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City’s Elevator Inspections Fall Behind

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Spend time with elevator inspector Raul Gras and you may understand why people aren’t lining up for his job.

He is a valued asset in a city department that has tried for months, with little success, to hire new inspectors. As a result, elevator inspections in Los Angeles are far behind.

Gras dwells in a strange underworld, braving rats in the narrow spaces beneath 30-story buildings, sweet-talking gang members on rooftops and infiltrating the inner workings of office towers as he glides up and down shafts hundreds of feet deep.

“It’s kind of a lonely job,” said Gras, whose shirt pockets are packed with small flashlights and pressure gauges. “It’s just you, the radio in your car, and your paperwork. . . . But you never know what to expect. You’ve always got to be on your toes.”

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Gras says he loves the work. But even he admits it’s tough and dangerous. Add to this the fact that elevator experts like him occasionally command six-figure salaries working for private firms, and it becomes clear why it’s so hard for the city to attract qualified inspectors, said Lance Wong, Los Angeles’ chief elevator safety engineer.

Elevator inspections are now eight to 10 months behind schedule, Wong said. The city has just nine inspectors to examine 21,000 elevators and escalators in the city each year.

Without more inspectors, Wong said, they can’t catch up.

Although city inspectors were recently granted 8% pay raises--boosting annual salaries to between $50,000 and $61,000--it has taken months for Wong to fill just one of four open positions.

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“It’s a very good time for the elevator industry, and mechanics are needed,” Wong said. “So they want to get a piece of the pie before it’s over.”

The city’s problem is shared by California’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health, which is months behind in its inspections of the rest of the state’s 78,000 elevators. (Los Angeles is the only city in California to have its own elevator inspectors, a service started in 1896 and grandfathered into state law.)

“We are having the same problem,” said James Meyer, principal engineer for the elevator unit of Cal/OSHA. Meyer said the state recently began advertising in national journals in a bid to lure inspectors from out of state.

“We are trying to draw people out of industry where they are making $80,000 to $100,000 and asking them to take a pay cut to $50,000,” Meyer said.

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Even though it’s rare for inspectors to find serious problems with elevators, Wong said, it is important to keep city inspections current.

Of the more than 20,000 elevators the city has inspected in the last year, only 114 were found to be so faulty that they were taken out of service, he said. Of the 44 elevator accidents reported so far this year, none had to do with mechanics.

Most involved someone tripping and falling on an escalator, he said.

Still, said Wong, surprise inspections motivate building owners and mechanics to keep elevators in good condition.

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“Most people think the elevator is just a magical device--you press a button and it goes,” Gras said. “But you can never assume.”

Wednesday’s inspection was a case in point. Gras, 42, a senior inspector, was called to a building in the Mid-Wilshire area. After ascending to the roof of the building and checking the mechanism there, Gras was feeling hopeful.

The elevator appeared to be in good repair. The electronic gadgetry wasn’t throwing off sparks, there were no oil leaks, no signs that someone had patched up the wiring. Gras checked the governor--a device that makes sure the elevator doesn’t fall too quickly--and the earthquake system, which ensures that if the building shakes, the elevator simply moves to the closest floor, opens its doors and freezes.

“Very clean,” he said.

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But later, after he stopped the elevator between floors and stepped gingerly out onto its roof, things went awry. Instead of the elevator lowering itself slowly at his command--as required during this type of inspection--it suddenly dropped at normal speeds--350 feet a minute--while Gras, still on the elevator roof, reached for the emergency stop button.

Gras emerged from the shaft a few minutes later, looking calm, except for his hands, which were twisting a grease-stained rag.

“This is why I used to have hair,” he joked, stroking his receding hairline.

When new construction began to recover in recent years, growth in the number of elevator mechanics didn’t quite keep pace, said Dana Brigham of the International Union of Elevator Constructors, a Maryland-based union with 23,000 members.

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“We are training a lot of new folks, but it takes five years,” he said.

In the meantime the union has encouraged its Canadian members to come over the border to fill jobs in the United States.


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