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!
Comments from the original post:
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 June 6, 2014;
I’m sure the plant manager at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma thought that a little competition might just do our Safety Program a little good. The maintenance crews always knew what they were going to be doing first thing on Monday morning. They were going to attend a Safety Meeting with their team. All of the maintenance crews attended a team safety meeting every Monday morning to remind them to be safe during the week. This had been going on for at least 9 years at the power plant. Every Monday morning we all looked forward to the 30 minutes we would spend reminding ourselves to be safe that week.
It didn’t seem to matter if I was on the Summer Help yard crew, or a janitor, on the labor crew or an electrician. The Monday Morning safety meetings were all pretty much the same. Someone would read from a Safety pamphlet that each of the foreman would receive once each month. We would try to read one of the articles each week in order to stretch it out so that it lasted the entire month of Monday Morning Safety Meetings. This often meant that we would be listening to a completely irrelevant safety article that really didn’t apply to us.
Some of the articles were things that reminded us to be safe in the work place. Other articles reminded us to clean up the kitchen counter after you have finished cutting up the chicken in order to cook fried chicken for dinner. The chicken juices could lead to food poisoning if they sat there for a while and then some other food was placed on the same counter if it was still soaked in juices from the chicken. We justified to ourselves that it didn’t hurt to remind ourselves about things like this because if we went home and had food poisoning by not watching our chicken juices, then it could be as serious as a lost workday accident on the job.
When I joined the electric shop, I used to keep a stack of all the Safety Pamphlets. Who knew if they would ever come in handy. Years later when I left the Power Plant to pursue another career I left the stack behind in case some other safety zealot needed some motivating safety material. I tried to find a picture of the safety pamphlets that we used to read on Google, but I could only find Safety Pamphlets that were more colorful and had more eye-catching covers. The only aesthetic difference between our safety pamphlets from one month to the other consisted of using a different color font. So, one month, the pamphlet would be written in blue. The next month, green. Then red. Maybe purple some times. The December one would have a little drawing of holly at the top. That was about as exciting as they were.
Occasionally the foreman would get a different kind of safety pamphlet on a certain topic. Instead of changing the font color, this pamphlet would change the background color to one bright solid color. I could find a picture of one of these:
In the first paragraph I mentioned that the maintenance crews generally knew what they would be doing right off the bat on Monday morning when their work day began. Yep. They would spend 15 to 30 minutes staring off into space while their foreman, or the designated hypnotist would read a safety pamphlet in a monotone voice. I think it was permitted to fall asleep as long as you didn’t snore. Once you snored it was too hard to claim that your eyes were closed only so that you could better picture how to lift with your legs and not your back.
In order to add something dynamic to the Monday Morning Safety Meeting, it was decided that some friendly competition might help. So, here is what happened:
A Safety Committee was formed and their task was to collect safety slogans from the teams and once each month they would decide which slogan was the best and then it would become the “Safety Slogan of the Month”. Then for the next month this particular safety slogan would be posted on all the bulletin boards throughout the plant. At the end of the year, a winner was selected from the 12 winning Monthly Safety Slogans. Whichever team won the safety slogan of the year award would be honored with a free Pizza (or two) for lunch.
A noble attempt at trying to add a little spice (and tomato sauce) into the safety program.
At first our team didn’t give this much thought. I was one of the first people from the electric shop on the committee and since I was on the committee, I didn’t think it would be fair to submit a safety slogan myself, because I would have to be one of the people voting on it. One person from each area was on the Safety Committee. One person from each of the three A foremen’s teams in the Maintenance shop. One person from the Instrument and Controls team and one electrician. One person from the office area. One from the warehouse. There might have been one person from the Chemistry Lab, but since there were only three chemists, I’m not sure how long that lasted.
Anyway, sometime in March, 1992, when we were sitting in a Monday Morning Safety Meeting staring blankly at the only thing moving in the room besides the lips of the Safety Article Hypnotist, a black beetle scurrying across the floor, Andy Tubbs finally broke through our hypnotic state by making a suggestion. He said, “How about we start entering safety slogans for the Safety Slogan Contest and try to win the free pizza at the end of the year? Instead of just sitting here on Monday Mornings doing the same thing over and over, let’s spend our time brainstorming Safety Slogans!”
This of course was a brilliant idea. It meant that we would actually be blurting out all kinds of goofy safety slogans until we hit on a really good one to turn in for the month. We began immediately. I was the scribe capturing all the creativity that suddenly came popping up from no where. Andy was real quick to come up with some. Others took their time, but when they spoke they usually had a pretty clever safety slogan.
By the end of the first day we had about 10 new safety slogans to choose from. We picked the best one of the bunch and turned it in at the front office. I don’t remember the specific safety slogan we started out with, but I do remember some of them that the team invented. Here are a couple unique slogans that I have always remembered – not written by me….
“Lift with your legs, not with your back, or you may hear a Lumbar crack.”
“Wear skin protection in Oklahoma or you may get Melanoma.”
I invite anyone at the plant that remembers more slogans to add them to the Comments below….
You can see that we tried to take a standard safety slogan like “Lift with Your Legs and Not your Back” and added a clever twist to it. I had taken out the stack of safety pamphlets from the cabinet and we reviewed them. Each of them had a safety slogan on the back. We weren’t going to use any that were already written, but it gave us ideas for new slogans.
We won the Monthly Safety Slogan that month. So, we figured we were on a roll. The next month we picked our next best one. By that time we must have come up with over 25 pretty good safety slogans, and we figured we would enter our best one each month. We were in for a little surprise.
After submitting a real humdinger of a Safety Slogan the second month (something like, “Wear your Eye Protection at work so you can See Your Family at Home” — well. I just made that up. I don’t remember the exact slogan 22 years later), the slogan that won that month was a much more bland slogan than our clever one. We felt slighted. So, we talked to Jimmy Moore (I believe) who was the electrician on the other team of Electricians in our shop that was on the Safety Committee selecting the safety slogans this year. He said that there were some people on the committee that thought it wasn’t good for the same team to win two times in a row. Others thought that any one team should only be able to win once a year.
As it turned out, we were able to win the monthly safety slogan only a few more times that year only because we were the only team that turned in a safety slogan during those months.
When it came time for picking the winning safety slogan for the year, Sue Schritter’s slogan from the warehouse won even though it was fairly lame compared to the clever ones we had been turning in. (Note the warehouse and the front office were all under the same manager…. so, when one of them won, they both really did). So, the front office (slash) warehouse were able to enjoy the free pizza.
After complaining about the process at the beginning of the next year, we were determined that we were going to do what it took to win every single month and that way they would have to give us the pizza at the end of the year. So, in 1993 that was our goal.
It was determined at the beginning of the year that all safety slogans would be judged without knowing who had turned them in. It was also determined that a team could turn in as many safety slogans as they wanted each month (probably because we had complained that our team was unfairly being singled out).
So, we made a concerted effort to turn in at least 15 safety slogans each month. That way, the odds of one of ours being picked would be very high, especially since our team was the only team that was really serious about wanting to win the free pizza at the end of the year.
Gary Wehunt from our team was on the committee selecting the slogans in 1993, so he would tell us about the conversations the committee was having each month when they would get together to select the slogan, and we knew it wasn’t going to be easy to win every single month.
During the year, it became a game of cat and mouse to try to win the safety slogan of the month every single month. We knew that a couple of people on the Safety Committee were doing everything they could to not pick one our our slogans. So, here is what we did… along with the best safety slogans we had, we threw in some really lame ones. I think we had some that were so bad they were nothing more than…. “Think Safety”. Our better safety slogans were more like: “Watch for Overhead Hazards! Avoid becoming Food for Buzzards” or “Wear you Safety Harness when working up high. One wrong step and you may die.” — I mean…. How could any other safety slogan compete with the likes of those?
The funny thing was that we thought that just in case the Safety Committee was trying to look for a safety slogan that our team didn’t write, they would intentionally pick a really bad one. Like “Think Safety”.
And it actually worked. Two months during 1993, the team actually chose a Safety Slogan that was really lame, just to try and pick the one that our team didn’t enter only to be surprised to find that it was from our team.
Through October our team had managed to win every Safety Slogan of the Month, and it looked like we were going to finally win the Safety Slogan of the Year and receive the free Pizza. I had written down every safety slogan our team had invented. We had over 425 safety slogans by that time. I had a folder in the filing cabinet with the entire list.
Then in November, the people who were on the Safety Committee who were intent on us not winning the yearly safety slogan was able to slip one by. They had submitted a safety slogan from their own team and had told a couple other people to vote for it. It didn’t take too many votes to win for the month since when we turned in 15 to 20 slogans the votes were spread out.
Most of the slogans that did receive a vote would only get one vote. So, any slogan that had two or more votes would usually win. So, all they had to do was throw together a safety slogan and tell someone else on the committee that was not happy about our team winning every month during the year, and they would win that month.
Louise Kalicki turned in a safety slogan in November. It was a simple safety slogan like “Be Safe for your family’s sake”. We had turned in a number of slogans that had said pretty much the same thing in the 400 or more slogans we had submitted, but that was the slogan that won during that month.
Well. That was all it took. When the winner of the Safety Slogan for the year was chosen, there was no way that everyone didn’t already know whose team the safety slogan was from because they had been posted on the bulletin boards throughout the year. So, you can guess what happened. After the electric shop had won 11 of the 12 safety slogans in 1993, The girls in the front office won the free pizza… again (just like they did every year).
So, what happened in 1994? Well…. That’s another story… isn’t it?
Comments from the original post:
Originally posted June 13, 2014:
When discussing Telephones at the Coal-Fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma, I have to remember that some of my readers have a completely different perspective of telephones than me. My children grew up probably never seeing a real rotary dial phone except in movies or old TV shows. It might be a little hard for them to imagine a telephone being a possible murder weapon. Telephones have come a long way since I grew up in the 1960’s and 70’s.
When you turned the dial on a Rotary phone you put your finger in the hole on the number you want to dial and then you swing it around until your finger bumps up against the metal bracket. When you pull your finger out of the hole, the phone sends a rapid succession of pulses to the telephone company telling them what number you just dialed. It was very… well…. tedious and manual…. and not even electronic. It was electric signals and switches. “Mechanical” is the word I think I’m trying to say.
Even the way you received a dial tone was by sending something called a “Ring-to-ground” signal to the telephone company. That would happen when you would lift the receiver off the hook. There are only two wires used to communicate in an old phone and only one of those had voltage on it. when you ground that wire (called the “Ring”) momentarily, the phone company would then send a dial tone to your phone.
You could actually do this on a dead phone line at times when the phone company had shut off your service. On an old pay phone, when the proper coin was inserted in the phone, the coin itself was used to ground the ring wire, thus telling the telephone company to send the dial tone, allowing you to use the phone. In 1983 there was a movie called “Wargames”.
I had learned about how these telephones worked from Bill Rivers just before going to watch this movie. During the movie Matthew Broderick’s character needed to make a phone call at a pay phone but didn’t have a coin. By taking the mouthpiece off of the transmitter, and using a metal pop top he found on the ground, he was able to ground the “ring” wire to the pay phone, and he received a dial tone. There was a good ol’ boy sitting behind me in the movie theater that said, “You can’t do that!” — Being the newly educated smart (-alec) guy I was, I turned around and said, “Yeah. You really can.”
Anyway. This isn’t a story so much about how old phones work. I just wanted to bring the younger readers back-to-date on phones since now they don’t really call them telephones anymore. It is more like, “Smart Phone” and “Cell Phone”, “Mobile Phone” or just “Phone”. The phone in the house isn’t even referred to as a telephone. We now call them “Home Phone” to distinguish them from the actual phones that we use.
Anyway, when I joined the electric shop in 1983, I learned about the phone system. We didn’t use the older Rotary Dial phones at the plant. We were one step up. We had “Touch Tone” Phones.
As I have mentioned in previous posts, we had our own telephone computer at the Power Plant. It was called a ROLM phone system. See the post “A Slap In the Face at a Gas-fired Power Plant“.
To give you an idea of the technology used by this phone system, you connected to it using a “teletype” terminal that you connected to a telephone by clipping the receiver in a cradle. Then you dialed the phone computer. When you connected, it was at 300 Baud. Think of 300 bytes per second, only using audio…. like a fax machine. — It was like connecting using a modem. 300 baud meant that when it typed out the results on the paper that scrolled out the top, you could watch it as it slowly printed out each line. The maximum speed of the terminal was 300 baud.
In this picture you can see the cradle in the back where the phone receiver would fit in those two rubber cups.
After many years of going to the lab to connect to the telephone computer to make changes and to monitor the telephone traffic, in 1992 I decided to bring my 8088 computer to work and set it on the desk in the electric shop. We didn’t have our own computer yet. At that time the only people that had computers were office workers and the Shift Supervisor. We had started a computer club and having a computer in the shop was a big help. I had just replaced this computer at home with a 486.
I had a modem on my computer, so I tried connecting to the telephone computer, and it worked! So, sometimes during lunch when Charles Foster and I were sitting there talking about movies we had seen while eating vegetables from his garden, I would connect to the ROLM computer and just watch the call log. I could see whenever someone was dialing in and out of the plant.
We had a special call in number into the plant that allowed you to make “trunk” calls. This is another term you don’t hear much anymore. You see….. for the younger readers (again)…. long distant calls used to cost a lot of money. You would be charged by how many minutes you were on the call. During the day, it could be as high as $3.00 a minute to call across the country. Amazing huh? Because today, most of you with cell phones and even your land lines (which are rarely real land lines anymore) long distant phone calls are now free with your phone plan.
Yeah, if you wanted to call someone in the next town over, you would have to pay a fee for every minute you were on the call…. That was when AT&T had a monopoly on the phone lines in the United States. Sure, you only payed $7.00 each month for your phone, but you could only call people in your immediate area or you would be charged extra.
A Trunk line gave you access to a much wider area. The Electric company had a trunk line that gave them access to most of Oklahoma. You could dial into a local number that would connect you to the company phone system. Then after entering the correct password number, you could dial access numbers that would take you to another office location in the electric company. Once on that phone system, you could dial to get an outside line, and then dial a local number in that area.
Our plant had three access numbers that allowed you to dial out locally to Stillwater, Ponca City and Pawnee. This was useful when a foreman needed to call people out to work. They could dial into the plant, then back out to one of these other towns and then dial the local phone number of the crew member they were trying to reach without incurring a personal charge on their phone line.
So, here I was in 1992 during lunch watching the phone traffic in and out of the plant (not exactly NSA style, but sort of), when I saw something unexpected. A long string of numbers showed up. Someone had dialed in on the Stillwater trunk, then dialed out to the Corporate Headquarters trunk, then out to Oklahoma City and from there they placed a long distance call to a phone number in the same area code. The prefix on the phone number was familiar to me. It was a Ponca City phone number. I had lived in Ponca City for three years when I had been married, from 1986 to 1989. I knew a Ponca City phone number when I saw one.
I thought this was odd, because it wouldn’t be normal for someone to dial from Stillwater through out plant to Oklahoma City only to call a Ponca City phone number when they could have dialed the local Ponca City access code. Then they wouldn’t have had to make a long distance call which bypassed our trunk call system causing the electric company to be billed for the long distance telephone call.
At the time I was a CompuServe user. This was when the World Wide Web was in it’s infancy. I was still using a DOS computer. When I connected to the Internet, it was either by using my dad’s Internet account from Oklahoma State University where I would use Telnet to access a bunch of mainframe computers all over the country, or I would use the DOS-based version of CompuServe. CompuServe was the king of Internet access before America Online came around and seemingly overnight made CompuServe obsolete.
In 1992, CompuServe had a service where you could look up phone numbers and find out whose number it was. Imagine that! Yeah. That was one of the neatest features on CompuServe! That and getting stock quotes. — Like I said…. There was no “www.whitepages.com” online. The only catch to using the reverse phone number feature, was that it was like making a long distance call. It cost money. You were charged by the minute for using the CompuServe reverse telephone number service, with the least amount being a dollar.
So, I bit the bullet and accessed the Phone Number lookup section of CompuServe. I quickly typed in the number. When the name and address of the user popped up, I quickly hit “Print Screen”, and then exited the service. My fee came to $1.00, but at least I knew what number had been dialed in Ponca City.
Charles, Scott Hubbard and I were a little excited by the time Terry Blevins walked into the electric shop office after lunch was over, I told him what I had seen.
When I told Terry the name of the person that had received the long distance call, he recognized the name right away. When I gave him the address, he was sure he knew who it was. The phone number belonged to the Music Director at the Ponca City High School. His son was attending college in Stillwater, Oklahoma.
Well, that sort of cinched it. We had a pretty good idea who had made the call. It was a college student calling home, who had been given the phone number most likely by a fellow student who knew the code to call home in Oklahoma City. So, the only local access code this guy knew was how to dial through our plant to Oklahoma City and back out where he was free (but it was not free for us) to make a long distance call home.
Armed with this knowledge, I headed up to the front office. I went straight to the Plant Manager, Ron Kilman’s office. I told Ron what I had found. I explained in detail how the person had dialed from Stillwater into our plant and then to Oklahoma City and out and then placed a long distance call to Ponca City leaving us with the phone bill. Since it was the middle of the day, the cost of a long distance call was not cheap.
I told Ron that I had used CompuServe to lookup the phone number and that Terry had said that it belonged to the Music Director at the Ponca City High School and that he had a son in college in Stillwater. I was all ready to pounce on this guy. This was a fraudulent use of the telephone service and there were some pretty strict laws then about stealing long distance from someone else.
Ron, being the more level-headed of the two of us thought about it for a minute and said, “What would be the best way to stop this from happening?” — Oh. Well. I was so intent on catching the culprit, I hadn’t thought about that angle…. “Well….” I said, “We could change the pass code used to log into our phone system. We would just have to tell our supervisors what the new number is.”
Ron asked me what it would take to do that. I told him I could do it in two minutes. We quickly settled on a new 4 digit pass code and I left his office and returned to the electric shop and made the change essentially turning the tables on the Telephone Interloper. I suppose the college student in Stillwater was lucky that our plant manager at the time was the type to forgive and forget.
Three years later the entire electric company phone system was replaced by a new AT&T computer which was managed by AT&T. As you can tell… Technology just keeps moving forward making seemingly really neat new inventions quickly obsolete.
Comments from the original post:
Originally posted June 21, 2014. I updated dates and added some new things.
I don’t know if anyone of us knew what to expect Wednesday morning January 13 , 1993 when we were told to go to a meeting in the break room that was going to take all day. We were supposed to be in some kind of training. Everyone at the plant was going to have to go through whatever training we were having. Training like this always seemed funny to me for some reason. I think it was because the hodgepodge of welders, mechanics, machinists, electricians and Instrument and Controls guys seemed so out of place in their coal-stained worn out old jeans and tee shirts.
I remember walking into the break room and sitting down across the table from Paul Mullon. He was a new chemist at the time. He had just started work that day. We became friends right away. Scott Hubbard, Paul and I were carpooling buddies. He always looked a lot younger than he really was:
See how much younger he looks? — Oh. That’s what I would always say about Gene Day because he was always as old as dirt. Even when he was young. Paul is only four years older than I am, but he still looks like he’s a lot younger than 70. Even his great great grand daughter is saluting him in this photo. Actually. I love Paul Mullon as if he was my own brother. He still looks younger than my younger brother who is four years younger than I am. People used to think that he was his own daughter’s boyfriend.
When our training began, the plant manager at the coal-fired power plant in North Central Oklahoma, Ron Kilman came in and told us that we were going to learn about the “Quality Process”. He explained that the Quality Process was a “Process”, not a “Program” like the “We’ve Got The Power Program” we had a few years earlier. This meant that it wasn’t a one time thing that would be over any time soon. The Quality Process was something that we will be able to use the rest of our lives.
At this point they handed out a blue binder to each of us. The title on the front said, “QuickStart – Foundations of Team Development”. A person from a company called “The Praxis Group”, Rick Olson from Utah (when I originally posted this last year, I couldn’t remember his name. Then I found my Quality book and it had Rick’s name in it). I had looked Rick Olson up to see if he was a member of CompuServe and there was Rick Olson from Ogden, Utah. When I asked him if he was from Ogden, he told me he was from Provo, Utah.
One of the first things Rick asked us to do was to break up into teams of four or five and we were asked to come up with 3 facts about ourselves. Two of which were true and one that was false. Then our team mates were asked to vote on which fact they thought was the false one. The only one I remember from that game was that Ben Brandt had dinner with the Bill Clinton on one occasion when he was Governor of Arkansas. — At least, I think that was what it was… Maybe that was the fact that was false.
The purpose of this game was to get to know each other…. Well…. We had all been working with each other for the past 15 years, so we all knew each other pretty good by that time. Except for someone new like Paul. I think my false fact was that I had hitchhiked from Columbia, Missouri to New Orleans when I was in college. — That was an easy one. Everyone knew that I had hitchhiked to Holly Springs National Forest in Mississippi, not New Orleans.
Anyway, after we knew each other better, we learned about the different roles that members of our teams would have. Our “Quality” teams were going to be our own crews. Each team was going to have a Leader, a Facilitator, a Recorder, and if needed (though we never really needed one), a Logistics person. The Logistics person was just someone that found a place where the team could meet. We always just met in the Electric Shop office. I wanted to be “Facilitator”.
We learned about the importance of creating Ground Rules for our Quality Meetings. One of the Ground rules we had was to be courteous to each other. Another was to “Be willing to change” (I didn’t think this really belonged as a “Ground Rule”. I thought of it more as a “Nice to have” given the present company). Another Ground Rule was to “Discuss – Don’t Lecture”. One that I thought was pretty important was about “Confidentiality”. We had a ground rule that essentially said, “What happens in a team meeting… Stays in the team meeting.”
I recently found a list of the Quality teams that were formed at our plant. Here is a list of the more interesting names and which team it was: Barrier Reliefs (that was our team — Andy Tubbs team). Rolaids (Ted Holdges team). Elmore and the Problem Solvers (Stanley Elmore’s team… of course). Spit and Whittle (Gerald Ferguson’s Team). Foster’s Mission (Charles Foster’s team). Sooner Elite (Engineer’s team). Boiler Pukes (Cleve’s Smith’s Welding crew I believe). Quality Trek (Alan Kramer’s Team). Designing Women (Linda Dallas’s Team). There were many more.
I think all the Power Plant Quality Teams had the same “Mission Statement”. It was “To Meet or Exceed our Customer’s Expectations”. I remember that the person that was teaching all this stuff to us was really good at motivating us to be successful. As we stepped through the “QuickStart” training manual, the Power Plant He-men were beginning to see the benefit of the tools we were learning. There were those that would have nothing to do with anything called “Quality”, just because… well…. it was a matter of principle to be against things that was not their own idea.
Later they gave us a the main Quality binder that we used for our team meetings:
When we began learning about the different quality tools that we could use to solve problems, I recognized them right away. I hadn’t learned any “Quality Process” like Six Sigma at that time, but I was about to graduate from Loyola University in New Orleans in a couple of months with a Masters of Religious Education (MRE) where I had focused my courses on Adult Education. Half of my classes were about Religious topics, and the other half was about how to teach adults. The same methods were used that we learned about in this training.
It just happened that I had spent the previous three years learning the same various quality tools that the Power Plant Men were being taught. We were learning how to identify barriers to helping our customers and breaking them down one step at at time. We also learned how to prioritize our efforts to break down the barriers by looking at where we had control and who we were trying to serve… such as ourselves or others. I remember we tried to stay away from things that were “Self Serving.”
We learned how to do something called a “Barrier Walk”. This was where we would walk around the plant almost as if we were looking at it for the first time to find barriers we hadn’t noticed before. We also learned how to brainstorm ideas by just saying whatever came to our minds no matter how silly they may sound without anyone putting anyone down for a dumb idea. Rick called each barrier that your customer encountered a “SPLAT”. Our goal was to reduce “SPLAT”s. I think at one point we even discussed having stickers that said “SPLAT” on them that we could put on barriers when we located them.
When we implemented a quality idea, we were taught to do a “Things Gone Right, Things Gone Wrong” exercise so that we could improve future projects. This had two columns. On one side you listed all the good things (which was generally fairly long), and on the other, all the things that went wrong (which was a much shorter list). This was done so that we could consider how to avoid the things that didn’t work well.
We learned how to make proposals and turn them into a team called “The Action Team”. I was on this team as the Facilitator for the first 6 months. Sue Schritter started out as our Action Team Leader. The other Action team members in the beginning were: Richard Allen, John Brien, Jim Cave, Robert Grover, Phil Harden, Alan Hetherington, Louise Kalicki, Bruce Klein, Johnnie Keys, Kerry Lewallen, Ron Luckey and George Pepple.
The Power Plant Men learned that there were five S’s that would cause a proposal to fail.
One of those was “Secrecy”. If you are going to propose something that affects others, then you have to include them in the decision making up front or else even if you think it’s a great idea, others may have legitimate reasons for not implementing it, and you would have wasted your time.
The second was “Simplicity”. It follows along with Secrecy in that if you just threw the idea together without considering all the others that will be affected by the change, then the proposal would be sent back to you for further study.
The third was “Subjectivity”. This happens when something just sounds like a good idea. All the facts aren’t considered. The solutions you may be proposing may not be the best, or may not even really deal with the root of a problem. You might even be trying to solve a problem that doesn’t really exist, or is such a small problem that it isn’t worth the effort.
The fourth was “Superficiality”. This happens when the outcomes from the proposal are not carefully considered. Things like, what are the long term effects. Or, What is the best and worst case of this proposal… Those kind of things are not considered.
The last one is “Self-Serving”. If you are doing this just because it benefits only your own team and no one else, then you aren’t really doing much to help your customers. Most likely it may even be causing others an inconvenience for your own benefit.
I know this is becoming boring as I list the different things we learned that week in 1993. Sorry about that. I will cut it short by not talking about the “Empowerment Tool” that we learned about, or even the importance of Control Charts and go right to the best tool of them all. One that Power Plant Men all over can relate to. It is called the “Fishbone Diagram”.
There are few things that Power Plant Men like better than Fishing, so when we began to learn about the Fishbone diagram I could see that even some of the most stubborn skeptics couldn’t bring themselves to say something bad about the Fishbone diagram. Some were even so enthusiastic that they were over-inflating the importance (and size) of their Fishbone diagrams! — This along with the Cause and Effect chart were very useful tools in finding the root cause of a problem (or “barrier” as we referred to them).
All in all, this was terrific training. A lot of good things were done as a result to make things more efficient at the plant because of it. For the next year, the culture at the plant was being molded into a quality oriented team. This worked well at our particular plant because the Power Plant Men employed there already took great pride in their work. So, the majority of the crews fell in behind the effort. I know of only one team at the coal yard where the entire team decided to have nothing to do with it.
When training was done, I told Rick that I thought that his company would really benefit by having a presence on the Internet. As I mentioned in last week’s post “Turning the Tables on a Power Plant Interloper” During this time the World Wide Web did not have browsers and modems did not have the bandwidth at this point, so CompuServe was the only service available for accessing the Internet for the regular population.
I asked Rick if he had heard about CompuServe. He said he had not heard of it. I told him that I thought the Internet was going to be the place where training would be available for everyone eventually and he would really benefit by starting a “Quality” Forum on CompuServe, because there wasn’t anything like that on the Internet at the time. I remember the puzzled look he gave me as he was leaving. I realized he didn’t have a clue what I was talking about. Few people knew about the Internet in those days….
I have a number of stories about how the Quality Process thrived at the Power Plant over the next year that I will share. I promise those stories will not be as boring as this one.
Power Plant Men learned about the “Law of the Hog” the first day they were introduced to the new “Quality Process”. I recently wrote a post about how the Power Plant Men at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma were trained to use various tools to help them formulate ideas quality improvement ideas at the plant in June, 1993. See the post “A Chance for Power Plant Men to Show Their Quality“. Even though we were hearing about the “Law of the Hog” for the first time, I recognized it right away. I had seen it in action the previous November 3, 1992.
What better way to convince a room full of skeptical Power Plant Men that the Quality Process is about improving the conditions at the plant than by first telling them what they already know in such a way that from then on they believe you really do know what you’re talking about. — I know. That was a confusing sentence, so let me explain. The instructor told us the story about “The Law of the Hog”.
This evidently was a story that had been going around since the late 70’s. It had to do with a saw mill in Oregon. This is the story the instructor told us…
A group of quality consultants, or… I think they called themselves Leadership consultants back then were visiting the saw mill because they evidently needed some help. While the consultants were learning about how the plant operated, they talked with the workers one-on-one and asked them how things were really done at the mill. That’s when the workers told the consultant about “The Hog”.
The Hog is a grinder that takes scrap wood and grinds it up into sawdust. The consultants had asked them how they worked with supervisors when they were “lacking” in leadership skills. (I would say “evidently” again here, but I’ve already used that word three times. And the last time was just now while explaining that I would like to use that word again, but… — I’ll have to think of another word…. let’s see… oh. I know…. Apparently…). Anyway, apparently, that was when they told the consultants about The Hog that lived in the shack off to one side of the main mill.
So, what happens is that when their supervisor uses a heavy hand to try to whip the workers into shape, the Hog is used for more than just chewing up scraps. When the workers were treated with disrespect, then “The Law of the Hog” went into effect. What happened then was that the workers would throw perfectly good pieces of wood into the Hog where it would be turned to dust (saw dust that is). Since the supervisors were measured on their productivity which took a beating when good wood would be destroyed (Yeah. I couldn’t help using the words Wood and Would together… And then using “Words”, “Wood” and “Would” all together while explaining my obsession). So, the workers would pay the supervisor back each time he displayed inferior leadership skills.
Oh yeah. The Power Plant Men knew all about that. The guys at Muskogee, however, didn’t use such indirect methods. They had one Assistant Plant Manager (I won’t tell you his name but I think his initials were Morehouse. well. Something House anyway), that treated his men with a little more than disrespect, and was surprised one night when the front door to his house was blown off the hinges. He was quickly reassigned to Oklahoma City. But then I have always said that something is in the water in Muskogee. See the post “Something is in the Water at the Muskogee Power Plant“.
When the Quality instructor was telling us the story about the “Law of the Hog” a few examples immediately entered my head. Well, one was the Six Hour Rule. I mentioned this in an earlier post where there was a complicated rule about how an employee could collect “black time” and double time when they were called out at night. As management tried to manipulate the rule to the detriment of the employee, the opposite effect actually happened. After trying to skimp on paying the double time the employee was accustomed to, that was the time when I made the most money from that rule. See the post “Power Plant Black Time and Six Hour Rules“.
This leads us to a dark and stormy day at the Power Plant…. November 3, 1992. The story actually begins the day before. Unit 2 had been offline for a “more than” minor overhaul (I believe it was a six week overhaul instead of the usual 4 weeks). I was the acting foreman for the crew that was working on the precipitator. Terry Blevins normally was in charge of the Unit 2 Precipitator, but for this overhaul, Scott Hubbard and I were assigned to make all the necessary precipitator repairs. The main reason was that new rapper controls were being installed, and Scott had a lot of experience doing this since he had installed them on Unit 1 already.
At that time, Scott and I were like twin brothers. Whatever he was doing… I had to be there to help. Scott would work on the roof of the precipitator generally, while I worked inside. We had been given some operators to help us along with a few contract workers to do the “grunt” work. That is, when you would ask them to do something, they would usually reply with a low moaning grunty sort of sound (I just made up that word…. grunty. It seemed to fit).
Needless to say (but I’ll say it anyway just in case any “Non-Precipitator Gurus” are reading this)…. in order to install the new digital rapper controls, a lot of wire had to be pulled and laid down on terminal blocks from some rapper cabinets to other cabinets across the precipitator. When I say a lot, I mean somewhere over 10 miles of wire. 15 feet at at time. — I was sure glad Scott was doing that while I was strolling away inside the precipitator quietly looking for plates out of alignment and broken wires dressed in my space suit. For a better understanding of what a precipitator does, see the post “Moon Walk in A Power Plant Precipitator“.
I was not inside the precipitator on November 3, 1992, however, I had already finished up inside the precipitator by that time and I was working on the roof in cabinet 2G1 (on the southeast corner) on that day. We had the radio on and I was sitting on my bucket listening to Rush Limbaugh throwing a fit (as he has been known to do from time-to-time). None of our help was doing any work that day. The “Law of the Hog” had come into play and a day of rest had been declared by the helpers.
I was working away laying down the wires on the terminal blocks inside the rapper cabinet while the rest of the crew (minus Scott Hubbard who was on the far side of the precipitator roof working in another cabinet) was sitting around dangling their feet from the walkway near my cabinet. Merl Wright and Jim Kanelakos (two operators) were there along with three contract help. During that day I spent a lot of time running back and forth between the office area and the precipitator roof.
Here is what happened:
On November 2, 1992, just before every one left for the day, the word came down that in the morning everyone was supposed to report to work at the usual 7:00 time. We were scheduled to work until 7:00 in the evening. A full 12 hour day, except for the 30 minutes for lunch (and three breaks). The reason we had to be told to show up at seven o’clock in the morning was because November 3rd was election day.
It was the normal practice to let the Power Plant Men vote before they came to work in the morning. We were being told that we were not supposed to vote in the morning and that we could leave early in the evening to go vote instead of voting in the morning. We were told in no uncertain terms that if we went to vote in the morning, then the amount of time we were late getting to work would be the amount of time we would have to leave at the end of a normal working day.
Let me try to explain what this meant, because on the surface, it looks fairly reasonable. Since the polls closed at seven in the evening when we would be leaving work, we could leave as early as we wanted in the evening to go vote in order to arrive in time before the polls closed. There were two things fundamentally wrong with this solution from a Power Plant Man point of view, though from a Plant Manager point of view, it looked quite reasonable.
The first problem was that this was the election between George Herbert Walker Bush and Bill Clinton (Now you know why Rush Limbaugh was throwing a fit). A very large turnout was expected, and a majority of the workers wanted to make sure and go to the polls to vote that day. With that said, it would be hard to determine what would be a good time to leave the plant to go vote in order to stand in line and cast a vote before the polls closed. Up to that time, polls had not been kept open later than their designated closing time, except to let people who were already waiting in line by the time the closing bell rang.
The second problem and the main problem was this….. Suppose a person did go vote in the morning…. It was a typical practice for the company to cover that person’s time and pay what was called “Black Time” while they went to vote in the morning. In this case, the plant manager was telling us that we basically couldn’t go vote in the morning without being “punished”. If the person waited and voted in the evening, they would lose their overtime which directly affects the bottom line on the home front.
Here is how the punishment would be administered…. If a person went to vote in the morning and was an hour late, and came in, say at eight o’clock instead of seven. Then they would have to leave when they had completed a regular eight hour day. That is, they would not receive any overtime that day.
Well. this didn’t effect me, because I had already early voted a couple of weeks earlier. I think Scott did too, when we realized we were going to be on overhaul working 12 hour days. Scott Hubbard and I carpooled together, so we were always careful to coordinate our efforts.
So, guess what happened…. Yeah. You guessed it…. especially if you knew Jim Kanelakos. He knew an “injustice” when he saw it, and so, he wasn’t going to let this one slide. He made sure to go vote the first thing in the morning, just like he had ever since he was old enough to vote. He arrived at the plant around 9 o’clock.
When he arrived on the Precipitator roof he told me that he had voted that morning and that the line at the polls where he voted was down the block 15 minutes before they opened. He said he didn’t care what anyone said, he was going to work until 7:00 that evening. He said, “Just let anyone try to send me home early,” with a big grin on his face and his pipe hanging from the corner of his mouth…. Oh. Let me remind you what Jim looked like:
This is a picture I found a few years ago on Google Images. It looked like Jim, so I copied it. Since then I have received a picture of the crew Jim was working on, so you can see an actual photo:
Well… When Tom Gibson, the Electric Supervisor came around asking if anyone had arrived late that morning, as acting foreman, what could I say? I told him that Jim Kanelakos had come in two hours late. Tom told me to send Jim home at 4:30. He would get his black time for voting early, but he would not receive any overtime for the day. I told Tom I would tell Jim. I also told him that Jim had already said that he was going to stay until 7:00 and expected to receive the normal pay that he would have received if he had worked the entire day.
This sent Tom into a rage. He wanted Jim taken off our crew and sent back to Operations right then and there. He said that he disobeyed orders and if it was up to him, he would fire him. I told Tom that we had a ton of work to do and that we needed everyone we could have until the overhaul was over. If we sent Jim back to Operations for the remainder of the overhaul, we might not be able to finish our work. We were working on a very tight schedule as it was.
I told Jim that Tom had told me to tell him to go home at 4:30 in the afternoon. Jim just laughed. He said he was going to go home at his regular time…. 7:00 pm. I said, “Ok. I am just telling you what Tom said. I’m going to have to tell him your reply.” Jim, who was my friend, said, “I know. Do what you have to do.”
I went back to the electric shop and when I walked in the shop Denise Anson, the receptionist paged me on the Gray Phone. She said I had a call. I told her to send it to the electric shop office. I was surprised when I answered the phone and Charles Campbell was on the other end of the line. News travels fast…. He was an attorney in Stillwater. He had heard that there was something going on at the plant that might have something to do with vote tampering.
I told him in detail what I knew about Jim Kanelakos and how he had went to vote in the morning after being told that he had to wait until the evening to vote, or he would be docked pay by missing out on scheduled overtime. I knew that Charles Campbell, unlike some attorneys, was an upstanding citizen in the community and was in no way an ambulance chaser, but when he heard this, I could immediately hear the eagerness in his voice. I had the impression by his remarks that if this panned out the right (I mean “the wrong”) way, he might be able to retire early. We ended the conversation by him saying, “Let me know if you hear about anyone that doesn’t get to vote that wanted to because they left work too late.” He was in total disbelief that the plant had made that policy.
Well, I found Tom Gibson in his office and I told him what Jim had replied to me. Tom became even more furious. (I only saw him this mad or his ears this red one other time… but that is another story). He repeated that he was going to try to have Jim fired for being insubordinate. This seemed to me to be unlike Tom who was always a very reasonable person. I don’t think it was anything personal against Jim, I think there was just something about someone who blatantly (in his mind) had ignored a policy that had been clearly given to him the evening before.
I ended up in the Plant Manager, Ron Kilman’s office. Ron, who took ultimate responsibility for the decision to tell the employees to not vote in the morning listened to Tom tell him what he thought about the whole thing. I had been in Ron’s office not too long before this incident to tell him that someone had been hacking through our phone system and it surprised me that Ron wanted to find a way to resolve the issue without raising a ruckus or harming anyone, even the perpetrator. See the post “Turning the Tables on a Power Plant Telephone Interloper“. When Ron was questioning me about the issue about what to do with Jim, I could tell that Ron really wanted to resolve this issue with as little conflict as possible.
I told Ron that I had talked to my attorney in Stillwater about what was happening and that he was very anxious to find out if anyone either lost any money because they voted early, or they were not able to vote at the end of the day. Ron said, “Well. We made this decision yesterday afternoon without really thinking it through. When the idea was suggested, it sounded like a good plan at the time. Then today I went and checked to see what we have done in the past, and we have always let people go vote in the morning.” Ron’s final decision was to let Jim continue working until seven o’clock and receive the proper black time for voting in the morning. I let Jim know.
Everything would have been all right except for one thing….. The Law of the Hog. You see, I had spent considerable time going back and forth throughout the day between the precipitator roof and the office area discussing this topic with both parties involved. The entire precipitator crew with the exception of Scott Hubbard, did absolutely no work the entire day. They kept waiting to see what was going to happen. We were now one day behind schedule.
Comments from the original post:
Originally posted July 4, 2014. Added some pictures:
I never would have guessed that playing Power Plant Man jokes on Gene Day would have led me to the “Uh Oh!” moment I later encountered when I was told in no uncertain terms that the President of the Electric Company, James G. Harlow Junior was personally upset with something I had done. I had learned my first year as a summer help at the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma that “One ‘Uh Oh’ wipes out all previous ‘Atta Boys’!” I could tell by the way the Electric Supervisor, Tom Gibson’s ears were glowing red that this was considered a little more serious than I had first realized.
I have mentioned in previous posts that playing jokes on Gene Day was one of my favorite Power Plant Man Pastimes. See the post, “Power Plant Humor and Joking With Gene Day“. Also see, “Psychological Profile of a Power Plant Control Room Operator“. My lunch breaks were usually consumed with learning more about how to program the Honeywell mainframe computer used by just about all the company processes that actually ran the company from payroll, to billing, to work orders and Inventory. I figured that as I learned more about the computer system, the more elaborate jokes I would be able to play on Gene.
Already I had learned about the escape codes used by the large IBM printers that were used throughout the company at the time. This allowed me to create graphic images on the printer as well as large bold letters.
Besides the telephone and inter-company mail, printers were the only other way to communicate to non-present Power Plant Men in 1989. We had not yet been introduced to e-mail. I was one of the few people in the company that had an e-mail address on the mainframe, and the only other person that I knew that I could write to was Craig Henry, a Corporate Engineer downtown.
Much like the first time when I met Gene Day, when I first encountered Craig Henry, I could tell right away that he was a down-to-earth person that would shoot straight. Craig probably wouldn’t remember this far into the future that I would reach out to him occasionally just to say “Hi” and to pick his brain about how the corporate IT infrastructure was setup. I figured since he was one of the few people in the company that even knew what an e-mail address was at the time, he most likely had more knowledge about such things than the average person in Corporate Headquarters.
After finding out that Gene Day would go work out at the Rock Gym in Stillwater, Oklahoma after work, and I had played the joke on him with the notes from the private investigator, I used my knowledge of Printer Escape codes to write documents on the mainframe that when printed out would turn on the graphic commands on the printer so that I could print out pictures. I don’t mean that I would have a saved picture that I would send to a printer like we might do today. No. I had to create these pictures one pixel at a time using commands in a UNIX document on the mainframe. It was all codes that would not make sense to anyone that didn’t know the graphic commands of the IBM printers.
I had been teasing Gene Day about meeting up with a young “coed” from the University at the Gym each day. I would do this by printing out messages on the Control Room printer by the the Shift Supervisor’s office when I knew that Gene Day was there filling in as the Shift Supervisor. They were usually notes from someone that called herself “Bunny”. Usually they were short notes or “love letters” from Bunny just saying something about how she enjoyed her time with Gene at the Gym.
At the bottom I would sign it “Bunny” then under it, the printer would read the graphic commands and create a small Playboy Bunny symbol under the name. At the end, the document would send a command that would put the printer back into the text mode.
Of course. Whenever I walked into the control room shortly after, just to see how the precipitator was doing, Gene Day would confront me about the notes. With a grin on his face he would say, “This isn’t funny! What if my wife found one of these notes?” — Like that was ever going to happen…. unless he was like me, and likes to save everything.
In order to create the bunny at the bottom I had to create the pixels in small blocks of 9 pixel patterns. Here is the code I used to create the bunny:
In the last couple of weeks I have written about how the Power Plant Men were introduced to the “Quality Process” (otherwise known as “Six Sigma”). We had created teams with our crews and we met once each week to come up with Quality ideas. By August, 1993, I had received my official Certificate Certifying that I had completed all the QuickStart training and was on my way to making a difference in the Power Plant World!
So, what do these two events have in common and how did this lead the President of the Electric Company to send out a search warrant on a lowly (lowlife is more like it) Plant Electrician in North Central Oklahoma? Well. This is what happened…
First you have to remember that in 1993, the Internet was not easily accessible by the general public. Company e-mail was still not a reality in our company. We had dumb terminals and large IBM printers. That was the extent of most employees interaction with a computer. Each printer had a designation. It was a four character ID beginning with a “P”. So, the printer in the Electric Shop Office might be…. P123. I needed to know this number if I wanted to send something to it.
At the time, the only thing people had to send to each other were requests for things from the mainframe systems that were used to run the company. So, for instance, if you wanted to request some parts from the warehouse at our plant, we would send over a list of parts to the warehouse printer where Dick Dale and Darlene Mitchell would pick it up and go retrieve the parts. So, the people that used the terminals and computers with mainframe emulators on them knew the most commonly used printer numbers in the plant.
If you wanted to send something to someone in Oklahoma City, or to the Power Plant in Muskogee, then you would have to call over there and ask the person what their Printer ID is so you can be sure you are sending your request to the appropriate printer. Without e-mail, and any other form of computerized communication. This was the only way at the time.
So, after our Customer Service Team was formed, we would meet once each week to brainstorm new ideas that would benefit the company. Andy Tubbs was our team leader, as he was our foreman.
The other members of our Customer Service Team were Diana Brien, Scott Hubbard, Sonny Kendrick, Ben Davis and Gary Wehunt. I haven’t properly introduced my bucket buddy Diana Brien in a post before. I have recently obtained a photograph that I can share:
We were called bucket buddies because we carried tool buckets with us whenever we went to work on something. They doubled as our stool and tripled as our trash can.
Thursday, July 15, 1993 during our Quality Brainstorming session, while we were pouring out ideas like…. “What if we changed out the street lights at the plant so that they would be different colors…. wouldn’t that help morale?…. and “How about if we wrapped fluorescent Christmas lights around the high voltage electric lines between here and Oklahoma City so that they could light up the night with colorful lights during the Christmas Season?”….. And other ingenious Brainstorming ideas that are bound to pull up an occasional brilliant idea….. well. One such idea popped up!
I don’t remember which one of our brilliant brainstorming ideas conjured up this idea, but Andy Tubbs suddenly blurted out…. “What if we had the Printer IDs added as a column in the Corporate Directory? — You see, each quarter we received an updated copy of the Corporate Phone Book. It included the names and office phone numbers of all the Electric Company employees. It also included their mail code. So, if you wanted to send something through inter-company mail to them, you would know where to send it. Our mail code was PP75. That was the code for our power plant.
So, what if we added a column where we had the printer ID that each person would use for people to send printed requests, among other things? This was Brilliant! We could just make this proposal and send it downtown to Corporate Headquarters where it would be lost in the “mail”. Or we could do more research to prove that it was a possible proposal that was really do-able.
So, I suggested…. Well… I can print a form out on every printer in the entire company requesting that they include all the names of all the people that use that printer and mail it through inter-company mail back to me at PP75. — I had recently uncovered a special printer command that allowed me to do this hidden away on the Honeywell mainframe. So, we took a vote and it was decided that we would pursue this proposal. I set to work on creating the form that I would send to every printer. If we could not only send the proposal to the Communications department downtown, but also a list of everyone and their printers, the work would already have been done for them.
I wanted to send a real fancy letter because I had already created a header using the Quality print settings on the printers. I had created a Company Logo that (I thought) ingeniously used the backspace command to create two words with one word on top of the other in the middle of a sentence…. Our company began as Oklahoma Gas and….. in the logo, I wanted the word Gas to be on top of the word And as it was in our company logo in smaller letters than the others. So… after playing around with it for a while, I created the logo and had it saved on the mainframe.
After attaching the header to the form, I included a message that told the person that discovered the form on the printer to add the names of all people who used the printer below and to send the form to Kevin Breazile at PP75. As I mentioned. In order to make the form look pretty, I turned on the Quality Print settings on the printer at the beginning of the document. Like the story of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice….. I didn’t know a good way to turn off all the settings I changed to revert the printers back to their original settings.
I ran the command to send the document to every printer on the print server and away they went…. A copy printed out on the printer in the Electric Shop office so I knew it was working. Copies printed out on the other 12 printers at our plant. They also printed out on the 500 other printers throughout Oklahoma. — With the thought that “My work here is done.” I went back to work repairing plant electric equipment.
The following Monday I had the day off. When I returned to work on Tuesday, Denise Anson called me from the front office. She said that I had a large stack of mail. I thought, “Oh good!” Results from our request on Thursday have arrived! I hurried up to the front office.
When I entered the mail cubicle I was surprised to see how big the pile of envelopes were. The stack of inter-company envelopes was over two feet high. “Um…. Thanks….” I said to Denise. I picked up the stack and headed back to the Electric Shop to sort out the forms.
After opening the first few envelopes. I suddenly came to an astonishing discovery. Not only did the form print out on the large mainframe IBM printers used in office areas, it also had printed out on other types of printers…. I opened one envelope and found the form printed out on a “Work Order” printer. The paper size was different than the standard paper size, and I hadn’t put a page feed at the end of the document, so, it had left the paper in the middle of the page…. “Uh Oh”.
My “Uh Oh” changed to “UH OH!” after opening a few more of the inter-company envelopes. I found that the form had printed out on Pay Check Printers! And Billing Printers! “UH OH!” quickly changed to “OH NO!” When I read comments like “Under no circumstances print anything on this Printer Again!!!!” I realized I had really messed things up. By changing the font size and the quality settings, the billing, payroll and work order printers all had to be manually reset and the jobs that printed out paychecks, customer bills and employee work orders had to be re-run!
After taking all the forms out of their envelopes, the stack of papers was over 4 inches thick, just to give you an idea about how many responses we had.
A couple of hours later, Tom Gibson called me to his office. “Uh Oh.” (remember… One “uh oh” erases all previous “atta boy”s). When I entered Tom’s office, I could tell that something was definitely wrong. Like I mentioned earlier. Tom’s ears were beet red…. and in case you don’t know what a beet looks like. Here is one:
Of course… I knew what this was all about, only I didn’t know yet, how Tom had found out about it…. Tom began by saying…. “Ron Kilman just received a call from James Harlow asking him who is Kevin Breazile and why is he printing something out on my printer? Ron didn’t like the fact that he wasn’t aware that you had sent something to the President of the Company’s printer.
Sorry. That’s the biggest picture I could find of James Harlow….
Um what could I say? So, I said this…
“Well. This was a quality idea that our team had. We wanted to collect the names of people that used each printer so that we could send in a proposal to have the printer ID added in the Corporate Directory.”
I didn’t mention that Harlow’s Secretary had returned the form with all the people that used his computer as I had requested, because I knew that the President of the Electric Company was not asking because he was upset that I had printed something out on his printer. No. He had probably been told that the reason the bills were late being sent to the one million customers that month was because some kook had messed up their printers and the jobs had to be run over again causing the delay. So, I thought it was best not to go down that route at this time…
So, I stuck with my story, which was the truth…. I had printed out the forms on all the printers as part of a quality idea by our CST. — I also didn’t mention that three years earlier, Tom had asked me to learn everything I could about the company computer, because he believe that the computer was going to be the wave of the future.
Even though Tom believed my explanation, he told me…. “Kevin, Ron never wants this to happen again, therefore, you are never to send anything out of this plant without Ron Kilman’s personal approval. Is that clear?”
I replied to Tom that this was unreasonable. I send things to other departments all the time. I send Substation Inspection forms, and blueprint revisions and all sorts of other forms downtown all the time. Ron Kilman wouldn’t want to waste his time approving all those things….
Tom thought about it and revised his statement…. “Then, don’t ever send out anything that isn’t part of your normal daily job without Ron’s approval first.” — Ok. I thought…. this works, since everything I do is part of my normal daily job…. Even printing out forms on all the printers in the company… since that was part of our normal “Quality Process” Customer Service Team activity…. So, I happily agreed. And I left Tom’s office happy that I hadn’t joined the ranks of the unemployed.
That was one thing about working at the plant at this time. As long as your heart was in the right place…. That is, you tried your best to keep the electricity humming through the electric lines…. then the chances of being fired for messing up, even as big of a mess up as this, most often didn’t end up by losing your job.
I sometimes think that this was my biggest mess up of all time… however…. after this episode was over… there was a part two to this story….. Believe it or not…. Someone else in the company was overjoyed about what I had just done. They had been trying to do something similar for a long time, only to be told that it was impossible. — Doing the Impossible… I was good at that… Part two of this story is a story for another day…
Since this is a repost of this story, I have written part two, which you can read here: “Printing Impossible Power Plant Fast News Post“.
Originally posted: July 12, 2014:
Tom Gibson, the Electric Supervisor at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma didn’t have a clue the large can of worms he opened the day in 1988 when he told me to find out all I could about the company computer in Corporate Headquarters…. The one that ran all the important financial systems for the company. I remember going straight down to the Electric Shop office and sending a request for a username on the Honeywell Mainframe to the IT department, with Tom’s approval.
This story is a continuation of two previous stories…. Last week I wrote a post called: “Power Plant Customer Service Team Gone Wild“. This is the next shoe that dropped in that story…. Earlier this year I wrote a post called: “Toby O’Brien and Doing the Impossible“. Well, this is the second story in the list of “Impossible Things” Power Plant Electricians were able to accomplish when others said it couldn’t be done.
As a reminder… and in case you didn’t read last week’s post…. as a summary….. let me just say that I had printed out a form on every printer in the company as part of a “Quality Idea” our team was investigating. In doing so, I sent commands to the printers to change their quality settings, as well as the Font Size and a few other settings. When I ran the little known command that sent the document to every printer listed on the mainframe, I didn’t realize that this included all the billing, paycheck and work order printers that all had their special kinds of paper and setting for those particular jobs to run.
This was probably the biggest “Faux Pas” (pronounced “Foe Paw” — yeah…. French… which literally means: “False Step”) of my 18 years as an Electrician. Before I tell you about how the second shoe dropped… Let me explain that a few weeks before I had hit enter on the keyboard sending the disastrous command to the Mainframe, In June, 1993, I had found an interesting program on the Honeywell mainframe called “Magna 8”.
It had to do with creating reports from the main database. This was the entire database that ran the Electric Company Business! I thought this would be a great program to learn in order to create all kinds of reports for our plant that would help us understand where our efforts were being spent. I thought I might actually be able to tie our Maintenance Orders to the time the employees spent on them to their wages, and to the cost of the parts used…. Nothing like that existed at the time, and the little I was able to read from the Magna 8 User Manual on the mainframe, this seemed like just the ticket..
We had never heard of SAP, or other ERP systems at the time. — Oh… sorry… ERP stands for “Enterprise Resource Planning”. It does just that. It combines all the company’s business together in one application so that you can account for all the costs down to each machine, person, and part. If I could learn more about Magna 8, maybe I could start piecing these pieces together from the database. I was having one problem…. When I would page down in the user manual, it kept skipping the bottom half of every page….
I couldn’t figure out how to stop it from scrolling past the second half of each page. So, I called in a favor from the IT guys downtown and asked them if they could send me a printed copy of the Magna 8 User’s Manual. They said they would be glad to send me a copy. About a week later, I received the User Manual through company mail. It was about 4 inches thick.
There were different sections. One was called: “The Update Module”. Yeah…. That’s right…. It was used to enter data into the database…. I thought about that module for about 2 seconds and decided It would be best to stay away from that one. Then there was the “Reporting Module”.
That was the one I was looking for. — on a side note…. I know “for” is a preposition, and I know you aren’t supposed to end a sentence in a preposition, however, who doesn’t say, “That’s what I was looking for”? In these circumstances, I figure that I better approach it from a whole different angle…. like…. “That’s the section I really wanted.” — End side note.
A couple of weeks after I received the copy of the Magna 8 User Guide, I sent the infamous form to all the printers in the company, and that’s when I was sort of had all my “atta boys” taken away with that one “Uh Oh”. I was all prepared to watch my step while on the mainframe. About a week after the episode in Tom’s office when he told me not to send anything outside the plant without Ron Kilman’s permission, my foreman, Andy Tubbs came in the office and told me that in two days, I was supposed to go to some training in Oklahoma City.
“Oh. Training!” One of my favorite things! I always liked to learn new things. I asked Andy what the training was for (Oh geez… did I really say that? “For” at the end of the sentence again! — how about “I asked Andy what kind of training would I be taking” — yeah…. that’s what I said…). Andy replied, “Something called ‘Magna 8′”.
Oh No! I hadn’t asked for training! I had just asked for the user guide! Now I was scheduled to go to training in Oklahoma City and I knew that no one at the plant had “okay-ed” it. Now what was I supposed to do? I did the only thing I could think of at the time…. I asked Andy where I was supposed to go at Corporate Headquarters for the class.
Since I knew that this class hadn’t been approved by Tom Gibson or even our A Foreman Bill Bennett, I decided that I was going to go on my own dime…. that is, I wasn’t going to expense anything. I would pay for my own mileage and lunch, etc. Hopefully, no one would notice that I was gone that day. — Anyway, I could always fall back on the fact that my own Foreman Andy had told me to go….
So, when the day came, I drove to Oklahoma City and entered Corporate Headquarters dressed in my cleanest steel-toed work boots and my cleanest tee-shirt!
When I introduced myself to the instructor, Scott Overmeyer, I told him I was surprised that I had been scheduled for this class. He told me that since I had requested the User Guide that he figured that I should attend this course so that I would know how to use Magna 8 to create reports. — Well, that explained it.
The classroom was short on computers so we had to share one computer between two people. I sat in the back row on the right side if you are facing the instructor. A young lady sat next to me. Her name was something like Laura Burgert. We didn’t introduce ourselves right off the bat. We spent the morning learning about how our database was structured.
Our database was not what is referred to as a “relational database”. I’m not even sure if that term was being used at the time…. anyway, we had what is called a “Hierarchical Database”. The relationships are more like a family tree. If you needed to connect the data, you had to go up the tree to where you could go back down another branch… sort of like if you were into Genealogy and you were looking for your 3rd cousin twice removed. This was all new to me.
Anyway, this isn’t an important part of this story, so don’t strain your brain trying to figure it out.
When noon came around and we were just breaking for lunch, Laura Burgert said to me, “You’re Kevin Breazile! Oh my Gosh! You’re the guy that printed out that form on everyone’s printers!” I replied, “Yeah, that’s me. I sure was in trouble for that one.”
She replied that they had been trying to do something like that for a long time. Then she explained… “I work in the Communication Department and we create the Fast News Bulletins that are sent out to the printers….”
You see… this was what you had to do before e-mail was available…. When there was some news about the company that they wanted to disseminate to all the employees quickly, they would send out a Fast News bulletin to the printers and we would post it on the bulletin board in our area.
She continued to explain….. We have asked IT to give us a list of printers that we should send the Fast New Bulletins, because we know that our list is old and we are sending some to printers that messes up billing jobs and other things…. I said, “Yeah. I know all about those.”
She continued to explain some more…. IT told us there isn’t any way to tell which printers are good printers and which ones we shouldn’t be sending Fast News Bulletins. I replied, “Well…. I know which ones are good and which ones are not. I have all the forms that were sent to me. You can tell right away by the paper they are printed on, and if that’s not enough to give you a hint, just read the ‘colorful’ notes they wrote to me trying to convince me not to print on their printers anymore…”
Laura said it would be a great help if I could send those forms to her. I said I would do it as soon as I was back at the plant.
When I arrived at the plant the next morning, and Andy Tubbs told me that Tom Gibson was upset when he found that I had gone to Oklahoma City for training when Bill Bennett had mentioned it to him the day before. He had been all hot because he hadn’t approved any training and here I was going off on my own to Oklahoma City. I told Andy…. Well…. You did tell me to go….
Anyway, after that I gathered up the stack of around 500 forms and carried them up to the mail room where Denise Anson helped me put them in a small box to mail them to Laura Burgert.
A few weeks went by and Laura called me on the phone. She asked me how I had created the header on the forms. You see, I had created a header with the name of the company and part of the name was normally smaller and had one word over the top of another so….. well…… let me just show you…..
Notice the “GAS/AND” in the middle of the name of the company…. — This doesn’t look like anything to you today, because we now have laser printers and Publishers and all sorts of Word Art at our fingertips. But back then, printing this from a mainframe document took some work…. let me explain, just to give you an idea.
First, I had to space all the way out to where the word GAS starts, then I had to turn on the underline and decrease the font size to the size of the small letters and print out the word GAS then I had to turn off the underline and backspace the three characters, change the font back to the large size, then backspace all the way back to the beginning of the line, then print out the word Oklahoma and a space, then change the font back to small and print out the word AND then change the font back to the large size, and continue with the rest of the line. Yeah… I had to send backspace commands to the printer…. I was pretty proud of my header.
You can see by the Memo above that I had been using it for almost a year. The picture above isn’t even using the “Quality” setting on the printer which even made it look a lot sharper.
Anyway, on with the story…… The Fast News Bulletin’s header had a simple design. The “F” in Fast was created using a bunch of F’s. The A using a bunch of A’s. Like this:
Yeah… pretty embarass… um… I mean exciting huh? Laura was looking for a way to add some Quality to the Fast News Bulletin. I told her that I could create large block letters using the graphic commands on the printer I asked her what her printer ID was and I quickly created a Fast News Bulletin for her with a real header: Laura was excited and said that she may be getting back to me soon…. which she did a few weeks later. She asked if I could attend the first meeting of a new Task Force they had created to enhance the Fast News. I said I would be glad to attend, but I would first have to have permission from my Electric Supervisor before I could go.
She said she would take care of it…. and she did.
Ben Brandt, our Assistant Plant Manager wanted to know why I was being asked to show up to a Corporate Communication Task Force! — “Uh… I don’t know.” I replied. Knowing that everything I did outside the plant grounds was being questioned after my previous “misstep”.
So, one day I showed up at Corporate Headquarters again. Laura Burgert was there to greet me. She told me where to sit along a big long table in a meeting room. I was to sit about halfway down the table, while she sat on one end of the table.
When others came in, the IT person that was on the committee… I believe his name was Mike Russell sat on the far end from Laura. Laura opened the meeting by explaining the reason for the task force and when she finished she said, “For starters we were thinking that instead of using the ugly Fast News header we have been using, we would like to have a header like this…. And she passed a copy of the Fast News Bulletin I had printed out on her printer that day when she called me.
When Mike Russell saw it, he replied, “Our Printers can’t print a header like this.” Laura looked over at me, as if she wanted me to reply to Mike’s remark. So, I said, “This was printed out on the standard IBM network printer.”
Mike replied by saying, “No. Our printers can’t print like this. It’s impossible.” I repeated that this Fast News was printed out on Laura’s IBM printer from the mainframe just like the regular Fast News is printed out. I even told him that I could send him a copy of the header so that he could print it out and see for himself.
He said, “There’s no need to do that. Our printers can’t print this out.” — Though he held a bulletin in his hands that was printed out on our Standard IBM printer.
At the end of the meeting Laura thanked me for coming. She said, “See? This is what we have been dealing with. They probably weren’t going to be able to go anywhere with this.” I just nodded…. I thanked her for inviting me and I returned to the plant 75 miles north.
I guess it didn’t matter too much. A few months later and we were all being introduced to E-Mail, as I had been running telephone cable all over the plant so that we could set up a new NT Server network using Netware 4.0. Which used Novell’s GroupWise for e-mail. Fast News then just showed up in our Inbox.
It’s funny how things work out. What are the odds? I wreak havoc by sending a “rogue” form to printers that should be left alone, only to have those forms become useful to another department after I was “accidentally” enrolled in a training course where I happened to sit next to the one person in the company that could benefit from that printing blunder. Which then led her to look at ways to improve the Fast News Bulletin that she was responsible for creating….
Then the IT department refused to listen, but it didn’t matter anyway because new Technology quickly came along which began the process of weaning us off of the mainframe and onto a new state of the art network that later allowed us to use SAP a real ERP system that made the Magna 8 application that I went to learn in the first place obsolete.
I guess the Fast News Bulletin for the day is that Technology Moves Fast…. If you aren’t on for the ride, then you will be making statements like “That’s Impossible” and having a student in the 8th grade proving you wrong. It reminded me of what my dad always said when I was growing up… “Don’t ever say you can’t. — There’s always a way.”
Comments from the original post:
Originally posted July 18, 2014
Given that a large Coal-fired Power Plant is like a small city complete with a water treatment system to supply drinking water to thirsty Power Plant Men, and it’s own complete sewage system to handle the volumes of human waste and toxic run-off, when I ask, “What is that strange smell?” You may expect the answer to be something like “Honeysuckle?” If you thought, rotten fish, diesel oil, ozone or sweaty arm pits, you would, of course, be wrong. Those are all the usual smells found in a Power Plant. Every so often, a smell would come by that would make you stop in your tracks and wonder…. “What’s that strange smell?”
Over the course of the 20 years I worked in the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma, there were times when a new smell would just come out of no where. There were other times when they would sneak up on me gradually, so that I wouldn’t even notice them until they were gone…. Then I would wonder why it was that I didn’t notice them when they were there.
One such smell that stung me like a bee would happen when I was on overhaul and I was walking out to the precipitator all covered in a fly ash suit from head-to-toe wearing a full face respirator with duct tape around all of the seams.
I was walking in the breezeway between the two boilers when I suddenly smelled a sharp sort of smell. It was a strange chemical I hadn’t ever noticed before. I looked around to see where it was coming from. There wasn’t anyone around, and I didn’t see anything chemical spill in the area that would account for it.
As I walked toward the precipitator, I looked up as I walked under the surge bin tower in time to see an operator coming down the stairs. He was smoking a cigarette. Besides that, everything else looked normal, except that the smell was almost overwhelming me at that point.
I went and climbed in the precipitator where I worked until break. When I came out, I blew the dust off of myself with a tiny instrument air hose that we kept on either side of the precipitator for just such an occasion. After the fly ash had been blown off of my suit, I leaned forward and pulled my respirator off of my face and breathed the fresh air.
Later that week, when I was heading back out to the precipitator and had just left the electric shop all dressed up in my suit, I had a whiff of that same smell. I couldn’t mistake it. It was a unique chemical smell. looking around, there wasn’t anyone or anything near me that would have been emitting such a toxic smell.
As I walked around the condenser to head toward the boiler, I saw that a couple of mechanics were carrying some planks of wood and laying them by the condenser in order to build a scaffold once they opened the condenser. One of the guys was smoking a cigarette. I wondered… Could it be a cigarette that smells so rancid? It didn’t seem likely, since I began detecting the smell when I was more than 40 yards away from the operator when he was descending from the Surge bin tower. I shouldn’t be able to smell a cigarette from that distance.
After a few more instances, I realized that it was cigarettes that I was smelling. I was amazed by how far away I could detect a cigarette when I was wearing my respirator. I figured that after it had filtered out all the particles bigger than 2 microns, the only particles and odors that were entering my respirator were easily detectable by my nose. And they didn’t smell anything like a cigarette.
I became so astute at detecting smokers, that one time I was walking through the breezeway with an unfortunate contract worker that had been commandeered to work with me, I was dressed in my fly ash suit and respirator. My helper wasn’t because he was going to be my hole watch while I was inside. I suddenly smelled that, now familiar, scent. I spun around once and then turned to the guy walking with me, who hardly knew who I was, and said, “Someone is smoking a cigarette!”
He looked around and no one was in sight. He said, “There isn’t anyone here.” I said, “Oh, there’s someone with a cigarette all right.” About that time a truck pulled around the end of the precipitator about 50 yards away with a couple of welders pulling a welding machine behind. Their windows were open, and hanging out of the driver side window was an arm, with a hand on the end holding a cigarette. As it drove by us, I pointed to the cigarette and said, “See. Cigarette.” He kept insisting I couldn’t have smelled that cigarette that far away… But with my respirator on, I could easily smell it.
One of the other strange Power Plant smell that I encountered during my tenure at the Power Plant was also while I was wearing my respirator and working in the precipitator. Only, I didn’t pay much attention to it until it was gone. Then I did everything I could to find the source of that smell, because to me, it was a sweet smell of success, even though it smelled more like a sweaty arm pit, or maybe even something worse.
I mentioned this smell in the post: “Moonwalk in a Power Plant Precipitator“. The precipitator is what takes the smoke out of the exhaust from the boiler, and collects it in hoppers and then blows it a half mile to a silo on a hill by the coal pile, where it is trucked away to be made into concrete.
It was my job during an outage to repair the inside of the precipitator, and I was always looking for ways to improve the efficiency of the ash gathering abilities of this large piece of equipment.
I knew at certain times during an outage that the ash that had built up on the plates would all of the sudden decide to cake up and fall off in chunks leaving a perfectly clean plate. When that happened, then the odds of the precipitator running real well when we came back online was a lot better.
I also knew that after working long hours in the precipitator for a couple of weeks, I would feel all worn out like I had a flu. I would have to drag myself out of bed in the morning and I would even catch myself falling asleep on my feet inside the precipitator while I was inspecting it. I always figured it was just because we were working 10 or 12 hour days and I was getting older. Yeah…. 30 years old, and I was feeling every bit of it.
Then one day when I went to the tool room to get a couple of boxes of respirator filters Bud Schoonover told me that he couldn’t give me the regular hepa filter that I was used to using. I already knew that the regular filters weren’t good enough, so I asked him what else he had. He said, “Well…… I have some of these here…” I have mentioned that if Bud had been African American and a little bit skinnier and shorter, he would have been the spittin’ image of Aunt Esther from Sanford and Son’s. He would make this same expression:
Bud handed me a box of filters labeled: Organic Vapor Filter:
It wasn’t exactly what I was looking for, but I didn’t have much choice. I could see that it had a carbon filter on it as well as the regular filter, so I thought it would be all right.
The first thing I noticed when I stepped into the precipitator wearing the Organic Vapor filter was that the air inside the precipitator didn’t smell any different than the air outside. I wasn’t used to that. I was used to smelling a “boiler” sort of smell. After a couple of weeks that smell would turn more rancid. Sort of a sour smell. When I noticed that I wasn’t smelling the sour smell I quickly broke the seal on my filter and sniffed the air to verify that the filter was really blocking the stench that built up in the precipitator the past few weeks. Sure enough.
Then I noticed that I was no longer feeling tired in the morning. I was able to work all day without feeling fatigued. I came to the conclusion that whatever that smell was that was being blocked by this respirator had been causing me to feel ill. Now that it was gone I was beginning to believe that 30 years old wasn’t that old after all.
I was already curious about the smell in the precipitator because I had noticed that after a day or so after it showed up, the ash would just flake off of the plates in the precipitator. If we could find out what it was, maybe we could inject something in the inlet of the precipitator when it was online and needed to be cleaned after a bad start-up or after it had been running a while to make it run more efficiently.
So, I went to our resident Doctor of Chemistry, George Pepple. I wrote a post about him, see “Power Plant Doctor Does a Jig in a Puddle of Acid“. I explained to him about the smell and about how this particular filter filtered it out when a Hepa filter didn’t. And the effect it had on the ash on the plates. He listened intensely and I could tell that I had made him excited. There are only so many chemicals a plant chemist deals with on a normal basis, so when Dr. Pepple had an opportunity to explore something new, he jumped at the opportunity.
When I took him to the precipitator, he could smell the odor even before we began climbing the stairs up to the open hatchways. He described it as a sewage type of odor. Which I hadn’t really thought of before, but come to think of it, that would explain why an organic vapor filter would work on it. I suggested that the sulfur in the ash might be giving it that.
I had analyzed the chemicals that made up the coal that we received at our plant from Wyoming and I had tried to figure out how it might combine with moisture to create a new chemical. George explained that when the coal burns under such a high temperature, a lot of the chemicals are sort of encapsulated in ways that are not easily predictable.
George suggested that we approach this as a Safety issue and contact the Safety Department in Oklahoma City and have them see if they can put an analyzer in the precipitator to detect the chemical. When I contacted them, I talked with a lady called Julia Bevers (thanks Fred for reminding me of her last name). She told me to call her when the odor was strong during the next outage and she would bring some chemical detectors to the plant and I could place them in there and let them run overnight to collect samples.
Julia had said that she had heard that I was known as “Mr. Safety” at the plant. I don’t know why. Maybe it was because I was in the habit of complaining. And a number of the things I would complain about were safety issues.
Anyway, during the next outage as soon as I smelled the smell emanating from the precipitator I gave her a call and the next morning I received a call from Toby O’Brien, the Plant Engineer Extraordinaire. He called me and told me that Julia the Safety Lady was there in his office looking for me.
So, I went to Toby’s office and met “The Safety Lady.” I know I didn’t look at all like she expected. I was in a worn tee-shirt, not tucked in (on purpose) and worn out steal-toed boots. When I took her out to the Precipitator, I decided to take her across the Turbine Generator room and out the Third floor to the boiler where we walked through the boiler and over to the precipitator up and down ladders.
When we walked across the Turbine Floor, I didn’t have my usual pair of ear plugs hanging around my neck (they were in my pocket). As it was rather loud, Julia turned and said, “Shouldn’t we be wearing earplugs?” I replied, “Huh?” As if I couldn’t hear her. — I just love playing Power Plant Jokes on people that don’t even know what you’re up to… I’m sure when we were done, she went straight back to Toby and told him how shocked she was to find out how unsafe I was. — Me trying to keep a straight face the entire time.
To shorten a longer story, Julia gave me some indicators that would detect two different types of chemicals that she thought may be the culprit. I left the detectors in the precipitator overnight and then sent them back to Oklahoma City for analysis. They both came back negative leaving us with a mystery chemical.
Anyway, I never did find out what was causing that strange smell….
There was another strange smell that used to pop up in the Electric Shop when I had first become an electrician, but that just turned out to be one of our fellow electricians that liked to walk up to a group of electricians standing around talking, and then let loose a “silent but deadly” and then walk away and stand from a distance to see our reaction.
I won’t mention who that was, unless someone would like to leave a comment about that below….. Anyway. we all knew who it was when that happened as the electricians would yell out his name as the crowd quickly dispersed.
I decided to take a different approach. I would stand there thinking, trying to analyze the odor to see if I could tell what exactly this person had for supper the night before. I could tell one day when I said “Beef Stroganoff” and his face turned red that I had guessed pretty close to the mark….. That was the last time this noble Power Plant Man did that to a crowd of electricians….. at least when I was standing there… I can’t attest to any other time…. as I wasn’t there.
But I suppose that is proof that even early in my career I was interested in finding the source of that “strange smell”.