replacement parts may not be so readily available, or available at all.”
After the elevator incident at RCC, the university enacted a new renovation and replacement program for elevators following the event, which was put in place to prevent elevator failures before they happen, Willats said. Under the new program, two elevators on campus are identified every year for complete renovation. The elevators are identified by a combination of age and number of complaints submitted through the fix-it request system.
Another precaution put in place is addressing accessibility when elevators go out. The first day of an elevator outage would have maintenance workers on-site attempting to fix the unit. More than a week of outage would require relocation of any services rendered inaccessible by the issue, with various other responses in between.
“Things fail. Evidently, what we’ve learned is that elevators that were built in the 70s and 80s, I’m not sure what their deal is, but it just burned out. It just failed,” Willats said.
Elevators do not have a lifespan associated with the entire unit, but the various parts generally have an operating period of 15-50 years with regular maintenance.
Sarah Mehl believes that because there is a relatively low number of students with physical disabilities on campus, the school tends to be less effective at accommodating them. The geography of the campus also acts as a deterrent to any mobility-impaired students looking to enroll. Elevators are only part of the picture when it comes to ensuring mobility-impaired students can have a successful college career.
“Part of it is cultural,” Mehl said. “Changing the culture of the staff and how they think about disability and how they understand it to be, and how they relate to students with disabilities.”