Regulators warn of a deadly danger to kids in vacation rentals

Federal safety regulators are calling on Airbnb and other vacation rental platforms to take steps to protect young children from a potentially deadly gap involving residential elevators after the death of another child between the product’s inner and outer doors.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission is urging the platforms to require the “hosts” using their services to disable residential elevators or provide proof of an inspection certifying hazardous gaps don’t exist. 

The request comes less than two weeks after the death of a 7-year-old in an elevator at a beach rental home in North Carolina’s Outer Banks. The boy was discovered between the bottom of the elevator car and the home’s upper door frame, his neck crushed after he apparently became entrapped between the moving elevator’s inner accordion door and outer door. 

“Residential elevators can pose a deadly but unforeseen hazard to children, particularly children who are encountering them in vacation or rental homes,” Robert Adler, acting chairman of the agency said Tuesday in a written appeal for action to safeguard against a gap that may exist between the outer and inner doors. 

In his letter to vacation rental platforms, Adler also urged immediate notifications of the potential hazards to all renters, as well as requiring elevator inspections of anyone posting a listing going forward.

Airbnb said it had received CPSC’s letter and was reviewing its contents. 

TripAdvisor offered a similar reaction, saying in an emailed statement to CBS MoneyWatch that it was reviewing how the recommendations “might be applied to our vacation rental owner policies.”

Vrbo, however, quickly committed to at least some of the CPSC’s suggestions. 

“We will share important elevator safety information with property owners who have residential elevators. This will include a recommendation to disable elevators until they can be properly inspected and common safety issues addressed. Vrbo has also posted elevator safety information to our Trust & Safety page, accessible by all guests. Our terms require property owners to abide by all safety-related laws and to keep equipment safe and in working order with regular maintenance,” it stated. 

According to the CPSC, residential elevators are commonly found in multi-level homes, townhomes, vacation homes and rentals, as well as in large homes that converted to inns or bed-and-breakfast hotels. But the elevators have proved heart-wrenching for some vacationing families. 

“Children, some as young as two and as old as 12, have been crushed to death in this gap, suffering multiple skull fractures, fractured vertebrae and traumatic asphyxia,” Adler noted. “Other children have suffered horrific and lifelong injuries.”

Safety advocates have for years warned about catastrophes involving children and home elevators, including the parents of then-10-year-old Jordan Nelson, paralyzed in 2013 in an elevator accident at a beach house rented by his family in South Carolina. “He has these huge dimples, this bright smile and he just knew how to work it,” his mother told CBS News in 2014. 

After decades of lawsuits, the nation’s elevator safety code shrank the door gap in 2017, but the new rules only impacted new installations, leaving hundreds of thousands of existing elevators posing a deadly hazard for tiny bodies.

It’s relatively inexpensive to resolve the problem, with fixes including space guards or electronic monitoring devices that deactivate the elevators after a child is detected in the gap, according to the CPSC. 

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If the gap is too large, a small child can become entrapped between the room access door and the elevator car door. U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission

The CPSC in August 2019 issued a safety alert urging action to protect children from the gap between the doors of residential elevators, while also urging home owners with elevators to hire a qualified inspector. 

The latest child’s death occurred only three days after the CPSC made the unusual move of voting to sue ThyssenKrupp Access, part of Germany’s ThyssenKrupp, to make it address the defects blamed for crushing children. The company is already taking many of the actions demanded by the agency, and is providing free inspections, hardware and installations to address the hazard, despite exiting the residential elevator business in 2012, it said in a news release.

The company had also drawn negative attention after a 4-year-old was trapped beneath a ThyssenKrupp Access residential elevator in November 2019. The child escaped serious injury but further highlighted the danger with residential elevators at large that had resulted in at least eight children dying and two seriously hurt since 1981, the Washington Post reported in July 2019.