Working Together to Work Safe: An Interview with IUEC President Frank Christensen and ECA Chairman Neil Hussey

“There’s a couple of things about safety I brought to Neil Hussey, Chairman of the Elevator Contractors of America, when I became the General President– we need to get more involved with safety, we need to get the companies more involved with safety and we need to go at it with a different approach because whatever we were doing before that wasn’t working. So we did this together,” said Frank Christensen, General President of the International Union of Elevator Constructors (IUEC).

ElevatorInfo had the opportunity to sit down with Frank and Neil to talk about how the IUEC has been working collaboratively with the ECA to improve safety for all workers in the conveyance industry. Creating a culture of safety that allows all elevator constructors to get home safe to their families at the end of the day has been a top priority for President Christensen since the start of his tenure. “It never is going to be enough for me until we don’t have any fatalities. Never. No injuries is probably a dream or fantasy. But that’s my goal as long as I’m going to be the general president.”

While the bulk of the work in the North American conveyance industry is done by a handful of major corporations such as Otis, Kone, Schindler, TK Elevator, Fujitech, and Mitsubishi Elevator, there are hundreds of smaller independent elevator companies across the country that are also involved in this work. The Elevator Contractors of America organization was created to provide a network of support for these independent elevator companies. Lately, one of the top priorities for the ECA has been to develop a standard safety policy that ECA member companies can adopt as part of their own corporate safety policies for workers.

“We know that the majors are getting their hard hats, are getting their safety glasses, they’re getting their harnesses,” said Frank. This is largely because the major IUEC-affiliated companies have access to teams of safety experts around the globe, and have had comprehensive safety strategies in place for some time. Unfortunately, it’s been more of a challenge for some of the smaller companies who don’t have access to the resources the larger ones do to develop and implement comprehensive safety programs as quickly.

In recent years, it became apparent that this was an area where the ECA could be a great help to its member companies and to the industry as a whole. “Originally we had a lot of small companies that really didn’t have much of a safety program,” said Neil. “The mindset back in our day was if you spend a lot of time on safety, it was going to slow things down – but we found that quite to the contrary.” He continued, “Once we saw that, not only could you create a very safe work environment, some of the safety procedures and protocols actually ended up being very efficient.”

Maintaining strong communication and a positive working relationship with the IUEC has helped ensure that the ECA’s standard safety policy meets the needs of the industry. “I like to think that we’re partners with the IUEC in the promotion of safety,” said Neil. “The IUEC is our main supplier of labor and what we found very early on is that by including them in our general meetings, by spending time developing relationships, it all makes it easier,” said Neil.

Frank agreed. “When I became the General President, we got to know each other. We talked and he invited me to ECA meetings and after that, we built a friendship and an understanding of what each one does. I know that I can pick up the phone and call Neil anytime and he’s going to respond to me immediately, and he knows he could do the same for me.”

“We’re elevator people. We have a long history in the elevator business – although I might have started a little bit earlier than Frank, we started in the same place, as helpers in the trade,” Neil said. “We have a lot of things in common and we’ve been able to use that to our benefit, to further our goals – safety being one of the major goals.”

Making safety a top priority is more than just a goal for Neil – as Vice President of an independent elevator company himself (New England-based Stanley Elevator), it’s personal. Frank was quick to recognize this. “Some of his employees are like his family members – these are his friends. These are more than just employees. If something were to happen to them, the effect of that on their family and everyone that they know, well, it’s a hard thing to live with. I know because it’s a hard thing for me to live with when I lose a member.”

Frank continued, “When I see an elevator constructor on the street or I see them working on their equipment, I always ask ‘Are you working safe?’ For me, that’s one of the most important things I could say to somebody.”

Safety training is one of the best benefits all elevator constructor mechanics and apprentices get from the IUEC, its collaborators and union-affiliated employers, and NEIEP. To learn more, head over to our article on the fundamentals of safety for elevator technicians/constructors.