Nervous riding an escalator? You may have reason to be

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SEA-TAC INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT — We have all been on one, the escalator, and we know that serious injuries can happen

Take, for example, the 2012 incident at Bellevue Square when seven people were hurt when the escalator malfunctioned.

But state officials say mechanical problems are to blame for only a small number of cases.

On weekdays, about 100,000 travelers will come and go from Sea-Tac Airport, and the gridlock often starts on escalators.

“I get nervous that someone is going to stop at the top and I have my bag and I am going to crash into them,” traveler Bob Howe said.

There were more than 300 escalator-related injuries in the past five years across Washington.

More than half of those accidents happened at Sea-Tac.

“Our percentage of the usage of escalators is really high compared to anywhere else in the state,” the general manager of Aviation Maintenance, Stuart Mathews, said.

They see it time and time again — travelers in a rush losing their balance. Signs remind riders to hold on to handrails but many are gripping on to their luggage instead.

The state Department of Labor and Industries is brainstorming different ways to make escalators safer.

“What is a life worth? What is a finger worth, a foot? How many accidents can we prevent?” Jose Rodriguez said of L&I.

One possible step is to require all escalators be retrofitted with a comb impact switch, a device that would automatically turn off the machine if an object gets caught on the top or bottom of the steps.

The safety feature is already required for all escalators built since 1995 but older escalators are not required to have the comb-impact switch.  L & I inspects about 509 escalators statewide and they estimate that about 44% of escalators and moving walkways don’t have safety feature.

“We realize it comes with a cost, so we have to do a cost-benefit analysis,” Rodriguez said.

But most of the escalators at Sea-Tac already have the comb-impact switch installed and airport is hoping to have all of their escalators retrofitted in the next year.

At Sea-Tac, where there are 79 escalators under one roof, officials say safety has to be a priority.

“We’ve also added the step lighting you see there; LED lighting to improve visibility,” Mathews said.

They are also constantly reminding travelers on the correct way to ride.

“Make sure you have room in front and behind you if possible and then carefully step on the center of steps and use the handrails,” Mathews said.

The airport has more elevators than escalators; they’ve tried to encourage travelers to use those elevators more but that has not worked.

L & I says even if they were to retrofit all of the state’s escalators with the comb-impact device, it’s still not going to prevent many of the injuries they see every year.


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