Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Escalator Safety and You

I've been using escalators for years - in train stations, airports, department stores, wherever I've had the opportunity and the stairs have seemed too far away or too challenging in the circumstance. Foolishly, it turns out, I've been riding that network believing casual observation of its signage had been sufficient to afford me safe and comfortable passage.

Frequent exposure to stern warning signs, many in ALL CAPS, had taught me that the escalator's edges weren't to be trusted, that pram pushers should probably find another means of lateral conveyance, that children should be kept under control at all times while within the escalator's confines - advice, I'd suggest, with a far wider remit than just escalators - and that the rubber handrail should be firmly grasped for the duration of the journey. (To be honest, some of those rails have been of clearly malevolent intent, deliberately travelling at a speed different from the rest of the escalator and/or wantonly sticking without warning, so that holding onto them risks shoulder injury or, less seriously, unintentionally comedic arm movements. I digress.)

Just this past week I've become aware that there's far more to know about escalator travel, that authoritative guidance in the safe use of this form of transport has been comprehensively codified, and that the document codifying this knowledge has been available to the general public for over 5 years, had only they known to ask. While completing some Easter shopping in the men's section of a city department store, I found myself stuck at the cashier's desk while the would-be cashier, a harried, lone employee, alive to the inadequacy of a 10:1 customer to staff ratio, rang urgently for reinforcements. His clarion call gave me time to cast around at the desk, my eyes first alighting on the material at the front of a standard brochure holder, a flyer imploring me to at least consider the benefits of a store credit facility. I barely gave the holder a second glance. When I did, I noticed another, more brightly-coloured but somehow more subdued-looking brochure hiding behind it. Embarrassed? Shy? Limited Edition? Who can say? (Well, surely not the last one, I think it's pretty safe to assert, at least not in any sense by which 'Limited' connotes 'sought after'.)
Entitled escalator safetyinformation - capital letters and spaces apparently attracting unmerited additional costs from the Brochure Production Committee's printing service - it turned out to be a thorough, if a little terse, plain English guide to escalator lore.

The missive begins with a simple declarative sentence: “This brochure provides information on how to ride safely on escalators”. It can only be uphill from there. The narrative continues: “If you witness any injuries or incidents on the escalators or would like more information, please speak with one of our [store name] team members”.

Surely the number of people who would “like more information” must be vanishingly small, perhaps as small as just one, some rare individual preparing for a glorious all-conquering Mastermind appearance, special subject Escalator Safety: Australia (2005-2014). And, come to think of it, who on staff could provide additional information? Is there a special staff training module: Escalator Safety 201; prerequisites Escalator Safety for Beginners and a thorough understanding of the escalator safetyinformation textbook (student to provide)?

I'll present for you here a few of the more startling items from the document though I'd encourage you to obtain your own copy to review and mull over at your leisure. I'll lay you odds that you were previously blind to the fact that “Escalators are for passengers only”, and had never realised that “Anyone unsteady on their feet should consider using the lifts as an alternative to using the escalators”. (I'm going to forgive the brochure's authors the colloquial use of “their” in that last sentence. Clearly, he or she had more important issues on his or her mind at the time. Good grief, there are escalator injuries and incidents to prevent.)

Another section implores: “Do not lean over the handrail, but stand upright, facing the direction of travel.” Sensible advice indeed, but clearly all too easy to forget in the excitement of defying gravity one more time.

For mine, there's really only one contentious sentence in the entire document, which is the admonition: “Do not use stationary escalators as a stairway”. The rationale for this, I imagine, is to mitigate the risk that the escalator should suddenly remember its purpose in life and enthusiastically restart; but, surely, this is a small and almost certainly inconsequential possibility.

I'll admit that I was surprised to find no mention of escalator etiquette, no suggestion as to whether a lone stationary passenger should ride on the left or the right of the escalator (a topic about which the Brits have inordinately strong opinions), no word about the proper escalator formation for a travelling couple - side-by-side or single file. And, not a peep about the need to clear the area at the base or apex of the escalator at journey's end. I've seen many a near-accident as someone's paused to consider his or her options just after alighting, giving those behind him or her a few moments of panic as they realise there's only so long that you can tread water and shuffle in one place at the end of an escalator.

My only other criticism of what is in the brochure is that there's a hint of just-get-it-done laziness at the bottom of the final inside page. Faced with an awkward couple of inches of white-space (see picture) the Brochure Committee voted to fill it with a diagram of the 'i' family apparently travelling in a stylised lift in which the forces of upness and downness have been equalised (or I think that's what the arrows are conveying).

After reading the brochure in its entirety and now at some leisure - at the cashier's desk I had only time for a brief scan and an immediate understanding that this brochure would be making the journey home with me - I'm beset by questions that I suspect will remain forever unanswered. Just why was this brochure ever published? Under exactly what circumstances did someone in Head Office, for surely that's where this brochure originated, envisage that an appropriate moment would arise in a conversation for a member of staff to earnestly recommend it to a customer? Or, did the Head Office Escalator Safety Officer imagine that this brochure would simply sell itself, requests for reprints flooding into his e-mail box every week as various stores found themselves unable to keep up with the insatiable customer desire to truly, deeply, perfect their escalator use? Exactly how many of these brochures have seen daylight since rolling off the end of a printing machine? How many of the department store's customers are now steeped in the Way of the Escalator?

(For clarity's sake, I get that escalators can be dangerous conveyances and that nasty injuries can and do occur. But a safety brochure? Four pages? Really?)


  1. Very interesting topic... this safety brochure obviously did not cover such accidents like the one I was involved in some years ago on an escalator in Melbourne. I am sure it was a comical sight, but I didn't enjoy being in the middle of a domino fall on this escalator. Someone at the top tripped, fell into the next person and so on....

  2. I'm guessing that's in the Advanced Driver Course ...
    (and that must have been very scary).


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