Originally posted November 9, 2013:
One of the things I loved the most about being an electrician at the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma was that I spent a good deal of time troubleshooting and fixing Electronic Circuit boards. My Mentor Bill Rivers had taught me the fine art of repairing precipitator circuit boards to the point where I was very comfortable taking a board with burned out circuits and rebuilding it piece at a time until it worked well enough to be put back into service. There is something comforting about fixing electronic circuit boards.
I had even built a little test box out of a proximity switch on a Gaitronics phone receiver hook where I could plug a large Operational Amplifier into it and turn a little knob to test it, where it would light up little red LEDs. Like I said. It was really fun.
I had told my friend from High School, Jesse Cheng, who was now a doctor just graduating from Harvard with his Masters in Public Health how much fun I was having. Even though he was a medical doctor with an Engineering degree from Yale, he wished that he could do what I was doing. He even applied for an Engineering job at our plant so that he could at least come down to the electric shop where I would let him help me troubleshoot and repair all kinds of electronic circuit boards.
Unfortunately, he was overqualified for the job. Louise Gates asked me about him, since he had listed me as a reference on the job application. I explained to her that even though he was a Medical Doctor, what he really wanted to do was work in a power plant with the great bunch of people I had told him about. He would easily have given up his career to be blessed by the presence of such great Power Plant Men.
I will tell a side story about my Friend Jesse, before I proceed with the painful loss of those things that Power Plant Men love….
I met Jesse when I was a sophomore in High School. He was the student body president when I arrived at Rockbridge High School in Columbia, Missouri. We immediately became friends when we met. We both enjoyed the same things. The main thing was playing games, or solving puzzles.
I quickly learned that Jesse loved playing all kinds of games. So, when I would go over to his house, we would usually go down in the basement where he had a new game waiting for me. We would sit down there and play games until his mother would call us for dinner.
One day my brother came with me and we went down in the basement to play the game of Risk.
Jesse was beating us so badly that after the 3rd move, we joined forces only to have Jesse wipe us off of the map on the 4th turn. Then his mother called us for dinner.
Jesse’s mother was a small Chinese lady with a meek voice. When Jesse had guests over, she would cook his favorite meal. Chili. So, when it was time for dinner, she would call down to us from the top of the basement stairs, “Jesse! Come get your Chili!” I had heard that call to action many times, and I had obediently left whatever we were playing to go eat supper.
After we had finished dinner and talked with Jesse for a while, my brother and I left to go home. On the way home my brother started to chuckle. I asked him why, and he responded that he could still hear Jesse’s mother calling “Jesse! Come get your Chili!” in his head. It sounded funny to hear the small Asian voice calling to Jesse to come get his Chili.
So, that became a catch phrase for when you wanted to holler at someone, but didn’t have anything particular to say. We would just yell out, “Jesse! Come get your Chili!!” It always brought a smile to the faces of anyone who knew the story, and a confused look on the faces of any bystanders.
When I went to Columbia, Missouri to the University of Missouri, I told this story to the people that lived around me in Mark Twain Dormitory. I would smile when I would be heading back to the dorm after class and someone from a block away would spy me from their dorm window and would yell at the top of their lungs, “Jesse! Come get your Chili!!!”
Jesse was in town one day shortly after the Christmas break and came to visit me in the dorm. He walked off the elevator looking for the room where I lived. The Resident Assistant saw him and immediately asked him, “Are you Jesse Cheng?” When he replied that he was, he said, “Kevin is in Room 303.” When I answered the door, Jesse said he couldn’t figure out how everyone on the floor seemed to know who he was. I told him that “Everyone knows you Jesse! You’re my friend!”
So, there were times when I was at the plant where a Power Plant Man (or Woman) would yell to me, “Jesse! Come get your Chili!” No one can say that without a big smile on their face, and on mine. It’s poetry to my ears. Jesse’s mother forever lives on in our memories.
End of Side Story….
So, why am I talking about troubleshooting electronic circuit boards in a post about Power Plant Men losing the things they love most? Well… because all good things had to come to an end. Electronic circuit boards included.
When I went to search for a picture of an electronic circuit board on Google Images, I had to page down a couple of times before I found a partial picture of a circuit board that had capacitors, resistors and diodes on it. They just aren’t used much anymore. Everything has gone digital. Instead of troubleshooting electronic parts, you diagnose signals being sent between various processors and memory chips. It just isn’t quite the same.
So, lucky for Jesse that he wasn’t hired at our plant. By the time he would have showed up, we were no longer changing out transistors. We were programming chips. Now the circuit boards looked more like this:
Other things in the electric shop were taken away or became “unused” that I used to really enjoy using. We had a heat gun mounted on the wall where we would heat up bearings in order to put them on the shaft of the motor. We would stand there monitoring the bearing to see if it was hot enough… We would spit on our finger and drip the spit on the bearing. When the spit would sizzle, we knew the bearing was hot enough.
There was something comforting about the smell of hot grease from the bearing mixed with the smell of smoldering spit… Also in the winter, it felt good to warm yourself around the heat gun while you waited for the bearing to heat up.
Well. Eventually, we no longer used the heat gun. We had a fancier bearing heater that looked like a strange aluminum cone hat.
The bearing heater heated the bearing more uniformly, and we could use a special temperature pencil that would melt when the bearing reached the right temperature. No more boiling bearing grease smell, and no smoldering spit. Oh well….
When the bearing was the right temperature, we had a pair of large white Asbestos Gloves that we would wear to pick up the bearing and slap it onto the shaft of the motor. The pair of Asbestos gloves in our shop came from the old Osage Plant. They were made from genuine Asbestos. I suppose a white cloud of Asbestos dust would fly up in your face if you were overly moved by the song on the radio in the shop and felt a sudden urge to clap.
Well… You can imagine what happened to our Asbestos gloves. Those gloves that you knew were going to keep your hands from being burned as you picked up the scalding hot bearing. You never had to worry about being burned…. but…. oh well… They were taken away. Not deemed safe for use by humans.
In the shop when before and after we took apart a motor, we performed a test on the motor called, “Meggering the motor”. That is, we clipped a megger to the motor leads and one to the motor case and cranked a hand crank on the side of the Megger to generate 1,000 volts to see if the insulation in the motor was still good.
Meggers are much like an old telephone from way back, where you would turn a crank to call the operator. Or you could take it fishing with you and shock the fish in the water to make them float to the surface. But…. I wouldn’t know about that. I just heard stories from other Power Plant Men about it.
A manual crank megger was similar….
Alas…. After a while, a Meggar with a crank became a thing of the past, as did our Simpson Volt-Ohm Meter:
It wasn’t only electric shop equipment that the Power Plant Men held dear that kept disappearing. We used to wear safety belts at the plant to keep us from falling off of high places. Would you believe that these Safety Belts were taken away from the Power Plant Men as well?
I explained how the electronic circuit boards were replaced with digital cards. I also explained how the heat gun was replaced with a nifty new bearing heater, which was also almost made obsolete by another invention called an Induction heater.
This heater didn’t even get hot. The bearing would heat up by a magnetic field on the bar that would cause an electric current to build up around the bearing, causing it to heat up almost by magic.
The Asbestos Gloves were replaced with well padded Kevlar Gloves:
They worked just as well as the asbestos gloves without the Mesothelioma thrown in as a bonus.
As for the volt-ohm meters. Each electrician was eventually issued their own new Fluke Volt-Ohm Meter. I dare say. It was a step up from the old Simpson meter. A lot safer also:
And the Safety belt? Well… It turns out that if someone were to fall and be hanging from a safety belt, the injury caused by just dangling for any length of time on a safety belt while waiting to be rescued can be devastating to the human body. So, the belts were removed, and Power Plant Men everywhere were issued new and improved Safety Harnesses.
So… you see… What it boils down to is this…. Power Plant Men generally love their jobs. Real Power Plant Men I mean. So, whenever there is change, they feel the pain of loss. They lose those things they hold dear. Yeah. They know that whatever is replacing the things they are losing will most likely be a new and improved version of what they already had. I think it’s the nostalgia of how things used to be that they miss the most.
So. That is why Power Plant Men always seem to lose the things they love the most. Because they love doing what they do, and things are always changing. Power plant Men just change right along with it. But sometimes it hurts a little
Originally posted November 30, 2013:
While I worked as a janitor at the coal-fired power plant in North Central Oklahoma the subject came up one Monday morning about the normal career path that janitors could take. We had already been told that the only place a janitor could advance to was the labor crew. We had also been told that there was a company policy that came down from Oklahoma City that only allowed janitors to move to the labor crew before they could move on to another job like an Operator or Mechanic.
I had been trying to decide if I wanted to go the route of being an Operator or a Mechanic during my time as a janitor. That is, until Charles Foster asked me if I would be interested in becoming an Electrician. I hadn’t even considered being an electrician up to that point, as I had no experience and it seemed like a job that needed a particular skill set.
I had begun my studies to learn about being an electrician when there was an opening in the Electric Shop. Charles Foster and Bill Bennett petitioned to hire me for the position, but the verdict came down from above that according to Company Policy, a janitor could only advance from janitor to the labor crew.
I didn’t have any expectation at the time of becoming an electrician given that I had no experience, so I wasn’t disappointed when Mike Rose was hired from outside the company. He was hired to help out Jim Stevenson with Air Conditioning and Freeze Protection.
The next revelation about our position as janitor at the plant (and I’m sure that Ron Kilman, our next plant manager, who reads this blog can testify that it really was company policy…. after all…. that’s what our plant manager told us. — Just kidding…. I know that it really wasn’t), was that when it became our turn to move from being a janitor to moving to the labor crew, if we didn’t move to the labor crew during the next two openings on the labor crew, then we would be let go. I mean… we would lose our job.
This revelation came about when Curtis Love was next in line to go to the labor crew and he was turned down. Larry Riley, the foreman of the labor crew had observed Curtis while we were being loaned to the labor crew during outages and he didn’t want him on the crew for um…. various reasons. After Curtis had been turned down, he was later told that if he didn’t move onto the labor crew when there was another opening, then the company had to fire him. It was company policy (so we were told…. from Corporate Headquarters).
I had been around the plant long enough to know at that point that when we were told that it was company policy that came down to us from Corporate Headquarters, that, unless it was in our binders called General Policies and Procedures, then it probably wasn’t really company policy. It was more likely our evil plant manager’s excuse for not taking the responsibility himself and just telling us that this was the way it was, because he just said so….
Anyway… This caused a dilemma from an unlikely source on our team of janitors. Doris Voss became worried that if she didn’t move onto the labor crew, that she would lose her job. She was quite content at the time to have just stayed a janitor, but from this policy that had just come down from Corporate Headquarters, (i.e. The front corner office of our plant), she either had to go to the labor crew, or lose her job.
So, what Doris decided to do was to apply for the job of receptionist that had just been vacated by Grant Harned (see the post “Power Plant Carpooling Adventures with Grant Harned“). Doris applied for the job and her application was accepted. She moved on to work at the receptionist desk. I, on the other hand, was next in line behind Curtis Love. So, when he was turned down for the labor crew, I took his place.
As a side note, I talked Larry Riley into letting Curtis Love advance to the labor crew when there was another opening. I told him that I would let him work with me, and that I would take care of him. With that caveat, Larry agreed. You can read a couple of adventures I had with Curtis after he arrived on the labor crew by reading these posts: “Power Plant Safety as Interpreted by Curtis Love” and “Angel of Death Passes by the Precipitator Door“. Later, however, when I had moved on to be an electrician, Curtis was let go after having a vehicle accident and not reporting it right away.
What does this have to do with the EEOC shuffle? Well… about the time I have moved on to the labor crew, a new company-wide policy had been put in place for the internal “Employee Job Announcement Program”. Our power plant had some “irregularities” surrounding where our new employees were coming from. It seems that an inordinate amount of new employees were coming from Pawnee, and more particularly from a certain church. It was obvious to some that a more “uniform” method needed to be in place to keep local HR staff from hiring just their buddies.
Along with this, came a mandate that all external job announcements had to be sent to various different unemployment offices in a certain radius in order to guarantee that everyone that was interested had the opportunity to be informed about any new positions at the plant well in time to apply for it. That was, if the Internal job announcement program didn’t find any viable candidates within the company that was willing to take the job.
EEOC, by the way, means, Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Around the same time that our plant had hired a “snitch” to go around an entrap unsuspecting employees into illegal activities (see the post: “Power Plant Snitch“), the EEOC had given us notice that we were not hiring enough women and American Indians as well as African Americans at the plant. Not only did we lack number, we also needed to have them spread out into a number of different jobs in the plant.
At the time the operators were 100% male. No women. The maintenance shop had a couple of women. The rest of the women at the plant were either clerks, working for the warehouse, or in the HR department…. Which all incidentally reported up to Jack Ballard our HR Supervisor. Well. Except for Yvonne Taylor in the Chemistry lab, and maybe someone that was on the testing team and of course Summer Goebel who was a Plant Engineer.
It wasn’t just women that were affected. We had to have an African American in Upper Management. Bill Bennett had become an A Foreman a few years earlier, and there was some discussion about whether they could promote him up one more level. He refused the offer. Later they decided that an A Foreman at our plant was high enough to be considered “upper management”.
American Indians were also a group of employees that needed to fill a certain quota. The Power Plant was located in North Central Oklahoma with many Indian Reservations surrounding it. I think we were supposed to have more than 10% American Indians employed at the plant. So the front office asked everyone to check to see if they were Indian enough to be considered. I think if you were 1/16th American Indian, you counted in the quota.
Some people were a little disturbed to be asked to report their racial status in order to fill a quota. Jerry Mitchell told me that he was Indian, but that he never had told anyone and he didn’t want to become a number, so he wasn’t going to tell them. I think we met our quota even without Jerry Mitchell and some others that felt insulted.
At the time, we had over 350 employees at the plant. That meant that we needed 35 women. I think we were closer to 25 when the push to hire more women went into effect.
The problem area that needed the most work was with the operators. Their entire organization had no women and they were told that they needed them. The problem was both structural and operational (yeah…. Operations had an operational problem…. how about that?).
There were two problems with hiring women to be operators. The first one was structural. The operators main base was the Control Room. That’s where their locker room was. That’s where their kitchen was. More importantly that’s where they could all stand around and watch Gene Day perform feats of magic by doing nothing more than standing there being…. well… being Gene Day!
There was only a Power Plant men’s locker room. There were no facilities for women. The nearest women’s rest / locker room was across the main plant in the office area, or downstairs in the Maintenance shop. This presented a logistical problem, especially on days when Gene Day made his special Chili or tortilla soup (Ok, I’m just picking on Gene Day…. We all know Gene never could cook. We loved him anyway).
Either way, there were times when taking a trek across the plant to make it to the nearest restroom was not acceptable. This was solved by building an additional rest / locker room in the control room for women operators. That problem was solved.
The operational problem inherent in operations was that they worked shift work. That is, each week, they shifted the hours they worked. Operators had to be working around the clock. So, one week, they would work from 7:00 am to 3:30 pm. Next week they may work from 3pm to 11:30pm, or from 11pm to 7:30am. The plant didn’t have any female applicants for a job where you had to work around the clock.
The EEOC said that wasn’t good enough. We needed to find women to work in operations. This was where Doris Voss became a person of interest.
Doris was asked if she would like to become an operator. Of course, she said no. She really still wanted to be a janitor, but was content being a receptionist. I’m not sure what she was told or was given, but she eventually agreed and moved over to become an operator. Another clerk, Helen Robinson was later coaxed into becoming an operator. Mary Lou Teeman was also hired into the Operations department. I don’t remember if she was a clerk before that, or if she was a new hire. — I do remember that she was the sweetest lady in operations.
Here is a picture that includes Doris Voss:
And here is Helen Robinson:
How is it that Charles Peavler showed up in two pictures? — Oh. Taken at different times. Note that Charles Peavler with the gray shirt in the front row is kneeling on one knee, but Larry Tapp with the blue shirt next to him is standing….. Hey. Larry Tapp may be short, but he’s one of the nicest guys in this picture. I have a story about those two guys on the right side of this picture. Merl Wright and Jack Maloy. I’ll probably include that as a side story in a later post (See the post: “Power Plant Conspiracy Theory“).
With the addition of the three new female operators, the EEOC shuffle was satisfied. We had added a few new female employees from the outside world and everyone was happy. Julienne Alley was added to the Welding shop during this time. The entire maintenance crew would agree that their new “Shop” mother was the best of them all (See the post: “Power Plant Mother’s Day“).
Comment from the Original Post:
Originally posted December 28, 2013:
Times were changing in 1987 when the electric company in Oklahoma decided that they needed to downsize the company in order to change with the new business environment. I always seemed to think that the executives down at corporate headquarters in Oklahoma City knew that the old pioneers in charge of the Power Plants would be very difficult customers when it came to the new business model.
Like I said…. Times were changing. The digital era was being introduced to the power industry. We had already upgraded the precipitator controls to make them computerized. Other areas of the plant were going to be next. Especially the employees. Of course, none of us knew that quite yet, except Bill Rivers, who was a natural visionary, and he was gone.
Side story time:
I had always been interested in computers and programming from the time I was a sophomore in High School when I had just turned 15 years old. My friend Jesse Cheng had introduced me to one of the first programmable calculators, the HP-25.
This was the most wonderful Christmas present I had ever received. I literally felt myself fainting when I opened the present and found that I had been given a pair of cowboy boots, only to find an HP-25 calculator inside when I opened it up. Ralphie had nothing on me that day.
It was much like the Christmas Story with Ralphie. I had tried every with way to convince my parents that using a slide rule in High School was passe (pronounced “pass A”). All the other students in my advanced chemistry class were using calculators, and I was still stuck with my dad’s old circular slide rule. It was a pretty neat one, I’ll grant you that, but it just… well….. I could work things out on paper faster than I could use the slide rule.
I introduced my friend Jesse Cheng in the post “Why Do Power Plant Men Always Lose the Things They Love Most“. He had an HP-25 calculator and had loaned it to me to take a Chemistry test. He showed me how it used Reverse Polish Notation, which is different than a normal calculator, but more like a computer.
The calculator could be programmed with 49 steps. Because it had a stack built right into it, and the reason it used Reversed Polish Notation, we could create all sorts of games with just those 49 steps. The book that came with the calculator had a moon landing game. We made more sophisticated games, like one called Battleship.
Anyway. Because of this early exposure with actually programming something in a logical manner, I was eager to learn more about programming. During college, my calculator was often sitting on my desk in the dorm room running a long program to help me perfect a random number generator. Finally in my Junior year in college, my calculator was completely fried.
After I was married at the end of 1985, I began subscribing to a magazine called “Compute”. It had actual programs in it in Basic. I would read the programs to learn how it worked, but at that point, I didn’t own a computer, so all I could do was dream about writing programs.
It wasn’t until Thanksgiving 1987 when I went to visit my ol’ friend Jesse Cheng in Columbia, Missouri who was interning as a medical doctor that I felt a sudden need to have a computer of my own. He had built a computer using a Heath Kit and we used it to play two computer games. One was called Starflight:
The other was called F15 Strike Eagle:
When I returned home I was pretty eager to buy a computer. Up until that time, every time my wife and I had gone to the mall, I always had stopped in the computer stores to look at the latest computers. I never had really considered buying one. But now, they had 20 megabyte hard drives! And you could play these terrific games like Starflight and F-15 Strike Eagle.
So, one day after we had left the mall, and my wife could see the look on my face, she finally said…. “Why don’t you go and buy one?” I asked her, “Are you sure? Because you know what is going to happen if I get a computer. I’ll be playing on it all the time.” She said, “No. I want you to go buy one.” So we turned around and went back to the mall.
That was the start of my journey into the world of computers.
End of Side Story.
As I explained in the post “Boppin’ with Bif during the Power Plant Downsizing“, the company offered an early retirement package for everyone 55 years old and older. They would give them full benefits to leave. This meant that our Electrical Supervisor, Leroy Godfrey, as well as the assistant plant manager, Bill Moler and the Plant Manager, Eldon Waugh were all going to retire some time in August 1987.
We had a retirement party for Leroy Godfrey out in the country at Diana Brien’s house. A bunch of the electricians were there including Mark Meeks, who Leroy knew at the time was the one that was going to be laid off. Mark commented about that later when he was told that he was losing his job that Leroy had sat there and smiled at him while we were at the party. Mark knew Leroy didn’t like him, but hadn’t expected to be the one to go since everyone thought it would be Gary Wehunt, since he was the newest member in the shop.
I explained in the post, “The Passing of an Old School Power Plant Man — Leroy Godfrey” what Leroy’s management style was like. It was very top-down, if you know what I mean. It was like, “Because I told you so.” No need to explain anything. That was the world of Power Plant Management up to that point.
I think Corporate Headquarters realized that this needed to change in order for the company to compete in a world where electric companies could no longer count on the Corporation Commission to guarantee a sustainable electric rate or even a set number of customers. The world of electric power was changing rapidly and the company needed to move on from the mentality that it could be run like a “good ol’ boys” club.
It is easier to teach young dogs new tricks than older and crankier ones. It looked to me like this was a logical choice when looking back using hindsight. I think the company was making a bold move. I don’t think they really had much of a choice if they wanted to survive.
So, we had the main retirement party at the plant where people stood up and told stories about the old guys that were retiring. Nothing much happened there except the part where Leroy Godfrey’s daughter stood up and said that we just had to work with him, while she had to live with him… see the post about Leroy above for the full story about that.
Then the following Monday. I believe it was August 17, 1987, everyone was told to meet in the main break room for a meeting with our new management. That was when we were introduced to our new plant manager, Ron Kilman.
I remember a certain part of the meeting very well. Ron said something funny. It didn’t matter exactly what he said. I don’t even remember what it was. Probably something self-deprecating. I leaned over to Charles Foster, who had been my foreman for a while (on that day, it was officially Andy Tubbs). I said, “I didn’t know Plant Managers could tell jokes!”
Charles looked back at me and I raised my eyebrows and tilted my head while the corners of my mouth went down. — This was one of the signals I had learned while carpooling with Bud Schoonover when I needed to communicate with Dick Dale without saying anything out loud (see the post: Carpooling with Bud Schoonover“. This particular expression meant, “Maybe this won’t be such a bad thing.”
Ron Kilman remained the plant manager at the coal-fired power plant in North Central Oklahoma for the next 7 years. The stories that I will post during this next year will all be at least partially from this time period. During this time, there were some decisions that Ron made that I applauded, and others that even he would admit he wished he hadn’t made.
All in all, I think that Ron has a good heart and that those times when he did make a rash decision, it was evident that he was falling back to his “management training” and not managing from his heart. Old School management training left a lot to be desired.
During the 7 years from 1987 to 1994, the power plant saw a lot of changes. Some I have alluded to already. Such as the move to computerize everything. The other was a total change in how management works. Or at least that was the attempt.
People were willing to step out of their regular day-to-day jobs and try new things that they thought would help the plant. Many of these things were successful. Some of them failed, but not so miserably as they would have if the earlier management had been around. The employees felt as if they had more of a say in how the plant ran instead of feeling like they were just a bunch of tools running around fixing things.
I have a quote from Ron Kilman that said it all one day after a catastrophe had occurred. It summed up his management style as opposed to his assistant manager, Ben Brandt. I will relay the exact story later, but for now I’ll just say that when Ben Brandt saw what happened, the first thing that he said was, “Who did this?” When Ron Kilman saw what had happened, the first thing he said was, “How can we prevent this from happening again?”
Ben’s approach was from the old school of thought. Blame and punish the culprit. Later when we were drastically changing the way process improvements took place, my favorite quote from Ben Brandt is, “I am the obstacle! We aren’t going to change because I say so.” We all had to agree. He was definitely the obstacle.
Ron’s approach was one more like a leader. “Let’s get the job done right.” Sure, he is human, so the decisions weren’t always perfect, but I think in general, he was leading where other people may have been dragging.
Well… I will say no more for now… I look forward to writing stories about this time period during this next year. I’m sure there are a lot of those at the plant just as eager to see how I portray the different events that took place during this time.
Comments from the original post:
Comments from the last repost:
Originally posted May 30, 2014:
Unlike the story I told a few weeks ago about Jim Padgett, this is not a story about being called to work in the middle of the night by a true Power Plant Man (See post: “Making A Friends from Foes – A Tale of Power Plant Woes“) or even like the story that explained the “Power Plant Black Time and the Six Hour Rule“. No. This is a quick story about a sobering slap in the face I encountered when walking into the electric shop one morning at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma.
I think this must have been when I was on someone’s short list for a “Power Plant Joke”, or maybe I just hadn’t been paying attention a month earlier when Bill Bennett may have informed me that this morning was coming. Either way, I was totally taken off guard when I entered the shop that morning with Scott Hubbard, my Carpooling buddy.
The first indication that something was up was that there were three contract hands standing there dressed in their worn clothing indicating that they had been hired to do some kind of “manual” activity. Yep. Worn jeans with holes. Shirts slightly ripped. One guy missing the sleeves on his shirt. I think one of them had accidentally taken a shower before he showed up. He may have mixed up his Mondays and Saturdays and woke up grumpy on Saturday and took a shower on Monday.
None of the contract hands had thought about shaving for the past week or so. So, they definitely looked out of place in the shop usually occupied by professional Power Plant Electricians, who liked to keep themselves clean and generally followed good hygiene practices.
My first thought was, “Hmm…. Looks like there is some dirty job someone has to do in the shop today. I wonder what it is.” I walked into the electric shop to wait until 8:00 to come around. Bill Bennett was leaning against one of the desks talking to Charles Foster. I asked Bill, “What’s up with the Contractors?”
Bill replied, “They are here to help you.” “What am I going to be doing?” I asked curiously. “You know. Pulling wire from the Vital Service Panel to the Telephone Room in the main office.” “Oh. That.” I replied trying to remember if I could recall ever being told that I was supposed to be inheriting this particular job.
The last time I had felt like this was when I was in High School and our American History teacher told us that the semester class projects were due tomorrow and he continued to explain that we would be presenting the projects in alphabetical order. “Which means that Kevin Breazile. You will be going first.”
Side Story Time:
Class Project? Oh No! I had forgotten all about it! I was supposed to write a paper about the Roadway system in the United States, including how we were preparing to go to the Metric System.” (Like that ever happened… This was in 1976).
So, after school I went straight home and told my mom that I needed to go to the Public Library to prepare for a class project that needed to be done tomorrow. At the library I quickly grabbed a bunch of facts out of encyclopedias. I made up a few statistics about how many miles of roads there were in the United States.
Then once I was back at home, I thought about the roads in the U.S. Well, there were dirt roads, gravel roads, asphalt roads, and roads made of concrete. So. I filled a jar with dirt. One with some rocks I found out in the street. I found a piece of asphalt that had worked itself loose at the intersection by my house. I also found a chunk of concrete under our deck in the backyard where we had busted up our patio once to pour a new one…. These were my props for my presentation.
I remembered that on the way from Kansas City To Columbia Missouri along Highway 70, there was a sign that said, 100 Miles or 160 Kilometers to Columbia. There was also one just outside Saint Louis going to Columbia that said the same thing. So, I added that to my presentation. This met the requirement of how the roadways were moving to the metric system.
When the presentation began, I began handing the jars to someone in the front row to pass around the class….. Yeah. A jar of dirt. A jar of rocks, and a piece of asphalt and the chunk of concrete. I remember our teacher, Mr. Wright grabbed the chunk of Concrete when I gave it to the guy in the front row and looking it over, then pointing to a spot on it and saying, “I can see the skid marks here where I almost hit you!”
Anyway. I ended the presentation by taking the chunk of concrete after it had been passed around the class and holding it up and saying that if we continued to create roads at the same pace that we have over the last 60 years, by the year 2076 the world will look like this…. And I held up the chunk of concrete. — Of course.. I had totally made that statistic up out of thin air. — I got an A+ for that project which was worth 1/3 of our grade for the semester.
End of side story.
So, here I was again, fourteen years later, and I was being told that I had a crew of guys standing out in the shop waiting for directions on how to pull cable from the Logic room just below the control room, across the T-G building and into the middle of the Office building on the top floor. Even though the Office was on the 3rd floor, it was equivalent to the 6th floor of an office building.
From experience, I knew that the cable would have to be pulled from the logic room down to the cable spreading room below the main Switchgear, through two manholes, then up through conduit to the office area above the break room kitchen and over to the Telephone room.
I had done nothing to prepare for this. I hadn’t looked through the blueprints to find the best route. I hadn’t even seen the large spool of wire on the pallet in the Main Switchgear waiting to be used. I hadn’t even prepared myself by looking confident like I knew what I was doing….
Bill walked out the door leaving me in the office with Charles. I wasn’t sure if Charles could tell that I was completely blind-sided by this job or not. But he did give me a quick “leg up”. He said, “Seems to me that there is already power going from the VSP (for Vital Services Panel) to the Telephone room.”
Well. I already knew that I was really lucky. Especially when I asked Saint Anthony to help me find a solution to a problem. So, I quickly glanced over in the corner where Saint Anthony liked to lean against the wall while he waited for me to come to my senses and have some faith. In my mind I could see Anthony shrug like, “sounds like you might give it a try.”
So, I walked… no… I strolled out into the shop like I belonged there….. — Oh… yeah. I did. But at that particular moment I didn’t feel like it, so I thought maybe if I walked like I felt like I did, it would help me feel that way.
I asked Scott Hubbard if he could help me check to see if we had power in the Telephone Room from the Vital Services Panel. He said he would be glad to help (this was Scott’s usual response. — A True Power Plant Man Response).
I asked him to go the Telephone room while I went to the Vital Service Panel for Unit 1 in the Logic Room. Scott took his handy Dandy Voltage Checking Tool and headed off toward the Office area.
I headed for the Logic Room with a pair of Fuse Pullers:
The Vital Service Panel is mounted on the wall next to the UPS (Uninterruptible Power Supply). I opened it and read the labels inside of the cover. After scanning the list of locations that were fed from this panel I found one that could have been the one circuit I was looking for.
It was cryptically labelled in pencil “Telephone Room”. Hmmm…. I wonder if this is it… My mind had quick as a snap decrypted this entry and came up with “Telephone room”. — That sure sounds like this would provide power to the Telephone room. Let’s just hope that it is labelled correctly.
I waited until Scott called me on the gray phone to tell me that he was in place by the Telephone room. He had checked all of the receptacles (plug ins) in the room, and they all had power on them.
I told him that I would remove the fuse to the circuit that looked like it provided power to the telephone room, so in about 15 seconds, he could check to see if any of the receptacles was dead. So, we did just that. I removed the fuse….. — My first thought was…. Good. I didn’t trip the unit. I would have known that right away. — You never know… pulling a fuse out of a panel labelled “Vital Services Panel” kind of leaves you to believe that the stuff in this panel is really really important.
I went back to the gray phone and waited for Scott to get back on the phone. About 15 more seconds and Scott returned. He told me that the power had turned off on one of the receptacles on the wall. I told him I was going to put the fuse back in and head up to the telephone room so that he could show me where it was.
Literally 20 minutes after I had been jolted awake by the revelation that I was supposed to lead a crew of contractors on a wire pull that I had not prepared for, I had found out that the wire was already there. No wire pull was necessary.
Scott showed me where the receptacle was, and we walked back to the electric shop. Bill Bennett was standing in the shop wondering where I had disappeared to (oops. ended the sentence with a preposition. I should know better than that. I should have said, “….where I went.”). I was still wondering in the back of my head if I had just completely forgot that Bill had ever told me about this, or maybe he had forgotten to mention it in the first place, or he had not told me on purpose just to see how I would react to the sudden revelation that I had a semi-difficult job with no time to prepare for it.
I waited for Bill to follow me into the electric shop office. Which he did. Standing there with as straight of a face as I could muster, I looked at Bill as he asked me when I was going to start pulling the wire. The Contractors are just standing around doing nothing.
I said, “The job is already done. The wire has already been pulled.” “What do you mean? It’s still in the switchgear on the pallet.” Bill responded. I shrugged and said, “We don’t need to pull wire from the Vital Services Panel. There is already a circuit from that panel to the telephone room.” I looked over at Charles and smiled. Charles smiled back. Bill said something like, “Oh… Then I wonder what we are going to do with these contractors. We have them for three days.” Then he left the office.
I thought that somehow Charles knew something about my being “setup for some kind of failure” and had this up his sleeve all along so that it would backfire. — Just my luck. With three of my best friends standing there, how could I fail…. Charles Foster, Scott Hubbard and Saint Anthony.
We had the contractors sweep out switchgears for the next 3 days.
Comment from the original Post
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.
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 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.
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.
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).
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.
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:
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?
Comments from the original post:
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 Meeting” 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.
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 Marine Colonel:
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).
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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…
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…
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.”
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 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”.
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.
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”.
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.
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Does anyone know where the phrase, “Step on a Crack, Break Your Mother’s Back” came from? I’m sure there is a story behind that one. Maybe even a lot of different origins. I can distinctly remember a day in the Power Plant when a Power Plant Man stepped on a crack and broke his own back.
I remember looking out of the seventh floor window of my friends dorm room when I was a freshman in college watching students returning from classes about 6 months before the Power Plant Man broke his back. I was watching closely to see if any of them were purposely missing the cracks as they walked down the sidewalk toward the entrance. Out of about 20 people two of them purposely stepped over every crack in the sidewalk.
In the post “Power Plant Safety is Job Number One” I told the story about four of us were carrying a very long extension ladder through the maintenance shop at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma one summer morning in 1979 when Tom Dean stepped on a crack (well, it was a cracked piece of plywood that had been placed over a floor drain because the floor grate was missing), and when as he stepped on it, he lost his balance enough to twist himself around. By the time he stopped twirling, he was in immense pain as he had destroyed any chance for comfort for the next 6 months.
So, I could understand the dangers of stepping on cracks even when they appear to be insignificant. What that has to do with my mom I’m not sure. However, one day when my sister was walking with my mom on the campus of Oklahoma State University, my sister may have stepped on a crack at that time, as well as my mom, which sent her plummeting the five feet to the ground resulting in a broken hip.
This makes me wonder that since the times have changed, it may be time to change the saying to something else. Maybe something like “Smoke some crack, break your parent’s piggy bank” would be more appropriate for these times. Oh well, I’ve never been much of a poet.
Anyway, back to the subject of back pain.
The number one favorite topic during Safety Meetings at the Power Plant was Back Safety. We were told (and rightly so) that accidents where the back is injured cost the company and the employee more than any other injury. Once you really hurt your back, you can expect to have back pain the rest of your life. It only takes one time. — Times may have changed since 1979, so that now you can have some excellent back surgeries to help correct your back injuries. Even with these, you will never be completely free from back pain.
In the Power Plant Post, “When Power Plant Competition Turns Terribly Safe” I told a story about how our team came up with hundreds of safety slogans in an attempt to win the coveted Power Plant Safety Award Pizza at the end of the year. A Pizza that continued to allude us for 2 and a half years. During our meetings to invent the most catchy safety slogans, Andy Tubbs (or was it Ben Davis) came up with a slogan that said, “Lift with your legs, not your back. Or you may hear a lumbar crack”. — See. I wish I could come up with doozies like that! This takes the idea of a crack and a back and turns it around, if you think about it. Now instead of a crack hurting your back, its about a strain on your back creating a crack. — I know… probably just a coincidence….
One morning Sonny Kendrick, our electric specialist at the time, while sitting in the electric lab during break, let out a whopper of a sneeze. When he did, he suddenly knew what it felt like to experience tremendous back pain. One sneeze and he was out of commission for many weeks.
One day, when Charles Foster, my very close friend, and electric foreman, were talking about back pain, I realized that a good portion of Power Plant Men suffered with back pain. — At the risk of sounding like Randy Dailey teaching our Safety Class, I’m going to repeat myself, “You only have to hurt your back one time to have a lifetime of back pain.”
The company would focus a lot of their safety training around the importance of proper lifting techniques in order to prevent back accidents (not to be confused with backing accidents which is when you back out of a parking space — which is also a common accident — though usually less severe — unless you happen to be a Ford Truck). We would learn how to lift with our legs and not with our back.
You see, it wasn’t just that one sneeze that caused Sonny’s plunge into Back Pain Hell, and it wasn’t just stepping on the cracked plywood floor drain cover that broke Tom’s back (I know “Broke Back” is a misnomer since the back isn’t exactly broke). The problem is more systemic than that. This is just the final result of maybe years of neglecting your back through various unsafe activities.
The two important points I remember from watching the safety videos during our monthly safety meetings was that when you slouch while sitting, you put a needless strain on your lower back. So, by sitting with good posture, you help prevent a future of pain. The second point I remember is that you need to keep your stomach muscles strong. Strong stomach muscles take the weight off of your back when you’re just doing your regular job.
The big problem that finally causes the disc in your lumbar region of your spine to break after neglecting it through these other means is to lift a heavy object by bending over to pick it up instead of lifting the load with your legs. So, the phrase that we always heard was “Lift with your Legs. Not your Back”. You do this by bending your knees instead of just your hips.
Ok. I know you are all thinking the same thing I am thinking (right? Yeah. You are). Bending both your knees and hips saves your back. Isn’t there another word for when you bend your knees and hips at the same time? — Yeah. Yet, I don’t remember hearing it during any of our Safety Videos. — Oh. It was implied, they just never came out and said it…. What they really mean to say is, “Squat”. Yeah. “Squat”. When you bend your knees and hips, isn’t that “Squatting?”
Times have changed…. I mean….. Doesn’t everyone today have a “Squatty Potty”?
Don’t we all have “I ‘heart’ 2 Squat” tee-shirts?
To learn more, you can watch this video:
This doesn’t just work with the Squatty Potty to help you drop your loads, it also works when lifting heavy loads. So, remember the next time you are going to bend over to pick something up…. Squat instead.
Other lifting tips include keeping the load close to your body and not holding your breath but tightening your stomach muscles, and don’t lift something too bulky by yourself. Don’t twist your body when picking something up, face the load directly. A weightlifter once told me that when you lift, feel the weight on the heel of your feet, not on the balls of your feet.
Randy Dailey, the Safety Guru of our Power Plant, and an expert machinist invented a pen that you could put in your pocket protector in your shirt pocket that would alert you by beeping if you leaned over too far. It was an ingenious device to remind you to lift with your legs instead of your back.
In one of the safety videos we watched about back safety, there was a short stalky scientist that explained the dynamics of lifting and how easy it was to put a tremendous strain on your back by leaning over and picking something up. He said that “People choose the more simple way to pick something up. Not the easiest way.”
Doesn’t that sound like the same thing? Isn’t the simplest way the easiest way? Well. You would think so, but it isn’t always the case. This Doctor of Back-ology went on to explain his statement. He explained that the simplest way to pick up an object on the floor is to bend at the hip. It is one movement. Bend at the hip. — However…. The easiest way to pick up the object is to bend both your knees and your hips to pick up the object. Since you keep your back straight and you lift with your leg muscles that are the most powerful muscles in your body. He avoided using the word, “Squat”, but that’s what he meant.
In order to reduce back injuries at the plant, the company made back belts available at the plant.
Note that this picture not only shows a Power Plant Man wearing a Back Support Belt, but he also is wearing the right kind of Tee-Shirt. It has a vest pocket where you can put a Pocket Protector for your little screwdriver and your Back Alert Pen created by Randy Dailey.
The use of back belts was new around the late 1980’s. Even though we had them available through the tool room when we wanted them, few people wore them. The warehouse team wore them a lot. I suppose that is because they were lifting and moving things all day long.
In the warehouse Bob Ringwall, Darlene Mitchell and Dick Dale used to have back belts on when I would visit the warehouse to pick up a part, or to visit my friends. I don’t remember if Bud Schoonover would wear a back belt. How’s this for a slogan…. “Be a Safety Black Belt…. When Lifting, wear your Back Belt.” I know. I should stop when I’m ahead, only I’m so far behind now I may never catch up.
There was a question about whether wearing a back belt was really a good idea. It was thought that people might tend to substitute using their stomach muscles while lifting with the back belt, resulting in weaker stomach muscles. So we were cautioned not to go around wearing back belts all day long. Only when we were going to be doing a job where we had to do a lot of lifting. I suppose now, after years of research, there is a lot more data to tell us one way or the other. I haven’t heard what the latest injury jury has said on this subject.
Even though I titled this post “…Plain Ol’ Power Plant Back Pain”, there is nothing plain about back pain. I just thought it sounded like a catchy title.
I was lucky enough that during the 20 years I spent working at the Power Plant, I never really hurt my back. To this day, I have been able to avoid living with perpetual pain in my back. — I have been accused of causing pain in other people’s necks. Also, I don’t think the many times that people told me I was a pain in their back side, they were referring to the Lumbar region. I think they meant an area just below the tailbone. I hope that by bringing to their attention the benefits of the Squatty Potty that I have been able to relieve (or prevent) a little of that lower lumbar pain.
Now when someone says, “You don’t know Squat”, you can correct them!
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Sometimes we unknowingly end up worshiping things we never intend. It isn’t until those things are destroyed before we realize what has happened. We have a natural tendency to worship something. It’s built into our DNA to worship God just as sure as the God Particle converts energy into matter and subsequently atoms into earth and water. I’m not sure when my obsession began, but I definitely know the day when it was destroyed. August 5, 1996.
The day of realization began as a normal day, as Scott Hubbard and I were driving to the plant. It seemed like an extra dark morning considering it was the middle of the summer. Perhaps it was because by this time we were working four tens, which meant we arrived at the plant before 7:00 am so we left Stillwater, Oklahoma at 6:15 to drive to the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma.
When we topped the overpass to the turnpike at 6:32 we thought we could see something strange at the Power Plant off in the distance. The sun was going to rise in the next few minutes (at 6:42), yet, the sky seemed darker than usual. It must have been a cloudy morning.
We thought we could see red and blue flashing lights coming from one end of the plant. It was only momentary, because once over the overpass, we were too low to see that section of the plant. We weren’t really sure what we had seen. It became even more confusing as we approached the entrance to the plant.
There seemed to be a little more activity happening at the front gate than usual. there was a guard or an operator standing out there. He waved us through the gate. about 300 yards past the main gate, we had a clear view of the plant grounds laying before us as we made our way to the parking lot. It was here that the significance of the flashing lights suddenly caused us to gasp. We were stunned into silence.
The area around the Unit 1 main power transformer was flashing with the red and blue lights of several fire trucks. They seemed to be pulling away just about that time. Some of the siding on the Turbine-Generator room was missing, some was blackened from smoke as it had poured out of the windows along the turbine room floor. The real shock to me came as we approached the parking lot and I looked up through where a window used to be and I could see the sky. I could see the sky where the T-G roof should have been.
We were directed to go into the maintenance garage to avoid the fire trucks who that were backing away. We met with our team and Alan Kramer told us that there had been an explosion during the night when an overspeed test was being performed on the Unit 1 Boiler Feed Pump Turbine (BFPT). The number one question we all wanted answered was quickly given to us…. No one was hurt in the explosion.
Alan mentioned that in our recent fire fighter training, we had learned that a large percentage of companies that have a major fire (such as ours) goes out of business within the next year. That was not going to happen to us even though the damage was extensive. Our job was to put everything back to the way it was before the fire.
Here is the story as it happened, as much as I know:
The explosion occurred when an operator (I’ll let one of the operators remind me who it was) was running an overspeed test on the BFPT. Suddenly he heard a loud pop and then the turbine winding up out of control. He took off running and was around the corner of a concrete pillar when the turbine exploded. The turning gear shot out like a top and flew across the mezzanine floor, hit the corner of the north stairway, and still spinning like a top, tore up the stairway as it made the turn halfway down and ended up in middle of the the T-G basement where it finally came to rest. This turning gear weighs somewhere in the ballpark of a thousand pounds (I’m guessing).
At this point steam was shooting out of the Boiler Feed Pump Turbine. The oil pumps that keep the bearings lubricated were spraying oil into the steam which burst into flames. The flames shot up to the concrete floor 40 feet above. The fire was so hot that it melted the metal structure holding up the floor and the rebar in the concrete. The Turbine Room Floor literally melted away as the oil fire shot the flames up toward the roof another 80 feet above the turbine room floor melting the roof as if it was butter. The asbestos siding on the T-G floor was falling off because the bolts that held them to the brackets literally melted away.
The same reservoir that feeds the oil to the the Boiler Feed Pump Turbine bearings also fed the Main Turbine Generator. This is the same generator that makes the electricity that causes the light bulb to glow in your house when you turn it on. The Main Turbine Generator tripped when the explosion occurred, as it should. As it slowed down to a stop, the oil for the bearings was all gone. It had been creating the large fire ball that was melting down the T-G floor.
Normally, when the Turbine-Generator comes to a stop, it is put on a turning gear while the shaft cools down otherwise the shaft will become warped under it’s own weight. The Turning gear slowing rotates the turbine for a day or so while it cools. Without bearing oil, the turning gear would not be able to turn the turbine generator. The bearings require a layer of oil to function properly.
Charles Patton, one of the Maintenance foremen was called out, and he took cans of STP Oil Treatment and for hours poured them onto the bearings and manually rotated the 50 ton turbine generator (Ray, help me out with the actual weights). Through the heroic efforts of Charles and others that were there to help, the Turbine Generator was spared from even more damage.
By the time we arrived that morning, the fire was out, things were cooling down. Unit 2 was still running, and it was our job to keep it going.
As I walked out onto the T-G floor everything went into slow motion. I don’t know if that has ever happened to you before. There have been a few times in my life when I was in a near death situation where my surroundings all seem to switch into a slow motion mode. I think it happens because your brain kicks into high gear in order to process what is happening and to put as much effort forward as possible to avoid danger.
The first time I think that happened to me was when I was with some friends climbing around on some cliffs by the Missouri River. One boy was falling back after the ledge he was on gave way and was going to fall most likely to his death when everything switched into slow motion even before I realized what was wrong. I was able to make quick decisions that allowed me to push him back onto the ledge and grab onto a branch that luckily kept me from the same fate.
When I walked onto the T-G floor and saw the devastation, I think my mind was trying to take everything in all at once. The Turbine Generator was covered in soot and debris. I flashed back to the days when I was a janitor and used to keep the turbines waxed so that they would shine. It was at this moment that I realized I actually worshiped the Turbine Generators in a way similar to the way the religious cult worshiped the alpha-omega doomsday bomb in “Beneath the Planet of the Apes”.
The near destruction of the Turbine Generator made me realize the importance I had placed on it. I felt as if I had almost lost my close friend like the boy climbing on the cliff. I used to stand on the sides of the Turbines when I was a janitor with my dust mop and after spraying furniture polish on the mop, I would caress the turbines as if I was running my fingers through someone’s hair.
We began the clean up by taking fire hoses and washing down the siding on the Unit 2 side to try to bring some normalcy back to a surreal situation. The soot didn’t just wash off. Not long after we had dragged out the fire hoses and were blasting away at the siding, Alan Kramer asked Charles Foster and I to look at the air duct to the Instrument room on the north side of the Turbine room. The room was getting too hot and the air conditioner seemed to have frozen.
We climbed into the air duct on the roof of the instrument room and replaced the filters that were packed with soot stopping the air flow for the Air Conditioner. This seemed like one task in 100,000 that would need to be done to put this puzzle back together again. All the electric cables that ran through the Unit 1 Mezzanine had melted away, everything had been utterly destroyed.
The thought was too overwhelming. I felt like Scarlet O’Hara in “Gone With the Wind” when she said, “I can’t think about that right now. If I do, I’ll go crazy. I’ll think about that tomorrow.”
With everything on the T-G floor covered in soot, everyone was quickly black from head to toe. Are clothes were now black. We looked like Johnny Cash impersonators
literally with Al Jolsen Black Face as the soot was pitch black.
We had just climbed out of the air duct and were making our way to the electric shop when Glenn Rowland approached me and said, “You Lucky Dog!” I thought he must be making a comment about my appearance seeing how I was covered in soot. Then he explained. “For the next 10 weeks you have to report to Oklahoma City to work on an SAP project. You’re a lucky dog because you are going to miss all the fun of cleaning up this mess.”
Did I ever mention that I’m one of the luckiest people in the world? Well. I am. I had just come to grips with my false God, and now I had been rescued from two and a half months of working in soot and grime to go work in an air conditioned office building in Oklahoma City.
Here is a post about how lucky I am: Power Plant Men’s Club Prizes and a Story of Luck.
Now for the hard part of the story to write about:
So, why did the Boiler Feed Pump Turbine fail the overspeed test? What happened to cause the explosion?
The first attempt to place the blame where it didn’t belong was to blame Sonny Kendrick who had worked on the controls during the last outage. The same person that would accuse me of purposely causing any little opacity problem on the precipitator even when I was on vacation, was now blaming Sonny Kendrick for the multi-million dollar destruction of the Turbine Room Floor.
Sonny Kendrick must have looked like an easy target. A soft-spoken man that works alone most of the time. No one really understands some of the things he works on. Maybe they thought he wouldn’t be able to explain the changes he had made to the controls in enough detail in order to blame him for the explosion. I use the word “target” because someone else had to be “blamed” for the explosion instead of the person responsible. The person they picked as the “fall guy” was Sonny Kendrick:
You see… someone was directly responsible for the explosion. Someone who continuously used “Risk Management” as an excuse to cut corners. I wonder if everything was completely on the unconscious level, or did this person ever realize the impact of his decisions. You see, I haven’t completely decided.
There appears to have been a conspiracy to cover up the truth about the explosion that took three months to recover. The first clue was to try to blame Sonny Kendrick without any proof. I don’t know if Sonny was eventually cleared as the fall guy because he was able to clearly show how all of his wiring changes had no impact on an overspeed test, or someone who knew about the actual cause threatened to come out with the truth if they continued to pursue Sonny as the fall guy. You see… there was more to this equipment failure than met the eye.
The turbine exploded because the coupling to the pump shattered. That’s the part that connects the steam turbine to the boiler feed pump. When the coupling broke the turbine, no longer having any resistance, began to rotate at a rate much faster than it was ever designed to rotate until it flew apart.
It was known at the end of the last outage that the coupling was damaged. It would have delayed bringing the unit online another 2 or 3 days in order change out the coupling. In the name of “Risk Management” it was decided to “risk it” until the next outage. The decision was made without using any type of risk assessment tool… obviously.
I know about the conversations that took place because one of the people involved confided in me. The person that told me the details of the conversations said that even under oath he would never tell anyone else the truth. This is the second clue that made me think that a concerted effort was made to cover up the knowledge that it was known that a faulty coupling was operating on the Boiler Feed Pump Turbine and it had been decided to leave it in place. You see… everyone who was on the team that found the damage knew about it.
The third clue this was a “conspiracy to cover up the truth” was that when an investigation was performed to look into the cause of the explosion, the person responsible for keeping the bad coupling in place played a major role in the investigation. Like the Fox guarding the Hen House.
Because the truth about the coupling never came to light, the insurance company ended up paying the entire bill for the outage. It was ruled as “equipment failure”. Our plant manager Bill Green remarked one day that we actually came out ahead when the insurance company paid for the outage, because they paid our lost revenue without taking all the operating costs into account.
I know sometimes that things just happen and sometimes bad things happen. Sometimes when everything is done correctly, something still goes wrong. I know that. That is why when this explosion first happened it made me step back and think twice about the dangers lurking around a Power Plant. A tremendously large amount of energy is being converted from coal into electricity. Somewhere, some time, something is going to go wrong and someone is going to be hurt or killed.
That is also why when this explosion happened, it never occurred to me to place the blame on anyone. To me it was just one of those things that happens every now and then. My bubble of innocence was burst the day I heard about the decision to keep a defective coupling in place on such an important piece of equipment.
On one hand I was angry that someone would make a decision that could have ended with the death of an operator, on the other hand, I was relieved to know that accidents like this don’t just happen. It was only when someone decided to cut corners that this explosion occurred. It gave me a little of my faith back in the system. When things are done right, we can work safely without the fear that something is likely to explode in our face.
All right, so I never really worshiped the Turbine Generator. I just exaggerated that part a bit. But let me ask this question… Who in this story did? Who was it that was willing to sacrifice the life of an operator to keep from delaying the “go-live”? Who thought that having the Generator produce electricity two or three days sooner than it should have been was more important? That is the person that really needs to re-evaluate their priorities and take another look at which God they worship.
The question is never, “Is there a God?” The real question is “Which God do you worship?”
One thing I learned while working with Power Plant Men is always expect to be surprised. I just didn’t quite expect one September morning in 1996 to have a Power Plant Engineer sit down next to me and tell me about the day when he decided to brutally murder his wife. The eight Power Plant men sitting in a circle with their backs to each other working on computers all turned their chairs around and listened intently as Mark Romano, a Power Plant Engineer poured out his soul.
I had first met Mark Romano five years earlier at the Muskogee Power Plant when I went there for three days to be trained on how to troubleshoot the telephone system we used at the Power Plants. It was called a ROLM system. I gathered that Mark had coordinated the training and was sitting through the class as well. The name of the course was “Moves and Changes”. What a great name for a course on how to work on a telephone system.
Mark was a clean cut engineer from the power plant in Mustang Oklahoma. He had just been hired by the Electric Company and was the type of person that you immediately liked because he seemed to have a confident stature and smile. The look in Mark’s eyes was a little wild as if he was mischievous, which also made him an instant candidate to become a perfectly True Power Plant Man. I didn’t know at the time that Mark had been in the Marine Corps.
The day that Mark decided to reveal his deep dark secret he was the coordinator of the SAP project the 8 Power Plant Men were working on at Corporate Headquarters. To learn more about that project see the post: “Do Power Plant Men and Corporate Headquarters Mix?”
It was clear when Mark entered our over-sized cubicle that day that it was specifically because he had something on his mind that he wanted to share. Even though he began telling his story directly to me, after the rest of the Power Plant Men had turned their chairs and were sitting there in silence with their jaws dropped and their mouths open in astonishment, Mark stood in the middle of a circle sharing his story with all of us.
The story began ten years earlier when Mark was a U.S. Marine. He was on an extended mission in Central America on some covert missions. I figured it had something to do with Oliver North and El Salvador, but Mark didn’t go into that much detail about the actual mission. He just mentioned that he had been out of pocket for some time while he was away on this particular tour of duty.
While sitting on the military plane flying home to Tinker Air Force Base in Midwest City, a suburb of Oklahoma City, he was anxious to finally see his wife again. He hadn’t seen her for a long time and was looking forward to coming back home. The anticipation of returning home grew the closer he came to his destination.
As Mark disembarked from the aircraft families of Marines poured out onto the landing field to greet their Heroes who had put their lives on the line and their families on hold while protecting and serving their country. Wives and children were hugging the Marine soldiers as Mark walked through the crowd looking around frantically for his wife. He was searching for his wife who was not there.
I don’t remember the details of the story at this point, but I believe that Mark took a cab or a friend drove him to his home in Oklahoma City. When he arrived home he met his wife at the door that told him that she had basically left him. She had found someone else and Mark was no longer welcome in his own home.
I think at this point Mark went to temporarily stay at another soldier’s home while he worked out what exactly he was going to do with his life. He didn’t really come back to a job waiting for him. He had always been a Marine. Mark has served his country in a covert war in a distant country that didn’t exactly measure up to Mark’s idea of “defending America from the Halls of Montezuma to the Shore of Tripoli” even though the “Halls of Montezuma” may not have been too far away from where Mark had been deployed.
Out of a job, a wife that had waited until he was on the front doorstep of his house to tell him that she had left him, and no where to go, Mark began to spiral down quickly. The first stage of grief is denial. Mark could not believe this was happening. After serving his country, he comes home and finds that his wife has kicked him out of his own home. “How can something like this be happening? Just fall asleep on this couch and maybe when I wake up, it will all turn out to be a big mistake.”
The second stage of grief is Anger. This is a necessary stage in order to go through the process of grieving. Sometimes we can process our anger quickly and move onto the next stage of grief toward healing. Other times, Anger can become overwhelming. Feuds can begin. Wars between nations. Husbands can murder wives. An all consuming hatred can take hold which leads only to death.
This was where Mark’s grief had left him as he sat on the couch at his friends house. He had nothing left in the world. Nothing but Anger. Sitting there staring at the wall of the apartment while his friend was at work, a plan began to take hold in Mark’s mind. The plan centered around one thing… Revenge. Complete and total annihilation. Murder and Suicide.
As if on auto-pilot Mark waited until the opportune time when his friend was gone. Then he gathered his equipment, put on his khaki’s and put his assault rifle in his car. He had planned his route. He was driving to the neighborhood just down the street from his house, where he was going to park the car. Then he was going to proceed through the neighbor’s backyard and attack from the back door. He was going to kill his wife and then himself. He was on the last mission of his life.
With all of his equipment ready, his car parked, ready to begin his assault, he stepped out of the car and onto the curb, ready to make his way across the backyard, suddenly he heard the quick burst of a siren from a police car and over a police car speaker a police man yelled, “Stop Right There!” Instantly because of his experience in the Marines, Mark ducked down behind a transformer box that was right next to him.
The Police were waiting for him! How could this have happened? He hadn’t told anyone about his plan. Maybe his friend had figured it out. However the Police had figured out his plan, they were there now 50 feet away in a police car. Mark decided that he would just have to go down right here. This was it. No one was going to take him alive.
A Policeman jumped out of the car, gun drawn… Mark prepared to leap up and begin shooting… In the next few seconds… Mark was laying behind the transformer dead. Pierced directly through the heart.
Just as Mark stood up to shoot the policemen, the officer ran around the car away from Mark. He ran up into a yard on the other side of the car where he confronted someone who had just come out of the house he was robbing. Mark quickly ducked back down behind the transformer.
The officer had not been confronting him at all. He was arresting someone who had been robbing a house. He hadn’t even seen Mark!
Mark sat crouched behind the transformer and the sudden realization that he had just come face-to-face with God became clear. Suddenly all the anger that had built up disappeared. God had stopped him in his tracks and instantly pierced his heart with Love.
Mark laid there as if dead for some time while the arresting officer drove away with his prisoner. When Mark finally stood up, he was no longer the Mark that had been alive the past 25 years. This was a new Mark. Some would use the phrase… Born Again.
In that one instance when Mark ducked back down behind the transformer, he relived the moment that Saul experienced on the road to Damascus. In a flash he had come face-to-face with Jesus Christ. The new Mark put his gear back in his car and drove back to the apartment and began to live his new life as if it was day one.
Sometimes it is when there is nothing left that you find everything.
Mark finished telling the Power Plant Men his story by saying that now he lives each day as if it is precious. He has been saved for some purpose. He lives with God in his heart. I think we were all turning blue because we had forgotten to breathe for the last five minutes of Mark’s life story. We finally all breathed a sigh of relief and felt the love that Mark had for each of us as he looked around the cube.
So, what did Mark do after he returned to the apartment back in 1986, ten years before he told us this story? He decided to enroll in college at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater Oklahoma, where I lived. He obtained a Mechanical Engineering degree and went to work in 1991 for the Electric Company at the plant in Mustang.
I wondered if he ever thought about the fact that he went to work for the same company that owned the transformer that Mark ducked down behind the day he fought his battle against God and Won.
A company engineer had decided one day years earlier while helping to plan a neighborhood that they needed to place a transformer right at this spot. We make decisions each day that have consequences that we never know. He never thought… “Yeah. Place the transformer right there. This will be needed some day by someone who needs to have a one-on-one with God who will convince him to be an Engineer for the very same company.
Mark has kept in touch with me through the years. He sent me an e-mail around 2004 when I was working at Dell telling me that he had decided to obtain his pilot’s license. He felt as if he should pilot an airplane. He was even thinking about leaving the electric company to become a full time pilot.
A few years later, he became an FAA Licensed Private Pilot. He sent me an e-mail that day letting me know. Mark is now listed in the Federal Aviation Administration’s Airmen Certification Database and was recognized by the FAA on September 18, 2013 as a pilot that sets a positive example in the Aviation Business Gazette.
When Mark was telling us of his life and death experience, I was having flashbacks of a similar experience that had happened to me when I was in High School. I bring this up only to mention that when I had come to the point where I had lost everything in my life, even my own sanity, I came face-to-face with a friend who pulled me out of it in an instant. Only, it wasn’t Jesus Christ, as it was in Mark’s case. It was a friend of his. Saint Anthony.
Saint Anthony picked me up that one day when I was at the end of my rope, and since that time, I have felt the same joy in life that Mark experiences. I believe that “coincidence” is a word we use to explain things that seem too unlikely to happen on purpose. Some of us think that nothing is a coincidence. Everything that happens has a purpose.
Some may say it was a coincidence that the exact moment that Mark stepped out of the car and a policeman yelled “Stop Right There!” to someone else…. Yeah. I’m sure that happens all the time…
I didn’t wake up today knowing that I was going to write this story about Mark. Before last week’s post about my friend Bud Schoonover, who died the previous week, I had told two stories about our experience in Corporate Headquarters where Mark Romano had been our project manager. So, I thought, “Is there anything else about our time there that I could write about, and the story that Mark had told us had come to mind.
It was only at the end of the story that I thought about how Saint Anthony the “Finder of Lost Items” found me in the woods that winter day. Saint Anthony’s feast day is today… June 13.
I thought it was fitting that Mark Romano became a pilot. I think it has to do with his desire to be close to God. To be soaring like an eagle close to the “heavens”. Here is Mark’s LinkedIn photo: