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Prepare your lifts and escalators for building reoccupation now

Lifts By Graham Barker, Partner, Vertical Transportation – 28 April 2020

Looking down from the top of an escalator down to a large reception


Graham in an open collar shirt and suit jacket against a dark wall

Graham Barker

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As we start to think about what will happen after the lockdown ends, people will start to return to their offices and normal business operations resume, what preparations do we need to make for all this to happen seamlessly, anticipating that continued precautions will need to remain in place?

I’m not an expert in microbiology or anything to do with viruses but I do have extensive knowledge in the field of lifts and escalators. I thought it would be helpful for many business owners and landlords to share a few thoughts, which might assist them when planning the reoccupation of their offices and buildings. Where appropriate I’ll redirect you to industry and government guidance, I’m aware of. Please keep in mind when reading this that the Covid-19 situation is a fast moving one and this information was put together with the best intentions at a specific point in time; I will update it as things develop and change.

Considerations for reoccupation

When the lockdown ends many employees and businesses will look to re-occupy their offices and buildings and start to get back to normal operations. But will they be ready? When the lockdown was implemented it took effect immediately. It may be the case that when the lockdown ends it will do so as quickly as it began, although this seems doubtful. If this were to happen it’s important for business owners and tenants to have their plans in place for reoccupation and be able to instigate them at short notice to minimise disruption to the workforce. By considering things now, you can develop plans, source supplies, and make arrangements with contractors you may need assistance from.

These are my thoughts on considerations which might be appropriate for different businesses and building owners, but everyone is different, and some things may apply to some businesses more than others. Where possible the most appropriate solution may be to use stairs and only allow those with accessibility needs and deliveries to use lifts, in the short term at least.

Legal obligations

The three key legal obligations for lifts are:

  1. Undertake Lifting Operations and Lifting Equipment Regulations (LOLER) thorough inspections at the correct frequency (6 months for passenger lifts)
  2. Ensure maintenance and breakdown cover is in place in the event of their need
  3. Ensure a communication system is in place to allow trapped passengers to contact the rescue service (typically the in-built autodial system for modern lifts)

On the assumption that as a responsible building operator the above points were all in place prior to the lockdown, it is reasonable to assume that items 2 and 3 are still valid – although this should be checked and confirmed.

However, the LOLER thorough inspection, will likely need further investigation. Like most organisations, LOLER inspection companies have been affected by restrictions accessing buildings, reduction in workforce due to social distancing and illness, and the prioritisation of NHS and essential operations. Even where the LOLER inspection company has been unaffected, if your building has been closed then perhaps they would be been unable to gain access to complete the statutory inspection. All this means that if your LOLER thorough inspection was due to be carried out just prior to or during the lockdown, it may not have happened. Given that the LOLER inspection for a passenger lift is due every six months in the UK, if many buildings have been closed for the last 4-6 weeks then there could be a significant volume of lifts which do not have an in-date and valid LOLER certificate. Coupled with the volume of LOLER inspections which will be on their normal schedule for completion immediately following lockdown, I can envisage a 50-100% increase in workload for inspectors. The job of a LOLER inspector is highly skilled and companies will be unable to find more inspectors to instantly provide the workforce required; added to this there are likely to be inspectors who cannot work due to illness or vulnerability issues.

This is an area where some advance work would assist in the planning for the re-occupation of buildings. Check your LOLER inspection records to confirm if you have a valid inspection for your lift. If your inspection has been missed due to your building being closed, contact your inspection body and make arrangements for the inspection to be completed at the earliest opportunity, ideally before your building reopens. Where this is not possible there are other options available which we can advise on, and there is HSE guidance here also.

COVID-19 precautions

It seems reasonable to me to assume that some of the government’s instructed precautions will remain in place once we return to work, for example social distancing and enhanced cleaning regimes. A link to the governments Coronavirus page is here.

Potential Coronavirus Precautions for Lifts

Social distancing in lifts

In most cases it will not be possible to achieve a 2-metre distance separation between lift users which would mean that to apply social distancing within the lift would require only one person to travel in a lift at a time. Also, even if you are 2 metres away from someone in a lift, you are still in a confined space which would offer little protection if the other person is carrying the virus. This would obviously have a very significant impact on the number of people that can be moved in the lifts. In addition, the restriction of one person in the lift will lead to significant queues forming in lift lobbies; . Consideration therefore needs to be given to how those queuing will be distanced within the lobby. It is likely to be worth considering alternatives to lift use such as making stairs available for general movement between floors; again, social distancing would need to be considered which may result in a one-way system if a building has multiple staircases. If building users resort to the stairs, landlords would need to understand and manage the ventilation regime to cope with the number of people now using them.

In all cases, and whatever the measures put in place, the building users will not be used to them and a key aspect will be the communication of these new rules to the building’s population.

COVID-19 lift cleaning precautions

Lifts contain multiple surfaces which a lift user either needs, or are likely, to come into contact with during lift use. From the push button to call the lift at the landing, the buttons in the car to select the destination floor, the handrails and other services within the lift car itself. These hard surfaces are likely to support the virus for a period of time (according to this article from Harvard Medical School this can be up to 3 days for the types of surfaces used in lifts) and therefore a suitable cleaning and disinfecting regime will be required. Whilst there is currently no specific government guidance for disinfecting a lift, this link provides general advice to follow. An example of a cleaning regime which has been put in place by one lift company is hourly disinfecting of push buttons and twice-daily disinfecting all other surfaces. The building owner/operator will need to risk assess their specific building to determine the most appropriate solution.

Potential Coronavirus Precautions for Escalators

COVID-19 escalator cleaning procedures

The main contact surface when using an escalator is the handrail. It is important that users hold the handrail when using an escalator to minimise the risk of falling and associated physical injury, which can be severe. This risk affects all users of the escalator. Escalator users may be hesitant to hold the handrail and fearful that traces of the virus may be on it, but in doing so they are introducing another significant health and safety risk.

Devices can be fitted to escalator handrails to kill bacteria using UV light, and there are antibacterial handrails available. Both of these measures do require installation of new equipment and have a capital cost but are likely to be worthwhile in high contact locations such as shopping centres, underground rail stations and airports. Again, these measures could be arranged and installed prior to the lockdown ending.

Social distancing on escalators

The application of spaced markings on the floor leading to the escalator will help distance people prior to stepping onto it. As escalators run at a constant speed, if users are distanced as they enter the escalator then this distancing will be maintained until they exit the escalator. This of course assumes that there will be no ‘overtaking’ which would void any attempt to ensure social distancing.

Do not consider applying any kind of tape or signage to escalator steps themselves without seeking the assistance of an escalator specialist. If tape were to be stuck on an escalator step it is highly likely that it would come off within the mechanism of the escalator, causing damage and placing the escalator out of operation (and out of warranty).

I hope these thoughts are helpful to you in assessing your buildings and developing plans for reoccupation. In multi-tenanted buildings there are also likely to be differing requirements between tenants, although typically all tenants share the same lifts and lobby areas so communication and consideration of others is important.

If you’d like any assistance with the development of your building-specific risk assessment and plans, specifying or arranging any works to modify your installed lift and escalator equipment, or its mode of operation then please get in touch.