Going up? Legislature fights over elevator inspections

Most people in Louisiana board an elevator without a second thought.

The certificate means it’s been inspected, it’s safe. Right?

Not so much, according to the world’s largest elevator manufacturers.

Louisiana is one of five states that doesn’t require elevators to be inspected or maintained.

Nobody knows just how many elevators are in use across the state.

Baton Rouge and New Orleans local governments have inspections, but neither responded to repeated requests to discuss what the inspection programs consist of and how many inspectors are employed.

Even if an individual elevator has been inspected, there’s no way to tell what was reviewed — or how — in order for that certificate to hang, as it does in many elevators, said Charlie Melancon, the former congressman who represents elevator manufacturers pushing to establish a statewide inspection system.

“The certificate says it has been inspected,” Melancon said. “It means someone paid $50, and they were sent a certificate to stick in their window for another year.”

But, if that’s the case, why aren’t there more elevator accidents, asks Jim Patterson, vice president of the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, the state’s largest lobbying group for the business community. LABI is leading the opposition to legislation to create a statewide inspection system.

With 900,000 elevators nationwide providing about 18 billion rides per year, almost all without incident, experts say elevators and escalators “are the safest form of transportation in the world.”

“This has not been a problem. In the past decade, there has been one death attributed to an elevator accident (in Louisiana). So it doesn’t appear that there is an inadequate number of inspections that are transpiring,” Patterson said. “The need for this doesn’t seem to be great or justified.”

If “inspection certificates” are being issued without someone physically looking at the machinery, then that is what the legislation should be about.

“If that’s the thing that needs to be addressed, then the legislation should be about that, rather than an effort to assist a union in growing its membership,” Patterson said.

Organized labor, rather than elevator safety, likely will be at the center of the debate when the Senate Commerce Committee takes up Senate Bill 602 later this week.

Patterson says the qualifications and standards that would be required to become a licensed inspector is usually, though not exclusively, obtained through union apprenticeships and training.

“The intent of the bill is to set up to be exclusively handled by union inspectors. It really is just that simple. We think it needs to remain open,” Patterson said. “It’ll be more costly than if you have individuals who are equally qualified but without coming out of a union background.”

Melancon said he met four times over the past year with officials in the construction industry and the business community. During those negotiations, he dropped 48 points from the model legislation being proposed by the elevator manufacturers. But negotiations bogged down when the business community representatives fixated on the possible link to unionism, he said.

“We’ve done everything they asked us to do in the bill,” Melancon said. “We gave them a bill: Just set up a mechanism to have the fire marshal get set up and do the necessary … They’re still not for the bill.”

“It’s kind of a red herring,” said Amy Blankenbiller, the government affairs director for National Elevator Industry Inc., the trade association behind a national effort to establish an elevator inspection system.

“There has been misrepresentation that this is a union bill,” said Blankenbiller, who had led the Kansas Chamber of Commerce before joining NEII. “They’re using the (union) arguments because they are trying to distract folks from the bill. It’s not a component of the bill. ... It doesn’t make any sense to me.”

Based in New York, NEII membership includes the six major international companies in the “building transportation industry:” Otis Elevator Co., Schindler Elevator Corp., KONE Inc., Fujitec America Inc., ThyssenKrupp Elevator Americas and Mitsubishi Electric US Inc.

Most of these companies also sell maintenance contracts to service their elevators.

Blankenbiller said it is true that many mechanics learned their skills as members of unions working for the international manufacturing companies. But the skills can be — and are in many states — learned outside the training provided by organized labor, she said.

Under SB602, building owners and managers would have to register their elevators before April 1, 2017. The State Fire Marshal would be charged with studying the situation and developing rules and recommendations that would establish a statewide inspection system. The inspectors would achieve licenses under the ASME QEI-1 Standard for the Qualification of Elevator Inspectors.

Inspecting elevators and escalators involves checking the buttons, key switches, lights, indicator lamps and audible indicators; testing the control systems, acceleration and stopping capabilities, safety circuits and electronics; reviewing a machine’s mechanical condition; and seeing if gears, brakes, bearings or ropes need adjustment or replacement.

Twenty-one states have adopted some form of the legislation being pushed by the NEII, including other right-to-work states. Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas and Texas have adopted some or all of the legislation to create statewide inspection of elevators.

“When they (opponents) say it’s a problem that doesn’t exist, I would challenge them to guarantee that, because without having the information, we don’t know that,” Blankenbiller said.

Information about injuries and deaths related to “building transportation” isn’t uniformly collected. Much is known about workplace incidents, which are investigated by various government agencies, but the only reliable source of data on accidents in malls, airports and buildings suffered by people who are not on the job comes from lawsuits.

What is known is that about 27 people are killed and about 10,200 people are injured in elevator accidents each year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Consumer Product Safety Commission, which doesn’t regulate elevators as it does other products, such as automobiles.

The U.S. Labor Department’s Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries reports that half of the annual elevator-related fatalities occur in maintenance workers who service elevators or people who use elevators as part of their employment, such as in an office building.

Of those, half of the fatalities result from falls into the shaft. In Louisiana, the most recent reported fatality occurred Oct. 16, 2012, at the Cargill grain elevator in Westwego.

The widow of Jeffrey Feucht claims in her lawsuit that her husband had never worked at a grain elevator before and was not given proper training, according to the lawsuit filed in the 24th Judicial District Court of Lee V. Faulkner Jr.

“I’m fearful now of these elevators,” Melancon said. “You can’t guarantee everybody’s safety forever, but at the least, you can have some mechanism for making sure that once a year this equipment is checked and they are adequately maintained and that everything is functioning as it is supposed to.”