Originally Posted on August 11, 2012:
When I was a janitor at the Power Plant there were times when we were christened by being allowed to work with the Labor Crew on jobs that needed to be done in a hurry. Larry Riley was the foreman of the Labor Crew. I had worked with Larry Riley during the summers when I was a summer help, and I always held him in high esteem. I think he knew that, and he said he was glad to have me working for him whenever they were in a pinch to complete a job in a hurry. I have described Larry as reminding me of the Marlboro Man, as he had a moustache that looked like his.
The wonderful thing about working in a Power Plant is that when you drive through the gate in the morning, you never know what you might be doing that day. Even after 20 years at the plant, I was still amazed by the diversity of jobs a person could do there. Anyone who spent those 20 years actually working instead of doing a desk job, would know a lot about all kinds of equipment and instruments, and temperatures.
When I was young I was able to go to Minnesota to visit my cousins in a place called “Phelp’s Mill”. Named after an old mill along a river that was a “self service” museum. Across the road and on the hill loomed a big foreboding house where my cousins lived during the summers. We would play hide-and-seek in that mill, which was mainly made out of wood. It was 4 stories high if you include the basement and had a lot of places to hide.
When I began working in the Power Plant, I realized one day that this was like that old mill only on a much bigger scale. You could spend half of a live time wandering around that plant before you actually knew where everything was. So, each day brought something new. My first years as a summer help, most of the “emergencies” that I would take part in had to do with cleaning up coal. When I was able to work with the Labor Crew, things became a lot more interesting.
One day in the spring of 1983 when I arrived at work ready to mop the floor and sweep and dust the Turbine Generators, I was told that I needed to get with Chuck Ross an A foreman over the Labor Crew at the time, because I was going to work with the Labor Crew that day. I was told to bring my respirator… Which usually had meant it was time to shovel coal. This day was different.
Chuck brought me to the Tool room and asked Bif Johnson to give me a new Rubber Mallet.
I went with the labor crew up on #1 Boiler just above the Air Preheater Baskets that I didn’t know existed at the time… The Boiler had been shutdown over night because there was a problem with the airflow through the boiler and we had to go in the duct and clean the Slag Screen.
“Slag Screen,” I thought… That sounds like a fancy word for something that was probably just some kind of filter or something…. I knew that Power Plant Engineers liked to give fancy words to make the Plant sound more like a Palace. As I mentioned before… there are places like: The Tripper Gallery. Hopper Nozzle Booster Pump. Generator Bathtub. The Gravimetric Feeder Deck — I liked that one, it sounded like you were on a ship. Travelling Water Screens. There were long names for some, like “Force Draft Fan Inboard Bearing Lube Oil Pump” (try saying that with a lisp). Anyway, I could go on and on.
Larry Riley explained to us that we needed to work as fast as we could to clean the slag screen because they wanted to bring this unit back on in the evening. We couldn’t wait for the unit to cool down much, so we were only allowed to go in the hot air duct for 10 minutes at a time.
So, in I went. The first thing I noticed as I stuck my head in the door was that there wasn’t any immediate place to stand. There was only a hole below me that went down into the darkness. So I looked around for something to grab onto to pull myself in. Once my body was in the door I was able to walk along a beam next to this big screen. It looked similar to a screen on a window at home only the wires were about 1/2 inch apart. Something like this:
Oh, and there was one more thing that I noticed…. It was incredibly HOT. I was wearing leather gloves so I could grab onto the structure to hold myself up, but if I leaned against the screen with my arm, it would burn it. I was just wearing a t-shirt. I don’t know the exact temperature, but I have worked in similar heat at other times, and I would say that it was around 150 degrees. I was not wearing my hard hat because there was a strong wind blowing to try and cool the boiler down.
The problem is that we were on the tail end of the air flowing out of the boiler, and it was carrying all that heat right onto us. At 160 degrees your hard hat will become soft so that you can squish it like a ball cap. I was wearing Goggles as well, and that helped keep my eyes from drying out since everything else went dry the moment I stuck my head in there.
Anyway, I threw my lanyard around a pipe that ran diagonal across my path, and held onto it with one hand while with my other hand I began pounding on the screen with the rubber mallet. I had to breathe very shallow because the air was so hot. It gave the air time to cool off a bit before it went down into my throat.
This was a new adventure for me. There are some Brave Power Plant Men that work on the “Bowl Mill” crew that have worked in these conditions for weeks at a time. I suppose you grow used to it after a while. Kind of like when you eat something with Habenero Sauce. The first time it just very painful. Then a few weeks later, you’re piling it on your tortilla chips.
After my first 10 minutes were over, someone at the door, (which was hard to see) hollered for me, so I made my way back to the door and emerged into the cool air of the morning. I noticed that Larry Riley gave me a slightly worried look and I wondered what it meant. I realized what it was moments later when I went to remove the respirator off of my face. I only had one filter cartridge in the respirator.
The other one was missing. I thought that was silly of me to go in there with only one filter. No wonder it seemed like I was breathing a lot of dust. Then I thought…. No. I know I had both filters when I went in the duct. I must have lost one while I was in there. Maybe with all that banging I knocked it off.
Anyway, 10 minutes later it was time for me to go back in there, and this time I made sure my filters were securely screwed onto the respirator. I worried in the back of my mind that I may have ruined my lungs for life by breathing all that silicon based fly ash because I was feeling a little out of breathe (for the next 10 years).
Anyway, halfway through my 10 minutes in the duct I reached up with my hand to make sure my filters were still tightly screwed in place, and to my astonishment, they weren’t tight. I couldn’t screw them tight. The respirator itself had become soft in the heat and the plastic was no longer stiff enough to keep the filter tight. It made sense then why I had lost my filter the first time. It must have fallen down into the abyss of darkness that was right behind me while I was banging on that slag screen.
After working on the screen for an hour or so, we took a break. When we returned the temperature in the boiler had dropped considerably, and I was able to stay in the duct the rest of the day without having to climb in and out all the time.
Larry had an air powered needle gun brought up there and someone used that for a while cleaning the screen. It is what it sounds like. It has rods sticking out the end of a gun looking tool that vibrate wildly when you pull the trigger. I don’t know what the real name is for it, but it cleaned slag screens a lot faster than my beating the screen with the rubber mallet all day.
I did beat that screen all day. When it was time to leave I brought the mallet back to the tool room, and it looked like this:
I had worn the rubber off of the mallet. When I brought the mallet back to the tool room, Bif said, “What is this?” I said I was just returning the mallet that I had borrowed that morning. He said something about how I must be some kind of a he-man or crazy. I was too worried about my lungs to think about how much my wrists were aching from taking that pounding all day.
A couple of months later I was promoted to the Labor Crew. Chuck Ross had kept saying that he couldn’t wait for me to go to the Labor Crew because he wanted me to work for him. The very day that I started on the Labor Crew, the plant had a going-away party for Chuck Ross. He was leaving our plant to go work at another one in Muskogee.
During the party Chuck presented me with the rubber mallet that I had used that day cleaning the slag screen. He said he had never seen anything like that before. He was sorry he was going to leave without having the opportunity to have me working for him. I felt the same way about Chuck. I have always kept that rubber mallet laying around the house since 1983 when I received it. My wife sometimes picks it up when she is cleaning somewhere and says, “Do you still want this?” With a hopeful look, like someday I may say that it is all right if she throws it away.
Of course I want to keep it. It reminds me of the days when I was able to work with True Power Plant Men in their natural environment. The slag screen was later deemed unnecessary and was removed from the boiler.
It also reminds me of other things. Like how quickly something can happen that changes your life forever.
Questions from that day have always remained with me.
How much ash did I breathe in? I couldn’t see much more than a few feet in front of me as I banged on that screen knocking ash down all over me. What did it do to my lungs?
What if I had taken a step back or slipped off of that beam before I had walked to the other end to secure my safety lanyard? I know now what was below me then. I would have fallen about 20 feet down to some fins, and then down another 20 feet onto the air preheater baskets. It would have taken a while to retrieve me, once someone figured out that I was missing.
What does that much heat do to your body… or your brain?
I know these are things that go through the minds of True Power Plant Men. I worked with them for years improving the safety of the power plant. All-in-all, no one ever died when I was there, though some came close. The Slogan over the Shift Supervisor’s Office said, “Safety is job #1”. That wasn’t there to try to convince us that Safety was important. It was there as a testimony to everyone who had already made that decision.