Tag Archives: Accident

Prolonged Power Plant Pause Before the Panic

Originally posted September 6, 2013:

Today when I attend meetings while on the job at Dell (and now at GM) and the discussion is about something new, and the manager is looking for input from the team, I usually sit there quietly while the others share their thoughts. This is not my usual behavior in other settings as I am usually quick to respond with a quip or something sarcastic.

Later, after everyone else has given their two cents, then if asked, I will wade in with both feet. This hasn’t always been the course of action I would have taken. Actually, I used to be pretty hot-headed. I was usually the first person to respond when someone asked a question. I already had my mind made up about just about everything.

My wife began noticing a change in my behavior a few years after we were married. She would ask me a simple question, like, “Would you like a piece of gum.” I would suddenly go into a momentary comatose state where I would stare off into space and think about it. She would say something like, “The answer doesn’t need a lot of thought. It is either ‘yes’ or ‘no’.”

After careful analysis, I finally figured out what happened. The transformation began the day I entered the electric shop at the coal-fired power plant as an electrician. I described that first day in the post “New Home in the Power Plant Electric Shop“. In that post I described my first job as an electrician when I went to the coalyard with my foreman Charles Foster to fix a room heater that wasn’t working.

The first time I used my new tools, Charles told me to remove a screw from a fuse block so that we could lift a wire in order to replace the fuse block.

A small fuse block like this.

A small fuse block like this.

When I was removing the wire (with one hand, as Charles had warned me that an electrician never uses two hands to do this), the screwdriver slipped and shorted out on the mounting screw which caused a brief flash. In the millisecond that the flash occurred, it cut a notch in the tip of my new Stanley screwdriver.

A Stanley screwdriver used by electgricians because of the rubber on the handle

A Stanley screwdriver used by electricians because of the rubber on the handle

This was the beginning of my 18 year career of various minor electrocutions and small explosions. We did things to minimize the chances of shorting out your screwdriver when working on a hot circuit (that means a circuit that has the electricity still turned on). One thing we would do is wrap rubber tape up the metal shank so that if it leaned against something metal with it while the tip was touching something hot, it wouldn’t short out the circuit.

Inevitably, something would happen every now and then and something was going to explode. So you just had to be prepared for that. This is where the “Prolonged Pause” comes in.

Sometimes there is nothing you can do. Let me give you a “For Instance”. One time when we had an overhaul on Unit 1 (we had 2 units at our Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma), Richard Moravek was visiting from the Power Plant in Muskogee, Oklahoma. I have written about him in the Post “Lap o’ Luxury at the Muskogee Power Plant“. Each morning at Muskogee, he and Jay Harris would sing the song, “Nestle’s makes the very best Chocolate”, with Richard whistling as he sang like the Nestle’s rabbit with a whistle in his voice.

The Nestle's Rabbit

The Nestle’s Rabbit

On one particular day, Richard and I were sent to perform a “quick and dirty” elevator inspection on the Unit 1 elevator. It received a lot of wear and tear during overhaul with everyone riding up and down from the 9th floor where you could reach the upper echelons of the boiler. If things didn’t work perfectly every time, then the work would be slowed, and schedules wouldn’t be met.

During our elevator inspection we decided that we needed to change out some lights on the push buttons, because…. well… because some of them were burned out. Which caused them to not light up when they were supposed to, causing some Power Plant workers to become confused because they would forget which button they had pushed when they entered the elevator, thus, allowing them to forget which floor they were supposed to get off (working long hours will do that to you).

Anyway, Richard had taken the screws out of the push button panel and had swung the door on the panel open so that the wiring inside was all exposed. He reached in to pulled out one of the push button assemblies so that he could remove the bulb (oh… electricians call bulbs, Lamps… I mentioned that in the post “Place On Light Duty at the Power Plant“, if you recall).

I had reached down into my tool bucket and pulled out a box of special elevator lamps….. Actually, I think it was a standard 6S6 lamp, but it looked like a bulb to me:

A 12 Volt 6S6 bulb

A 12 Volt 6S6 bulb (or is it a lamp?)

Richard had put his hand out to receive the bulb I had in my hand, so I handed it to him. At that point, a funny thing happened. You see, my other hand was on the elevator scissor gate.

An Elevator Scissor Gate

An Elevator Scissor Gate

As I placed the lamp into Richard’s hand, he suddenly twitched and sort of jumped at the same time. When he did, he pushed into me and he began doing a jig. My legs were twitching and I was sort of doing a jig myself, or maybe a jog.

It became apparent right away what had happened. While Richard’s one hand was in the elevator push button panel taking out the bulb, he had come in contact with the electric circuit. This was fine as long as he wasn’t grounded. That is, he wasn’t touching anything else metal, like the front of the panel.

Being a good electrician, Richard had kept his other hand at his side like Charles Foster had taught me my first day as an electrician. That is, until he raised that hand for me to give him a lamp. When my fingers touched his palm, and my other hand was holding the elevator gate, we suddenly made a circuit to ground. From Richard, to me, to the gate, to the ground, and back to the the main power generator through various grounds and circuits and transformers….

About the time that I realized what was happening, we had separated from each other, and were no longer dancing. It cracked us up and we stood there laughing about it for a minute because both of us had just been dancing in the elevator.

As I explained in the post about being on light duty that I mentioned above, when you went to work on the stack lights, you carried metal prod with you that you used to ground the large capacitors before you worked on the circuit. When you did this, there would be a bright flash and a loud explosion.

If a noise or a flash like that made you jump, you may end up going over the handrail and falling 500 feet to the ground. So, you learned that in the event of a flash, your first reaction is to freeze. Then assess the situation, and then if necessary, Panic.

Many years later (like 16), I became very aware of how well trained we were when something like this happened when I was once again working with Charles Foster in a junction box on the 11 landing of Unit 1 on the west side. We were standing side-by-side and we were working on something hot.

Suddenly there was a bright flash and a loud boom as something shorted out. By that time in our history, we had learned all about wearing fire resistant clothing, so that even though what we were wearing wasn’t fire proof, it also wasn’t going to melt to our skin.

What amazed me about this moment was that we both stood there still for a moment before we panicked. There was about a one second pause where we both restrained ourselves from jumping back. I chalked this up to our years of being around explosive situations. Jumping back as the first reaction can often lead to other injuries.

I took this resistance to panic with me into other situations. Before 1994 when OSHA added a bunch of new laws protecting people in confined spaces, I was crawling inside the main generator bus that goes out to the main power transformer. No hole watch. No one watching me outside that could grab me and pull me out if something went wrong.

A Main Power Transformer

A Main Power Transformer. The bus piping are those three pipes going into the building at the top in the back

I had squeezed myself into one of these pipes to clean the insulators that held the bus in place in the middle of the pipe. This meant that I was crammed into the pipe under the bus bar that ran through the middle of the pipe.

I had made it to the insulator that I needed to clean and wiped it down with the rag I had taken with me. Then I decided I couldn’t go forward anymore to look at any more of the insulators because it was too tight of a fit. So, I started to back myself out.

As I went to push myself back I suddenly realized that I was stuck. It was easy moving forward because I was using the soles of my sneakers to push on the pipe, but as soon as I wanted to go back, there didn’t seem to be anyway to maneuver my body in a way that would back myself out. My arms were stretched out in front of me.  This was one of a few times when I began to feel the panicky feeling of claustrophobia.

I had seen claustrophobia in others and I knew that when you are gripped with it, you can hurt yourself, or even Bob Lillibridge if he happened to be the one grabbing your legs at the time (see the post: Bob Lillibridge Meets the Power Plant Ghost for an explanation.

Here it came… I felt myself swelling up tight in the pipe as the panic was gripping me. I knew I had to do something quickly or it wasn’t going to be pretty…. Well, either way… nothing about this was pretty. So, I forced myself to calm down. I told myself to breathe out, and slowly back in.

Then I decided to use the palms of my hands that were stretched out straight in front of me to push against the pipe to move me back. With that effort, I could see (in the darkness) that I had moved myself back about 1/2 inch. I thought. “Ok, 1/2 inch is something. If I did that 100 more times, that would be more than 4 feet. 200 times and I would be out of this pipe.”

Realizing I could move myself at least a little bit allowed me to calm down and quell the panic. I did nothing but concentrate on pushing with my palms 1/2 inch at a time and eventually, I did climb out of that pipe (What?  You expected me to say I was still in there?).

I don’t know how many times over the years I have woken up in the middle of the night and swung my feet over the side of the bed and taken a few large breaths because I had been dreaming about being in that pipe again. I will discuss the topic of claustrophobia in a later post, but this example fit the topic of training yourself not to panic so I thought I would use it here.

If you ever end up talking to someone that doesn’t quite look at you when they look like they are trying to look at you, then you may think that they are a welder. There are some welders that seem to look at you from the corner of their eye. I suppose it was because the middle of their vision has been burned out because they have looked at the welding arc too many times without their visor down.  Or maybe they had just learned to look away from whatever they are seeing just as a safety habit.

Similarly, if you ever encounter someone that momentarily goes into a comatose state for a few moments when you ask them a simple question, you may now think that maybe this person was a Power Plant Electrician that has learned to have a Prolonged Pause before they Panic… or… respond to your question. If they aren’t from a power plant, then they probably were just trying to ignore you.

Comments from previous repost:

    1. Dan Antion September 11, 2014

      Good advice for anyone in similar situations.

    1. Slowmoto September 11, 2014

      Pause before panic is my response to most stressors perceived by a presenter or an emerging reality. You hit the mark!

  1. Monty Hansen November 26, 2014

    Excellent writing! I felt myself getting panicky with you! As a control room operator I had an electrician drop a screwdriver & blow the unit out from under me at full load + 5% overpressure (2520#)-(It caused a false boiler feedpump saturation temp trip). The power plant has trained me not to startle as well, inside I may be screaming like a schoolgirl, but outside I am calm and handling emergencies as though routine.

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Power Plant Men’s Club Prizes and a Story of Luck

My wife used to wince a little each time I told her I would be late coming home that evening because I was going to the Men’s Club dinner after work. Not because I was going to be spending the evening at the Raccoon Lodge with Ralph Cramden:

Ralph and Norton at the Raccoon Lodge

Ralph and Norton at the Raccoon Lodge

It wasn’t because I would come home Blotto’ed after an evening of drinking. No. The reason my wife would cringe at the thought of Men’s Club was because about half the time I went to Men’s Club I would come back with some sort of prize.

You see… I have always been cursed with being lucky. It came in handy sometimes because there were times when I was flying by the seat of my pants and if I wasn’t just plain lucky, things would have ended quite suddenly and there would not have been any “rest of the story.”

Others in the Electric shop recognized that I was lucky and would try to take advantage of it by having me buy the squares in the football pots and they would pay me back. Those types of things never really worked. I tried to pass my luck on by proxy, but it didn’t seem to rub off.

Sure in the early days, Men’s Club was held offsite at a lodge. At those dinners, there were alcoholic beverages being served. That was back during the summer of 1979 when I was 18. I was barely old enough to drink the 3.2% beer from a convenience store in Oklahoma at the time.

I didn’t have a car, so I had to rely on Steve Higginbotham driving me home in his Junky Jalopy. (See the post: “Steve Higginbotham in his Junky Jalopy Late for the Boiler Blowdown“). He acted as if he had been drinking even if he hadn’t been… or maybe he had and I just didn’t know it.

By the summer of 1980, after David Hankins was killed in an automobile accident while driving home from a Men’s Club event, alcohol was no longer served and most Men’s Clubs at our Power Plant were held On-Site.

The Women’s Club however was still held off-site. You see, in order to be fair, the Women’s Club was given the same amount of money that the Men’s Club was given. Only there were over 300 men and only about 15 women. So the Women had even better prizes than the Men.

I suppose it was when they decided to have Men’s Clubs in the break room at the plant that they decided they needed to do something to make it worthwhile. They tried having interesting speakers, but listening to Bill Gibson (Gib) tell jokes would only go so far. After all, even though he could tell jokes as well as any other storyteller at the plant, we could hear him any day of the week. So it was decided to start having drawings for prizes.

Prizes were good. Everyone likes prizes. After all, when you won a prize it was given to you freely. You didn’t have to put on a show or stand on your head or anything to get it. You just had to walk the gauntlet of Power Plant Men oogling your new fishing rod, or tackle box wishing they had won it instead of you, and asking you if you would like to trade it for an old busted up pair of Channel Locks.

There were some of us that seemed to win prizes all the time. Some may have even won enough prizes to furnish their house with prizes from Men’s Clubs. Me? I did a pretty good job of furnishing my garage.

Here are some of the gifts I won:

Everything in this picture is a Power Plant Men's Club prize except for the cat food

Everything in this picture is a Power Plant Men’s Club prize except for the cat food

If you look closely at this picture you will see that even after 20 years, the “Heavy Duty Double Gear Cable Puller” is still in the box. — Yeah. I never had a chance to use it. Believe me…. I have been waiting desperately for the day when I can say. “I have a tool for that!” Just like Bob Kennedy used to say (See the Post, “Bobbin’ Along with Bob Kennedy“). Alas… the “come-along” is still in the box.

I did use the floor jack on my riding lawn mower when i had to change the tires. The tackle box actually has Tackle in it. the cooler has been used a lot. The camping chair, not so often. I have never used the Emergency blinking light combination air compressor, that hooks up to a car battery for power.

I won many other prizes, but these are the prizes that I still have readily available in my garage. You can see that I dragged them all into the kitchen this evening for the picture. My wife was sitting on the couch when I came into the room with a floor jack under one arm, and a combination light slash air compressor under the other arm holding a tackle box in one hand the cooler in the other.

She asked me what I was doing, (with a look of anticipation). I suddenly realized that the look of hope in her eyes was because she thought that I had a momentary lapse of civility and was going to be throwing out some junk from the garage. I caught a glimpse of disappointment when I told her I was writing my blog post. — What? throw away something from the Power Plant? Do I act like I have dementia?

My son walked into the kitchen to quench his thirst and saw the assorted items arranged across the kitchen floor and asked, “Why is all this junk here in the kitchen?” I explained that I was writing my blog and these were some of the things I won at Men’s Club at the Power Plant. “Oh. Ok,” he said as he gave me a side-glance that said, “whatever dad.”

After having collected all sorts of really good junk over the years at the plant, Terry Blevins who had been a fellow electrician for 11 of the 18 years I had spent in the shop was sitting across from me during dinner and the subject of winning prizes came up.

I never liked to mention to others how I won a prize half the time I went to a Men’s Club, because they used to give the other lucky people such a hard time about it. Accusing them of cheating because they were always winning. It seemed like Fred Turner was another lucky person that came away with a lot of loot.

Anyway, When Scott Hubbard and I were talking to Terry, he mentioned that he had never won a prize at Men’s Club. What? I couldn’t believe it. He had to repeat it many times before it sunk into my thick skull. I must have had more than 20 Men’s club prizes by that time and Terry had never ever won a prize. How does that happen?

I recognized that I was lucky early on. When I was in college I would count on it. I also contributed it with having Saint Anthony as one of my best friends. He is the saint of finding lost items. Here are a couple of examples that happened in just one night.

I had arrived in Columbia, Missouri my senior year in college from Christmas break in a brand new Honda Civic. It was early January, 1982. This was the same Honda Civic I just re-posted about earlier this week (See, “How Many Power Plant Men can You Put in a 1982 Honda Civic“).

My friend Ben Cox had come over to the dorm and we decided to go eat at a natural food store just northeast of the campus called the Catalpa Tree. So, we took my car. The roads were icy. That was fine with me. Not only was I lucky, but I was experienced in driving on ice, having learned to drive in Columbia.

Now, when I say the roads were icy. I mean.. with ice. Not packed snow. So, with Ben sitting next to me in the Honda, in the dark as I made my way up Locust Street going east. I was timing my speed so that I would hit 9th street (The Strollway) just as the light turned green, because if I had to stop, it would be difficult since I would be stopping on the slope of a hill and would probably start sliding back down.

Just as I arrived at 9th street the light turned green and I slid right through the intersection right on time. The only problem was that there were two cars going each direction on 9th street (one in front of the Missouri Theater and the other in front of the Calvary Episcopal Church), and they were not able to stop.

So, I was caught directly between two cars. There didn’t appear to be anyway out of this predicament. That was when I found that my new Honda Civic had a tendency to spin out of control on ice for no apparent reason.

As I slid across the intersection my car began to spin around. Just as I was in the middle of the intersection and the two other cars were skidding by me, I had turned parallel with them. As they passed by, all three cars continued spinning and going through the intersection, pirouetting as in a ballet, so that as the car going north was just passing by, the front of my car came around and pointed back in the direction of travel (I had spun 360 degrees), and I continued on my way as if nothing had happened. Whew… — Yeah. My pants were still dry at that point… — see how lucky I was? Dry Pants!

Anyway. I went one more block and parallel parked directly across from the Greyhound bus depot. Ben climbed out of the car and made some sort of comment, though I couldn’t quite hear him. I noticed he was walking a little funny. Maybe his pants weren’t as lucky.

Anyway. We walked the two blocks to the restaurant slash health food store called “The Catalpa Tree”. We ate something that had fried tofu in it that tasted like the tofu had went bad some time last summer… — No. That wasn’t part of the story about how lucky I am.

Anyway. After eating Ben and I walked back to my car. As we were approaching the car, another car began rolling back out of the Greyhound bus depot directly toward my car. There was no one behind the wheel. All that Ben and I could do was stand there and stare at it heading directly into the side of my car.

The car had rolled out into the street and was bound to smash right into my brand new car. Then all of the sudden another car came sliding down the road right between my car and the approaching one. The rogue car smashed into the side of that car instead of mine.

When the car with no driver from the bus depot came to a smashing stop, two little boy heads peered up from the front seat. You see. Their mother had left the two kids in the car while she went into the bus station to do something. She had left the car running to keep her children warm in the sub-freezing weather. Well…. oops.

After making sure that everyone was all right, I climbed into my car and drove away. Within an hour… two incidents where I could have had my new car smashed through no real fault of my own, instead I came out unscathed. — That has been the story of my life — well.. Not to tempt fate…

My luck hasn’t changed… I still end up bringing home things that I win at different functions. Sure some functions everyone comes home a winner. But there are times when it just isn’t fair to the my coworkers.

I have a number of stories since I have been at Dell, but they are all similar to this one story…. A couple of years ago, I attended a Well At Dell event where a special speaker that was a Champion Runner from Burundi Africa was speaking about everything he went through to reach this point in his life. He survived an attack during the war between the Tutsi and Hutu tribes. His name is Gilbert Tuhabonye.

Gilbert Tuhabonye

Gilbert Tuhabonye

Tuhabonye was a lucky person. Or you may say that he has a large guardian angel. On October 21, 1993 while he was in High School, a group of Hutu attacked his school. They took more than 100 students and teachers, beat them and packed them in a school room then burned the building down with them in it. After being burned, nine hours later he took the charred bone of another student and used it to break out of the building where he ran to safety.

Anyway. I went to go listen to this remarkable man speak in a large meeting room on the Dell Campus in Round Rock, Texas on October 21, 2010. 17 years to the day after Gilbert’s tragedy, and the beginning of his new life.

I arrived early and was the first person in the room that wasn’t someone setting up the room for the event. I walked up the middle row with the pick of any seat. I went the the third row on the left and sat on the chair in the middle of the row.

The people that were setting up the room all smiled at me. They had all knew me, as I had been working out in the gym where they all worked. I said hi back to them.

Anyway at the end of the inspirational talk by Gilbert, he announced that one person in this room was going to get a free copy of his book. They just had to look under their seat and if they had a paper taped under it then they were the winner. — Of course… I had the pick of chairs in the room… so you know what happened. Yep. Here is the book:

Gilbert's Inspirational book

Gilbert’s Inspirational book

I could go on and on… maybe I will later when I talk again about how lucky I was to just miss a falling piece of metal that would have killed me, but I had stopped to tie my shoe…

Sure I’m lucky. Today is September 27. It is one of those days that sticks in my mind because both tragedies and good things have happened on this day in the past. On September 27, 1980 I was lucky enough during a tragic situation when the world was turned upside down, that I became friends with a young beautiful person named Kelly.

Kelly became my wife 5 years and 3 months later. After all the times I have been lucky enough to win some prize even when I wasn’t really trying, I can surely say that on that one day when I really wasn’t looking, I began a relationship with the most remarkable person I have ever met. It has been exactly 33 years since that day (now almost 39 years), and I still believe that it is the luckiest day of my life.

Comment from Original Post:

  1. Roomy September 30, 2013:

    You were even lucky enough to find the best roomy in Muskogee!!

    Addional comments from repost:

      1. zfthrimej October 2, 2014

        bonus points and chuckles for mentioning “except for the cat food”

      1. Ron Kilman October 3, 2014

        Great story! I thought the Men’s Club meetings were a lot of fun. Wouldn’t mind going again – if they are still having them.

      1. Citizen Tom October 3, 2014

        When I lived in Colorado Springs, I discovered something about snow-packed roads. The pressure of your tires melts the snow. When it refreezes, it becomes ice. Its a wonder I did not kill myself driving on that stuff.

    1. Monty Hansen December 14, 2014

      The kids in the car remind me of a story, our crew van used to stop at the mini mart on the way to work & we’d all load up with soda, candy, frozen burrito’s, donuts & everything else we needed to get us throught the shift, one day while walking back to the van, on a freezing cold snowy day, there was an SUV parked next to the van with 2 kids in it. A baby in a car seat and a toddler standing on the drivers seat, maybe about 2 yrs old. the car was left running to heat the children. The toddler standing on the drivers seat had his hands all over the gear shift trying to yank it in gear like he’d seen his mom do a hundred times. I set my stuff down & walked to the car to distract the toddler, the door was locked so I pounded on the glass & yelled & distracted the child enough that forget he was trying to put the can in gear & back over the gas pumps. Well, the mom came out of the store & gave me the dirtiest look you’ve ever seen for “scaring her child”. I just picked up my stuff, walked back to the van & went to work.

The Ken and Randy Power Plant Safety Show

Originally posted March 28, 2014:

Ken Couri was the plant safety guru long before Randy Dailey showed up on April 16, 1984. Ken gave us our yearly Safety training on such things as first aid and CPR. When Randy came on the scene, our yearly safety training shifted into overdrive! Ken was the one that tested my driving when we took the Defensive Driving Course the summer of 1981 during my third summer as a summer help.

The Defensive Driving Course we took when I was a summer help

The Defensive Driving Course we took when I was a summer help

I remember that Ken climbed into the pickup truck parked outside the electric shop as I walked around to the driver side. I thought. This will be a cinch. I’m a great driver. I should come out of this with flying colors. I talked about this class in the post “Power Plant Safety is Job Number One“.

I had done my “Circle for Safety” by walking around the truck to make sure there weren’t any obstacles in the way. Which, by the way, is why AT&T trucks used to stick an orange cone at the back and front corner of their truck (maybe they still do. I haven’t noticed one lately). When an AT&T worker goes to pick up the orange cones, it forces them to look in front and behind the truck to make sure that there isn’t an obstacle behind or in front of it that they might hit when they leave the parking space.

An AT&T safety demonstration of placing cones around a truck

An AT&T safety demonstration of placing cones around a truck

I thought, right off the bat, I must really be impressing Ken Couri. Ken was a heavy equipment operator from the coalyard. He was a heavy equipment operator in more ways than one. In fact, I always thought of him as a gentle giant. Anyway, I thought, he probably hadn’t seen anyone do a circle for safety as geometrically circular as I was doing it. I had calculated the radius from the center of the truck to the front bumpers, added two feet and began my circle for safety checking both the front and back of the truck for obstacles. All clear.

I climbed into the truck, and without hesitation, grabbed my seat belt and strapped myself in. Smiling, I looked over at Ken, who was looking down at his checklist, apparently not paying any attention to me. Hmmm. Ok. Maybe he would be impressed by the way I backed out of the parking space.

I always had the habit of turning around and looking behind me as I backed out. So, I did just that. I carefully backed the truck out of the space while observing everything through the back window, momentarily glancing back to the front to make sure the truck didn’t strike anything as the truck pivoted around. Confident that I had done everything right, I noticed that Ken hadn’t looked up or written anything on the checklist.

He told me where to drive, and I put the truck in drive and headed in that direction. That is when I looked up at the rear view mirror for the first time. I suddenly realized I had made a grave error. I watched as Ken’s hand that held the pencil worked its way up the sheet to a particular checkbox and marked it.

You see, while I was busy creating my perfect Circle for Safety, Ken had climbed into the pickup and reached up and knocked the rear view mirror down so that it was way out of whack. I stopped the truck for a moment as I adjusted the mirror knowing full well that I was supposed to have done that long before I had put the truck in reverse. Well, that was that. No perfect score for me, and I was just beginning the test.

I didn’t know whether to feel bad about that, or to laugh about the way that Ken just sat there with no expression on his face as he checked the box that indicated that I hadn’t checked my rear view mirror before shifting into reverse as we had learned in the videos. I think I was so ashamed about not checking my rear view mirror before shifting into reverse so much that I didn’t even tell my best friend, Tim Flowers on the way home that day. Actually I was so disappointed with myself that this is the first time I have revealed this secret failure to anyone (other than Ken Couri of course, God rest his soul).

The one thing I remember most about Ken Couri during the yearly safety meetings was that he would tell us the story about Annie, who was our CPR dummy. Annie was a drowning victim in Paris France in the Seine river. Her real identity wasn’t known, but her drowning was considered such a tragedy, because someone so lovely as her had apparently committed suicide, and no one was around to save her.

Amie of the Seine

Annie of the Seine

Years later, a guy named Asmund Laerdal in Norway used her image to create the CPR mannequins known as Rescue Annie.

Rescue Annie CPR resuscitation Mannequin

Rescue Annie CPR resuscitation Mannequin

I am sort of an emotional person at the weirdest times, so whenever we had to practice CPR on Annie, I would get all choked up while trying not to let my coworkers see that I was having difficulty with performing CPR on a mannequin of a real person that had died from a real drowning back in the 1800’s. The only comfort I had was knowing that, as Ken Couri pointed out and Anna Edwards said in 2011: Her enigmatic smile is known to millions around the world and she has been kissed billions of times. (Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1393184/How-girl-drowned-Paris-kissed-face-time.html#ixzz2xJxJIJNj).

Once every year we would receive First Aid training from Ken and Randy. Each time we would hear the same stories about Safety and their importance. Randy, who had been a medic in the army had a full array of sayings (maybe the Power Plant men can add a comment to the post with some of his phrases). I wish I could remember them all at the same time.

Unfortunately they only come to me when an appropriate occasion arises. Like I see some unsafe act, or a possible situation where a tragedy could happen like the ones that Randy would describe. I remember his speech about the ABCs that you perform when you run across someone that is unconscious. You first “Assess” the situation. Then you check for “Breathing”, then you check their “Circulation”. He would always end by saying that “A weak pulse is hard to find.”

He would demonstrate this by tapping the dummy on the shoulder as an example and say, “Hey. Are you all right? You don’t want to perform CPR on someone that is only taking a nap in the park.” Then he would turn to one of us and say, “Call 911!” That was called, “implementing the EMS system. EMS stood for the “Emergency Medical System”. Then he would place his ear close to the mouth of the dummy while he was checking the pulse on the neck. He would repeat, “A week pulse is hard to find.”

In the past I may have described Randy Dailey as someone that would remind you of Barney Fife from the Andy Griffith Show… Maybe I haven’t, but he sort of does sometimes. You tell me.

Barney Fife played by Don Knotts in the Andy Griffith Show

Barney Fife played by Don Knotts in the Andy Griffith Show

Here is Randy Dailey:

Randy Dailey, known as Mr. Safety to Real Power Plant Men

Randy Dailey, known as Mr. Safety to Real Power Plant Men

Randy may occasionally remind a novice of Barney Fife, but to the experienced Power Plant Man, just looking at him and a Power Plant Man automatically thinks “Safety”! During the “We’ve Got the Power Program” (See the post: “Power Plant “We’ve Got the Power” Program) Randy Dailey invented a special pen that you could put in your handy dandy pocket protector worn by most respectable Power Plant Men that would beep at you if you were bent over too far and were putting yourself at risk of a back injury.

Our Pocket Protectors were freebies given to us by vendors so they would have advertisements on them like these

Our Pocket Protectors were freebies given to us by vendors so they would have advertisements on them like these. Actually, I think I had one that has Castrol on it

Randy had a lot of compassion as he trained us on safety. You could tell that he had an agenda, and that was to make sure that all of us came out of the class knowing how to provide the best first aid possible to our fellow Power Plant Men as possible. When he spoke to us about dressing a wound and performing CPR on someone who had no pulse, he never cracked a joke (well, except when he showed us how to create a diaper out of the triangular bandage).

He was serious about safety, and we carried that with us when we left the class. We knew that Randy had seen the worst of the worst during his life. I remember Monday, May 8 of 1989 we had just begun our safety training course. Randy may not have been thinking about the fact that he was turning 40 that day, but for some reason I had always known his birthday.

He told us a tragic story of a 4th of July celebration that he had attended. The topic was knowing when “not to do CPR”. I think he was in Arkansas. He was sitting in the bleachers watching the celebration when suddenly something went terribly wrong. As the crowd was watching the large explosions overhead creating huge balls of red and green and blue, there was suddenly an explosion on the ground that was unexpected.

A piece of metal shot out of the area where the fireworks were being ignited and flew into the crowd. I think he said it was a young lady that was struck in the head by a metal plate that cut the top of her head completely off just above the eyebrows. Randy went on to explain that in a case like this, CPR would obviously be useless, so use your common sense when assessing your surroundings.

Each year when Randy would tell this story, I would feel this sick feeling in my stomach, and I would taste this strange taste of blood in my mouth as the corners of my mouth would go down in disgust. This was an obvious tragedy that Randy witnessed, and the feelings I had were not so much about the person that was struck as they were instantly killed. It was because behind the stalwart face of Randy, while he told this story I could see the tremendous sorrow that he felt while recounting this story to us.

I knew, and I believe we all knew, that the reason that Randy was such a great Safety instructor was because he really and truly wanted to save lives. That was his ultimate goal. He would begin his mouth-to-mouth resuscitation training by quoting from the Bible. It was from Kings 4:34. He would say that mouth-to-mouth is found in the Bible. Then he would quote word-for-word from the book about Elisha saying:

“And he went up, and lay upon the child, and put his mouth upon his mouth, and his eyes upon his eyes, and his hands upon his hands: and he stretched himself upon the child; and the flesh of the child waxed warm.”

Randy pointed out, this is Mouth-to-mouth resuscitation in the Old Testament folks! So, when a situation arises, don’t be worried about germs and the like. Do what is necessary to save a life! Again I could see his mind flashing back to some tragedy that drove Randy on to make sure we were properly trained in First Aid and CPR.

Randy didn’t teach us Safety to gain “Bonus Points” from management as some pseudo-Power Plant Men did. Randy, from the day he came to the plant in May 8, 1984 (What a birthday present to become a Power Plant Man on your Birthday!) until the day I left on August 16, 2001, was a true hero to me. I don’t know if he ever served in combat. I don’t know if he ever received one little stripe or medal on his uniform in the Army. What I do know is that to this day I am eternally grateful that I have had the opportunity to meet one of the most remarkable souls of our time the day Randy Dailey showed up at the Power Plant. I have always been certain that God himself sent Randy to administer his Safety Wisdom to the Power Plant Men at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma! Randy continued to bless all of us year after year.

Power Plant “We’ve Got The Power” Stress Buster

Originally posted April 12, 2014:

In an earlier post titled “Power Plant We’ve Got the Power Program” I explained how in 1990 we broke up into teams at the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma to find ways to save the Electric Company money.  Before we were actually able to turn in our first set of ideas, we had a month or more to prepare those ideas and to turn them into proposals.  During this time, and throughout the entire “We’ve Got the Power” program, teams who wanted to succeed and outdo the other teams became very secretive.  Our team was definitely that way.  We had secret experiments going on throughout the plant, and we didn’t want other teams to even know what areas we were investigating.

As the program progressed, a certain level of stress developed between teams.  In a later post I will tell a story about how this level of stress led to a situation of suspicion and eventually even animosity.  This  post will not go into that situation.  Instead I want to explain what our team did to try to alleviate some of the stress by devising a special “Power Plant Joke” that we played on the rest of the Power Plant Men (and Women).

There were some teams that had setup some experiments that they were running to see if their ideas may save the company money.  Our team had several experiments running throughout the beginning months.  All of which we carefully hid from prying eyes.  We were proud of our stealthiness.  Sneaking around, making sure we weren’t being followed when we went to take readings from our carefully hidden recorders and other devices.

Charles Foster, Scott Hubbard and I were sitting in the electric shop office discussing the stress level that had permeated the plant, and we thought we could take advantage of the stress by setting up a “We’ve Got The Power” Experiment out in the open that would be obvious to anyone that walked by.  Only it would be a fake experiment designed to play a joke on the unsuspecting Power Plant Man.

Here is what we did….

Right outside the electric shop in the Turbine Generator basement there is a water fountain.  We placed a hazard waste barrel a few feet away from the water fountain.  Like this:

Hazardous Waste Barrel

Hazardous Waste Barrel

Then we mounted a junction box on the wall a few feet above the chemical waste barrel and a little to the right.

A junction box like this

A junction box like this

We turned the junction box so that the hinge was on the top, allowing the door to fall closed naturally.  This was an important part of the setup to allow for the joke to automatically reset each time it was operated.

We ran some copper tubing from the water fountain water line over to the box.  Then another copper line came out the bottom of the box and into the barrel.  Next to that copper tube, another smaller copper tube came out of the bottom of the box and just bent toward the front of the box.  It was not noticeable.  We had a plastic hose coming out of the barrel and over to the drain next to the water fountain.  Then we put Yellow Barrier Tape around the entire setup.

Barrier Tape

Barrier Tape

We tied Caution tags to the Barrier tape that said “We’ve Got the Power Experiment” Do not enter!  I signed the tags.

Caution Tags like this

Caution Tags like this

There was an electric conduit running up from the junction box, that went up and into the wall about 6 feet above the junction box.  So, this looked like a legitimate experiment going on, but for the life of anyone, no one would be able to tell what it was doing.  — Mainly because it wasn’t doing anything….. At least not until someone went to investigate it.

So.  Here is what would happen….

Employees would walk by and see the barrier tape with the hazardous waste barrel and the hoses and water lines coming from the back of the water fountain, with a junction box above it that was not completely closed.  The door to the junction box was down, but not screwed closed.  Conduit was going into the box, which meant that something electrical was probably inside  Maybe a solenoid or something that was controlling the experiment.

They would read the Caution Tag that explained that this was a “We’ve Got the Power” experiment, and it would pique (pronounced “peak”) their curiosity enough that they couldn’t help but investigate it to see what was really going on.

So, what would invariably happen, was that someone would enter the area that was barrier taped off, and open the junction box to see what was inside.  When they lifted the lid, they would find that they were instantly being soaked with water that would spray out of a small copper line pointing right at them directly under the junction box.  At the same time, an alarm would go off above them behind the wall right above the electric shop office.  It was very loud.  A counter inside the junction box would register an “intruder’ had just opened the box.

So, as we would be sitting there during lunch, we would suddenly hear the alarm go off, and we could dart out the door to the Turbine Generator basement to find a drenched Power Plant Man.  They were usually amused that they had fallen into the trap.  I say usually, because I have the feeling that one particular person who found himself violating the barrier tape and getting soaked didn’t act too cordial about it.  I’ll get to him later.

As I said, inside the box was a counter.  It counted how many times the box had been opened and sprayed someone with water.  So, we could go inspect it in the morning and we would know if anyone had looked at it while we were gone.

After the experiment had been there about a week, an overhaul began where Power Plant Men from different plants came to our plant to perform the overhaul.  The plant would shut off one of the units and we would take it apart, and put it back together again fixing problems along the way (well.  maybe not quite that drastic.  It was a time to fix things that couldn’t be maintained or repaired while the unit was running).

So, the Power Plant Men at our plant, who by that time all knew about the bogus experiment just outside the electric shop, would bring unsuspecting Power Plant Men from other plants over to the see the “We’ve Got the Power” experiment going on in the hopes of seeing them get sprayed with water.  So, a new round of alarms were going off during that time.

Eventually, when people had heard about the experiment, and knew that it was spraying people, they would approach the experiment with caution.  When they opened the lid of the junction box, they would stand next to it against the wall in order to not get wet.  The spray pattern from the crimped copper line was fairly wide, so you would have to stand practically against the wall next to the box in order to stay dry.

So, this was when we implemented Phase 2 of the experiment.  — Yeah.  It’s the second phase of many Power Plant Jokes that usually make the joke a much bigger success than the first phase.  For instance, I have written a post about the “Psychological Profile of a Control Room Operator” in which I had played a joke on Gene Day, where after a week of preparing him for the final joke, I had coaxed him to look over my shoulder, only to have him read that according to his psychological profile, he was the type of person that would look over your shoulder and read your private material.

That would be a good joke in itself, but when Gene Day read that and began choking the life out of me, I pointed out to him the final statement in Gene Day’s profile which stated that he tends to choke people who try to help him by creating Psychological profiles of him.  This second part of the joke is what really completes the joke and makes it a real success.  The first part just makes it funny.

So, here is how we modified the experiment for Phase 2….  The nozzle that sprayed the employee actually came out the bottom of the box and elbowed to point toward the front of the box.  So, what we did was we took a file and filed a tiny notch in the side of the copper tubing just below the junction box just above the elbow.  The notch was on the side of the copper tube, and it was deep enough of a notch to make a little hole in the side of the copper line.

So, then, if someone was standing to the only side they could stand next to the box and the barrel and they opened up the lid of the Junction Box to show someone how the experiment worked, they wouldn’t notice right away, but a small stream of  water would be spraying on their pants in just the appropriate location to make it look like the person had just pee’ed their pants.

Right when we had finished modifying the experiment for Phase 2, Howard Chumbley walked into the electric shop.  He was a retired Electric Foreman, that I have written about in the post “Pioneers of Power Plant Fame Finally Find Peace“.  He had come to visit the plant that day because there was going to be a Men’s Club lunch and he wanted to come and see some other old codgers that he used to work with that liked to attend the Men’s Club dinners.  He always wanted to see us of course as well.

So, we told him about the “We’ve Got The Power” Joke Experiment just outside the electric shop that sprayed water on people.  Of course, he wanted to see it, so we took him out and let him observe it.  We explained that when you open the lid, an alarm goes off, the counter toggles and water sprays out of that little nozzle sticking out at the bottom.  We told him he could try it if he wanted to see how it worked.

So,  he climbed under the barrier tape and walked around the side of the junction box that didn’t have the barrel, and reached over and lifted the lid.  The alarm when off, water sprayed out, and Howard laughed with glee to see how we had devised such a nice trick.  After watching the water spray for about 3 or 4 seconds, he suddenly realized that something was wrong.  He dropped the lid and looked down, only to find that it looked like he had just pee’ed his pants.

That was it!  That was icing on the cake.  Howard laughed even more when he realized what had happened.

The next morning when we came in the shop, we went to look at the experiment, it had been disassembled, or shutdown in some manner.  I think some caution tag had been placed there by Gary Wright, the Shift Supervisor stating something like this was a safety hazard, or some such thing.

Gene Day is the one standing on the right with the Orange shirt.

Gary Wright is the one down in the front with the glasses.  He had more hair in this photograph than I remember

Anyway, when I went up to the Control Room to ask him why he shutdown our experiment he was adamant that it constituted Horseplay and someone could get hurt.  Maybe when the water sprayed on them, they might jerk back and fall down and get hurt.  Ok….

I suppose.  Though, by the time he took it down, everyone at the plant already knew about it, and we were just in the Phase 2 part of the experiment.  In this phase anyone who was looking at the experiment was doing it by opening up the door from the side, and peeing their pants and they wouldn’t jerk back……—- Oh….. I see….  Shift Supervisors don’t usually like to walk into the control room looking like they have just pee’ed their pants.

I will say that I hadn’t expected that type of reaction from Gary Wright, because up to that time, he seemed more mild-mannered than the rest of the Shift Supervisors.  We just took it that the more upset Gary was with us about it, the more successful the joke had been implemented.  The joke had played out by that time, and we were good with it either way.

After it was all said and done.  We thought it did help to reduce the overall tension that was permeating the plant due to the “We’ve Got the Power Program”.

Power Plant Black Time and Six Hour Rules

Originally posted May 2, 2014:

Last week I mentioned in the post “Making Friends from Foes – A Tale of Power Plant Woes” that Jim Padgett called me at 2:15 am one morning to tell me that the coal dumper was broken and he needed for me to come out to the plant to work on it.  You may have wondered why a plant electrician living in North Central Oklahoma would answer the phone in the middle of the night when it most certainly meant that they would have to crawl out of bed and go to work to fix something that was broken.  Why not just roll over and pretend that the phone never rang?

You see… I knew when the phone rang that it was the power plant, because in the 20 years that I worked at the plant, just about every time the phone rang after midnight it meant that I would have to get dressed, and drive 30 miles to the plant to work on something that was most likely going to be in a dusty dirty place.  You could always count on the coal train dumper switchgear being covered with coal dust.  That was the usual point of failure past the “witching hour”.

A rotary dumper much like the one that was at our Power Plant

A rotary dumper much like the one that was at our Power Plant

I suppose I could say there were two reasons why a Power Plant Man would answer the phone.  One was that they were just all around nice guys and they wanted to help out any chance they could.  The other reason was because of the pay.

Even though working at the power plant was perhaps one of the best jobs in the neighborhood (being the only job in the neighborhood, since the plant ground consisted of its own neighborhood out in the middle of nowhere), that didn’t mean that the pay was especially lucrative.  That is, if a Power Plant Man had to rely on their base pay alone it would be difficult.  So, in order to help the Brave Men and Women of Power Plant Fame pay their bills, many opportunities were provided for working overtime.

Think about this.  What if, when I answered the call to save the day (uh… I mean the night) and spent 35 minutes driving out to the plant only to fix the problem in fifteen minutes?  Then I would spend another 35 minutes driving back home with my clothes all full of coal dust, only to be paid a measly 15 minutes of over time?  Even at double time, that would only be 30 minutes of pay.  That would hardly cover the gas and the laundry soap.

Early in the life of this particular plant, it became apparent that something had to be done to motivate the heroic masters of Power Plant Maintenance to make the long lonely drive down Highway 177 at the wee hours of the morning.  So, certain methods were devised to coax the restful souls to the phones when they rang.  Once they answered the phone, then sheer guilt was enough to drag them out of the sack.  It was that moment when the phone first began to ring, before the reasoning part of the brain kicked in and the more base reflexes such as those that were out to make an extra buck reacted instinctively that needed to be targeted.

So “Black Time” was introduced to the plant.  Black time had probably been around long before the plant came into existence, but it came in handy when someone had to be called out in the middle of the night.  Black time was the time that a person would be paid even though they didn’t actually work during that time.  So, when a Power Plant Man was called out in the middle of the night, they would be guaranteed at least two hours of overtime even though they may only work for 15 minutes.

This would help defray the cost of gas and time for driving both ways to and from the plant.  Anything from 7:30 pm to 7:00 am  was paid as double-time.  That is two times the normal base salary.  So, two hours at double time came out to four hours of pay, or as much pay as someone would make for half of a day at work.  That was some incentive for disturbing a Power Plant Man from their pleasant dreams of adventuring through the Power Plant Kingdom where the rule was always “Might For Right”. — Well, at least that’s what I was dreaming some of the time when the phone rang.

If Black Time wasn’t enough, it was taken a step further when the six hour rule was introduced.  The Six Hour Rule was added fairly early on in the life of the Power Plant and went through a few variations when I was working at the plant.  When it was first introduced, it came across as if someone downtown had made the decision that when someone is disturbed from their sleep during certain hours of their sleep cycle, it directly impacted their safety.  Hence the Six Hour Rule was born.

Originally it worked like this….  The hours of midnight to 6:00 am were considered the prime sleeping hours for Heroic Power Plant Men.  During this time, it was deemed that all Power Plant Men should be tucked in their beds dreaming of ways to work safely during the following day.  Whenever this time period was disturbed, then the Electric Company should provide the loyal Power Plant Man for answering the call of duty during a time of early morning emergency by giving him back the same number of hours in black time so that he could go home and continue his all-important dreams and regeneration.

 

Power Plant Pocket Watch worn by Old Fogies

Power Plant Pocket Watch worn by Old Fogies

So, if I had been called out at one o’clock in the morning to work on something, and it took me two hours to fix it, then I could come into work two hours later in the morning.  The first two hours of my regular work day would be payed as “Black Time”.  — Makes sense… right?  Two hours of work…. Come in two hours late in the morning…. black time…  Easy to calculate.

This provided a pretty good incentive for going out to work in the middle of the night.  First, you would get at least 2 hours of double time.  Second, you would be able to make up for lost sleep by coming in late in the morning without having to lose any pay.  You could also come in at the regular time and leave early in the afternoon if you wanted.

Well… That lasted for a few years, then the rules for the 6 hour rule began to change.  Originally, even if the job was only 15 minutes, the least amount of black time that you would get was 2 hours.  After all, it was an hour of driving for the large majority of the Power Plant Men that lived in a civilized village of more than 50 people.  Later, the Six Hour Rule was changed so that only the actual time worked would count for the six hour rule.

This meant that if I drove all the way out to the plant to work on something that only took 15 minutes, then I could only come in 15 minutes late then next morning, even though I had spent at least an hour and 45 minutes away from my dreams of serving nobly in the Power Plant Palace.  In that case the six hour rule didn’t apply anymore.  I figured that someone who was short-sighted had come up with that idea.  I’ll explain why in a few minutes.

The next phase of the Six Hour Rule came a few years after that…  It was decided that after a person had been called out at night to fight the good fight, as soon as they left the plant, the six hour rule would start counting down.  Let me explain this in a little more detail….

Say, I were called out to work in the middle of the night, and I worked from 1:00 am to 3:00 am (two hours).  Then I left to go home at three.  The hours start counting down so that by 5:00 am, the time I had spent at the plant were no longer valid, and I was expected to show up at work at the regular time. 8:00 am.  Okay.   So, in more and more cases (it would seem), the six hour rule would be made meaningless.

So, with this rule in place, if I was called out at midnight, and worked until 4:00 am, for a total of 4 hours, then by 8:00 am when I was supposed to be back at work all of the four hours would have ticked off and I would have no black time.  I would have to show up at 8:00 am.  See how that was supposed to basically take the six hour rule and make a joke out of  it?  (Or so, someone thought).

As most attempts at being underhanded without actually just coming out and telling us that it was decided that the Honorable Power Plant Men no longer needed their six hours of prime sleeping time to work safely the next day, the opposite effect was the result.  Kind of like raising the minimum wage to help the workers, when you put more people out of work.

When the six hour rule was changed to count down from the time you left the plant, was when I made the most money from the six hour rule.  I racked up loads of black time from this change as well as most Power Plant Men that were called out before Morning Prayers (Lauds).  Here is how and why:

Suppose the phone rings and it is 1 o’clock in the morning.  You decide to answer it and get called out to work on something that takes 15 minutes.  You finish the job some time around 2:15 am (because, after all, you had to drive all the way out to the plant).  What should you do now?  If you go back home and go to bed, then because of the way the 6 hour rule worked, you would certainly have to come back to work at 8 o’clock.  — hmm…  You will still have collected 2 hours of double time.  That’s something.

24 hour clock

24 hour clock

Look at the alternatives.  What if you went to the shop and worked on some other tasks while you were already there?  For Power Plant Maintenance Men, there is always something that needs to be fixed.  You may even ask the Shift Supervisor, “While I’m here, is there anything else you want me to work on?”  Shift Supervisors just love having their own personal maintenance man in the middle of the night eager to help.  There is always something they could find that needs fixing.

So, instead of turning around and going home, invariably, after the 15 minute job was over, I would end up doing other jobs for the Shift Supervisor until morning.  Well, once 6:00 am rolled around, it was really too late to drive home and then wait an hour and drive back.  So, I would just stay until 8.

Now look what happened!  Instead of 2 hours of double time, I worked from 2:00 to 8:00 with all but the last hour at double time, the last hour at time and a half.  That comes to 11 1/2 hours of my base salary.  Compare that to the 4 hours I would have received for 2 hours of double time.

But here is the best part.  8:00 rolls around.  We have our morning meeting.  Since I worked for 4 hours of the special 6 hours from midnight to 6, I get to leave at noon and get paid black time for the rest of the day.

What fun!  Every time the six hour rule was reigned in to reduce black time it produced more black time.  And how was that safer?  The final tweaks to the 6 hour rule before it was basically abolished a few years later came during the fall of 1991.  I’m not saying that this alone was the reason, but in 1992, the Power Plant had the highest Accident Rate since 1983.  Somewhere around 23 accidents.  Given that in 1983, we had 50% more employees, 1991 had a much higher accident rate.

The number of call-outs in the early hours of the morning were not as common as I may have made them out to be.  So, I don’t mean to claim that the change in the six hour rule was ever the cause of even one additional accident.  I studied all the accidents that happened that year, and even though some of them were the result of fatigue, it was usually because they had worked an extra long shift – over 12 hours, and were injured because they were tired.  Not because they were affected by the six hour rule.  The question was never asked if the person had been called out the night before.

Even though (as far as we know, because we never asked the question) the six hour rule changes didn’t directly cause any particular accident that year, it was a symptom of an overarching problem.  A certain apathy toward safety had crept into the plant.  The previous years, we had an excellent safety record.  One of our best years was in 1987.  I believe we had only 3 accidents that entire year.  None of them serious.

I will discuss Safety in various other posts, so I won’t belabor the point now.  The point I wanted to make from this post was that by focusing on the bottom line, or some other performance metric without putting your most important asset first (The Power Plant Man), almost always guarantees the opposite results.

Comments from the original post:

  1. Ron May 3, 2014

    Another great story. I hadn’t thought of the “6 hour rule” for years. I really appreciated the true power plant workers who would answer the call. If I could do it all over again I think I would have gone to a Vo-Tech school and learned a skill (like machinist). The “6 hour rule” never applied to management. I never received any overtime, ever (start-ups, overhauls, routine emergencies, etc.). And we were responsible for getting those people to come to the plant who didn’t want to. I can show you a hole in the wall at the Seminole Plant today made by a mad operator that I “forced” to work (1982) when he didn’t want to. When he left my office he threw the door open so hard it hit the stop in the floor and flexed until the door knob mashed a hole in the wall. Then he told me “I’m not through with you yet.” He later transferred to Sooner – as a promotion. Oh the joys of management.

    I’m grateful today for the people who still answer the call and keep our power on!

  2. Jonathan Caswell May 3, 2014

    THAT’S HOW THEY WORK IT HERE FOR MAINTENANCE CALL-INS. TOO BAD THAT DOESN’T HAPPEN FOR SECURITY—ALTHO’ I WILL GET OVERTIME HOURS FOR COVERING THIS SHIFT.

Runaway Fire Hydrant Leaves Power Plant in the Dark

Originally posted May 17, 2014:

Don’t believe it when the Electric Company tells you that the reason your town lost electricity for an hour was because a squirrel climbed onto a transformer and shorted it out. The real reason just may be more bizarre than that and the company doesn’t want you to know all the different creative ways that power can be shut off. This is a tale of just one of those ways. So, get out your pencil and paper and take notes.

A notepad like this

Power Plant Notepad

One spring day in 1993 while sitting at the Precipitator computer for Unit one at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma, while I was checking the controls to make sure all the cabinets were operating correctly, suddenly there was a distant boom, and the lights in the control room went out. The computer stayed on because it was connected to an electric panel called the VSP or Vital Services Panel, which in turn was supplied by the UPS system (Uninterruptible Power Supply). That was one of those moments where you may pause for a moment to make sure you aren’t still at home dreaming before you fly into a panic.

The Precipitator cabinets all indicated on the computer that they had just shutdown. I rose from the chair and walked around to the front of the Alarm Panel for Unit one, and found that the fluorescent lights were only out on Unit 1. The lights were still on for Unit 2. The Control Panel was lit up like a Christmas Tree with Green, Red, Blue and Yellow Lights. The Alarm Printer was spewing out paper at high speed. As the large sheets of paper were pouring out onto the floor, I watched as Pat Quiring and other brave Power Plant Control Room operators were scurrying back and forth turning switch handles, pushing buttons, and checking pressure gauges.

Just this site alone gave me confidence that everything was going to be all right. These Control Room operators were all well trained for emergencies just like this, and each person knew what their job was. No one was panicking. Everyone was concentrating on the task at hand.

Someone told me that we lost Unit 1, and the Auxiliary Power to Unit 1 at the same time. So, Unit 1 was dead in the water. This meant, no fans, no pumps, no lights, no vending machines, no cold water at the water fountain and most importantly, no hot coffee!!! I could hear steam valves on the T-G floor banging open and the loud sound of steam escaping.

I turned quickly to go to the electric shop to see what I could do there in case I was needed. I bolted out the door and down the six flights of stairs to the Turbine-Generator (T-G) basement. Exiting the stairway, and entering the T-G basement the sound was deafening. I grabbed the earplugs that were dangling around my neck and crammed them into my ears. Steam was pouring out of various pop-off valves. I ducked into the electric shop where across the room Andy Tubbs, one of the electric foreman was pulling large sheets of electric blueprints from the print cabinet and laying them across the work table that doubled as the lunch table.

 

Andy Tubbs - True Power Plant Electrician

Andy Tubbs – True Power Plant Electrician

When I asked Andy what happened, I learned that somehow when a crew was flushing out a fire hydrant the water somehow shot up and into the bus work in the Auxiliary Substation (that supplies backup power to the Power Plant) and it shorted out the 189,000 volt substation directly to ground. When that happened it tripped unit 1 and the auxiliary substation at the same time leaving it without power.

 

An example of part of an Auxiliary Substation

An example of part of an Auxiliary Substation

I will explain how a fire hydrant could possibly spray the bus work in a substation in a little while, but first let me tell you what this meant at the moment to not have any power for a Power Plant Boiler and Turbine Generator that has just tripped when it was at full load which was around 515 Megawatts of power at the time.

Normally when a unit trips, the boiler cools down as the large Force Draft (FD) Fans blow air through the boiler while the even larger Induced Draft (ID) fans suck the air from the boiler on the other end and blow the hot air up the smoke stack. This causes the steam in the boiler tubes to condense back into water. Steam valves open on the boiler that allow excessive steam to escape.

When the boiler is running there is a large orange fireball hovering in space in the middle of the boiler. The boiler water is being circulated through the boiler and the Boiler Feed Pump Turbines are pumping steam back and forth between the turbine generator and the boiler reheating the steam until every bit of heat from the boiler that can be safely harnessed is used.

When all this stop suddenly, then it is important that the large fans keep running to cool down the steam, since it is no longer losing energy in the generator as it was when it was busy supplying electricity to 1/2 million people in Oklahoma City. The power is fed to the fans from the Auxiliary substation located right outside the Main Switchgear where all the breakers reside that supply the power to the fans. Unfortunately, in this case, the Auxiliary substation was shutdown as well, leaving the boiler without any fans.

Without fans for cooling, and pumps to circulate the water, the walls of the boiler began heating up to dangerous temperatures. Steam was whistling out of pop off valves, but if the steam drum on the top of the boiler were to run dry, then the entire boiler structure could be compromised and begin melting down. — So, this was serious. Something had to be done right away. It wouldn’t be as bad as the China Syndrome since we were burning coal instead of nuclear power, but it would have caused a lot of damage nonetheless.

 

From the movie "The China Syndrome" where a similar emergency existed only in the movie, it was a Nuclear Plant

From the movie “The China Syndrome” where a similar emergency existed only in the movie, it was a Nuclear Plant

I have a side story about this picture, but I think I’ll save it for another post because I don’t want to digress from the main story at this point (Ok. Let me just say “Jack Maloy and Merl Wright” for those who can’t wait)  See the post: “Power Plant Conspiracy Theory“.

With the prospect that the boiler might melt to the ground in a pile of rubble, it would seem that the main priority was to turn the Auxiliary Substation back on so the fans could be turned back on and prevent the boiler from collapsing. So, we walked out to the substation and looked at the switches that would have to be operated in order to first power up the main bus and then to close to supply power to the two big transformers and the six smaller transformers that supplied the Unit 1 Main Switchgear.

While inspecting the switches where the electricity had gone to ground we found that one of the main insulators was cracked.

A High Voltage Insulator like this

A High Voltage Insulator like this

Since this insulator was cracked, we didn’t really want to operate the switch to test if another 189,000 volts would go straight to ground again, especially since one of us would be standing right underneath it cranking the switch. So, we went back to the shop to find an alternative.

By this time the Plant Manager, Ron Kilman arrived in the shop, and understanding the urgency to find a solution asked us what were the alternatives. He was relying on our expertise to make the decision.

Ron Kilman

Ron Kilman is the one on the left in the plaid shirt

The other solution would be to cut the power over from Unit 2 which was still humming away pushing electricity to Oklahoma City out of the 345,000 volt substation. The cut over would be very simple because the switchgear was designed with this in mind. We analyzed the power rating on the auxiliary transformers on Unit 2 and thought that we might be cutting it close to have them running both sets of fans at the same time, especially since the full load amps of a huge fan starting up was about 10 times the normal rate.

The transformer was rated to handle the load, but consider this. What if this caused Unit 2 to trip as well. With the Auxiliary substation offline, if Unit 2 tripped, we would be in twice the amount of trouble we were currently in. What a day it would have been if that had happened and two 250 foot boilers had come crashing to the ground in a pile of rubble. After reading the power ratings on the auxiliary transformers I was thinking, “Yeah, let’s do it! These transformers can handle it.” Andy was not so eager.

So, we were left with one alternative. That was to shut the switch in the Auxiliary substation that had the cracked insulator and take our chances that it wasn’t going to short to ground and blow up over our heads. I think I was eager to close the switch for Andy, but if I remember correctly, he didn’t want me to be the one to suffer the consequences and decided to close the switch himself. Needless to say. Andy closed the switch, and nothing blew up.

High Voltage Switch similar to the one we were closing

High Voltage Switch similar to the one we were closing

As soon as the power was restored to the switchgear, the fans were powered up and the temperature in the boiler was quickly reduced. The coffee pot in the Electric Shop began heating the coffee again. The power plant was saved from a major catastrophe. That was delayed for another day… of which I will talk about later (see the post “Destruction of a Power Plant God).”

So, how exactly does a fire hydrant shoot water up into the bus work of a substation like the picture of the switch directly above? The culprit fire hydrant wasn’t in the substation, it sat alongside it outside the fence a good 50 feet from the high voltage switch. No hose was attached to the fire hydrant. It was only being flushed out as part of a yearly activity to go around and make sure the fire hydrants are all operating correctly.

Here is the story about how the squirrel climbed into the transformer this time….

George Alley, Dale Mitchell and Mickey Postman were going around to the 30,000 fire hydrants on the plant ground (ok. maybe not that many, but we did have a lot of them), and they were opening up the valves and flushing them out. That means, they were letting them run for a while to clear them out from any contaminates that may have built up over the year of not being used.

Throughout their adventure they had opened a multitude of Hydrants situated out in the fields along the long belt conveyor from the coalyard and around the two one-million gallon #2 Diesel tanks.

Large Oil Tank about the size of the two that are at the Power Plant

Large Oil Tank about the size of the two that are at the Power Plant

The brave Power Plant Men, learned that when opening a fire hydrant wide open in the middle of field had unintended consequences. It tended to wash out the ground in front of the flow of the water shooting out of the hydrant. So the team of experts devised a plan to place a board in front of the hydrant when it would be in danger of tearing a hole in the terrain. The board would divert the water into the air where it would fan out and not cause damage to the surrounding area.

This was working fine, and when they arrived at the fire hydrant next to the substation, since the stream from the hydrant was pointing directly into the substation (hmm. a design flaw, I think), they decided to prop the board up against the fence to keep from washing away the gravel in the substation. Well. When a fire hydrant is opened that hasn’t been used for a year, the first flow of water to shoot out is dark brown.

You may think that this is because the water has somehow become dirty over the past year, but that isn’t quite the case. What has happened is that the pipe has been rusting little by little and the water has become saturated with the rust. So, the water shooting out of the hydrant was full of rust (hence the need to flush them out).

Well. Rust is made of metal. Metal is conductive, especially when it is mixed with water. When the water hit the board, it was deflected into the air and happened to direct itself directly into the high voltage switch in the substation. This caused a circuit to the ground which, once it created an arc pumped all the electricity directly into the ground.

Normally when something like this happens it doesn’t trip the Main Power Transformer to a Power Plant.

A Main Power Transformer

A Main Power Transformer

This time it did. I know there was a few heads scratching trying to figure it out. I think I figured out what happened a little while later. You see… here is the rest of the story….

Once the unit was back online and the emergency was over, someone finally noticed that the telephone system couldn’t call outside of the plant. Well. I was the main telephone person at the time, so the control room called me and asked me to look into the problem.

I checked the telephone computer and it was up and running just fine. Internal calls could be made. Only any call outside just concluded with a funny humming sound. After checking the circuit in the Logic Room next to the Rolm Telephone Computer I headed for…. guess where….. the Main Switchgear….

A ROLM Phone Computer

A ROLM Phone Computer

In the middle of the main switchgear in the back of the room right next to the Auxiliary Substation beyond the back wall, the outside telephone line came into the plant. The first thing it did was go through a special Telephone Surge Protector.

Telephone Grounding Panel

Telephone Grounding Panel

In this picture above, the silver circular buttons on the left side are really an old style surge protector. whenever there was a power surge, the carbon connection in the surge protector would quickly melt causing the circuit to go straight to ground. Thus protecting the rest of the telephone circuit. So, if some kid in their house decides to connect the 120 volts circuit to the telephone for fun to see what would happen, this circuit would protect the rest of the phone circuits. Keep in mind that this was during the early 1990 when “Surge Protection” still was basically all “mechanical”.

Anyway, when I arrived at this panel and I checked the surge protector to the main line going out of the plant, guess what I found…. Yep. Shorted to ground. Luckily there were some spares that were not wired to anything in the panel and I was able to swap them out for the ones that had been destroyed. — These were a one time use. Which meant, if they ever had to short to ground, they had to be replaced.

Ok. Fine. After a little while, we were able to call back out of the plant, though there was still some residual noise on the line. It was like this… when you called out of the plant, the person on the other end sounded like they were buried in a grave somewhere and they were trying to talk to someone living just like in an episode of the Twilight Episode where a phone line landed on a grave and the dead person tried to call his long lost love from the past.

 

Gladys Cooper in the Twilight Zone Episode "Night Call"

Gladys Cooper in the Twilight Zone Episode “Night Call”

I didn’t give it much thought other than that I figured the 189,000 volt arc to ground must have shorted out the telephone line since the phone line ran directly under the auxiliary substation ground grid.

It wasn’t until the next morning when the Southwestern Bell repairman showed up at the plant. I knew him well, since he had been working on our phone lines since before the AT&T breakup in 1984. When I met him in the front of the electric shop, he said that he needed to check our telephone circuits. I told him that I knew that we had a problem because we had a high voltage short to ground yesterday and I found our surge protectors melted away.

He explained to me that not only was our circuit affected, but that every relay house from here to Ponca City was blown out. That’s when I realized that the problem was the reverse of the usual situation. What had happened was that the Ground Grid in the substation and the surrounding area (including the Unit 1 Main Power Transformer) had become hot. What do you do when the ground grid becomes charged?

The Ground Grid is what is supposed to protect you when a surge happens, but what happens when the ground grid itself is the problem? In this case, when the high voltage line about 60 feet from the telephone cable surge protector, arced to ground, it fed a tremendous amount of power back through the ground grid. when equipment detected the surge in voltage, they automatically defaulted their circuits to ground. That’s why the telephone circuit died. That’s what tripped the Main Power Transformer.

When the telephone circuit detected the high voltage surge, it shorted to ground (which was the problem), causing the high voltage to feed directly into the phone line and down the line to the next Southwestern Bell relay switch, which also defaulted to ground, trying to bleed off the surge as it went from relay switch to switch until enough of the power was able to be diverted to ground.

That day sure turned out to be a learning experience. I learned that when all the lights go out in the control room, that it is almost assured that the coffee pot in the electric shop is going to stop working. I also learned that in order to coax the plant manager to the electric shop, a major electrical tragedy is one good way. I learned that when shooting rusty water into the air don’t point it at a high voltage auxiliary substation switch. — I’m sure Mickey Postman learned that lesson too. I also learned that just like in Star Trek… whenever there is a dangerous job to do, the Captain is always the one that wants to do it. Does that make sense? Send a Peon like me in there…

I also learned something else about Power Plant Men…. You see…. People like Dale Mitchell, George Alley and Mickey Postman all are examples of incredibly wonderful Power Plant Men. When they were out there doing their duty and something tragic like this, all the Power Plant Men felt their pain. They knew that they all felt guilty for tripping the unit. It didn’t matter that a million dollars every so many minutes was walking out the door in revenue. The only thing that mattered was that these three men were safe.

 

Mickey Postman

Mickey Postman

Since I have left the Power Plant, I have found that the idea that the employee is the greatest asset that a company can possess is not a universal idea. You see, there was never the thought that any of these people should be fired for their mistake. On the contrary. The true Power Plant Men did whatever they could to let them know that they knew exactly how they felt. It could have happened to any of them.

Besides the friendship between Power Plant Men, one of the things I miss most about working at the Power Plant is that the employees are held in high esteem as a real asset to the company. Many could learn from their example.

Comments from the Original post

    1. Ron May 17, 2015

      That was an exciting day! Another great story. Thanks for the memories.

    1. Dan Antion May  17, 2014

      I like the mix of storytelling and information sharing you deliver here. Thanks again

    1. Dave Tarver May 17, 2014

      Aug 8, 2011 I lost all reserve in and lost both units in 2 separate storms and A1 would not start for a few minutes and A2 was leaking antifreeze terribly not a scratch and back online in 34 hours both units and no one ever asked me one question even with a Safety Dept not one question asked of me the SS on duty. Not many men on the planet have ever experienced an uncontrolled total plant outage- you would of thought a learning opportunity would of took place. Feb 2011 worst winter temps in years 50 Units or more tripped in Texas let alone the trusty units of Redbud and McClain were fighting Sooner rolled right along with storm warnings for two weeks ahead – the ICS still went to Detroit for just tours of other facilities once again the fall guy Tarver McArthur stood alone. I had authored a Freeze Protection Plan for the plant and that seemed to save the day and explain to the regulatory bodies how we were online and everyone else in Texas was off and enjoying rolling blackouts in a terrible winter weather situation not to mention our powers that be were all stranded in Detroit and very few people could get to the plant without getting stuck trying to get there as well – but a few health heart issues later I am still here to tell about it all you would think folks would want to take advantage of someone that had went through the fire and Ice but thats ok I want them someday distant to get all the credit they deserve when the trumpets sound as that is truly what matters most. DT

  1. NEO May 17, 2014

    Great story, and yes, you took exactly the proper lesson from it, and it is too bad that many of our bosses haven’t learned it.

    And yup, I’ve buried a lot of electrocuted squirrels over the years.

 

When Power Plant Competition Turns Terribly Safe

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 washing 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:

Wouldn't want to make the cover any more interesting. It might take away from the message

Wouldn’t want to make the cover any more interesting. It might take away from the message

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.

Power Plant Pepperoni Pizza

Power Plant Pepperoni Pizza

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”.

Various Safety Signs you may see around a Power Plant

Various Safety Signs you may see around a Power Plant

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?

Reddy KiloWatt never takes a vacation... Oh wait... That's not a Safety Slogan.

Reddy KiloWatt never takes a vacation… Oh wait… That’s not a Safety Slogan.

Comments from the original post:

    1. Ron Kilman June 7, 2014

      Art Linkletter had it right when he said “People are funny”.

    1. BattleBlue1 June 7, 2014

      Nice! I really enjoyed this post. I work at a power plant now and this could have happened yesterday. Some things don’t change!

  1. fred June 8, 2014

    I remember one slogan that I thought of but never could get the crew to submit it. It was,
    “When it comes to safety the old cliché “NO PAIN NO GAIN” is just a crock of s**t.” I think you could have may made your record 10/2 that year.
    I do remember your crew dominating the slogan compaign.

Power Plant Imps and Accident Apes

Orignally posted: July 26, 2014:

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

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

See the Yellow Flag Before the Accident Happens

See the Yellow Flag Before the Accident Happens

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s an example:

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

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

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

Anyway, time for the Power Plant Apes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Comments from the original post

      1. Ron Kilman July 26, 2014

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

    1. Dave Tarver July 26, 2014

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

 

    1. Jonathan Caswell July 27, 2014

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

  1. Brenda Davis Harsham July 27, 2014

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

ABC’s of Power Plant Safety

Originally posted August 2, 2014

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

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

Scott Hubbard

Scott Hubbard

Come to think of it… Scott was usually smiling.

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

I worked 20 years without an accident

I worked 20 years without an accident

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

Power Plant Engineer and Good Friend - Toby O'Brien

Power Plant Engineer – Toby O’Brien

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ron Kilman

Ron Kilman

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bill Gibson

Bill Gibson

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

 

Channel Locks

Channel Locks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The consequences of these behaviors are:

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

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

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

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

Book about the Behavior-Based Safety Process

Book about the Behavior-Based Safety Process by Thomas Krause

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

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

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

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

The phrase was: 'Cause I Love You Man!

The phrase was: ‘Cause I Love You Man!

 

Comments from the original post:

    1. Dan Antion August 2, 2014

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

    1. Anna Waldherr August 3, 2014

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

    1. Dennis Wagoner August 4, 2014

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

  1. Monty Hansen October 19, 2014

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

Tragedy Occurs During Power Plant Safety Meeting

Originally posted August 16, 2014.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vacuum Truck

Vacuum Truck

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bill Cosby trying to look like Bill Bennett

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meanwhile, in Oklahoma City….

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

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

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

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

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

 

Comments from the original post

    1. Dan Antion August 16, 2014

      Too close.

       

    1. Ron Kilman August 16, 2014

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

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

       

    1. Garfield Hug August 16, 2014

      Thankfully glad you made it to safety *blessings*

    1. Donna Westhoff Collins August 16, 2014

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

    1. Anna Waldherr August 17, 2014

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

    1. T. Foster August 19, 2014

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

    1. createthinklive September 14, 2014

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