Safety devices were disabled on MIA elevators, alarming Miami-Dade inspectors

·5 min read

In May 2020, Miami-Dade County’s deputy chief elevator inspector shared with a contractor his astonishment at a string of disabled safety devices discovered at elevators and escalators at Miami International Airport.

“Let me remind you and everyone at Oracle Elevator Co. that deliberately disabling a safety device or circuit is not only a violation of code but also against the law,” Deputy Inspector Allen Morris wrote in a May 8, 2020, email to Oracle, hired by Miami-Dade to maintain moving equipment at MIA. “God forbid a riding passenger gets injured or killed because of this negligence.”

The email captures an ongoing saga at the county-owned airport over a rash of improper wiring on equipment maintained by Oracle, a Tampa-based company that’s one of several firms hired by MIA to keep elevators, escalators and walkways running at one of the country’s busiest airports.

Alarm over elevator safety at Miami International Airport

Union leaders claim Oracle has recklessly put the public in danger by allowing shortcuts to remain in place, disabling safety features in order to keep the equipment running. “They have done their best to brush this under the rug,” said Greg Levenson, vice president of the Local 71 chapter of the International Union of Elevator Constructors, which represents some elevator mechanics at MIA. “It’s not a matter of if someone gets hurt. But when someone gets hurt.”

Oracle executives have tried to cast the union charges as an organizing tactic in an effort to recruit Oracle’s employees. The company also cites sabotage, claiming a “third party” was behind some of bypassed wiring now being used to try and force the company off its airport contract. The company and county administrators say multiple inspections in 2021 show no repeats of past problems with Oracle elevators.

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But the wiring who-done-it spilled into public at County Hall Tuesday, when the County Commission’s Airport committee held a brief inquiry into what happened with Oracle on the heels of a union press conference outside condemning the company.

“How do we feel comfortable that someone is giving us the truth?” asked committee chairman Keon Hardemon. “One says everything is fine. One says we have something to worry about.”

There’s no dispute that in the spring of 2020, the county’s facilities arm was alarmed at what was being discovered in Oracle elevators. As first reported by Channel 10, Miami-Dade inspectors discovered multiple electrical bypasses on elevators and escalators.

Known as “jumpers,” the bypasses let a mechanic disable safety features that would otherwise shut down an elevator or other moving equipment. A diagnostic tool for narrowing down electrical problems during repairs, jumpers can leave an elevator or escalator unsafe to use if left in place. They can neutralize kill switches on escalators needed to halt a moving stairway in the event a shoelace gets tangled in the equipment.

‘I have never seen anything like this’

“Another Safety device disabled by Oracle Elevator Co.,” Morris wrote last year on May 21, one of multiple emails obtained by the International Union of Elevator Constructors, part of a labor coalition that wants to unionize Oracle’s MIA workers. “In my thirty years in this industry, I have never seen anything like this.”

Oracle told county administrators in August it fired three employees after a review of 13 bypassed safety devices. Another employee, Luis Colon, remains suspended with pay after he said he raised concerns about the jumpers. “When I reported that to my boss, I was suspended,” he said in an interview.

At the committee meeting Tuesday, Oracle executives did not offer an explanation for the jumpers that caused alarm last year. But they directed their criticism toward union organizers.

“This is an attempt to unionize and organize our employees,” said Michael West, senior regional vice president for Oracle. “The campaign is not about safety.”

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Miami-Dade inspectors found two other jumpers in December on Oracle equipment. Nicolas Ortiz, Miami-Dade’s chief elevator inspector, told commissioners one jumper didn’t seem to make sense, since there were no underlying wiring issues that needed to be bypassed. “What would be the motivation?” Ortiz said. “It wasn’t obviously to let the equipment run. Or you wouldn’t think.”

Ortiz and others said the county’s Inspector General launched an investigation into the matter, with a focus on the December jumpers. Oracle claims one involved wire the company doesn’t use.

“We don’t know who installed the jumpers. It certainly wasn’t our company. We do believe it’s malicious,” West said in an interview. “We think we have a third party involved in putting the jumpers on the elevators and escalators.”

However, in his May 2020 email, Morris described Oracle as instructing technicians on how to bypass a computer unit on an elevator that left “half of the safety circuit disabled.”

Union leaders dismiss Oracle’s criticism as baseless and distractions from a poor safety record. “Everyone keeps bringing up the union,” Levenson said at the press conference outside County Hall. “It’s about the safety. At the end of the day, if someone gets hurt or killed, it’s our industry that suffers.”

Lester Sola, Miami-Dade’s Aviation director, said the county is ready to fire Oracle if an investigation turns up wrongdoing.

“We’re going to do a review of the company,” he said. “Our interest is very simple. ... Our interest is to make sure the elevators are functioning ... and the airport is safe.”