St. Petersburg, FL – Worker crushed while removing fluid from hydraulic elevator pit

Mark Allen Johnson, 45, of Greater Northdale, Florida, was fatally crushed around 10:30 a.m. Wednesday, April 24, 2013, while working to remove oil and water from the pit of a hydraulic elevator at the TradeWinds Resort Hotel in Saint Petersburg Beach, Florida. Mr. Johnson was working with a co-worker for SWS Environmental Services, a company that specializes in spill response, in response to an elevator inspection two days prior that noted excessive fluid in the pit. St. Petersburg Beach Fire Chief Ernie Hand described Johnson as apparently standing halfway between the ground floor landing and the interior of the elevator shaft when the elevator descended on top of him, crushing him. An eyewitness stated that she had just exited an adjacent elevator when she saw the elevator car suddenly drop “a couple of feet” onto Johnson. The other employee for SWS, who was not in the pit at the time, was not injured. The Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office and OSHA are investigating the incident.

Cristen Rensel, of the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office, stated that “The elevator had been locked with a key by maintenance of the TradeWinds,” and that Johnson and his co-worker “had been working for about 40 minutes” prior to the incident. Based on that statement, it is not clear that proper lockout procedures were followed. Generally, building owners do not employ their own staff of elevator personnel, hiring elevator contractors instead. The maintenance staff of the TradeWinds may not have received proper training on elevator maintenance and lockout procedures. From the perspective of building maintenance staff, “locking out” an elevator may mean a variety of things, for example, placing an elevator on independent service, which would prevent the elevator from responding to hall calls, but is not intended for use when working under or on top of an elevator car. None of the reports mentioned that the elevator’s pit stop switch or main line disconnect switch were opened to prevent movement of the elevator. Furthermore, it is not clear whether Mr. Johnson or his co-worker had ever received any training specific to elevator maintenance that would have qualified them as “elevator personnel” in accordance with the standards set forth in ASME A17.1, “Safety Code for Elevators and Escalators”. The website for SWS Environmental Services describes a variety of services they provide but makes no mention of the word “elevator”. The A17.1 limits access to elevator pits to elevator personnel only. Furthermore, the A17.1 restricts hoistway door unlocking devices to elevator personnel only; it is not clear who unlocked the hoistway door nearest the pit while the elevator was above the landing.

Assuming that either the pit stop switch or the main line disconnect switch had actually been opened in accordance with appropriate safety procedures, another possibility is that the elevator’s hydraulic system had failed, possibly due to bad valves or seals, leading to a relief of the pressure in the hydraulic jack and causing the elevator to descend unexpectedly. The code year of the elevator was not reported in any of the source articles noted below, but generally older hydraulic elevators were not required to be equipped with “plunger grippers” which would retard or stop the unexpected movement of the elevator in the event of a hydraulic system failure.

UPDATE (April 26, 2013): A follow-up report from the Tampa Bay Times corroborates our earlier speculation that none of the individuals involved were trained elevator personnel. Florida Department of Business & Professional Regulation spokeswoman Sandi Copes Poreda released an email stating that Johnson was not a certified elevator technician and added, “Anyone working inside the elevator or hoistway must either be a Certified Elevator Technician or under the direct supervision of a Certificate of Competency holder. We do not know whether the other worker on site was licensed.” Lt. Joel Granata of St. Petersburg Beach Fire and Rescue added that the elevator’s main line disconnect switch was not locked out when first responders arrived in response to reports of the accident.

The State of Florida sent elevator inspector Frank Matuszewski to examine the elevator in response to the incident. Mr. Matuszewski noted 13 violations, mostly minor, but notably including a “leak in the muffler”. In the context of electric hydraulic elevators, the “muffler” is not what a layman might expect. Hydraulic pumps may not run perfectly, imparting pressure pulsations within the hydraulic fluid, which can cause noise and vibration inside the elevator. These pulses can also cause resonant vibration in adjoining machinery, causing additional vibration and noise in the elevator. A hydraulic muffler is used to reduce such vibrations.

The story was widely reported by local media. Video reports of the story are included below.

The sources used for the above story include:

Crushed in Pit, Fatality, Tampa

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