OKLAHOMA CITY — The state is woefully understaffing and underfunding the office that inspects escalators and elevators, a program trusted to ensure the safety of thousands of lifts across the state, a safety expert said.

Kevin Doherty, who inspects elevators in New York and New Jersey and investigates elevator accidents across the country, said Oklahoma's program is "broken" and "not working as designed."

"It appears to have inherent flaws in it," he said.

Oklahoma assigns four inspectors to keep track of nearly 5,800 elevators, and the program is chronically backlogged, according to the Department of Labor.

Now, nearly 1 in 6 elevators is late for inspection — in some cases close to a year late.

Even as they run behind schedule, state officials say just five accidents a year are reported involving elevators and escalators throughout the state. Most happen when people trip when elevator cars don't align with the floor as their doors slide open. Last year, no one reported any serious injuries.

The Center for Construction Research and Training, drawing upon government data, estimated that elevators and escalators nationally kill 31 people and injure another 17,000 each year.

Elevators cause about 90 percent of those deaths and about 60 percent of the serious injuries.

But Doherty warned that Oklahoma, which is using elevator standards that are below national minimums in how often inspections should occur, is flirting with danger.

The state needs more inspectors, he said, as well as a higher fee schedule charging business owners and landlords for those inspections.

“This is not going to wind up good,” he said. “It’s going to fall further and further behind unless they can hire state employees or increase the fees so third parities are willing to come in and do proper jobs."

Without action, he said, "The elevators will deteriorate, or they can fall to the point where they become unsafe for public use, and that’s when you have (riders) start becoming injured and when you have lawsuits come about.”

The state Department of Labor, which took over elevator and escalator inspections in 2006, said the backlog could grow. That's because Tulsa officials decided earlier this month to end their city's inspection program, leaving businesses and property owners in their city to arrange for inspections with the state.

City leaders wrote in a letter to business leaders, "It has become apparent that the continuation of a local inspection program is neither cost effective nor efficient.”

The state’s fee for elevator inspections is so low — $125 per inspection — that Tulsa leaders felt that businesses could arrange for cheaper check-ups by the state than what the city could charge.

But that leaves the state Department of Labor responsible for oversight of nearly every elevator and escalator in Oklahoma, except for those in Oklahoma City, which runs its own inspections.

The department has not received additional funds to pay for the new responsibility.

Backlogs in elevators and escalator inspections happen from time to time, Doherty said, particularly as new machines become operational.

But chronic backlogs, such as Oklahoma's, are unusual, he said.

Labor Commissioner Mark Costello said the office that handles inspections is in a difficult position, without resources to do its work.

“The only way to catch it up is to spend money that you don’t have to catch it up,” he said, adding that the state would need to charge at least $200 per inspection to make ends meet.

Its fee schedule now means that taxpayers largely subsidize the program.

Last year, inspections cost taxpayers about $473,000, but the state only collected $262,000, according to Labor Department data.

Oklahoma is one of 45 states with an elevator inspection program, said Kevin Brinkman, codes and safety director for the National Elevator Industry Inc.

The number of elevators and escalators in the state is similar to, or just below, numbers elsewhere, said James Buck, director of safety standards and licensing for the state Department of Labor.

Buck said Oklahoma's problem is compounded by the fact that some businesses cut corners by forgoing routine maintenance until they're told by the state’s inspectors to perform it.

“They use us to do the initial inspection to identify what they need to come into compliance with instead of maintaining their maintenance,” he said. “They want our inspectors to come in and tell us what’s wrong with the elevator.”

In some states, Doherty said, a portion of inspections are handled by private contractors who charge $370 to $550, depending upon the type of elevator.

Oklahoma's state-set rate, at $125 per inspection, makes it cost prohibitive for private contractors to work, he said, noting that it often takes two hours to perform an inspection, not counting the time spent completing paperwork and traveling.

Doherty suggests raising that rate, as well as updating the state's elevator code so that inspections are performed as often as twice annually depending on the type of elevator, consistent with the national elevator safety standards.

The state's code now requires inspections occur either annually or every two years.

While Doherty said lawmakers should increase fees — and Costello acknowledged that the state ideally needs $200 per inspection to recuperate its costs — Costello is not recommending an increase.

He said that would be "about as popular as lighting up a cigarette at church."

"It’s not going to go over very well,” he said.

Costello said he hopes to add a fifth inspector next year, though the department would ideally need eight field inspectors to keep up with all of its work.

Ultimately, Costello said he’d like to see responsibility for elevator inspections shift back to the private sector.

The state’s technical colleges would need time to train the next generation of private inspectors, he said. The state could oversee their work, he added, but businesses and property owners would have to pay the market rate to hire their own inspectors, rather than having taxpayers subsidize inspections.

“If they want safety, then someone’s going to have to pay for it,” he said. “I think it should be the beneficiaries — the property owners."

Janelle Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach her at jstecklein@cnhi.com