How Risky Is an Escalator Ride?

All things considered, escalators are remarkably safe. The odds a person will die from an escalator accident in the United States during the course of a year are 1 in 90,470,000. That’s a fatality rate of 3 to 4 per year in a country of just over 300,000,000 people.

It’s shocking when a death does occur, not only because it’s rare, but because it’s hard to believe such an everyday device can turn deadly. On February 24th, 2009, 82 year-old Helen Jackson apparently fell while riding an escalator in a subway station in downtown Boston. The metal grating grabbed onto her scarf and she was asphyxiated. According to a large-scale study using data from the Consumer Product Safety Commission and published in the March 2008 edition of Accident Analysis and Prevention, the vast majority of escalator injuries among older adults start with a trip or a fall.

From 1991 to 2005, the rate of escalator injuries among older adults doubled. Of the nearly 40,000 injuries during this time period, most resulted in cuts and bruises, but, according to the New York Times, more than 2,500 people suffered fractures or other injuries requiring hospitalization.

Children also face a disproportionate risk of getting hurt on escalators. In 2006, a 16 month-old girl in Glendale, Arizona underwent surgery after she got her hand lodged between the moving stairs and the escalator wall. A study published in Pediatrics in August 2006 estimated that there were 26,000 escalator-related injuries among children 19 and under from1990 to 2002.

Nearly 30 percent of the injuries were “entrapment” injuries—fingers, hands, shoes, toes—getting caught in the moving machinery. Children under 5 were most at risk for this kind of injury, with 4,373 incidents reported. Amputations or avulsions—the tearing away of a body part—were very rare, but again the very young were the most at risk. Of the 833 reported instances, 595 involved children under the age of 5.

There is reason for everyone to take care on escalators, but we can also take heart. The chances an American will be diagnosed with plague in a year are 1 in 17,610,000—about five times more likely than dying from injuries caused by an escalator.

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