This information is intended to provide guidance to building owners on the use of their elevators and escalators. As of this writing, there is a rush in Canada to establish protocols for the use of vertical transportation equipment, considering the prospect of workers soon returning to commercial spaces.
This information is presented from our perspective as elevator experts. We are hesitant to provide an opinion on what is essentially a medical issue. However, the elevator industry has already put forward information to building owners, in some cases created from a marketing perspective. Implementation of unproven solutions may cause more harm than good. The principle of even what authority a building owner has over the conduct of its tenants, and the resulting liability from what may prove to be ill-advised procedures is likely worth deferral to legal advice. The purpose of this communication is to provide opinions from an engineering-based firm in the elevator industry.
An elevator cab is essentially a small and potentially crowded room. This is a significant concern for COVID-19 transmission. For now, it seems that restricting elevator use to as few persons at one time as is feasible is wise. For larger buildings that previously experienced crowded elevators, limiting the number of persons in an elevator could create other problems, such as crowding in the elevator lobbies. Possible remediations are staggered work hours and lunchtimes for tenants. We believe that the mandatory use of masks while riding an elevator is a safe idea and in keeping with the health authority’s recommendations of mask use when social distancing cannot be achieved.
We have heard it suggested that future elevator design may contain many more elevators per building, but if that were to come to pass it would suggest that we are still in a COVID-19 world years from now, as these buildings come online. Hopefully, that will not be the case.
Some have recommended diverting elevator passengers to stairwells. However, does forcing occupants to walk past each other in narrow stairwells, while some people are no doubt out of breath and breathing heavily, make things better or worse? Suggestions might be reserving up and down travel to separate stairwells.
Most elevators are equipped with a cartop fan, which helps exhaust air from within the cab to the surrounding elevator shaft. Current medical thinking is that good ventilation of a room plays a role in preventing COVID-19 transmission. Therefore, at a minimum, it makes sense to ensure that any elevator fans are operational and are keyed to the highest setting. Ideally, elevators would intermittently travel to a terminal floor, such as the basement, and open doors to face a high-volume fan positioned in front.
Elevators are routinely off-line in commercial buildings for various reasons – maintenance, repairs, inspections, and material moving. Under COVID-19 it makes sense to have all elevators available for passenger service during the day to limit crowding. Consider discussing with your maintenance provider doing routine maintenance after hours.
Elevator buttons have metal or plastic surfaces. This, combined with constant contact with fingers, results in a COVID-19 risk. There is such thing as ‘antibacterial’ elevator buttons, but retrofit would take weeks, and it is not clear that these buttons (or switching to bronze buttons) would have any more benefit than a daily cleaning. We are investigating these buttons further.
We would suggest that signage advocating users to always employ something other than their bare finger when pressing the buttons is also a good idea. Pressing buttons with one’s elbow or the dull end of a pen reserved for that purpose is likely advisable at any time.
Cleaning of the buttons as frequently as possible could also only be a good idea. Buildings with multiple elevators could consider a dedicated cleaner for at least the morning, noon, and afternoon rush times. For longevity of the buttons, cleaners should not spray directly onto the buttons, but rather wipe the buttons with a treated cloth. Having said that, it may also be the case that the current crisis is not the time to worry about button longevity.
Escalators present different concerns in that it has always been advised to firmly hold on to at least one handrail when riding to prevent falls. One specialty equipment manufacturer is touting a UV-C light-based system that can be retrofitted to escalator handrails with the idea that it would kill COVID-19. UV-C technology has been proven effective against viruses. However, it has not been tested how many passes (circuits of the escalator handrail) through the 0.4-second exposure that would be needed to achieve the desired effect for COVID-19. We are investigating this option further. Retrofitting these devices on existing escalators will likely require application and approval through the authorities having jurisdiction – in the case of Ontario, the TSSA. Degradation of the handrail material under UV-C light is also a question, although likely not an urgent concern compared to COVID-19. The manufacturer of this device is apparently out of stock for now.
A commonsense short-term solution would be advocating the holding of handrails with gloves or at least through a paper towel or handkerchief isolated for ‘exposure’.
Cleaning of escalator handrails at high frequency in accordance with the escalator maintenance provider’s recommendations is also a good idea.
We hope that these overview ideas offer some guidance. If you need advice specific to your building, do not hesitate to contact us.
Andrew McGregor, P.Eng.