Wednesday, January 17, 2018
Public safety

Woman's death in lift accident calls for more scrutiny

The lift that Bob Blair built on the side of his Weeki Wachee house for his ailing wife, Jean, "has been very, very reliable," he said.

"We haven't had so much as a crushed fingernail. It's safer than a car door."

That may have been true for the more than 15 years of the lift's operation, but it no longer is.

Last month, the platform came down on a close friend of Jean Blair's, Margaret Harrison, crushing and killing her.

Last week, the Hernando County Sheriff's Office ruled that Harrison's death was an accident, which it no doubt was — a particularly sad and strange accident.

But it also seems strange that the construction of such elaborate devices is possible with barely any inspections or permitting.

In the aftermath of the accident, the Hernando County Development Department found only that Blair lacked an electrical permit. The penalty, if you can call it that, was the $84 price of the permit.

I suspected the department was being a little lenient, possibly out of sympathy for an 82-year-old man dealing with a tragedy.

If this was the case, the department was just a little lenient. The state building code gives the department the option to double the cost of the permit for completing work without one. In Blair's case, it declined to do so.

If that's the worst consequence — paying twice the permit price — then flouting the code seems like a pretty good bet. Next time the state Legislature revises the building code, it might want to toughen the penalties.

They might also add a provision requiring permits and inspections for a contraption of the size and complexity of large hydraulic lifts built on the outside of houses.

That's how this is classified, as a "lift." But from pictures (Blair turned down my request to come over and take a look), it appears to be little different than an exterior elevator.

The platform moves up from the ground floor to outside decks on the second and third floors. It's all powered by a hydraulic system salvaged from a forklift.

Elevators in commercial buildings are subject to heavy regulation by the state Department of Business and Professional Regulation's Division of Hotels and Restaurants, said DBPR spokeswoman Tajiana Ancora-Brown.

That the department does not regulate home lifts seems to be a gap in the code, though, true enough, it may not be a big gap.

How many lifts are there in the state, this large and available for use by visitors? Probably not very many.

But among the features Blair's lift lacked were safety railings on the decks, a sheriff's report said. And, clearly, there was not adequate protection from the space beneath the slow-moving platform.

It's clear that Blair, who has been trained as a welder and electrician, and served as the plant engineer of a large slaughterhouse in Texas, built an ingenious device.

But now that a life has been lost, it no longer can be called a safe one.

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