By Don McIntosh
Corey Hanley, 45, found his calling in 2007.
Back then he worked a desk job as an engineering draftsman for a dental equipment maker, and couldn’t seem to rise above a wage ceiling of $20 an hour.
Twelve years later he builds and maintains the elevators and escalators that make possible Portland’s high-rise skyline. As a journeyman member of International Union of Elevator Constructors Local 23, he earns a wage of $54.32 an hour plus $39.74 an hour in benefits.
“I love this trade, because there’s so much to it,” Hanley says. “You have to know mathematics, physics, mechanical, engineering, and electrical.”
Elevator constructors are among the first and last workers on a high-rise construction site. The work begins when a several ton “cassette” is lowered by crane onto rubber isolation pads on machine beams at the top of a building. [The cassette is the machine that raises and lowers the elevator cab that will be constructed below.] Once the cassette is welded to the beam, elevator constructors leave the site until the rest of the building frame is constructed. They return weeks or months later to place the vertical rails, construct the cabs, set up the electrical and mechanical systems, and install the doors.
Elevator constructors tend to specialize. Some focus on new construction, others on repair or modernization. Some do mostly elevators, others do escalators.
Hanley’s specialty is final inspection and tune-up. He arrives at projects near the end and installs the buttons and jewels (lights), the buzzers and the dingers (Audible signals are required by the Americans with Disabilities Act). He also does late-stage testing and troubleshooting to make sure newly installed elevators pass final inspection with the state.
Unlike most other construction workers, who work for a general contractor or subcontractor, most elevator constructors work for one of the big three elevator companies – Otis (headquartered in Connecticut), Kone (based in Finland and pronounced KO-NAY) and Thyssenkrupp (a German multinational, pronounced TISS-en-krup). Each company employs its own staff installing and maintaining its proprietary technology.
Hanley has been at Otis over 10 years.
For about a year of that time, he did elevator maintenance, greasing parts and cleaning the “pits” — the floor of the elevator shaft where dust and things that fall through the cracks settle. Sometimes being an elevator maintenance worker meant he was on call as a first responder, hurrying to buildings where elevators had malfunctioned and trapped passengers.
Such mishaps aren’t common, but they do happen. Elevators are driven by an array of electrical electrical contacts. Those can build up carbon and dust and corrode.
By code, all elevators are required to have a phone system that allows passengers to call out if the car stops working. The phone connects either to a 24-hour guard station if the building has one, or to a hotline run by a company like Otis, which dispatches a service person.
Arriving at a building with a malfunctioning elevator, Hanley would head straight to where it’s stuck and communicate with trapped passengers.
“You’re okay,” he’d tell them. “The elevator’s not going to fall. Just hang on.”
Safety is at the core of elevator construction, and has been since the dawn of the modern elevator. Contrary to popular memory, it was the Greek mathematician Archimedes who invented the elevator, not Elisha Otis. What Otis invented was a mechanical safety feature. Before then, elevators were considered too dangerous for routine use transporting people: If a rope were to break, a lift would come crashing down, killing its occupants. Otis invented a system based on speed and centrifugal force: If an elevator starts to fall faster than a given speed, a mechanical safety applies friction clamps to the guide rails, which stops the car. As much as steel girders, it was Otis’ invention that made skyscrapers feasible.
Just as safety is important, the perception of safety is important too. That’s one reason elevator constructors pay extreme attention to detail. A lot of care is taken to keep elevators quiet. Passengers don’t like to hear noises. It makes them nervous.
“It’s the little tiny details,” Hanley says. “When you’re putting the elevator in, if a single rail joint is out of plumb, you’re going to feel that in the car every time it goes by. It’s going to make a little bump. And the little bump is going to lead to a tick, and the tick is going to lead to a major knock. And noises in elevators freak people out.”
Hanley says his coworkers and he strive to build elevators to within a 64th of an inch of specifications. They do that using laser measuring tools, measuring tape, and plumb bobs.
“I think being a little OCD is a good thing for an elevator constructor,” Hanley said. “You miss one little thing, it’s going to make a noise.”
Or say an elevator service person sweeps out things that have fallen into the pit, and forgets to turn off the light. Most people look down when they get on an elevator. That light will make it possible for passengers to see into the shaft. Some passengers, afraid of heights, won’t get on the elevator.
Knowing what they know, elevator constructors have to groan when Hollywood decides a movie plot needs an elevator scene.
“The number one thing that movies always get wrong is you can’t open the doors,” Hanley said. “If you’re stuck in an elevator, you can’t just pop the doors open and get out and climb up to the other door. Those doors are specifically designed so that you can’t get out of them. In actuality you’d be much safer staying in the elevator until somebody comes to rescue you than trying to get out.”
“It’s the perfect job for me,” Hanley said. “You get to build things, wire things, and troubleshoot, then step back, walk away, and say, ‘I built that.’”