by Yoong Ren Yan
WHAT’S going on with Singapore’s lifts? Since last October, lifts in Housing and Development Board (HDB) blocks have been plagued by a series of high-profile incidents, causing at least four injuries and a death. Yet for the past four years, town councils across the island have scored ‘green’ for lift performance in the G’s management reports.
What gives? Have we been too blinded by headlines to see the bigger picture – that HDB lifts are by and large functioning normally? Or do these incidents reflect an underlying problem, with HDB lifts, or lifts here in general?
With currently available statistics, it’s hard to tell.
How big is the problem?
The latest town council management report (TCMR) measures performance between April and September last year, and does not capture the latest spate of HDB lift mishaps. But waiting for the next TCMR would do us no good either. Recent incidents are unlikely to make a mark on the report’s measure of lift performance. Generally, town councils get a ‘green’ rating if:
- For every 10 lifts, fewer than two breakdowns occur per month
- Fewer than two in 100 lifts have a non-functioning rescue device
These measures suggest that a town council can still get a ‘green’ rating for lift performance if each lift breaks down, on average, once every five months. Perhaps it’s time to raise that standard.
Moreover, TCMRs measure all lift breakdowns. But not all breakdowns are equal.
Breakdowns that have led to loss of life and limb are surely the most severe, and deserve special attention. To its credit, where injuries are reported, the Building and Construction Authority (BCA) has quickly moved to investigate. According to BCA, as of March this year, there were three recorded lift incidents involving injuries. There were five last year, up from just one in 2014 and 2013.
From next month, lift owners and contractors must report lift incidents involving injuries to BCA. But these figures do not feature in TCMRs.
In measuring the reliability of lifts, we can take a cue from another infrastructure-related issue plaguing Singaporeans: the trains. In a rail reliability report released earlier this month, the Land Transport Authority was keen to show that the average distance travelled between delays has steadily increased. That suggests fewer breakdowns overall.
But last year also saw a record number of major disruptions of 30 minutes or more – a fact relegated to the third page of a three-page report, as ST pointed out. We may have fewer breakdowns, but we also have more severe ones.
Similarly, a measure of lift performance should reflect the severity of breakdowns as experienced by residents. A breakdown that compromises safety is not the same as a breakdown that merely causes inconvenience. And a breakdown of one lift, for an hour, does not affect residents the same way as all lifts breaking down for days.
Accordingly, TCMRs should include indicators of major, unsafe, and injury-causing lift breakdowns, in addition to measures of their frequency.
How should we deal with it?
Getting to grips with the extent of the problem would only be a start. Besides investigations, BCA has promised to increase the frequency of audits and tighten its rules. From next month, lift contractors will be subject to stricter regulations for lift maintenance. Next year, lift owners will be required to display permits in each lift, indicating contractors and examiners.
Some town councils are already taking measures to abide by the new rules. What remains to be seen is how BCA’s regulations can be incorporated into TCMRs.
As they stand, TCMRs measure outcomes – counting breakdowns and rescue devices – rather than the process of maintenance. Adding maintenance indicators would hold town councils accountable for their management of lifts, in the same way other TCMR items like ‘corporate governance’ do.
Facing more stringent requirements, town councils may also require additional financial support, as Workers’ Party chief Low Thia Khiang suggested in April.
Other ‘process’ indicators, such as response time to lift complaints, could also be included. The lift that severed an elderly woman’s hand in Taman Jurong last October, for instance, was the subject of numerous previous complaints from residents. Responsive town councils might spot problems earlier, and lower the frequency and severity of breakdowns.
Finally, in the course of its investigations, BCA should determine if recent incidents have an underlying cause, as a recent ST letter argued.
In April, Mr Low told Parliament that lifts installed since 2012 in his Aljunied constituency had unusually high breakdown rates, and urged the G to “take a look at the quality” of these lifts. (HDB was responsible for procuring these lifts; town councils are responsible for maintaining them.) Senior Minister of State for National Development Desmond Lee responded: “I think beyond speculation, it is better to look at specifics.” Hopefully, Mr Low provided those specifics, and Mr Lee looked into them.
While town council management is devolved to MPs, the G must retain oversight. If town councils are to maintain lifts well, the quality of that maintenance should be measured and published. And if town councils require additional resources to comply, the G should provide these resources.
As recent events have shown, lives are at stake.
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