Mechanical lifts have been around long enough - they have been used as hotel guest service lifts since the 19th century - for city dwellers to take these for granted. Here, however, when people first moved from kampungs into tall flats, there were fears about safety. Occasional breakdowns did occur but the growing reliability of modern lifts laid concerns to rest and contributed crucially to the acceptance of high-rise living. Ironically, long after kampungs have disappeared, nerves have been jangled again - by a disturbing series of accidents.
An elderly man died in hospital after his mobility scooter toppled as he was backing out of a lift that was not properly aligned with the lobby floor, according to his son. A similar cause led to an elderly woman tripping as she got out of a different lift. And in a separate incident, a maid fell and hurt her back after the lift she was in suddenly shot up 17 storeys. More recent was the case of Dover Crescent residents who were left helpless when all four lifts, serving their 40-storey Housing Board block, lost power for close to an hour.
It might be argued that the number of lift mishaps is small, especially when compared with the total number of about 59,000 passenger lifts in Singapore. Nonetheless, the high dependence of the public on lifts and the potential seriousness of accidents make it imperative for the regulator, the Building and Construction Authority (BCA), and the industry to act. Steps must be taken to identify common or overlapping causes, and to determine what should be done to help make lift operations fail-safe. The BCA has made a start by declaring that, from next month, lift owners and contractors will have to inform it of any injury or malfunction of safety-critical components, such as brakes, as soon as possible. This will give it the primary information it will need to oversee standards across Singapore. Prevention of accidents must remain the priority. The BCA has announced tighter maintenance rules for lifts and a new permit-to-operate system which will oblige operators to get an annual licence from the authority.
Strict maintenance rules can help to restore public confidence in lifts. For example, well-maintained brakes will help to minimise the risk of incidents such as the uncontrolled movement of lift cars. Details matter because one's guard might drop when ubiquitous machines generally have a sound safety record. However, all mechanical devices require regular and proper maintenance to secure their safe and reliable use. Hence, the industry must ensure there is a sufficient pool of skilled lift technicians and professional engineers available to keep tabs on all the lifts operating here. Such steps, including an enhanced regulatory regime, can help restore the clockwork efficiency that Singaporeans expect of a facility almost all have to use daily.