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Bon Duong inspects an elevator at the old Humber River Hospital in Toronto on Dec. 5, 2017.

Mark Blinch/Globe and Mail

Residents of GTA condo buildings won’t be surprised to hear that there are huge problems with elevator maintenance in Ontario, but according to a recent report from the province’s Auditor-General, it’s worse than almost anybody knew.

According to the report card:

  • In 2018, just over 80 per cent of elevators failed their Technical Standards and Safety Authority (TSSA) inspection, mostly because maintenance and safety work required by law was not done on time.
  • Neglected maintenance over time can result in the elevators not levelling properly with the floor or can cause sudden upward or downward acceleration.
  • In 2018, the TSSA renewed the operating licences of more than 300 elevators that at the same time were still shut down by the authority for being unsafe to operate.
  • Between 2014 and 2018, the compliance rate among elevators and escalators was the lowest of all the TSSA’s inspected industries: 22 per cent for elevators and 12 per cent for escalators.

“I can tell you that I found the AG findings both insightful and disturbing,” said Bonnie Rose, who became president and chief executive of TSSA this past January. An engineer with an MBA, she was previously the CEO and registrar of Ontario’s Retirement Homes Regulatory Authority, and said the agency she leads now has a strategic plan to begin addressing the concerns raised by the report, although she admits some of those changes may take years to implement. “I was brought on board to address the findings of the AG’s report. Our vision is to be a valued authority for a safer Ontario and we’re gonna do it.”

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At last count, there were 59,654 elevating devices in Ontario, but there are typically fewer than 15,000 inspections a year. Orders for non-compliance have been on a dramatic upswing from 52,277 in 2013-14 to 87,414 in the same period in 2017-18.

Former Liberal MPP Han Dong has been a consistent scold on the elevator file. For years, Mr. Dong first pushed private member’s bills and then government legislation addressing maintenance backlogs and a lack of transparency about service issues in Ontario’s elevators. Just before the Liberals were defeated this summer, the law he championed was passed in the legislature. None of its recommendations or proposed regulations has been taken up by the new PC government. Even with his experience on the file, Mr. Dong was shocked by the Auditor-General’s report.

“I had quite a few meetings with TSSA. To be honest, I wasn’t aware of the 80-per-cent failure rate; that was a shock to me,” Mr. Dong said. “I still remember talking to seniors in seniors' homes who had to cancel medical appointments or be brought downstairs by paramedics [because of broken elevators]. … It’s a public safety issue.”

Ms. Rose said she’s moving on some of the toughest findings of the report: “We’ve fixed the issue the AG flagged and no longer issue licences to devices that are shut down.” She also claims that 97 per cent of elevators in the province are rated low or medium risk by the agency.

But the AG found signs of a cultural malaise at the TSSA that might prove stickier to dislodge.

“The fee-for-service model ideally should lead to an efficient agency that takes no government money and whose income is commensurate with the level of its activities in the public interest,” the AG report reads. “Instead, we have found cases where the TSSA focuses on areas where it can recover its costs even though its activities have little effect on public safety, and other areas in which the TSSA does not generate revenue from licensing fees and where it has done little to promote and enforce public safety, even though risks to public safety exist.”

In other words, the TSSA has gotten into the habit of focusing on cost recovery, not on safety.

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“The plan also includes looking at our business model, so that we can focus adequately on the harms and reducing the risk of harms to residents of Ontario,” Ms. Rose said.

The TSSA shouldn’t shoulder all the blame, however. The Auditor-General also found that successive governments have not given the kind of cabinet-level oversight necessary to help the agency fulfill its mission, including a failure to write regulations on expanded enforcement powers the TSSA was given in recent years. And the industry itself appears resistant to change.

“[The TSSA] has repeatedly prosecuted the same large maintenance company, resulting in guilty verdicts and fines over $1-million, but in 2018, 93 per cent of the inspected elevators maintained by this company in regions related to the prosecutions failed to pass their latest TSSA inspection. Five of these elevators are located in a Toronto hospital,” the report says.

Ms. Rose confirmed that company is ThyssenKrupp Elevator Canada. “There’s a small number … of elevator companies that are not completing their maintenance and testing,” she said. The elevator manufacture and maintenance industry is highly concentrated, with four main players, Thyssen, Schindler Elevator Corp., Otis Elevator Co. and and KONE Corp., having outsized influence.

“While we haven’t had an opportunity to review the full report, ThyssenKrupp is, and always will be, committed to the safe and reliable operation of all of the vertical transportation equipment that it services both in Ontario and throughout Canada,” wrote Dennis Van Milligen, spokesperson for ThyssenKrupp Elevator Canada, in an e-mailed statement.

Even though he’s out of government, Mr. Dong still hopes to someday see real reform in the elevator industry. “Every day going by without any movement of regulation development is time lost. There’s enough good information or recommendation in place should the government choose to act quickly,” he said. “I don’t feel hopeless. With the help of the Auditor-General report, maybe the government will put this down as one of their priorities.”

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