Structure, accidents, safety tips — here’s everything agents need to know about elevator safety.

As real estate agents, we’re in and out of buildings daily, whether selling in a development or running business errands. Imagine being stuck in an elevator with clients while on a showing? You’d want to be the cool, calm and collected person who knows what’s happening. As such, here’s are a few elevator safety facts, in case of emergency.


Vertical transportation within buildings, known as an elevator, or lift, is defined as a type of cable transportation machine that moves people or freight between floors, levels or decks of a building or vessel. Electric motors drive traction cables and counterweight systems, such as a hoist to power the movement.

Some elevators utilize a pump and hydraulic fluid to raise a cylindrical piston like a jack to move the cab, or elevator car, between floors. Elevators are also defined as permanent hoisting and lowering mechanisms, utilizing a car or platform moving vertically on guides between floors. 


The Americans with Disabilities Act, ADA, signed into law in 1990, ensures that individuals with disabilities receive reasonable accommodations to participate in everyday life and employment.

Elevators may be exempt from ADA compliance if a building is fewer than three stories or fewer than 3,000 square feet per floor. All shopping malls, airport terminals, public transit stations, and health care provider offices must have ADA-compliant elevators, without exception.

Elevators are one of the safest transportation methods as all devices are registered as required by the elevator subcode under the uniform construction code. Elevator maintenance and upkeep are required by strict codes and standards worldwide. 


Standard North American and European safety brakes prevent free fall, keeping the risk level very low, as long as scheduled inspections are performed in a timely matter. These safety measures have virtually eliminated elevator accidents. Approximately 18 billion passenger trips on elevators happen every year in the United States, and there are only about 27 fatalities per year, according to  

The American Society of Mechanical Engineers, ASME, sets standards for elevator design and maintenance. The elevator pit, or area at the bottom of the elevator, below the first floor, must be dry and clean. The machine room, which houses mechanicals for the elevator, must be temperature and humidity controlled to prevent malfunctions.

Most elevator accidents are preventable and the result of human error. Mechanics errors, inspection oversights and failure to conduct even basic inspections cause most accidents. For example, in the past nine years, 22 people in New York have suffered fatalities, and 500 total elevator accidents happened.


Safety tips for entering and riding an elevator might seem obvious but are worth repeating to prevent injury. The majority of elevators will arrive at their destination and be perfectly level with the floor, allowing entry and exit without tripping. 

It’s advisable to look down always when entering or leaving the cab or stepping over the threshold to avoid trips or falls. Elevators have weight limitations, usually listed on the information card in the cab. 

Do not attempt to squeeze into a crowded car, as you might exceed the weight limitation; it is better to wait for the next car. Avoid the temptation to stop closing elevator doors with your hand, umbrella or briefcase.  

If, despite your best efforts, you are trapped in an elevator that has stopped moving or is stuck between floors with the doors closed, remaining calm is your best defense. The possibility that cables will snap and send the cab crashing to the bottom of the elevator pit is doubtful, despite movie dramatizations of this as commonplace. 

Infamous elevators

The Guinness World Record of the longest fall survived in an elevator occurred on July 28, 1945, when a U.S. Army plane crashed into New York’s Empire State Building. The impact caused the elevator to fall 75 stories, but while the only passenger, elevator operator, Betty Lou Oliver, was injured, she survived.

Any article about elevator safety would be incomplete without referencing the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center. The two buildings had 198 elevators in total that were severely damaged by the impact of the planes. Burning jet fuel was channeled through both buildings’ elevator shafts, causing cables to snap or engulf cabs in flames. Some elevators, it is assumed, were stuck when the buildings collapsed.  

Elevator cabs are equipped with emergency call buttons, intercoms or telephones in case of malfunction. If there is no light in the cab, use a cell phone to provide illumination. There is no need to fear suffocation, as elevators are not designed to be airtight so that passengers won’t be deprived of oxygen. 

Another common escape method popularized by movies and television dramas is escaping from the cab via a safety hatch in the elevator’s ceiling. Modern cabs do not have hatches in the ceiling. Older cabs with hatches should never be used, as entering an elevator shaft is extremely dangerous.

Getting stuck in an elevator

While in the stalled elevator cab, push the button for each floor and the “open door” button. If none of the buttons bring results, you must let someone know you are stuck. While in the elevator, you should be prepared for movement at any time, as a backup power source or electrical surge may start the mechanism. 

A practical tip is to look through the small gap between elevator doors to see if you see light. If light is visible, you are stopped near a floor, as opposed to between floors. You can open the doors from the outside with a key. 

Never, under any circumstances, try to force the doors open and attempt to climb out of the car. Opening the doors can trigger the mechanics to start the elevator moving, and tragedy can result.

The average amount of time that elevators are stuck is 30 minutes. During this time, while keeping calm, continue pushing the emergency button until help arrives.

Although rare, elevator breakdowns and accidents do occur. Knowledge of and preparation for an elevator malfunction will help you remain calm and think clearly, preventing panic. 

A final caution: Never enter an elevator in a burning building. Elevator shafts can act like chimneys, channeling smoke and toxic fumes to every floor and passengers in the elevator cab.

Gerard Splendore is a licensed associate real estate broker with Warburg Realty in New York. Connect with him on LinkedIn.

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