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Forced Elevator Upgrades Could Crush Local Businesses

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

 

Local businesses have less than a year to meet new state elevator standards, but the improvements carry such high costs that some merchants may be considering walking away.

The issue stems from regulations introduced by the Massachusetts Department of Public Safety in 2008, which required that lifts using wood-based elevator shafts be upgraded to new, safer alternatives.

In some cases, those upgrades can carry a price tag of $100,000.

Mostly found in older buildings and used for freight elevators with human passengers, the wood-based shafts pose a safety risk because of the difficulty of detecting potentially hazardous levels of wear on the framework, such as stress fractures in the wood beams.

The state issued waivers grandfathering in a number of such elevators in order to give business owners time to business owners time to update the equipment.

However, the current round of waivers are set to expire in July of 2013.

The High Cost of a Short Lift

According to Stuart Loosemore, Director of Government Affairs and Public Policy for the Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce, some businesses are prohibited from using the lifts but are exempted from having to update under the grandfather clause.

Others, he said, have been able to convert their elevators to non-passenger lifts, which are not permitted to carry workers, only good and materials, and can be controlled externally.

Still others are biding their time and weighing their options.

"I think this is kind of in a holding pattern, waiting to see what some of the businesses are going to do," Loosemore said.

"At this point, we're working with them, we're trying to work with the state to see if we can figure something out."

Any forthcoming solution will likely be legislative, as lawmakers and safety officials try to balance the twin responsibilities of ensuring the safety of the Commonwealth's employees and helping businesses stay afloat under the mounting costs of regulatory compliance.

"If it's going to cost more than your building's worth to fix the problem, some of them might be looking at the idea of walking away," Loosemore said.

Earlier this year, the long-time Worcester business Arrow Wholesale Inc. closed down its Water Street facilities due to the looming elevator upgrade and various issues with code compliance at its aged building.

A representative for Arrow declined to comment for this story.

Solutions from the State House

Efforts to find a legislative fix for the elevator conundrum have been in the works since the new regulations were first introduced.

However, Loosemore said the start of the next legislative session in January is the earliest any such legislation is likely to be taken up.

State Senators Mike Moore (D-Millbury) and Harriette Chandler (D-Worcester) have played a leading role in the search for a solution before the current round of waivers expire in July of 2013.

That search is still on-going, and legislators are currently in the idea-gathering phase. In light of the high cost of the required upgrades and the sluggish economy, some of the options on the table include offering businesses zero-interest loans or delayed funding so that workplace safety can be ensured even if the cash to finance it is hard to come buy.

"It's a work in progress, and it's bringing all the stakeholders together," said Keith Mitchell, a spokesman from Senator Moore's office.

"We have to find a way to achieve compliance at the least cost to these businesses," he said.

"At the end of the day it's a safety issue."

 

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