Monthly Archives: September, 2017

What’s That Strange Power Plant Smell?

Originally posted July 18, 2014

Given that a large Coal-fired Power Plant is like a small city complete with a water treatment system to supply drinking water to thirsty Power Plant Men, and it’s own complete sewage system to handle the volumes of human waste and toxic run-off, when I ask, “What is that strange smell?” You may expect the answer to be something like “Honeysuckle?” If you thought, rotten fish, diesel oil, ozone or sweaty arm pits, you would, of course, be wrong. Those are all the usual smells found in a Power Plant. Every so often, a smell would come by that would make you stop in your tracks and wonder…. “What’s that strange smell?”

Over the course of the 20 years I worked in the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma, there were times when a new smell would just come out of no where. There were other times when they would sneak up on me gradually, so that I wouldn’t even notice them until they were gone…. Then I would wonder why it was that I didn’t notice them when they were there.

One such smell that stung me like a bee would happen when I was on overhaul and I was walking out to the precipitator all covered in a fly ash suit from head-to-toe wearing a full face respirator with duct tape around all of the seams.

 

This isn't me, this is just some other fortunate soul I found on Google Images

This isn’t me, this is just some other fortunate soul I found on Google Images

I was walking in the breezeway between the two boilers when I suddenly smelled a sharp sort of smell. It was a strange chemical I hadn’t ever noticed before. I looked around to see where it was coming from. There wasn’t anyone around, and I didn’t see anything chemical spill in the area that would account for it.

As I walked toward the precipitator, I looked up as I walked under the surge bin tower in time to see an operator coming down the stairs. He was smoking a cigarette. Besides that, everything else looked normal, except that the smell was almost overwhelming me at that point.

I went and climbed in the precipitator where I worked until break. When I came out, I blew the dust off of myself with a tiny instrument air hose that we kept on either side of the precipitator for just such an occasion. After the fly ash had been blown off of my suit, I leaned forward and pulled my respirator off of my face and breathed the fresh air.

Later that week, when I was heading back out to the precipitator and had just left the electric shop all dressed up in my suit, I had a whiff of that same smell. I couldn’t mistake it. It was a unique chemical smell. looking around, there wasn’t anyone or anything near me that would have been emitting such a toxic smell.

As I walked around the condenser to head toward the boiler, I saw that a couple of mechanics were carrying some planks of wood and laying them by the condenser in order to build a scaffold once they opened the condenser. One of the guys was smoking a cigarette. I wondered… Could it be a cigarette that smells so rancid? It didn’t seem likely, since I began detecting the smell when I was more than 40 yards away from the operator when he was descending from the Surge bin tower. I shouldn’t be able to smell a cigarette from that distance.

After a few more instances, I realized that it was cigarettes that I was smelling. I was amazed by how far away I could detect a cigarette when I was wearing my respirator. I figured that after it had filtered out all the particles bigger than 2 microns, the only particles and odors that were entering my respirator were easily detectable by my nose. And they didn’t smell anything like a cigarette.

I became so astute at detecting smokers, that one time I was walking through the breezeway with an unfortunate contract worker that had been commandeered to work with me, I was dressed in my fly ash suit and respirator. My helper wasn’t because he was going to be my hole watch while I was inside. I suddenly smelled that, now familiar, scent. I spun around once and then turned to the guy walking with me, who hardly knew who I was, and said, “Someone is smoking a cigarette!”

He looked around and no one was in sight. He said, “There isn’t anyone here.” I said, “Oh, there’s someone with a cigarette all right.” About that time a truck pulled around the end of the precipitator about 50 yards away with a couple of welders pulling a welding machine behind. Their windows were open, and hanging out of the driver side window was an arm, with a hand on the end holding a cigarette. As it drove by us, I pointed to the cigarette and said, “See. Cigarette.” He kept insisting I couldn’t have smelled that cigarette that far away… But with my respirator on, I could easily smell it.

One of the other strange Power Plant smell that I encountered during my tenure at the Power Plant was also while I was wearing my respirator and working in the precipitator. Only, I didn’t pay much attention to it until it was gone. Then I did everything I could to find the source of that smell, because to me, it was a sweet smell of success, even though it smelled more like a sweaty arm pit, or maybe even something worse.

I mentioned this smell in the post: “Moonwalk in a Power Plant Precipitator“. The precipitator is what takes the smoke out of the exhaust from the boiler, and collects it in hoppers and then blows it a half mile to a silo on a hill by the coal pile, where it is trucked away to be made into concrete.

It was my job during an outage to repair the inside of the precipitator, and I was always looking for ways to improve the efficiency of the ash gathering abilities of this large piece of equipment.

The plant has a similar electrostatic precipitator, only ours is twice as long

The plant has a similar electrostatic precipitator, only ours is twice as long

I knew at certain times during an outage that the ash that had built up on the plates would all of the sudden decide to cake up and fall off in chunks leaving a perfectly clean plate. When that happened, then the odds of the precipitator running real well when we came back online was a lot better.

I also knew that after working long hours in the precipitator for a couple of weeks, I would feel all worn out like I had a flu. I would have to drag myself out of bed in the morning and I would even catch myself falling asleep on my feet inside the precipitator while I was inspecting it. I always figured it was just because we were working 10 or 12 hour days and I was getting older. Yeah…. 30 years old, and I was feeling every bit of it.

Then one day when I went to the tool room to get a couple of boxes of respirator filters Bud Schoonover told me that he couldn’t give me the regular hepa filter that I was used to using. I already knew that the regular filters weren’t good enough, so I asked him what else he had. He said, “Well…… I have some of these here…” I have mentioned that if Bud had been African American and a little bit skinnier and shorter, he would have been the spittin’ image of Aunt Esther from Sanford and Son’s. He would make this same expression:

Aunt Esther from Sanford and Son

Aunt Esther from Sanford and Son

Bud handed me a box of filters labeled: Organic Vapor Filter:

 

Like This filter, only without the purple plastic guard.  It had a cotton looking filter on the top

Like This filter, only without the purple plastic guard. It had a cotton looking filter on the top

It wasn’t exactly what I was looking for, but I didn’t have much choice. I could see that it had a carbon filter on it as well as the regular filter, so I thought it would be all right.

The first thing I noticed when I stepped into the precipitator wearing the Organic Vapor filter was that the air inside the precipitator didn’t smell any different than the air outside. I wasn’t used to that. I was used to smelling a “boiler” sort of smell. After a couple of weeks that smell would turn more rancid. Sort of a sour smell. When I noticed that I wasn’t smelling the sour smell I quickly broke the seal on my filter and sniffed the air to verify that the filter was really blocking the stench that built up in the precipitator the past few weeks. Sure enough.

Then I noticed that I was no longer feeling tired in the morning. I was able to work all day without feeling fatigued. I came to the conclusion that whatever that smell was that was being blocked by this respirator had been causing me to feel ill. Now that it was gone I was beginning to believe that 30 years old wasn’t that old after all.

I was already curious about the smell in the precipitator because I had noticed that after a day or so after it showed up, the ash would just flake off of the plates in the precipitator. If we could find out what it was, maybe we could inject something in the inlet of the precipitator when it was online and needed to be cleaned after a bad start-up or after it had been running a while to make it run more efficiently.

So, I went to our resident Doctor of Chemistry, George Pepple. I wrote a post about him, see “Power Plant Doctor Does a Jig in a Puddle of Acid“. I explained to him about the smell and about how this particular filter filtered it out when a Hepa filter didn’t. And the effect it had on the ash on the plates. He listened intensely and I could tell that I had made him excited. There are only so many chemicals a plant chemist deals with on a normal basis, so when Dr. Pepple had an opportunity to explore something new, he jumped at the opportunity.

When I took him to the precipitator, he could smell the odor even before we began climbing the stairs up to the open hatchways. He described it as a sewage type of odor. Which I hadn’t really thought of before, but come to think of it, that would explain why an organic vapor filter would work on it. I suggested that the sulfur in the ash might be giving it that.

I had analyzed the chemicals that made up the coal that we received at our plant from Wyoming and I had tried to figure out how it might combine with moisture to create a new chemical. George explained that when the coal burns under such a high temperature, a lot of the chemicals are sort of encapsulated in ways that are not easily predictable.

George suggested that we approach this as a Safety issue and contact the Safety Department in Oklahoma City and have them see if they can put an analyzer in the precipitator to detect the chemical. When I contacted them, I talked with a lady called Julia Bevers (thanks Fred for reminding me of her last name). She told me to call her when the odor was strong during the next outage and she would bring some chemical detectors to the plant and I could place them in there and let them run overnight to collect samples.

Julia had said that she had heard that I was known as “Mr. Safety” at the plant. I don’t know why. Maybe it was because I was in the habit of complaining. And a number of the things I would complain about were safety issues.

Anyway, during the next outage as soon as I smelled the smell emanating from the precipitator I gave her a call and the next morning I received a call from Toby O’Brien, the Plant Engineer Extraordinaire.  He called me and told me that Julia the Safety Lady was there in his office looking for me.

Power Plant Engineer and Good Friend - Toby O'Brien

Power Plant Engineer and Good Friend – Toby O’Brien

So, I went to Toby’s office and met “The Safety Lady.” I know I didn’t look at all like she expected. I was in a worn tee-shirt, not tucked in (on purpose) and worn out steal-toed boots. When I took her out to the Precipitator, I decided to take her across the Turbine Generator room and out the Third floor to the boiler where we walked through the boiler and over to the precipitator up and down ladders.

When we walked across the Turbine Floor, I didn’t have my usual pair of ear plugs hanging around my neck (they were in my pocket). As it was rather loud, Julia turned and said, “Shouldn’t we be wearing earplugs?” I replied, “Huh?” As if I couldn’t hear her. — I just love playing Power Plant Jokes on people that don’t even know what you’re up to… I’m sure when we were done, she went straight back to Toby and told him how shocked she was to find out how unsafe I was. — Me trying to keep a straight face the entire time.

Earplugs on a cord that can be draped over your shoulders when not in use.

Earplugs on a cord that can be draped over your shoulders when not in use.

To shorten a longer story, Julia gave me some indicators that would detect two different types of chemicals that she thought may be the culprit. I left the detectors in the precipitator overnight and then sent them back to Oklahoma City for analysis. They both came back negative leaving us with a mystery chemical.

Anyway, I never did find out what was causing that strange smell….

There was another strange smell that used to pop up in the Electric Shop when I had first become an electrician, but that just turned out to be one of our fellow electricians that liked to walk up to a group of electricians standing around talking, and then let loose a “silent but deadly” and then walk away and stand from a distance to see our reaction.

I won’t mention who that was, unless someone would like to leave a comment about that below….. Anyway. we all knew who it was when that happened as the electricians would yell out his name as the crowd quickly dispersed.

I decided to take a different approach. I would stand there thinking, trying to analyze the odor to see if I could tell what exactly this person had for supper the night before. I could tell one day when I said “Beef Stroganoff” and his face turned red that I had guessed pretty close to the mark….. That was the last time this noble Power Plant Man did that to a crowd of electricians….. at least when I was standing there… I can’t attest to any other time…. as I wasn’t there.

But I suppose that is proof that even early in my career I was interested in finding the source of that “strange smell”.

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Power Plant Imps and Accident Apes

Orignally posted: July 26, 2014:

In order to promote Safety at the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma in 1988, we watched a video that introduced us to the four “Imps”. These were little creatures that lurked around the power power plant waiting to cause accidents. The video demonstrated how these four imps had lead a racing car to have an accident which put the driver in hospital. The Imps were called: Impatience, Improvisation, Impulsiveness and Impunity.

The video also went on to say that “Knowing is not enough”. You have to “Act”. The four imps try to keep you from acting when you know that there is a safe way to do something. A Yellow Flag was used in the video when the crash occurred during the race, and the video went on to emphasize that if we could only see the Yellow Flag “Before the accident happens”, then we could take steps to prevent it. In order to do that, you first have to eradicate the four imps. We were given Hard Hat stickers to remind us to look for accidents before they happened:

See the Yellow Flag Before the Accident Happens

See the Yellow Flag Before the Accident Happens

Before I tell you about the Apes, let me just briefly go over these four imps and how they interfere with a safe work environment….

Impatience may be obvious. Getting in a hurry causes us to take short cuts and not think things through. This Imp works with all the other imps to lead us to engage in unsafe behavior.

Improvisation is happens when you don’t have the right tools handy or the proper safety equipment isn’t easily accessible. It may also happen when the right parts aren’t right there when you need them. So, instead of taking the time to go get the right tools for the job, or the right part to fix an issue (with the help of Impatience), we Improvise. Leading to taking unnecessary risk.

Impulsiveness comes around when when we act without thinking. We react immediately to a situation without thinking about it. Maybe because we think that we are so experienced that our instincts serve us better than our brains. Again, Impatience is right there urging us on to act Impulsively.

I think one of the Monthly Safety Slogans we turned in when we were trying to win the yearly Safety Slogan pizza (see “When Power Plant Competition Turns Terribly Safe“) was “Acting Impulsive can leave you pulse-less”.

Impunity is a stealthy imp (unless you are young… then it is a way of life). This is the believe that you are impervious to being hurt. You think you are either very lucky (which I know “I am”), or you are so experienced at your job that you will not be hurt even when doing things you know are unsafe.

We had a safety campaign at the plant to “Look for the Yellow Flag” and “Beware of the Imps”. I thought it was a good reminder to be safe, especially since most of us had been working at the plant for a number of years and needed to be reminded that we were not impervious to the four imps. This was an honest attempt to keep us from becoming complacent with our own safety.

Four years later, however, the accident rate at our plant had reached a nine year high and having the big mouth that I was born with, I had to say something about it. So, I wrote a letter to our plant manager voicing my concerns.

In the letter I suggested that we should brainwash our employees to work safely. I will discuss how to do this in a later post. I suggested that brainwashing our employees to work safely would be best because when someone is brainwashed they are not allowed “by the fact that they are brainwashed” to think “outside the box”. In other words, someone that is brainwashed to work safely is not able to function “unsafely”.

I had studied brainwashing techniques when I was in college after I had attended a meeting with my roommate one day and within an hour I had been brainwashed by the Southwest Book Publishing Company to think that the only thing I could possibly do next summer was sell books door-to-door. I really believed that not only was selling books door-to-door my only option, but that there was no way I could do anything else.

After my mom had slapped me around (not literally) until I snapped out of it, I became fascinated by how easily it was to become brainwashed. So I decided to study it in order to prevent that from happening again. I even changed my major to Psychology, because of that experience.

I learned that there are five main techniques used to brainwash someone. Most of these are the same techniques used by good salesmen to sell you products you wouldn’t normally want to buy. Those that would be best used to brainwash an employee to be safe are: Repetition, Role-playing, Cognitive Dissonance and Commitment.

The Fifth brainwashing tool is “Fatigue”. But in order to do that, you would have to put the person in a closet and beat them with a rubber hose any time they think about doing something unsafe. Even though this sounds exciting, the only place in the plant that would suffice was the janitor closet in the main switchgear, and then you could only use it on one Power Plant Man at a time.

Like I said, I’ll explain how to brainwash employees to work safely in a later post. I will expand a little on “Cognitive Dissonance” since I mentioned it and it isn’t as common known as the rest of the tools. Cognitive Dissonance occurs when you mind detects that there is something not exactly right with the logic of something so, a person changes their belief to remove this “Dissonance” (or Discord in your brain).

A person with very good argument skills is sometimes known as an “Apologist”. That is someone that can make a good clear argument for something by building on one argument after the other until the other person can clearly see and believe what the Apologist is trying to convince them. You see this a lot with religious groups.

In fact, when I went away to college, and just before I had been brainwashed by the Southwest Book Publishing Company, my mother had told me “Don’t let yourself be brainwashed by some religious cult.” I said “Sure Mom.” — Being on the lookout for this, I never suspected that when my roommate asked me if I wanted to go along with him to listen to someone talk about summer jobs for next summer, I was going to be so easily brainwashed by a book publisher.

Anyway, back to Cognitive Dissonance…. When you are trying to Brainwash someone to believe something they do not already believe, you do this through a series of carefully crafted statements in order, that the other person needs to agree to before you go to the next one.

Each statement introduces a small cognitive dissonance, or a “challenge” to the person’s reasoning that they have to reconcile in their mind. They are not given much time to do this, and through the use of repetition and role-playing, a person is more likely to accept that small change in their belief in order to avoid the dissonance they are experiencing.

By the time the person reaches the end, if they have agreed to each of the statements then it comes time for the “Commitment”. They sign something, or they go through some initiation, or something that seals their “fate”. Then they believe that they have no other choice but to go down that path.

Here’s an example:

After I had learned about these techniques in college, I thought it would be neat to see them in action, so I made an appointment with an Insurance Salesman. Who better? I went to his office and told him that I was thinking of buying some life insurance. So, he began his “sales pitch”.

Throughout the conversation, I was watching how he was using leading statements that I was agreeing to one at a time. “Yeah… makes sense to me” I would say… When he was finished I was surprised by the way he pulled out a sheet of paper and said, “Sign here.”

Not having actually been brainwashed by the person, since I was too busy thinking about his techniques, I was amazed by how sure he was that I was all ready to sign up for life insurance right there on the spot. — I told him I would think about it and left. I even remember his name… Chuck Farquar. That was too good of a name to forget.

Anyway, time for the Power Plant Apes:

In 1993, I wrote another letter to our plant manager (I liked writing letters… or Memos… I guess you could call them). In this letter I mentioned that I thought the program that introduced us to the four Imps was pretty good, and that we needed something like that again because not only were the four Imps still lurking about, but so were five Apes! I had found that there were five Apes running around the plant wreaking havoc.

I explained that the Five Apes were: Apathy, Apprehension, Apishness, Aplomb and Apostasy. I had noticed these five Apes popping up around the plant helping the four imps cause accidents.

Apathy is “Not Caring”. Not only Not Caring for our own safety, but not caring for the safety of others. This could be seen when people didn’t clean up their work area when they were done. A lack of pride in their Safety attitude.

Apprehension occurred when someone was to afraid to speak up when they saw safety issues. Either because they thought others might not agree with them, or because they had spoken up in the past and had their hand slapped for making a fuss. Either way, I could see unsafe conditions that were left unchecked because people didn’t want to mention them.

Apishness is when someone “Apes” another person’s behavior. They imitate them. One person sees another person working unsafely and instead of pointing it out to them, they see that they are getting away with it, so, they decide to do their work in the same unsafe manner. — This is sort of like Cognitive Dissonance working toward brainwashing someone to work unsafe.

Aplomb is having self-confidence. Though this sounds like a good trait to have, when you are working around dangerous equipment all the time, self-confidence is a killer. When I was teaching my son to drive a car, I told him that as soon as he feels comfortable driving a car, then he should know, that’s when he has become the most unsafe. He doesn’t have the experience to automatically react in a safe way, yet, he believes that he knows what he is doing so he lets his guard down.

Apostasy is the belief in a “heresy”. When dealing with Safety, it is the belief that being Safe is not important. The thought that fate is not even in my hands. — I hear this when someone says, “You only live once.” Doris Day used to say this when she sang the song: “Que Sera Sera” — What will be will be…

In case you can’t play a You Tube video from that link on your old outdated computer… here is the link: “Doris Day singing Que Sera Sera“.

I could see that some people at the plant had reached the point of discouragement to where they believed that all the talk about safety had gotten us no where. People still had accidents at the same rate as before… When we tried to improve safety it never seemed to work. So they just gave up on the process.

With all these Imps and Apes running around the plant is was a wonder we were ever able to get any work done! There is more to come on this topic…

Comments from the original post

    1. Ron Kilman July 26, 2014

      I hadn’t thought of the “4 Imps” in years! I’m impressed (again) that you still remember them. Good story!

    2. Dave Tarver July 26, 2014

      Then there was BBS – Then there is IIF and hiring of Safety Professionals to prosecute and punish anyone that gets ticketed its a double edged sword those that have personality conflicts with others and who being marginal at their job play the safety card over and over , hence costing a lot of time and money on needless wild goose chases. Cell Phones are a distraction in the plant I agree, however, there productivity improvement outweighs the negative side of them. A person with a cell phone can report someone in danger or alert everyone to problems when we lost the plant our only means of communication was cell phones to the outside world and they acted both as first line and backup during the crisis inside the plant as well. A friend told me once when we start fearing and focusing on that fear is when it will happen I remember making us all write letters to our wives and sad to say about a year later OGE Power Supply lost a fine man, with all the programs and focus we lost that man- with all the engineers in the ivory tower we could not learn that if a gasket continuously leaks at different times that either we have a warped surface due to improper warmup methods or we have a faulty gasket and that we never tighten those on a high pressure vessel under operating conditions we blamed the gasket but the gasket was known many times over but yet we failed to find a solution until the unthinkable happened and accountability all the people in charge and so forth still have their jobs they knew they had problems with it thats why knowing is not enough!
      Thats why you cannot take people without experience in the trenches and put them in jobs that they have not learned up through the ranks you cannot capture and replace an individual with anyone from any old bar! I still think the Managing Director all the way down through the Operating /Maintenance Superintendents should of been held accountable feeling bad and sorry does not bring that fine man back! In operations we are drilled over and over and over about it how our mistakes cost lives and arms and legs etc and we will have error free switching Man is not perfect and never will be his nature will never let him be! and with all the education in the world we still have not learned this! They knew the drum head for the access door and or the gasket was bad and especially if you have had an acid clean on a boiler you have to watch everything closely
      anyway all accidents are preventable so the old partridges says but yet man in his nature is imperfect so it is a contradiction just by the nature of it. Engineers have to be held to account for failed designs and or products and or procedures that they implement
      Engineering is a science of redundancy and preventing failure but yet we have colossal failures I think all Engineers need to be an operator for 3 years in residency before they can begin their craft might help some

 

  1. Jonathan Caswell July 27, 2014

    What happened to “Stop, Look and Listen”? Oh yeah…that’s for railroad crossings.

  2. Brenda Davis Harsham July 27, 2014

    I’m glad you chucked Chuck. I love Doris Day. I like that word Aplomb, it’s what I aim for. Those are some powerful imps. 😉

ABC’s of Power Plant Safety

Originally posted August 2, 2014

Scott, Toby and I were all sitting in the front seat of Scott’s pickup truck on our way home from the coal-fired power plant in North Cental Oklahoma, because this particular pickup didn’t have a back seat. I guess that’s true for most pickup now that I think about it. It was in the fall of 1993 and I was on one of my rants about Power Plant Safety (again).

Scott Hubbard was focusing on the road and he was smiling. I think it was because the person that was talking on NPR (National Public Radio) had a pleasant voice.

Scott Hubbard

Scott Hubbard

Come to think of it… Scott was usually smiling.

I was going on and on about how the plant needed to take a completely didn’t approach to safety. I thought that we just looked at each accident as an isolated case and because of that we were missing the point. The point was that no one really goes to work with the idea that they want to do something that will hurt them. Power Plant Men in general don’t like having accidents. Not only does it hurt, but it is also embarrassing as well. Who doesn’t want that 20 year safety sticker?

I worked 20 years without an accident

I worked 20 years without an accident

I was in the middle of my safety rant all prepared to continue all the way from the plant to Stillwater, about 20 miles away when Toby quickly interrupted me. He said that he had received a safety pamphlet in the mail the other day that was saying the same things I had just said. It had talked about a way to change the culture of the plant to be more safe. Not using the same old techniques we were used to like Safety Slogan Programs (I was thinking…. but what about the Safety Slogan Pizza award at the end of the year? Would that go away? See the Post: “When Power Plant Competition Turns Terribly Safe“). Toby said that he read it and then set it aside as just another one of the many safety sales pitches a Plant Engineer might receive in a week.

Power Plant Engineer and Good Friend - Toby O'Brien

Power Plant Engineer – Toby O’Brien

He said he only remembered the pamphlet because I had just made a statement that was word-for-word right out of the safety pamphlet. I had said that the only way to change the Power Plant Safety Culture was to change the behavior first. Don’t try to change the culture in order to change the behavior. When I had earned my degree in Psychology years earlier, I had been told by one of my professors that the area of Psychology that works the best is Behavioral Psychology.

To some, this might sound like treating the symptoms instead of the actual cause of a problem. If your not careful that may be what you end up doing and then you ignore the root of the problem, which brings you back to where you were before you tried to change anything in the first place. Toby said he would give the pamphlet to me the next day.

So, the rest of the ride home was much more pleasant. Instead of finishing my rant about Safety, we just listened to the pleasant voices on National Public Radio. I was excited about the idea that someone might have a solution that I believed offered the best chance to change the direction of Safety at the plant away from blaming the employee, to doing something to prevent the next accident.

The next day, after we arrived at the plant, I made my way up to the front offices to Toby’s desk so that he could give me the safety pamphlet he had mentioned on the ride home. When he gave it to me, the title caught my eye right away. It was a pamphlet for a book called: “The Behavior-Based Safety Process, Managing Involvement for an Injury-Free Culture”. Now I was really excited. This sounded like it was exactly what I had been talking about with Toby and Scott. I sent off for the book right away.

When the book arrived I wanted to climb on the roof of my house and yell “Hallelujah!” I was suddenly one with the world! As I read through the book my chin became chapped because my head was nodding up and down in agreement so much that the windy draft caused by the bobbing motion chafed my chin.

I finished the book over the weekend. When I returned to work on Monday, I wrote another quick letter to the Plant Manager, Ron Kilman and the Assistant Plant Manager, Ben Brandt telling them that I would like to discuss an idea for a new safety program…. um…. process. Process is better than Program… as we learned in Quality Training. A process is the way you do something. A program is something you do, and when it’s over, you stop doing it.

Later that week, I met with Ron Kilman, Ben Brandt and Jasper Christensen in Ben’s office.

Ron Kilman

Ron Kilman

I had just read the book for the second time, I had already had 5 dreams about it, and I had been talking about it non-stop to Charles Foster and Scott Hubbard in the electric shop for days. So, I felt confident that I was prepared for the meeting. I still remember it well.

Ron asked me to explain how this new process would work and so I started right in….

In order for this process to work, you have to understand that when an accident occurs, it is the system that is broken. It isn’t the employee’s “fault”. That is, the employee didn’t wake up in the morning thinking they were going to work today to have an accident. Something went wrong along the way, and that is what you have to focus on in order to improve safety. Not so much the employee, but the entire system.

If people are unsafe, it is because “The System” has trained them to work unsafe (for the most part…. — there will always be someone like Curtis Love…. accidents sometimes traveled 45 miles just to attack Curtis Love).

The trick is to identify the problems with the system, and then take steps to improve them. Ben was nodding as if he didn’t quite buy what I was saying. Ron had looked over at Ben and I could tell that he was skeptical as well (as I knew they would, and should be…. I had already demonstrated that I was a major pain in the neck on many occasions, and this could have been just another attempt to wreak havoc on our plant management). So Ron explained a scenario to me and asked me how we would go about changing the system to prevent these accidents in the future….

Ron said, Bill Gibson went down to work on the Number 1 Conveyor Belt (at the bottom of the dumper where the coal is dumped from the trains).

Bill Gibson

Bill Gibson

While he was down there, he noticed that some bolts needed to be tightened. The only tool he had with him that could possibly tighten the bolts was a pair of Channel Locks.

 

Channel Locks

Channel Locks

All of us had a pair of Channel Locks. One of the most Handy-dandiest Tools around.

Ron continued…. So, instead of going back to the shop and getting the correct size wrench to tighten the bolts, Bill used the channel locks to tighten them. He ended up spraining his wrist. Now how are you going to prevent that?

I replied…. One of the most common causes for accidents is using the wrong tool. There are usually just a few reasons why the wrong tool is used. If you fix those reasons, then you can prevent this from happening. The main and obvious reason why this accident occurred was because the right tool wasn’t there with him. This could be fixed a number of ways. Bill and his team could have a small bag that they carry around that had the most likely tools they might need for inspecting the conveyors. They might have another bag of tools that they use when they need to go inspect some pumps… etc.

Another solution may be to mount a box on the wall at the bottom of the dumper and put a set of wrenches and other important tools in it. If that box had been there and Bill had found the loose bolts, he only would have to walk a few feet to get the right tool instead of trudging all the way back up to the shop and then all the way back down.

It wasn’t that Bill didn’t want to use the right tool. He didn’t want to bruise his wrist. He just wanted to tighten the bolts.

— This had their attention… I was able to quickly give them a real action that could be taken to prevent a similar accident in the future if they would take the effort to change the “System”. Even Ben Brandt leaned back in his chair and started to let his guard down a little.

This was when I explained that when someone does something, the reason they do it the way they do is comes down to the perceived consequences of their actions…

We were always being drilled about the ABC’s of First Aid from Randy Dailey during our yearly safety training. That is when you come across someone lying unconscious, you do the ABC’s by checking their Airway, the Breathing and their Circulation. I introduced Ron, Ben and Jasper to the ABC’s of Safety. Something completely different. The ABC’s of Safety are: Antecedents, Behavior and Consequences.

An Antecedent is something that triggers a particular behavior. In Bill’s case, it was finding the loose bolts on Conveyor 1. It triggered the behavior to tighten the bolts. Bill chose to use the wrong tool because the correct tool was not immediately available, so he weighed the consequences. The possible behavior choices were:

  • I could use the pair of channel locks here in my pocket.
  • I could spend the next 20 minutes climbing the 100 feet up out of the dumper and go over to the shop and grab a wrench and walk all the way back down here.
  • I could leave the bolts loose and come back later when I have the right tool.

The consequences of these behaviors are:

  • I could be hurt using the channel locks, but I haven’t ever hurt myself using them before, and the chances are small.
  • I could be late for lunch and I would be all worn out after climbing back up to the shop. The chances of me being all worn out by the time I was done was very high.
  • The loose bolts could fail if I waited to tighten them, and that could cause more damage to the equipment that would cause a lot more work in the future. The chance of this is low.

The behavior that a person will choose is the one that has an immediate positive consequence. If the odds of being hurt is small, it will not stop someone from doing something unsafe. Also, if the negative consequence is delayed, it will not weigh in the decision very highly. Positive consequences outweigh negative consequences.

So, in this case, the obvious choice for Bill was to use the channel locks instead of going back to get the right tool.

When I finished explaining this to Ron and Ben, (Jasper was nodding off to sleep at this point)… Ben asked where I came up with all of this. That was when I reached down and picked up the book that was sitting in my lap. I put it on the table. I said, I read about it in here:

Book about the Behavior-Based Safety Process

Book about the Behavior-Based Safety Process by Thomas Krause

Ben grabbed the book and quickly opened up the front cover and saw that I had written my name inside the cover. He said, “It’s a good thing you put your name in here or you would have just lost this book.” I told him he could read it if he wanted.

Ron said that he would consider what I had said, and a few day later he responded that since I had been requesting that we start up a Safety Task Force to address the plant safety concerns that he would go ahead and let us start it up, and that he wanted us to consider starting a Behavior-Based Safety Process in the future. — That will be another story…

Let me finish this post with a warning about the Behavior-Based Safety Process…

In order for this to work, it has to be endorsed from the top down, and it has to be implemented with the understanding that the employee is not the problem. Punishing employees for working unsafe will destroy any attempt to implement this process properly. Training everyone is essential. Especially management. I can’t emphasize this enough. In order to produce an accident-free culture, everyone has to keep it positive. Any changes in the system that helps prevent accidents is a good thing. Any unsafe behavior by an employee is a symptom that there is something wrong with the system that needs to be addressed. — Reprimanding an employee is destructive… unless of course, they intentionally meant to cause someone harm. — But then, they wouldn’t really be Power Plant Men, would they?

The phrase was:  'Cause I Love You Man!

The phrase was: ‘Cause I Love You Man!

 

Comments from the original post:

    1. Dan Antion August 2, 2014

      My father always made a box or a rack do that every tool needed to adjust something like a table saw was always attached to that saw. I do the same thing.

    1. Anna Waldherr August 3, 2014

      I really enjoyed your post. I’ve never worked in a power plant (no hand eye coordination, for one thing), but the challenge of convincing management to focus on safety and change an existing procedure is universal. Best wishes!

    1. Dennis Wagoner August 4, 2014

      Great post. I worked at a Ford UAW plant for 28 years. We finished out with four years without a lost time injury – this plant was heavy machining manufacturing automotive steering gears so we had a lot of heavy equipment everywhere. Walking out the door the same way and with the same body parts you came in with will be our greatest legacy!

  1. Monty Hansen October 19, 2014

    I’m the powerplant nightshift foreman with 31 accident free years, yet my hardhat sticker says 26 years, so I went to our safety guy to find out why the “sticker” program had been dropped. He did some research & found out that about a half dozen years ago, corporate accountants did a cost/benefit analysis of our hardhat safety stickers & could see no “profit” in it

Taking Power Plant Safety To Task

Originally posted August 9, 2014

One of the phrases we would hear a lot at the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma was “Safety is Job Number One”. It’s true that this should be the case, but at times we found that safety was not the highest priority. It is easy to get caught up in the frenzy of a moment and Safety just seemed to take a second row seat to the job at hand.

Making Safety Job Number Two was usually unintentional, but sometimes on rare occasions, we found that it was quite deliberate. Not as a company policy, but due to a person’s need to exert their “Supervisory” Power over others. I mentioned one case in the post titled: “Power Plant Lock Out Tag Out, or Just Lock Out“.

During the summer of 1993, everyone at the plant learned about the Quality Process. I talked about this in the post: “A Chance for Power Plant Men to Show Their Quality“. I had joined the Action Team. This was a team of Power Plant Men that reviewed proposals turned in by the quality teams in order to determine if they had enough merit to be implemented. If they did, we would approve them. If we decided an idea was not appropriate enough to be implemented, we sent it back to the team that had written the proposal with an explanation why it was rejected.

My Action Team Certificate

My Action Team Certificate Signed by Ron Kilman and Al Strecker

Our team had turned in a proposal to create a Safety Task Force. One that would act like an Action Team similar to the one formed for the Quality Process. It seemed like a logical progression. I was the main proponent of the Safety Task Force, but to tell you the truth, it wasn’t all my idea.

Not only had other members of our Quality Team mentioned forming a Safety Task Force, but so did our Electric Supervisor, Tom Gibson. He had called me to his office one day on the pretense of me getting in trouble…. I say that, because whenever he would call me on the gray phone and respond, “Kevin. I want to see you in my office right now.” that usually meant that I had stepped on someone’s toes and I was in for a dressing down…

Gaitronics Gray Phone

Gaitronics Gray Phone

— Was I the only one that had this experience? It seemed that way. But then, I was usually the one “pushing my bubble” (as Charles Foster would say). When I arrived at Tom’s office, he asked me if I would ask our team to create a proposal for a Safety Task Force. I told him that I’m sure we would. We had already talked about it a couple of times in our meetings.

I didn’t mind playing “Bad Cop” in the game of “Good Cop, Bad Cop”. That is, it never bothered me to be the one that pushed an unpopular issue that really needed pushing. Where someone else would follow-up as the “Good Cop” in a way that takes away the bitter taste I left as “Bad Cop” by proposing the same solution I proposed only with a more positive twist.

At the time, I figured that Tom Gibson was going to be “Good Cop” in this effort since he had pulled me aside and asked me to initiate the proposal. As it turned out, I ended up playing both Bad Cop and Good Cop this time. I played the Good Cop when Ron Kilman had met with me to discuss a new Safety Idea. The Behavior-Based Safety Process. See the Post: “ABC’s of Power Plant Safety“.

I proposed the Safety Task Force in a sort of “Bad Cop” negative manner. That is, I had pointed out how our current system was failing, and other negative approaches. When I explained how the Behavior-Based Safety Process works as “Good Cop”, Ron had told me to go ahead and form the Safety Task Force.

I asked for volunteers to join the Safety Task Force. After I received a list of people that wanted to be on the Task Force, I chose a good cross-section of different roles and teams from both Maintenance and Operations. I had lofty visions of telling them all about the Behavior-Based Safety Process, and then going down the road of implementing this process at the plant.

I didn’t realize that the Power Plant Men had different ideas about what a Safety Task Force should be doing. They weren’t really interested in trying out some new Safety “Program”. I tried explaining that this was a “Process” not a “Program”, just like the Quality Process. They weren’t buying it.

We had Ground Rules that we created the first day that kept me from ramming anything down their throats, so I went along with the team and listened to their ideas. It turned out that even though the Power Plant Men on the Safety Task Force didn’t want to hear about my “beloved” Behavior-Based Safety Process, they did have good ideas on how to improve safety at the plant.

We decided that we would ask for Safety Proposals just like the Quality Process did. It was felt that the Safety Task Force didn’t have any real “authority” and a lot of people at the plant thought that without the authority to really do anything, the task force was going to be an utter failure.

We decided that the best way to show that the Task Force was going to be a successful force of change toward a safer Power Plant, we would ask for ideas on how to improve the safety at the plant. When we did, we were overwhelmed by the response. Safety Concerns poured in from all over the plant.

At one point we had over 250 active safety ideas that we had decided were worth pursuing. The members of the team would investigate the ideas assigned to them and see what it would take to make the requested changes. Because of the overwhelming response, it didn’t make much sense taking all the approved requests to the Plant Manager. So, in many cases, we decided that a trouble ticket would be sufficient.

I posted the progress of all the active ideas each week on every official bulletin board in the plant. This way, everyone could follow the progress of all of the ideas. As they were successfully completed, they went on a list of Safety Improvements, that I would post next to the list of active proposals.

I think the members of the Safety Task Force might have been getting big heads because at first it appeared that we were quickly moving through our list of plant Safety Improvements. A lot of the improvements were related to fixing something that was broken that was causing a work area to be unsafe. I say, some of us were developing a “big head” because, well, that was what had happened to me. Because of this, I lost an important perspective, or a view of the ‘Big Picture”.

I’ll give you an example that illustrates the “conundrum” that had developed.

We had created some trouble tickets to fix some pieces of equipment, and walkways, etc, that posed a safety risk. After several weeks of tracking their progress, we found that the trouble tickets were being ignored. It seemed that this came on all of the sudden. When we had first started the task force, many of our trouble tickets were being given a high priority, and now, we were not able to succeed in having even one trouble ticket completed in a week.

After going for two weeks without one of the trouble tickets being worked on, I went to Ron Kilman, the Plant Manager to see if we could have some of his “Top Down” support. To my surprise, he gave me the exact same advice that our Principal, Sister Francis gave our Eighth Grade class at Sacred Heart School in Columbia, Missouri when we ran to her with our problems.

Ron Kilman

Ron Kilman – He looks nothing like Sister Francis

Ok. Side Story:

Three times when I was in the eighth grade, our class asked Sister Francis to meet with us because we had an “issue” with someone. One was a teacher. We had a personal issue with the way she conducted herself in the class. Another was a boy in the 7th grade, and the fact that we didn’t want him to go with us on our yearly class trip because he was too disruptive. The third was a general discontent with some of the boys in the 5th and 6th grade because of their “5th and 6th grade” behavior.

In each case, Sister Francis told us the same thing (well almost the same thing). In the first two cases, she told us we had to handle them ourselves. We had to meet with the teacher and explain our problem and how we wanted her to change. We also had to meet with the boy in the seventh grade and personally tell him why we weren’t going to let him go on our trip. In each case it was awkward, but we did it.

In the case of the 5th and 6th graders, Sister Francis just said, “When you were in the 5th grade, if you acted the way these 5th graders acted to an eighth grader, what would happen? Well. Deal with this as you see fit. We all knew what she meant. When we were in the fifth grade, if we treated the eighth graders the way these guys treated us, they would have knocked us silly.

So, the next morning when I was approached by a fifth grader displaying the disrespectful behavior, I gave him a warning. When my warning was greeted with more “disrespect”, I did just what an eighth grader would have done when I was a fifth grader. I pushed him down the stairs. — Not hard. He didn’t tumble over or anything, but he ran straight to Sister Francis and told her what I had done.

Sister Francis came up to our room and told me to go to the principal’s office. — We only had 14 people in the Eighth Grade, so it wasn’t hard to find me. I protested that I was only doing what she authorized us to do the previous day. She agreed, but then she also explained that she had to respond the same way she would have responded to the eighth graders three years earlier if they had done the same thing.

I could tell by her expression, that my “punishment” was only symbolic. From that day on, the 5th and 6th graders that had been plaguing our class were no longer in the mood to bother us. We had gained their respect.

End of Side Story.

So, what did Ron Kilman tell me? He told me that if we were going to be a successful Safety Task Force, then we would need the cooperation of Ken Scott. Ken was the Supervisor of the Maintenance Shop and the one person that had been holding onto our trouble tickets. Ron said, “You will have to work this out with Ken yourself.” — Flashes of Ron Kilman wearing a black nun’s robe flashed through my head, and suddenly I felt my knuckles become soar as if they had been hit by a ruler. — No, I’m not going to draw you a picture.

So, we did what would have made Sister Francis proud. We asked Ken Scott to meet with us to discuss our “issue”. We pointed out to him that the trouble tickets we had submitted were safety issues and should have a higher priority. We also pointed out that we had not had one safety related trouble ticket completed in almost three weeks.

Then it was Ken’s turn…. He said, “Just because you say that something is a safety issue doesn’t make it one. Some of the trouble tickets submitted were to fix things that have been broken for years. I don’t think they are related to safety. I think people are using the safety task force to push things that they have wanted for a long time, and are just using “safety” as a way to raise the priority. Some of these ideas are costly. Some would take a lot of effort to complete and we have our normal tickets to keep the plant running.” — Well, at least when Ken stopped talking we knew exactly where he stood. He had laid out his concerns plain and clear.

The Safety Task Force members used some of the tools we had learned during the Quality Process, and asked the next question…. So, how do we resolve this issue? Ken said that he would like to be consulted on the ideas before a trouble ticket is created to see if it would be an appropriate route to take.

It was obvious now that we had been stepping all over Ken’s Toes and our “demands” had just made it worse. Ken felt like we had been trying to shove work down his throat and he put a stop to it. After hearing his side of the story, we all agreed that we would be glad to include Ken in all the safety issues that we thought would require a trouble ticket.

From that point, we had much more cooperation between Ken Scott and the Safety Task Force. Ken really wasn’t a problem at all when it came down to it. The way we had approached the situation was the real issue. Once we realized that, we could change our process to make it more positive.

One Barrier Down

One Barrier Down

This worked well with Ken, because he was forthright with us, and had spoken his mind clearly when we asked. This didn’t work with everyone of the people that pushed back. We had one person when we asked him if he could explain why he was blocking all our attempts to make changes, his only reply was “Because I am the barrier! I don’t have to tell you why!” That is another story. I’m not even sure that story is worth telling. I know that at least one person that reads this blog regularly knows who I am referring to, because he was in the room when this guy said that…. He can leave a comment if he would like….

Tragedy Occurs During Power Plant Safety Meeting

Originally posted August 16, 2014.

I knew that we had our work cut out for us when Unit 1 was taken offline for a major overhaul on February 19, 1994 at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma. I had learned to expect the unexpected. I just never suspected this to happen. As acting foreman, I had a crew that consisted of a few of our own electricians, as well as a number of contract workers. I was also coordinating efforts between Brown & Root contractors that were going to be doing some major work inside the Precipitator (that takes the smoke out of the exhaust from the boiler) during the 12 weeks we were going to be offline and a Vacuum Truck Company that was going to vacuum ash out of the hoppers where the ash is collected and blown through pipes to the coal yard to be trucked away to make concrete.

The plant has a similar electrostatic precipitator, only ours is twice as long

The plant has a similar electrostatic precipitator, only ours is twice as long. You can see the hoppers at the bottom

When I inspected the precipitator during the first week, I had found numerous hoppers that had filled up with ash. One in particular hopper was so full that the ash had built up between the plates over 5 feet above the top of the hopper. Because of this, I had to coordinate with hoppers that were available for the Brown and Root contractors to begin building scaffolding, and those hoppers the vacuum truck needed to vacuum out first.

I had learned to deal with full hoppers the first time I entered the precipitator back when I was on the Labor Crew in 1983. Since that day, I had understood the potential dangers lying in wait. Especially with hoppers full of ash. See the Post “Angel of Death Passes By the Precipitator Door“.

The crew I was directly managing was on the Precipitator roof working on vibrators, insulators, transformers and rappers. I worked inside the precipitator aligning plates, and removing broken wires and cleaning insulators. The vacuum truck company vacuumed out the full hoppers by attaching a vacuum hose from a large vacuum truck to clean out pipes at the bottom of the hoppers. The Brown and Root crew climbed into the hoppers through an access door near the bottom of the hopper and constructed scaffolding in order to work at the top of the hoppers immediately below the plates.

Vacuum Truck

Vacuum Truck

This operation had been going on for 3 days and had seemed to be going smoothly. The Brown and Root crews and the vacuum truck crews were working shifts 24 hours a day. I would come in the morning and see the progress that had been made during the night. We kept a sheet taped to a beam in the hopper area that the vacuum truck would update when they had finished a hopper, and the Brown and Root crew indicated where they had finished building their scaffold.

On Thursday March 3, 1994, just after lunch, instead of making my way out to the precipitator to continue my work, I went up to the office area to meet in the conference room with the Safety Task Force. I was the leader of the task force, and we were meeting with upper management to work out some issues that I outlined in last week’s post. See “Taking Power Plant Safety To Task“. As you may have noticed, the last two weekly posts are a continuation of a long story.

Our meeting began shortly after 12:30 and we were discussing ways in which the Safety Task Force could work in a more cooperative way with the Maintenance Supervisor, Ken Scott. I felt that we were making good progress. We seemed to have come up with a few solutions, and we were just working out the details.

At 1:10 pm, the Electric A Foreman knocked on the door and opened it. He explained that there had been an accident at the precipitator in one of the hoppers and he thought that I might have been in the hopper at the time. He was checking to see if I was in the meeting. Once he was assured that I was all right, he left (presumably to tell the rest of my crew that I was not involved in the accident).

At this point, my head started to spin. What could have happened? None of my crew would have been in the hoppers. Maybe someone fell off of a scaffold and hurt themselves. I know I had locked out all of the electricity to the precipitator and grounded the circuits that have up to 45,000 volts of electricity when charged up, so, I’m pretty sure no one would have been electrocuted. Bill’s voice seemed real shaky when he entered the room, and when he saw me he was very relieved.

When working in a Power Plant, the Power Plant Men and Women become like a real family. Everyone cares about each other. Bill Bennett in some ways was like a father to me. In other ways, he was like an older brother. The nearest picture I have of Bill is a picture of Bill Cosby, as they looked similar:

Bill Cosby trying to look like Bill Bennett

Bill Cosby trying to look like Bill Bennett just after he has called me a “Scamp”

I don’t know how long I was staring off into space counting my crew and thinking about what each of them would be doing. I was sure they were all on the roof. I knew that if a Brown & Root hand had been hurt that their own Safety Coordinator would be taking care of their injury. The thought of someone being hurt in a hopper sent flashbacks of the day I nearly dived off into the hopper full of ash ten and a half years earlier.

After about 5 minutes, Bill Bennett came back to the conference room, where we were still trying to focus on the task at hand. I don’t remember if we were doing any more good or not since I wasn’t paying any attention. Bill said that he needed for me to leave the meeting because they needed me out at the precipitator. Someone had been engulfed in fly ash!

Then I realized that the first time Bill had come to the room to check on me, he had mentioned that. I think I had blocked that from my mind. He had said that someone had been engulfed in ash, and they couldn’t tell if it was me or someone else. That was why he was so shaken up. Bill had thought that I may have died, or at least been seriously injured. The pain he was feeling before he saw me sitting in the room, alive and well, flooded my thoughts.

I quickly stood up and left the room. Bill and I quickly made our way to the precipitator. He said that Life Flight was on the way. One of the vacuum truck workers had climbed into the hopper to get the last bits of ash out of the hopper when a large amount of ash had broken loose above him and immediately engulfed him in the hopper.

When that happened there was a large boom and a cloud of ash came pouring out from the side of the precipitator. Scott Hubbard, who would have been my twin brother if I had been able to pick my own twin brother (though I never had a real twin brother)… heard the boom on the roof and when he looked down and saw the cloud of ash, immediately thought that I may have been hurt. I suppose he had called Bill Bennett on the radio and told him.

As we arrived at the precipitator, a young man was being carried out on a stretcher. A Life Flight from Oklahoma City was on it’s way, and landed just a few minutes later. I looked at the man all covered with ash. I could see how someone may have mistaken him for me. He was dressed like I was. A white t-shirt and jeans. He was unconscious.

Without going into detail as to the cause of the accident, as that will be in a later post, let me tell you about the heroic Power Plant Men and their actions before I had arrived on the scene…

James Vickers, a 26 year old vacuum truck worker, had climbed in the hopper carrying a shovel. He had a hole watch standing out the door keeping an eye on him. They had sucked out the hopper from the outside pipes and had banged on the walls in order to knock down any ash build up on the sides until they figured they had cleaned out the hopper.

James had opened the door to the hopper, and maybe because he saw some buildup on the hopper walls, he decided to climb in the hopper in order to knock it down with the shovel. While he was doing this, a large amount of ash that had bridged up in the plates above was knocked free all at once and immediately filled up the hopper probably more than half full.

James was crammed down into the throat of the hopper, which at the bottom is only about 8 inches in diameter with a plate across the middle about 2 feet above the throat of the hopper. He was immediately knocked unconscious by the impact.

The person assigned to be the hole watch was standing at the door to the hopper and when the ash fell down, he was knocked back about 6 or 7 feet when the ash came pouring out of the door. Panicking, He ran to the edge of the walkway yelling for help. Luckily, he was not also knocked unconscious, or this would pretty much have been the end of the story.

Men came running. Especially a couple of Power Plant Men working in the area. I wish I could remember who they were. When I try to think of the most heroic Power Plant Men I knew at the plant at the time, the list is about a long as my arm, so it is hard to narrow it down.

The Power Plant Men began to frantically dig the ash out of the hopper to uncover James Vickers. When they reached his head, they immediately cleared his face to where they could perform Mouth-to-Mouth resuscitation. They began breathing for James as soon as they could, and continued mouth-to-mouth as they dug out more of the ash.

As they dug the ash out, they were using their hardhats for shovels. When they tried to move James, they found that he had been crammed down into the bottom of the hopper to where he was trapped in the throat of the hopper. Heroically they continued without hesitation to breath for James, while simultaneously working to free him from the hopper. The shovel had been wedged into the bottom of the hopper with him.

Almost immediately after the accident happened, the control room became aware that someone had been engulfed in a hopper, they called Life Flight in Oklahoma City. A helicopter was immediately dispatched. By the time James was safely removed from the hopper, placed on a stretcher and carried out to the adjacent field, the Life Flight Helicopter was landing to take him to the Baptist Medical Center. I would say the helicopter was on the ground a total of about 3 or so minutes before it was took off again.

Bill and I inspected the hopper where the accident had taken place. On the ground below under the grating was a pile of ash, just like I had experienced years before when I almost bailed off into the hopper to look for my flashlight. I was suddenly filled with a tremendous amount of sorrow.

I was sorry for James Vickers, though I didn’t know who he was at the time. I was sorry for Bill Bennett who thought for a while that I had died in that hopper. I remembered hanging by one finger in a hopper only two rows down from this one, ten years ago with my life hanging by a thread, and I just wanted to cry.

So, I gave Bill a big hug as if I was hugging my own father and just started to cry. The whole thing was just so sad.

Meanwhile, in Oklahoma City….

On the roof of the Baptist Medical Center, a Triage unit had been setup waiting for the helicopter to arrive with James. Hazardous Waste protective suits were being worn by the people that were going to begin treating James. They had heard that he had been engulfed in hazardous chemicals which consisted of: Silica, Aluminum Oxide, Hexavalent Chromium, arsenic and other unsavory and hard to pronounce chemicals. The Life Flight People on the helicopter had to be scrubbed down by the Hazmat team as soon as they exited the helicopter to clean off the hazardous Fly Ash. The news reporters were all standing by reporting the incident.

Yes. The same fly ash that I went swimming in every day during the overhaul. The same fly ash that I tracked through the Utility Room floor when I came home at night. The same fly ash used to create highways all across the country. It’s true it has some carcinogenic material in it. I’m sure I have my share of Silica in my lungs today, since it doesn’t ever really clear out of there.

Besides the psychological trauma of a near-death experience, Jame Vickers was fairly unharmed considering what he went through. He came out of the ordeal with an eye infection. Randy Dailey pointed out that this was because the Safety Coordinator from Brown & Root had opened his eyes to check if he was alive when he was laying on the stretcher, and had let ash get in his eyes. Otherwise, he most likely wouldn’t have developed an eye infection.

When I arrived at home that evening I explained to my wife what had happened. She had heard something on the news about it, but hadn’t realized they were talking about our plant since the person was in Oklahoma City when the reporters were talking about it.

All I can say is… Some Safety Meetings in the past have been pretty boring, but nothing made me want to improve my Safety Attitude like the Safety Meeting we had that afternoon. I’m glad that I had to experience that only once in my career as a Plant Electrician.

 

Comments from the original post

    1. Dan Antion August 16, 2014

      Too close.

       

    1. Ron Kilman August 16, 2014

      I remember when this happened. I know some prayers went up for James.

      They had to “decontaminate” the helicopter too. It was always amusing for me to see a hazmat worker strain at a “gnat” removing every molecule of fly ash, then take his respirator and suit off and light up his “camel” cigarette!

       

    1. Garfield Hug August 16, 2014

      Thankfully glad you made it to safety *blessings*

    1. Donna Westhoff Collins August 16, 2014

      Hope you don’t mind I posted on my Innovative Safety Solutions facebook page along with a link back to the blog. Good article!

    1. Anna Waldherr August 17, 2014

      What a harrowing account! Clearly, those of us not in the industry have no idea of its dangers.

    1. T. Foster August 19, 2014

      I remember hearing about that on the news that day. Also that Dad told us how strange it seemed that they were wearing the haz mat suits to deal with flyash.

    1. createthinklive September 14, 2014

      Work at the power plant sounds sexy: vibrators, insulators and rappers

The OSHA Man Cometh

I suppose when you are a Plant Manager, the last person you want to see at your Power Plant doorstep is the OSHA Man!  That’s exactly what happened on Thursday, March 10, 1994 at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma.  He was not paying a social call.  He was there to conduct an investigation.  One in which I was heavily involved.

In my post from last week, “Tragedy Occurs During Power Plant Safety Meeting” I described a near death accident where a contract worker was engulfed in fly ash in a precipitator hopper.  The accident was all over the 5 o’clock news in Oklahoma City.  The press was there when the Life Flight helicopter arrived at the hospital where they interviewed the flight crew.  The OSHA office in the Federal building a few blocks from the Electric Company’s Corporate Headquarters had quickly assigned someone to the case.  Armed with all the authority he needed, he began a full investigation of the accident.

The day before Gerald Young, (the OSHA Man) arrived, I had done some investigation myself into the accident.  I was trying to figure out exactly what had happened.  Why had someone who thought that he had emptied out a hopper so much so that he climbed inside, had suddenly become instantly engulfed in ash?  Where did this large volume of ash come from, and why did it decide to suddenly break loose and fill the hopper at the particular moment when James Vickers had decided to climb into the hopper?

The plant has a similar electrostatic precipitator, only ours is twice as long

Our Precipitator was longer than this one, but you can see the hoppers on the bottom

Larry Kuennan, the lead engineer had asked me to show him the hopper from the inside of the Precipitator, so he could have an idea of what took place.  I told him he needed to put on a fly ash suit and a full face respirator in order to go into the precipitator.  After we were all suited up, I took him on a tour of the inside.  A sight few people have had the chance to experience.  I could write an entire post just about the experience…. Oh…. maybe I already have.  See “Moon Walk in a Power Plant Precipitator

This isn't me, this is just some other fortunate soul I found on Google Images

This isn’t me or Larry, this is just some other fortunate soul I found on Google Images

The hopper we needed to investigate was not at the edge, so, we had to squeeze our way around a few beams in order to see the hopper where the accident took place.  When we arrived, I explained that when I had first inspected the precipitator, I had found that the ash had piled up five foot above the bottom of the plates because the feeder wasn’t feeding properly.  So, I had figured that when they were vacuuming out the hopper, the ash that was lodged between the plates (that were 9 inches apart) must have still been there when James climbed into the hopper.  Something had caused the ash to give way all at once.

Larry and I climbed down between the hoppers where we could see the bottle racks underneath the plates.  The bottles are 30 pound anchors in the shape of the old style milk bottles.  They are used to keep the tension on the wires, which are the electrodes that are normally charged with up to 45,000 volts of electricity when the precipitator is online.

When we sat down to look at the four bottle racks, I noticed right away that one row of bottles was about a foot and a half lower than the rest of the bottle racks.  This didn’t make sense to me at first.  I couldn’t think of anyway that 176 wires and bottles would be lower than the rest of the wires in the hopper.  It was a paradox that took a while to soak in.

When we left, Larry Kuennen made a statement I will never forget.  He said, “Until now, I thought that Plant Electricians did nothing but twist wires together.  I never thought they worked on things like this.”  I replied, “We work on anything that has a wire connected to it.  That includes almost everything in the plant.”  He replied, “Well, I have a new appreciation for Plant Electricians.”

It wasn’t until I returned to the electric shop and heard Scott Hubbard’s recount of the accident (again).  Scott and his crew was working on the roof of the precipitator when the accident happened.  He said that when the accident happened he heard a loud bang.  Sort of like an explosion.  I told him what I had found inside the precipitator.   This could only mean one thing….  An electric insulator on the roof of the precipitator that held up the wires on that bottle rack had broken.  When that happened, it fell the foot and half causing all the ash that had been lodged between the plates to be jolted loose, engulfing James Vickers who had just climbed in the hopper below.

After lunch, Scott went up on the roof and opened the portal on the tension house that housed the insulator that held up that row of wires.  Sure enough. The three foot by 3 inch diameter ceramic insulator had broken.  Something that had never happened at the plant up to that point.   A tremendous load must have been put on this insulator, or it must have been defective in order to just break.  These insulators are designed to hold up to 10,000 pounds of weight.  the weight of the bottles and wires altogether weighed about 6,000 pounds.  This meant that about 4,000 pounds of ash was pressing down from the ash above in order for it to just pull apart.

An insulator like this only 3 foot long

An electric insulator like this only 3 foot long

There was only one person that the OSHA man Jerry wanted to speak to when he arrived at the plant (other than to arrange things).  That was me.  I was the acting foreman in charge of the operations in, on and below the precipitator when the accident happened.  I was also just a regular hourly employee, not so “beholden” to the company that I would participate in any kind of “cover-up”.

The first thing OSHA Jerry wanted to see was the inside of the precipitator.  So, I procured a respirator for him, and we climbed up to the landing where one enters the precipitator through side doors.  The first thing he did when he arrived at the door was take out a measuring tape to measure the height of the door.

I hadn’t thought about it until that moment, but a new set of OSHA regulations had  a new set of Confined Space regulations 1910.146 that dealt specifically with confined spaces.  It had gone into effect on April 15, 1993.  Here we were almost a year later.  I had always treated the precipitator as a  confined space, so I had always checked the air quality before I entered it.

So, I asked OSHA Jerry why he measured the size of the door.  He said, he was checking if the entrance was “restricted” or “limited”.  This was the requirement of a Confined space as stated in OSHA regulation 1910.146.  I asked him how small does an entrance have to be to be restricted?  He said, “Well.  That’s not clearly defined.  We could enter the precipitator by bending over and stepping in.

That was the first time I thought that maybe the precipitator itself may not really fit into the strict definition of a confined space.  The hoppers do for sure, but does the precipitator?  Hmm….  I wondered…. I still do come to think of it.  The hoppers were definitely confined spaces by definition… “any space with converging walls, such as a hopper…..”

Oh.  I forgot to describe OSHA Jerry.  He reminded me a little of the guy a sidekick in Cheers named Paul Willson:

Paul Willson in Cheers

Paul Willson in Cheers

Actually, he looked so much like him that I thought of him right away.

When we were done inspecting the precipitator, we returned to the front office where we went to Tom Gibson’s (our Electric Supervisor) office.  He closed the door and locked it.  And he began to interview me by explaining that anything that was said in this room would be held in confidence.  He explained that I could speak freely and that the Electric Company could do nothing to me for telling him the truth.

I thought… Ok…. um….  I have always been known for speaking my mind, so he wasn’t going to hear anything that I would personally tell the Plant Manager, Ron Kilman to his face.  Just ask Ron.  I’m sure he would agree that I was pretty open about anything that popped into my mind.

Ron Kilman

Ron Kilman – Who wouldn’t want to be honest to a nice guy like this?

He asked me if I had been trained how in the OSHA Confined Space regulations.  I responded by saying that we had a class on it one day where we went over our new confined space requirements.  That consisted of reading the company policy.  I knew that I needed to have a hole watch, and I needed to check the air before I went into a confined space.

Confined Space Air Monitor

Confined Space Air Monitor

We checked to make sure there was 20.9% oxygen, that there was less than 10 parts per million Carbon Monoxide, less than 5 parts per million H2S (Hydrogen Sulfide) and that there was less than 5% explosive vapors.  OSHA Jack wrote everything down.

Actually, while I was talking, Jerry asked me to pause often because he was writing everything I said word-for-word on a yellow notepad what I was saying.

While we were talking, I asked him a few questions also.  I asked Jack how he decided to work for OSHA.  Where he had come from (Kansas.  Wichita, I think).  How long he had been working for OSHA.  Did he enjoy his job…..  At times, I could get him to digress and tell me a story about his life.

As we continued with our interview over this grave accident that almost resulted in the loss of someone’s life, I was busy making a new friend.  By the time he had asked me everything he needed to know, I knew all about how he had grown up in Kansas, and how he had gone from job-to-job until he had ended up in front of me… interviewing me.

When we had finished the interview, he explained to me that this was an official document that contained all the answers to the questions he had asked me.  He said that this would be private and that the Electric Company would not be able to ever see what I said unless I wanted them to see it.  I asked him if I could show it to them.  He said he would give me a copy of it, and I could do whatever I wanted with it.  He asked me to sign it.  I did.

Page 1 of the statement I signed

Page 1 of the statement I signed

I took Jerry to the copy machine in the front office where he made copies for me.  When he handed them to me, I shook his hand.  I told him I enjoyed talking to him.  I also told him that I wished him well.  I showed him to the elevator, and he left the plant.  I made a copy of the papers that I had signed and went directly to the plant manager Ron Kilman’s office and gave him a copy of the document I had signed.

Ron asked me how it went.  I told him that it went fine.  Here is everything we talked about.  I had nothing to hide.  It did amaze me that OSHA Jack thought I might want to “spill the beans” about something as if we were treated like peons where the King had total rule. — I guess he didn’t know that Eldon Waugh had retired in 1987.

From there, I went to Bill Bennett’s office.  Bill Bennett was our A Foreman.  His office was across the hall from Tom Gibson’s office where I had been interviewed for the previous 3 hours. —  Yeah.  3 hours.  OSHA Jerry didn’t know Shorthand.

Bill asked me how the interview went.  I said it went fine.  He said that Ron and Ben Brandt had been worried about me because the interview had lasted so long.  Bill said he told them, “Don’t worry about Kevin.  He probably has this guy wrapped around his little finger.  He’s probably using his ‘psychology’ on him”  I always loved Bill with all my heart.  He knew me too well.  I told Bill that I knew OSHA Jerry’s life story by the time we were done.  Bill smiled…. just like this:

Bill Cosby trying to look like Bill Bennett

Bill Cosby trying to smile like Bill Bennett

I smiled back at Bill.  I returned to the Electric Shop to continue with Unit 1 Overhaul.  After all.  That was my “real” job.  I put on my fly ash suit, my full face respirator, and my rubber boots and returned to the innards of the precipitator to continue where I had left off.  I had a lot to think about as I scanned the Precipitator plates and wires in the dark with my flashlight safely strapped around my neck.

Comment from the original post

  1. Ron Kilman August 23, 2014

    Great story! And good job interviewing OSHA Jack.
    When the OSHA (EPA, OFCCP, EEOC, etc.) Man cometh, whatever was scheduled for that day (week, etc.) was suspended and you do whatever he/she wants. Cost to implement changes was not a factor and permanent effects on plant efficiency or employee morale were of little importance either. At 67 (with increasing arthritis) I’m reminded of OSHA’s “help” every time I have to use both hands to start my recip saw (one to pull the trigger and the other to push the “safety” switch), or when I have to re-start my lawnmower every time I empty the grass bag.

Power Plant Men Summoned by Department of Labor

Originally posted August 30, 2014.

When a death or a near death occurs at a workplace due to an accident, OSHA Occupational Safety and Health Administration) will investigate what happened. There are two reasons for this. If they find that the company has been negligent in following the safety regulations set down in CFR 1910, then they are fined (if the negligence is severe enough). OSHA also investigates the accident to see if changes are needed to regulations in order to protect employees due to new unsafe workplace conditions that are not currently covered under CFR 1910.

Because of the tragedy that happened at our plant that I outlined in the post: “Tragedy Occurs During Power Plant Safety Committee” and after I had met with the OSHA man (Gerald Young) to give him my deposition as discussed in the post last week: “The OSHA Man Cometh“, the plant manager, the assistant plant manager, and I were summoned to the Department of Labor building in Oklahoma City at 10 o’clock on Monday April 18, 1994.

On a side note:

The Department of Labor office in Oklahoma City is just a couple of blocks from the Murrah Federal Building that was bombed exactly one year and one day after our visit on April 19, 1995. Not that there was any connection.

Murrah Building before the bombing in 1995

Murrah Building before the bombing in 1995

I mentioned this because I went to the Murrah building later that day after the meeting with OSHA to meet my brother for lunch. He was working there in the Marine Recruiting office at the time. I think he was a Major then. He changed jobs in June 1994 and moved to Washington D.C. I think. His replacement was killed in the bombing. Here he is Greg today as a full Colonel:

 

Colonel Gregory T. Breazile

Colonel Gregory T. Breazile

End of Side Note:

I was asked by Ron Kilman our plant manager to show up at 9:00 am on Monday in the building south of our main corporate headquarters where we rented office space to meet with the guys from our own Safety Department because they were required to attend the OSHA meeting with us. The Department of Labor building was just across the parking lot and across the street from this building, so we planned to walk from there.

I drove myself because Ron said he had other meetings to attend in Oklahoma City after this meeting was over and he wouldn’t be driving back to the plant. That was why I arranged to have lunch with my brother.

When we met with the Corporate Safety Department Jack Cox told us how we should act during the meeting with OSHA. He didn’t tell us to do anything wrong, like withhold information. He just told us to answer all the questions as truthfully as we could. Don’t offer any information that isn’t directly asked by OSHA. Don’t argue with them if you disagree.

From what I understood from the conversation, we were supposed to be polite, truthful and don’t waste their time going down a rat hole with specifics. I was told that I shouldn’t have to say anything and I should be quiet unless I was asked a specific question. The Safety department would answer all the questions and make any statements that need to be made. I was assured by them that I had nothing to be worried about. I only needed to tell the truth if asked anything.

If you know my personality, I always want to throw in my 2 cents, even when I know it is wasted on the audience. But I took this seriously. We were going to be fined by OSHA for 10 different violations relating to the accident that occurred at the plant. I was there because I was directly in charge of the work that was being done when the accident occurred. It was my deposition that was used to determine about half of the violations.

After we had been briefed on how we should behave during the meeting, as a group we walked from the corporate building over to the Department Of Labor building. One of the safety guys was carrying a few binders. I think one was the company’s Policies and Procedures book (We called it the GP&P).

One of two General Policies and Procedures Binders

One of two General Policies and Procedures Binders

Upon entering the building we went to the 3rd floor where we were asked to wait in a room until OSHA was ready for the meeting. The room had a long table down the middle. As usual, I picked a seat about halfway down on one side. I remember Ron Kilman sitting across from me and about 2 seats down.

Ron Kilman

Ron Kilman

We waited and we waited….. 10:00 came and went, and no one came. We quietly discussed whether this was to make us more nervous by keeping us waiting. Then someone came to the door and apologized. They said that Robert B. Reich, the U.S. Secretary of Labor was in the office that day and that had thrown off everyone’s schedule.

 

Robet B. Reich as he looked in 1994

Robet B. Reich as he looked in 1994

This was quite a coincidence, and we wondered if Robert B. Reich (it seems like you need to put the B in his name in order to say it right) would be attending our meeting. That would sort of throw a whole new importance of me keeping my mouth shut to make sure I wasn’t putting my foot in it.

It seemed as if Mr. Reich had shown up unexpectedly. Or at least on short notice. Almost as if it was a surprise visit to check up on the place. He didn’t end up coming to our meeting. Now that I think about it. This was one day shy of being one year to the date that the Branch Davidians had burned themselves alive in Waco, which was one year and one day before the Murrah Building Bombing three blocks away from where we were sitting that morning. Aren’t coincidences interesting? Just saying…

The Siege of the Branch Davidian Compound outside Waco Texas

The Siege of the Branch Davidian Compound outside Waco Texas

More about why Robert B. Reich was there further below.

Around 10:30 four or five OSHA lawyers (I assume they were lawyers, they talked like they were), came in the room along with the Jerry that had interviewed me a few weeks earlier. They apologized again for being late due to the arrival of their “supreme” boss. They sort of sat at one end of the room and the people from our company was more on the other end. Jerry, the OSHA man, sat next to me in the middle.

I was saying a mantra to myself…. “Don’t say anything… just keep quiet and listen…. don’t say anything… just keep quiet and listen.

The meeting began by the Lady at the end of the table reading off the violations to us. I don’t remember all 10. I remember the most important violations. They mainly centered around the new Confined Space section of 1910. It was 1910.146 that dealt with confined spaces and it had gone into affect April 1, 1993, almost one year before the accident happened. Generally, OSHA gives companies about a year to comply to the new regulations, which kind of put us right on the edge since the accident at our plant had occurred on March 3, 1994.

Because of this, some of the violations were quickly removed. That lowered the number down to 6 violations right away. That was good. No one from our company had said a word yet, and already the OSHA lawyers seemed to be on our side. Then they read off a violation that said that our company had not implemented the required Confined Space Program as outlined in CFR 1910.146.

This was when our Safety Department leader, Jack Cox. said that we would like to contest that violation, because here is the company policy manual that shows that we implemented the Confined Space Program before the end of the year.

One of the OSHA lawyers responded by saying that we had not fully implemented it because we had not trained the employees how to follow the policy. When he made that statement, Ron Kilman contested it. He had a stack of papers that showed that each of the employees at the plant had taken the training and had signed a paper saying they had read the policy. Not only that, but the person that was hurt was not a company employee, they were an outside vendor who was hired by the company to vacuum out the hoppers.

The OSHA man said that just because they took the course did not mean that they were properly trained. Ron asked how do you know they weren’t properly trained. The OSHA man replied, “Because they didn’t follow all the rules. If they had, no one would have been hurt.” — What do you say to that? You can tell we weren’t properly trained because someone was hurt? I suppose that the OSHA rules were written in such a way that if you followed them to the letter, no matter what kind of mechanical failure happens, no one will be hurt. I could see the frustration on Ron’s face.

I was a little amused by Ron’s statement though because Jack Cox had told us to just let them answer all the questions and the first seemingly absurd thing the OSHA man had said, Ron had addressed. — I smiled and said to myself…. “Don’t say anything… just keep quiet and listen…”

One of the violations was that we didn’t have a Confined Space Rescue Team. That was true, we didn’t. There was something in the regulations that said, if a rescue team could arrive in a reasonable time from somewhere else, we didn’t have to have our own rescue team…. Well, we lived 20 miles from the nearest fire station equipped with a Confined Space Rescue team. So, there was that…. That was a legitimate violation.

The next violation was that we didn’t have a rescue plan for every confined space in the plant and each confined space was not clearly marked with a Confined Space sign. This was a legitimate violation.

The next violation was that we hadn’t coordinated efforts between different work groups working in confined spaces together. This was clearly stated in the regulations…. — Oh oh. that was me… I think I was mid-mantra when I heard that one. I had just said to myself… “…anything….just keep….” when I heard this violation. I stopped muttering to myself and immediately forgot that I was supposed to keep quiet.

I said, “But wait a minute. We did coordinate between the three groups that were working in the confined spaces. I was coordinating that. I had posted a sheet on a beam in the middle of the hopper area where the accident occurred where the Brown and Root contractors, and the vacuum truck contractors knew what hoppers were still full and which were safe to enter. I kept the sheet updated each day and so did the vacuum truck workers. They indicated when they had finished vacuuming out a hopper, and I would inspect it from above. When I deemed it safe, the Brown and Root contractors could enter the space. The accident occurred because one of the vacuum truck workers entered the confined space while still cleaning it out and before I had inspected it to make sure it was safe.”

Jerry (the OSHA man that had interviewed me turned and said, “Oh. I didn’t know that. Do you still have that piece of paper?” — Incredibly, I did. About a week after all the vacuuming had finished and all the hoppers were safe, I was walking through the hopper area under the precipitator where I found the paper with the duct tape still on it laying on the grating. Without realizing the importance, I picked it up and brought it back to the janitor closet behind the electric shop that we now used as a “Precipitator Fly Ash Cleanup Room”. I had laid it on a shelf there. The lawyers said, “Send us the original sheet and we will drop this violation.

Here is a copy of the piece of paper. The big black splotch at the top is what duct tape looks like when you make a copy of it.

A copy of The Hopper Tracking Sheet

A copy of The Hopper Tracking Sheet

Well, that worked out good. I had stepped out of line by opening my mouth before I had been asked a question, but everything worked out all right.

The final verdict was that we had four violations. We had to re-train our employees on Confined Spaces. We had to create a Confined Space Rescue Team. We had to put the correct signs on all of the confined spaces and we had to develop rescue plans for all of the confined spaces on the plant grounds. If we did that by August 1, 1994, the four remaining violations which amounted to a $40,000 fine would all be dropped. So, we had our work cut out for us. This not only impacted our plant, but all the Power Plants. The meeting was adjourned.

I already told you what I did after the meeting (I went and ate lunch with my brother). But I haven’t mentioned yet why Robert B. Reich had made a surprise visit to the Department of Labor building in Oklahoma City on April 18.

As it turned out, that morning, Labor Secretary Reich had come to Oklahoma City to hand deliver a $7.5 million fine to Dayton Tire Company. This was due to an accident that had resulted in a man, Bob L. Jullian, being crushed by a piece of machinery in the tire plant. He died a week and a half later at the age of 53.

Robert B. Reich had become so angry when he had studied the case on Friday that he wanted to hand deliver the citation himself the following Monday. That is how we ended up in the building at the same time on Monday, April 18, 1994. We resolved our dispute with OSHA on a congenial note and the citations were dropped on August 1. Dayton, however, was still fighting the conviction 18 years later, eventually paying around a $2 million penalty.

Now you know the rest of the story. Well, almost. Like I said, we had a lot of work to do in the next three and a half months.

Power Plant Impossibilities or Processionary Caterpillars

I can remember four occasions while working at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma when I was told that something was impossible when I was already doing it. I mentioned two of those times in the posts “Toby O’Brien and doing the Impossible” and “Printing Impossible Fast News Post“. One day in May, 1992, I was asked to go to Oklahoma City to take some training. There was a new kind of network that I was going to be responsible to create at our plant. During the training, I learned a little about how to hook up the RS-232 connectors to the Dumb Terminals I was installing throughout the plant. During the training, I also learned a lot about what was impossible.

RS-232 Training Certificate

RS-232 Training Certificate – notice that this is signed by our plant manager Ron Kilman and even the Manager of Power Plant Operations Jim Gist

I mentioned installing all the dumb terminals in an earlier post “Working Smarter with Power Plant Dumb Terminals“. I won’t go into the details about running the cables throughout the plant because I already covered that in the earlier post. What I would rather talk about is the narrow understanding at the time about the possibilities of networking instead of the impossibilities that I was learning by everyone that tried to teach me the laws of physics through common sense.

After I was done installing the terminals in the most obvious places, some people came and asked me if there was a way to install computer ports in some unlikely places. Some were sort of “out-of-the-way”. For instance, Phil Harden asked if I could install a network jack in the middle of the Bowl Mill area so that the Instrument and Controls team could wheel their portable Compaq computer out there and run diagnostics on the equipment while connected to the network.

A Compaq Portable Computer -- and early version of a Laptop

A Compaq Portable Computer — and early version of a Laptop

I also installed a jack in the environmental controls shack out by Unit 1 smoke stack for Tony Mena. Of course, I installed one in the Precipitator Control Room since that’s where I worked a lot, and a computer hooked to the network came in handy more than once. I was always eager to run network cable and hookup computers. It was one of my favorite past times.

One time early in 1993, the A Foreman’s office was going to be renovated. It was going to take about a month or more for the construction, so all the foremen needed somewhere to stay when the office was going to be out of commission. Tom Gibson asked me one day how many computers and printers I could hook up in the conference room. I told him as many as he wanted. For one thing, it was only just down the hall from the Telephone room where the X.25 modems connected to the microwave transmitter on the top of Unit 1 Boiler.

Since this was going to be temporary, I didn’t want to mount a lot of network jacks all over the conference room… well, maybe a few…. The rest, I just strung down the wall from the ceiling. I think all together we had 8 computers and a printer installed in that room.

During this time, we had a new clerk come to the plant. This was a rare occasion because it was rare that anyone ever left the plant. Jana Allenbaugh (later Jana Green) was our new clerk. She arrived on the first day when I had setup all the computers and everyone was moving out of the foremen’s office upstairs for their temporary stay.

I was just hooking up the printer, so I sent a long drawn out warning letter to the printer so that when I hooked it up in the Telephone room, it would start printing it out. I had done this before with Charles Patton… only, I don’t think Charles ever read what printed out…. See the post “Dick Dale and the Power Plant Printer Romance“. This time I printed out a warning to Jana from the printer itself. it told her that as a new employee, she probably needed to know not to trust anyone who wears a yellow hard hat. They were not to be trusted. Because they treated printers with disrespect. Hardly noticing them, and only talking to them when their paper gets stuck. It went on from there, but that was about the gist of it.

Anyway. Up to this point, I haven’t pointed out the areas of impossibilities that I was performing against all advice from those who knew better.

You see in 1992, when I had attended the training course in Oklahoma City to teach me all about the finer aspects of hooking up RS-232 connectors, I was told that this technology had it’s limitations. The most important being the distance from the modem you can install a printer without having some sort of other switch to boost the signal.

A Modular DB25M to RJ45 Adapter

A Modular DB25M to RJ45 Adapter used to connect to the RS-232 cable

I was installing network cable that at the time was called “Cat 1”. That was about the lowest grade wire you could use for data. Actually, it wasn’t even considered fit for data, just voice. Well. I was using it…. all the documentation said that when using Cat1, you had to be within 50 feet from the switch. Well, in a plant where the control room was a good 100 yards from the telephone room, by the time you went up and down through ceiling, conduits, cable trays and wall, by the time the cable made it to the control room, it was at least 500 feet.

When running cable out to the shack by the smokestack I was able to use Cat 2 cable. This allowed a network cable to be around 500 feet long. When I ran this cable, it turned out to be longer than 1500 feet long. At least three times longer than the possible amount to run a network cable using this type of cable…. yet, I ran it, and Tony used it.

I know that if someone had asked Russell downtown at the Corporate Headquarters IT department, he would have said that this was as impossible as printing out the Fast News article on an IBM printer that I had printed out downtown. The truth was that there was a little data integrity lost by running a cable farther than possible by the laws of physics, but the system could easily handle the bad packets by resending them. The user never noticed that the connection was a little slower. No one ever complained that they couldn’t connect to the network.

A year after I had taken the initial training in hooking up network equipment, we learned all about the Quality process and how to think outside the box. See, “Power Plant Men have a Chance to Show Their Quality“. Between my father telling me that there is no word “Can’t” and Bob Kennedy saying that “I have a tool for that”, I had come to the conclusion that just about anything that needs to be done can be done. We just have to figure out how.

After we had taken the classes to learn about the quality process, one day I went to Ron Kilman’s office and I gave him a piece of paper. On it was a story about Processionary Caterpillars. It was significant, I thought, because it demonstrates what happens when people refuse to thing “outside the box”. The story goes like this:

Processionary Caterpillars feed upon pine needles. They move through the trees in a long procession, one leading and the others following – each with his eyes half closed and his head snugly fitted against the rear extremity of his predecessor.

Jean-Henri Fabre, the great French naturalist, after patiently experimenting with a group of the caterpillars, finally enticed them to the rim of a large flower pot. He succeeded in getting the first one connected up with the last one, thus forming a complete circle, which started moving around in a a procession, with neither a beginning nor end.

The naturalist expected that after a while they would catch on to the joke, get tired of their useless march and start off in some new direction. But not so….

Through sheer force of habit, the living, creeping circle kept moving around the rim of the pot – around and around, keeping the same relentless pace for seven days and seven nights – and would doubtless have continued longer had it not been for sheer exhaustion and ultimate starvation.

Incidentally, an ample supply of food was close at hand and plainly visible, but it was outside the range of the circle so they continued along the beaten path.

They were following instinct – habit – custom – tradition – precedent – past experience – standard practice – or whatever you may choose to call it, but they were following it blindly.

They mistook activity for accomplishment. They meant well – but went no place.

Processionary Caterpillars travelling in a circle

Processionary Caterpillars travelling in a circle

This post may seem like I am doing some bragging about my ability to think outside the box. My personality may be more apt to brag about my accomplishments than to recognize that everything I do and know is a gift from God. But in this case there is more to it than that. You see, even though my grandfather who was a sharecropper who worked his entire life farming land that didn’t belong to him, he was able to invent equipment to make his life easier. He could look at something in a catalog and build it…. I didn’t inherit this gene. I had to learn this way of thinking.

I used to get in arguments all the time at the power plant because I believed that I could do things that were equivalent to walking on water. It drove the engineers mad… Actually, they were mad all right, but just at me… .not in their minds…. Why was I so sure? I had been trained by the best.

If you have been reading my blog for the past two and a half years, you will know what I’m talking about…. I was trained by the best to think outside the box. To Power Plant Men, the Quality process was not a way to find out how to come up with quality ideas…. it was just a way to demonstrate what they already knew in a way where the Engineers and management could understand the benefit.

Here are some of the Power Plant Men that taught me the most about thinking outside the box:

Larry Riley, who taught me that you really can play music by the way you operate a backhoe.

Ken Conrad, who taught me that no matter how complicated a task, by breaking it down into simple steps, it is as simple as “Sweet Pea”.

Jim Heflin, who taught me that when all else fails, shake your head and say to yourself… “Well…. there it is…. let’s try that again a different way….”

Andy Tubbs who taught me that if you think you’re so smart that you don’t need to learn anymore, then it’s time you take out the blueprints and study it some more.

Floyd Coburn taught me that when it really looks hopeless, then prayer is always the best option.

Ed Shiever taught me that when you are extremely kind to your fellow man, when things begin to fail you, everyone will come to your aid.

Earl Frazier taught me that your memories will keep you loving those important to you long past the time when those people are lovable.

Kent Cowley taught me that you can still be a gentleman even when you are a boiler rat.

Mike Crisp taught me to look to the heavens in order to really understand the metal being shaped into a part by a lathe.

Bill Thomas taught me that loyalty to your fellow Power Plant Men comes from within your own heart, and not the actions of others.

Timothy Crain taught me that everything you do is for your family, no matter what situation they may find themselves.

Dale Mitchell taught me that personal integrity allows you to open your heart to even the most difficult people.

Juliene Alley taught me that one person can be everyone’s Mother when they are pure in heart.

Jerry Dale taught me that the more complicated the puzzle, the more humor will unravel it.

Bob Rowe taught me that simplicity makes more sense than trying to make things complicated.

I have listed a few (and only a few) of the Power Plant Men that as an accumulation, taught me to think outside the small box that I was in when I initially arrived at the Power Plant in 1979 when I first arrived as a Power Plant Summer Help until 2001 when I left to begin a new career as an IT professional (ouch… what a run-on sentence). This allowed me to think outside the box. I never would have made it to that position if it hadn’t been for the wonderful men and women who led me by the hand… sometimes kicking and screaming to the lid of the box so that I could peer outside and imagine other possibilities.

Comments from the previous post

    1. Dan Antion September 6, 2014

      I too was led into IT by others. It was a field that was new and expanding, and a better fit for some people. Nice post. Glad to have you in our box.

    1. Dave Tarver September 6, 2014

      Kev, as you know we had just an incredible , amazing group of talent at the plant , and for the most part a group that to along with each other and looked out for each other too.
      I still think about all those guys and all that collective intelligence among them, truly truly a blessing.

    1. Ron Kilman September 6, 2014

      Facet: a part or element of something.

      God is “omni-facetted” (new word) = He has infinite facets. Since each person is His unique creation, we each are born with our own unique manifestation of a part of God. You have learned to look for, recognize, and honor that in people. I think this is your best post yet.

  1. Monty Hansen November 19, 2014

    I dub thee “True Powerplant Man”

 

Power Plant Grows Up in Smoke

Originally posted September 13, 2014.

I chalked it up to being a trouble maker when someone approached me in the electric shop one day to ask me if I would be an “Advocate of Change”. I figured this person asked me either because he thought I couldn’t resist fighting for a cause, or because he thought he might enjoy watching me make a fool out of myself. Either way, I accepted the challenge.

Last night I was watching TV with my son. We decided to watch a show where “If we weren’t careful, we might learn something.” It was a cartoon from my childhood called “Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids”. The episode was called “Smoke gets in your Hair”. The main theme was about the health hazards from smoking cigarettes. Nothing like Educational TV on a Friday Night. I told my son I had a Power Plant Story about that…

Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids

Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids

The coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma had recently made a change to the “Smoking Policy” at the power plant. New rules went in place that restricted smoking in the office areas. Specifically, it made any area that had a lower ceiling and was enclosed off limit to smokers.

This may seem like a normal restriction today, but this was January, 1990. Before that, smoking in an office was not out of the ordinary. In fact, in the A foreman’s office there was such a stink about not allowing smoking that a compromise was reached (at least for a while) where probes were mounted on the ceiling that was supposed to clean the smoke out of the air by ionizing the particles, causing them to stick to the walls and ceiling, and floor, and…. well… and you…

Smoke Ionizer

Smoke Ionizer

This became evident a few months later when the walls began turning darker and the ceiling tiles turned from white to a smoky shade of gray.

The company offered smoking cessation classes for anyone who wanted to quit smoking. I think as a whole, our medical insurance rates went down if we took these measures. Back then, it was common to have an ashtray in every office and on the break room tables. It seems rather odd now to think about it after living in an “anti-smoking” culture for the past 25 years.

A few years earlier there was an electrician that had tried to make the electric shop a No Smoking area. At that time, there were 5 electricians that smoked as well as our A foreman Bill Bennett, who often came to the electric shop for his smoke break. Bill Bennett had made it clear then that the electric shop was going to remain a smoking area. Just not in the office or the lab.

Times had changed by 1991. Three smokers had retired and Diana Brien had just declared that her New Year’s resolution was that this time she was going to give up smoking for good. She had tried that a few times before, but with the encouragement from Bill, the first time a stressful situation came around, she would start back up again.

I think my fellow electrician had seen that this was the perfect opportunity to try again to make the electric shop a “No Smoking” area. With Dee giving up cigarettes, this left only Mike Rose as the only smoker in the electric shop. — Well… and Bill Bennett, but technically his office was upstairs in the main office area.

Mike Rose was not just a smoker. He was an avid smoker. When I was watching Fat Albert, there was a father of one of the characters that was a smoker. He coughed a lot, and at one point, went on a coughing jag. When I saw that, I turned to my son, and I said, “That’s when Mike Rose would reach for a cigarette.”

Mike Rose. A fair plant electrician, but a great family man!

Mike Rose

I used to marvel at how after having a coughing jag, barely able to catch his breath, the first thing Mike Rose would do while leaning against the counter was reach in his vest pocket and pull out a pack of cigarettes and quickly light up. — All that stress from coughing…

So, with Dee on the wagon, and only Mike on the verge of keeling over any moment from…. well…. it wasn’t only smoking that made Mike teeter… I approached Bill Bennett and told him that I thought that it was time that we made the electric shop a “No Smoking” area. Bill replied right back that it would be over his dead body before the electric shop before the electric shop would be a “No Smoking” area.

I pointed out that Dee had just decided to quit smoking and that left only Mike Rose as a smoker in the shop. Bill said, it still wouldn’t be fair to the smokers in the shop. I had polled the electricians, and there were at least 5 people would like the shop to be smoke-free. So, with only one smoker, and 5 that would rather not have smoking, what was more fair?

Bill refused to give in, so I told him I would take it to Tom Gibson, our Electrical Supervisor (Bill’s boss). Bill said, “Ok, but I’m not going to bend on this one.” Bill was a chain smoker, and I didn’t really expect him to agree, but this was only the first step.

I had found in the past that in dealing with Tom Gibson, it is best to have some facts in your back pocket. It didn’t do any good to just go up there and whine about something. So, I signed up with a group called “Oklahoma Smoke-Free Coalition”.

Smoke Free Oklahoma Button

Smoke Free Oklahoma Button

I called them (this was before the World Wide Web had become popular) and asked them if they could send me some information about the problems with second-hand smoke. I told them what I was trying to do, and they said they would send me some pamphlets about the hazards of smoking with statistics. I was surprised a week later when I received, not only a few pamphlets but a large tube with anti-smoking posters. I hung one up in the electric shop and would change it out each week.

One poster showed the lungs of a healthy person, then the lungs of a smoker, then the lungs of someone who had quit smoking for 10 years, to show that if you gave up smoking and lived long enough, you could clear yourself up after a while. I had 25 posters, so, I thought I could put one up a week for 6 months.

Signing up with the Oklahoma Smoke Free Coalition was a strange step for me. It gave me a strange feeling because I am normally a very conservative person who doesn’t believe in restricting individual rights whenever feasible. I believe that people should have the right to smoke cigarettes, even though I don’t like it when people smoke around me.

The problem I have with smoking is that, it’s not just an individual smoking their own cigarette. When someone smokes in a room, they are imposing their smoke on everyone else. I believe in the individual having the right to breathe smoke free air and they shouldn’t have to leave a room just because someone else comes in there with a lit cigarette.

I understood that a lot of the people that are active in groups like “Oklahoma Smoke-Free Coalition” have a liberal agenda to curb individual rights in a large range of areas. So, I felt I was straddling a fence that made me uneasy. I resolved to keep this effort focused on one thing…. making the electric shop a smoke free area.

Armed with some statistics about the hazards of breathing second hand smoke, I went to Tom Gibson’s office to make my stand… (well, to ask the question anyway). I told Tom about the situation in the electric shop. I explained that Mike Rose was the only “current” smoker in the shop and I listed the names of the people in the shop that would rather have a smoke free shop.

I told him that even though we had a high ceiling, which had made our shop exempt from the “Smoke Free” office policy, we still felt as if we were in an enclosed room. The air supply for the office and lab was in the shop, and when people smoked in the shop, the smoke ended up in the office area. I mentioned some statistics about how second hand smoke could be dangerous. I also told him I was prepared to take this all the way to Corporate Headquarters if necessary.

To my surprise, Tom didn’t push back. I told him that I had talked to Bill and that he refused to let the shop be smoke free. So, Tom said that he would talk to Bill about it. — Not wanting to lose any time, I asked Tom if we could order some No Smoking signs to put on the doors in the shop. He agreed.

Signs placed on the electric shop doors

Signs placed on the electric shop doors

I was in a hurry to get this done because I knew that any day now, Dee would be back to smoking again, and then I would lose all the leverage I had with only having one smoker in the shop. Even Dee had said that she would support a smoke free shop if that’s what we wanted. So, it really came down to Mike and Bill.

More than 20 years later, Oklahoma is still fighting the smoking fight. Mary Fallin, the Governor of the State, has said that she supports cities and towns crafting their own anti-smoking laws. Coming from a Conservative Governor, I feel like I was in good company when fighting for the shop to become smoke free.

I know a few people at the plant were upset with me for restricting their right to smoke in the electric shop. Well, they knew I was a troublemaker when they hired me…

Now it seems like the culture in the United States has shifted so that we recognize the rights of individuals are actually impaired by someone smoking in your face. Sometimes I can just pass a smoker walking down the side walk, and my clothes smell like cigarette smoke the rest of the day.

I think that either noses become more aware of cigarette smoke when you don’t breathe it every day, or the cigarette companies put something in the cigarette to make the smell stronger than before. Today, I can sit in my car with my windows up, and if a car is in front or alongside me at an intersection while we are waiting for the light to change, I can smell the cigarette being smoked in another car.

It’s not just me, my son can smell it too. We can usually smell the cigarette before we see the person smoking it. One of us will say…. “Someone’s smoking.” And we’ll whip our heads around looking for the car. I guess our noses are more sensitive these days.

I know this phenomenon hasn’t reached Europe like it has in the United States. When visiting there, it is like being back in the 1970’s here with people standing around smoking on the street corners, and in the restaurants.

On a side note… I have a story about my mom….

My mom would smoke cigarettes some times when I was growing up. She would do that when she was on a diet. So, on occasion, my brother and I would find a pack of cigarettes lying around.

We had purchased a small metal container of “Cigarette Loads”.

Cigarette Loads

Cigarette Loads

These are small explosives you stick down in the end of a cigarette. When the flame reaches the load, it explodes, destroying the end of the cigarette. So, we put a Load in one of our mom’s cigarettes and put it back in the pack of cigarettes.

Well, my mom didn’t smoke very often, so I was confused a couple of months later when my mom picked me up from High School one day and I found that I was in trouble. My mom’s cigarette had blown up in her face and she wasn’t too happy about it.

End of that side story…. time for one more….

I have always bragged about never smoking a cigarette in my life…. but the truth is that one time I tried to smoke a cigarette… here is what happened….

I was in the 9th grade, and I had cooked the steaks for dinner on the grill in the backyard that evening…. After dinner I went for a walk in the weeds behind my house, which was one of the favorite things I enjoyed doing while growing up.

I ended up down the road from our house where a new church was being built. I walked around the outside of the brick building looking in the windows that were all open as the glass hadn’t been installed yet….

While looking through one window, I noticed a pack of cigarettes left by a construction hand laying on the window sill. I picked it up and there was one cigarette still in the package. I realized I had a book of matches in my pocket that I had used to light the charcoal grill that evening… No one was around, and no one could see me because there were no houses around behind the church where I was standing, so I thought…. “I’ll smoke this one cigarette just to see what it’s like.”

So, I put the cigarette in my mouth, and lit the match. At that very moment, out of nowhere, it began to rain. The rain immediately soaked the cigarette and put out the match. I threw them both on the ground as if they had burned my hand and walked quickly away from the church knowing full well what had just happened. The rain stopped just as suddenly as it began. I said out loud, “I received your message God. I’m not going to try that again!” I only needed that kick in pants once.

Comments from the Original post:

  1. lisalabelle2014 September 13, 2014

    Great post, very informative, but I just can’t get the ‘coal-fired power plant non smoking policy’ out of my head. Isn’t that like an oxymoron?

     

    bmj2k September 13, 2014

    After seeing the Smoke-Free Coalition button, the state will always be “Klahoma” to me

  2. Garfield Hug September 14, 2014

    Good write up! 2nd hand smoke is just as lethal. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Emily Rose Lewis September 15, 2014

    Good writing. Interesting article. I grew up with a chain smoking step dad and ended up smoking for the first time at 13. I continued smoking until I was 24. I would hide my smoking from my son though and did quit while pregnant. When he was four he caught me smoking and I explained it was bad and could make you sick and he looked at me very concerned and like I was slightly crazy and asked me to please stop so I wouldn’t hurt myself. I quit not to long after that.

  4. John Robinson September 15, 2014

    A No-Smoking policy at a coal-powered plant IS interesting. Here in Ohio most of our electricity comes from coal-powered plants, but some of them are in danger of closing because of the EPA’s stricter carbon-emission rules.

  5. wisediscerner September 25, 2014

    I enjoyed your story…I have my own story to tell about the Lord delivering me from smoking, if you care to read it… I tell about it in my Journal, “Praying To The Lord”. May God bless you today!

Power Plant Conspiracy Theory

Originally posted September 20, 2014.

I remember the moment when it dawned on me that I may be witnessing an incredible Coal-fired Power Plant Conspiracy!  I had just walked into the Control Room one morning in 1990 at the plant in North Central Oklahoma and saw the Shift Supervisor Jack Maloy and Merl Wright in a state of high concentration.

I always knew something was up when Jack Maloy was standing behind the large blue monitors near the Unit 1 Main Electric Board watching the big picture while the Control Room Operator Merl Wright was at the Main Control Panel turning knobs, tapping indicators to make sure they had the correct readings, twisting switches, holding them until red lights turned green…

I love this picture!

I love this picture! — not our plant but may be part of the conspiracy

Where had I seen this before?  Something was telling me that everything wasn’t as it seemed.  Sure… there was an emergency going on.  There was no doubt about that.  I knew that between Jack Maloy and Merl Wright, the current problem of the main boiler drum losing water was quickly going to be solved.  I knew that Oklahoma City wasn’t going to experience any blackouts that day.  This was a Cracker Jack team!  But I couldn’t help thinking I had seen this somewhere before, and it was gnawing at my common sense.

Here is a picture of Jack Maloy’s team at the time:

Helen Robinson is third from the left in the back row.

Jack Maloy is standing on the far right with the vertically striped shirt (like bars in a jail) directly behind Merl Wright kneeling before him – Coincidence?  I think not.

I backed off in a corner to observe the situation while a crowd of operators began to grow to watch the master Shift Supervisor and his faithful Control Room Operator divert a disaster.  Merl picked up the walkie talkie from the desk and called Larry Tapp ( Larry is the man in the light blue shirt in the front row in the middle.  He’s the only one in the front row that is actually standing, while the rest are down on their knees while the picture is being taken).

Larry was on the boiler opening and closing valves.  John Belusko, the Unit Supervisor was out there with him.  I can’t tell you what magic they were performing, since I think that’s top secret.  I figured that, because the operators seemed to be talking in code.  Merl would key the microphone on the walkie talkie and say something like, “Larry, 45”.  Larry would reply with something like “Quarter Turn”.  “Position?”, “18 as far as I can tell”.

A Motorola Walkie Talkie like this

A Motorola Walkie Talkie like this

I translated the coded words to say:  “….crawling under the path of the boom, whipped hold of a rope, secured one end to the bulwarks and then flinging the other like a lasso, caught it around the boom as it swept over his head, and at the next jerk, the spar was that way trapped and all was safe.”  (Something I had read in Moby Dick, by Herman Melville).

Jack paced back and forth behind the counter with the monitors.  Then he stopped and read the paper that was streaming out of the alarm printer as it continued humming as the paper piled up on the floor in front of him.  Jack was a heavy smoker, and I could tell that right then he would rather be standing out on the T-G floor having a smoke at that moment.  Before cigarettes were banned in the control room, Jack would have been pointing at that board with the cigarette.

When the water level began rising in the Boiler Drum, I could see the relieve on everyone’s face.  I supposed it meant that a major catastrophe had been avoided due to the intricate knowledge that each operator possessed and their ability to quickly respond to any situation.  This made the uneasy feeling I was having even worse.  I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had seen this before.  Just like Deja Vu.

It wasn’t till about a week later when my mom asked me if I knew someone at work named Jack Maloy.  She had been talking to a friend of hers from Church named Louise and she mentioned that her husband worked at the Power Plant north of town.  I replied by saying that I knew Jack Maloy well.  He is a Shift Supervisor.  She said that his wife Louise told her that Jack was a real nice person, but she wished that he would go to Church more.  She hoped he would come around to that some day.

Then my mom mentioned something that brought back that feeling of uneasiness again.  She said that the Maloys had moved to Oklahoma in 1979 from California.  I thought that was odd that Jack had only arrived in Oklahoma in 1979, as he was a Shift Supervisor for as long as I could remember.  Maybe even as far back as 1979 when I first worked at the plant as a summer help.

In that case, he would have been hired as a Shift Supervisor straight from California. — That seemed odd, since the majority of Shift Supervisors had worked their way up from Auxiliary Operator to Control Room Operator to Unit Supervisor, then finally to Shift Supervisor.  Why would Jack be hired fresh from California?  And how did Jack know so much about being a Shift Supervisor at our plant so quickly?

Then it dawned on me.  You see…. It all went back to a lunch break about a year earlier when Charles Foster, an Electric Foreman and I were eating lunch in the Electric Shop office.  When we didn’t know what to talk about, our favorite past time was to talk about movies and TV shows we had watched.  We would describe the movie in detail to each other.  On this particular day, Charles was doing the talking, and he was telling me about a movie that had to do with a Power Plant in California (yeah.  California).

Charles Foster

Charles Foster

As Charles described the story, he told me that there was this Shift Supervisor named Jack (yeah… like our Shift Supervisor… Jack Maloy), and he was such a good Shift Supervisor that he could tell that there was something wrong with the Boiler Feed Pumps just by the way the coffee in his coffee cup would vibrate.  Yeah.  He was that good.

Charles went on to tell me about how at one part of the movie the water level was dropping in a tank and it was imperative that they raise the water level or some big disaster was going to happen. — Now you see where I’m going with this?  Yeah.  Sounds familiar doesn’t it?  At that time, the incident in the Control Room hadn’t happened yet with Jack Maloy.

The movie sounded interesting so, when I had the opportunity, we rented the VHS tape from the video store and I watched it.  Sure enough.  This is what I saw….

Here is Jack the Shift Supervisor in California working with his Control Room operator trying to divert a disaster

Here is Jack the Shift Supervisor in California working with his Control Room operator trying to divert a disaster

Here is Jack Maloy and Merl Wright from the team picture above:

Jack Maloy and Merl Wright

Jack Maloy and Merl Wright

Very similar don’t you think?  Two Shift Supervisors named Jack from California with the exact same hairstyle.  Two Control Room Operators that look like Wilford Brimley.  Coincidence?

Wilford Brimley in the movie playing the same job as Merl Wright

Wilford Brimley in the movie playing the same job as Merl Wright

Even Wilford Brimley’s hairline is the same as Merl Wright’s hairline!

For those of you who don’t know yet.  The name of the movie is:  The China Syndrome.  It is about a nuclear Power Plant that has a near meltdown:

The China Syndrome

The China Syndrome

Need more?  Ok.  — hey this is fun…..  So…. This movie came out in 1979.  The same year that Jack Maloy shows up in Oklahoma from California.  Obviously an experienced Power Plant Shift Supervisor.  Merl Wright went to work 10 months earlier in 1978 at an older power plant just down the road (The old Osage plant), and then shortly after, was transferred to the same plant with Jack Maloy, only to end up working for Jack.

Need more?  The China Syndrome Movie came out on March 16, 1979.  Jack Maloy began working at the Coal-Fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma February 26, 1979, just two and a half weeks earlier.

I mentioned this coincidence to Charles Foster one day, but as far as I know, I never mentioned it again to anyone else… Maybe Scott Hubbard, since he was my best friend as well…

Scott Hubbard

Scott Hubbard – See how he smiled when I told him?

So, here are my thoughts about this….

What if Jack Maloy was the Shift Supervisor being portrayed in the movie “The China Syndrome”?  He needed to move out of California just before the movie came out just in case someone found out his true identity.  Being a Shift Supervisor at a Nuclear Power Plant, he would surely be in high demand at any Electric Company.  Our particular Power Plant was in an out-of-the-way location.  Sort of like a “witness protection program”.

I don’t know Merl’s earlier background, so I can still think that he moved to Oklahoma from California and began working for the Electric Company on April 24, 1978 just two weeks before I moved to Oklahoma from Columbia, Missouri.  Since I don’t know any better, I can continue thinking this.  It makes it more fun that way. — Of course, Merl, who may on occasion read this blog, may correct me in the comment section below…

So, what was it that I was experiencing that morning when I walked in the control room?  I mean… What was I “really” experiencing?  If, suppose, Jack and Merl really are the two that were in the control room when the “China Syndrome” almost occurred?  Was it just an innocent crisis where the water level somehow decided to drop to a dangerously low level all by itself because of a faulty valve that was supposed to be closed, but was really open?

Or…

Was Jack and Merl trying to relive the excitement they had felt years earlier when they worked in a nuclear plant and they almost melted a hole all the way from there to China?  Was this what experienced bored Power Plant Heroes do during downtime?  I suppose it’s possible.  It could have been a drill drummed up to test the acuity of the operators.  To keep them on their toes.  All “Shipshape and Bristol Fashion” just like on the Pequod in Moby Dick.

Something to think about.

Today Merl still lives in Ponca City, Oklahoma.  Jack Maloy has moved to Cape Carol, Florida with his wife Louise.  I suppose now that he has more time on his hand, hopefully he has given up smoking and is now making his wife happy by attending Church regularly.  We can only hope he is at peace, on the opposite side of the United States from California so he doesn’t accidentally run into his old cohorts.

We are all glad that on his way to Florida from California that Jack decided to stop for 25 or so years in Oklahoma to Supervise the Coal-fired Power Plant out in the middle of the countryside….  As Charles Champlin from the Los Angeles Times said of the movie “The China Syndrome”  — “Stunning and Skillfully Executed!”  — Yeah.  That describes Merl and Jack.  Either way… Conspiracy or not.  These two men are my heroes!

I wish Merl and Jack the best rest of their lives!

Comments from the original post:  (one of my most commented posts)

  1. Fred September 20, 2014

    I remember in the 1980’s when someone had taken one of the spare annunciator windows out and placed a hand written paper in it that said ” China Syndrome”. It was there for a while.

    1. Plant Electrician September 20, 2014

      Thanks Fred for reminding me of that.  Um… I didn’t do it!

  2. Dave Tarver September 20, 2014

    Jack was from Byng, Oklahoma- a Byng graduate he had attended Okmulgee Tech as well- He worked at Barstow, CA awhile at a plant there- and there training was far different than ours is who he learned so much- he even did some lineman training for them as well as other stuff- I don’t know all his capacity while he was there- he had a lot of experience with combined cycle unit they had but, I know one thing he was a heck of an operator- seen him do some things know one else could ever do- he had the best power plant knowledge of any of the operators ever other than Joe , he, Joe Gallahar, and Padgett were all really good ones. learned a lot from everyone.

  3. sacredhandscoven September 21, 2014

    LOL You hooked me in early on this one, but as soon as you said “by the way the coffee in his coffee cup would vibrate” I knew which track we were on an enjoyed the rest of the ride. Reminded me of the movie and also the very real stress of Three Mile Island. Funny how your “conspiracy theory” brought those feelings of terror back more than 35 years after I was sitting glued to the TV every day when I came home from high school!

  4. Ron Kilman September 22, 2014

    Great story! And 2 great men. Thanks for the memories.

  5. spill71 September 23, 2014

    awesome conspiracy story…maybe Jack knew just how to mess with the system, just so he could save it, all in hopes that they would make another movie out of his job.
    So anyway, I really enjoyed that. Thanks for sharing.

  6. chriskeen September 29, 2014

    We got The China Syndrome from the library based on this post! Good movie, it does seem very coincidental the way Jack just sort of appeared at your plant right before the movie came out. I love a good conspiracy theory 😉

  7. dweezer19 September 30, 2014

    God, I must be old. China Syndrome came to mind as soon as you said near tragedy in California plant! I saw this in the theater fresh out if high school. Jane and Jack were incredible by the way. Interesting theories. Anything is possible. And probable. Nice post.

  1. bmackela October 22, 2014

    Good post. Did you ever talk to Jack about California?

    1. Plant Electrician October 22, 2014

      No. I didn’t want to open that can of worms. 🙂