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The OSHA Man Cometh

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An insulator like this only 3 foot long

An electric insulator like this only 3 foot long

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paul Willson in Cheers

Paul Willson in Cheers

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

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

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

Ron Kilman

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

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

Confined Space Air Monitor

Confined Space Air Monitor

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

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

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

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

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

Page 1 of the statement I signed

Page 1 of the statement I signed

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

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

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

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

Bill Cosby trying to look like Bill Bennett

Bill Cosby trying to smile like Bill Bennett

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

Comment from the original post

  1. Ron Kilman August 23, 2014

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

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What Happens When Power Plant Gremlins Bite Back

Originally Posted October 4, 2014.

I suppose many of you have seen the movie Gremlins that came out in 1984. It’s a story about a creature named Gizmo who is a Mogwai that becomes a pet of an unsuspecting young man, who inadvertently breaks certain rules that were explained to him in specific detail. The first rule was Don’t get the Mogwai wet…. The second rule was Don’t feed a Mogwai past midnight. — There was another precaution, like Mogwai do not like Bright Lights. The Mogwai is a cute little pet designed to sell toys, and I think it was probably pretty successful.

When a Mogwai get wet, it pops out some fur balls that then turn into other Mogwai. You would think this would be good, but when the boy accidentally spills water on Gizmo, the new Mogwai turn out to be mischievous, where Gizmo is friendly and has a nice smile. The new Mogwai trick the boy into feeding them past midnight. This is when the trouble really begins. The cute fuzz ball Mogwai turn into Gremlins:

Gizmo from the movie Gremlins

Gizmo from the movie Gremlins

Stripe from the movie Gremlins

Stripe from the movie Gremlins

Can you guess which one is the Gremlin?

So, what does this have to do with Gremlins in a Power Plant? As it turns out something like Gremlins live in Power Power Plants. I know they did at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma where I worked as an electrician. Sometimes when you least expected it, a Gremlin would jump out and bite you.

At first a Power Plant Gremlin may appear like a nice cuddly Mogwai. For instance, one day when Stanley Elmore asked Hank Black to pull up to the front of the garage with the large P&H Crane to unload a large piece of equipment from a truck, or some such thing. I’m sure to Hank, this seemed like a nice cuddly Mogwai sort of a job.

A P&H Crane, just like the one at the plant

A P&H Crane, just like the one at the plant

Just think about it. Operating something with so much power and the ability to do so much work by just pulling a few levers and pressing a couple of petals, flipping a few switches. Not many people at the plant were privileged enough to have the opportunity to operate the P&H Crane. So, when Stanley asked Hank to lift that load and tote that bale, he hopped right to it.

Unfortunately, Hank didn’t realize when he climbed into the cab of the crane that the little Mogwai sitting in the seat next to him had been eating after midnight the night before…. One little pull of the wrong lever at the wrong time, and a little distraction that caused Hank to forget to put his outriggers out before trying to lift his heavy load, and the crane flipped over on its side.

Like this crane I found on Google Images

Like this crane I found on Google Images except our crane was laying all the way over on it’s side, but you get the idea

I wonder if Hank noticed the Gremlin jumping out of the cab just after that happened, or was he in too much of a state of shock. Though Hank appeared all right after that incident, he had injured his back in a way where he eventually had to leave permanently. I know that many years later after he left, he was still collecting a pay check from the company. Compliments of the Gremlin.

One day RD (Dick) McIntyre, Dale Mitchell, Don Timmons and George Alley were working underneath one of the four Intake Pumps, also known as the Condenser Water Pumps. These are the large water pumps that push the lake water through the condenser in order to cool the steam so that it can make another round through the boiler and end up turning the turbine once again. I believe each of these pumps can pump something like 189,000 gallons of water per minute. — One of the Power Plant Men at the plant can correct me if I’m mistaken.

A view of the coalyard from the top of the Smoke Stack

This is a view from the smoke stack. The four Intake pumps are at the bottom center

The crew was putting the coupling back on the pump if I remember this correctly…. and they needed to rotate the rotor of the motor or the pump in order to line it up or check the alignment. I wish I had a team picture of these four men, because they were the nicest bunch of old men. Especially when you were able to catch them all together. It seemed like the energy of their friendship made their group larger than the sum of the individuals. I’m sure while they were working on this job, all sprawled out underneath the pump motor, they had warm cuddly feelings just as if each of them was petting a Mogwai.

That’s when the Mogwai suddenly turned into a Gremlin. The team had put a strap wrench around the rotor (correct me if the details are wrong Mickey. You would know better than I) and were attempting to rotate the rotor. Dale Mitchell told me later that suddenly something slipped and the handle of the strap wrench swung around and smacked Dick McIntyre right in the forehead. Dick and Dale were just about as inseparable as Dick Dale was with his first and last name, so you can imagine how Dale felt that he had injured Dick.

Here is an interesting coincidence…. Dick Dale worked in the warehouse across the drive from the automotive garage where Dick and Dale (McIntyre and Mitchell respectively) worked, which was where the crane had tipped over with Hank Black in the driver seat. — I could stretch the coincidence to David Hankins, who used to drive a Black Trans Am. I would have mixed up David Hankins and Hank Black, because of David’s Black Trans Am, but David died in an auto accident early in 1980, and I don’t think Hank had arrived until shortly after. Racially, David Hankins was Black, and Hank Black was not. He was Native American. Anyway. I digress (which means… I have strayed from the topic of Gremlins).

When I think about Gremlins at the plant, Yvonne Taylor comes to mind. Not because she reminds me either of a Mogwai or a Gremlin, but because she encountered a Gremlin of sorts that sort of had a similar effect of spilling water on a Mogwai. I have recently reposted a story called “How Many Power Plant Men Can you Put in a 1982 Honda Civic” where I talked about Yvonne Taylor, one of the Chemists at the Plant.

Yvonne Taylor had worked as a Chemist at the plant since around 1980. We carpooled while I was a janitor and on the labor crew, almost until I joined the electric shop. So, I knew her pretty well. She liked to talk a lot, so I knew her a lot better than she knew me. As a chemist, she worked in the water treatment plant testing water quality, as well as testing our sewage treatment pond, and ground water, etc. She worked with a lot of different chemicals.

I was always fascinated with the chemistry lab. I had my own chemistry lab set up in the basement of our house when I was young. My dad would bring home different left over chemicals from work, and I would mix them, heat them, and light them on fire, and test their chemical properties… to the point of making gunpowder and exploding them in the backyard.

I think Yvonne had worked at the plant about 10 years when she developed a rash (or something) where she would become ill when working in the lab or in the water treatment plant. It was serious enough that Yvonne would have to take sick leave at times to recover. I first learned about her condition when I went to the chemistry lab for something and she was sitting in there wearing a paper filter mask. When I asked her why, she explained to me that she was trying to figure out what was causing her to become ill. She thought there might be some particles in the air in the lab or the water treatment plant that was causing it.

I think that the effects of Yvonne’s condition sounded a lot like what happens when someone develops an allergy to Latex. Yvonne would wear Latex gloves a lot when handling chemicals, so maybe that was it.

The sad part of the story is that Yvonne’s condition was severe enough that she had to leave the Power Plant and find another job. I don’t know where she went to work when she left the Electric Company. So, you see, Yvonne Taylor who happily went to work each morning ready to cuddle up to her chemicals just as if they were Mogwai, was finally chased away by Power Plant Gremlins.

In the post about the Honda Civic I mentioned that Yvonne’s husband Patrick had died in 2012. So, I wondered how Yvonne is doing lately, so I Googled her, knowing that she lived out in the country near Perkins Oklahoma…. But an interesting thing happened when I pulled up a page from the Perkins Journal for June 9, 2011.

I became confused when I saw this page. You see, the picture in the middle at the top is Mike Rose. He was an electrician I had worked with at the Power Plant, and I had recently re-posted a story about him called “River and Rose In the Power Plant Palace” Mike Rose had his own set of Gremlins which I may have mentioned in that post, but why, when I searched for Yvonne Taylor, did I pull up the a Newspaper Obituary of Mike Rose with the same picture of Mike I had posted in my post:

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

Mike Rose

Talk about a Coincidences:

I read through the entire page before I found Yvonne’s name in a totally unrelated article on the same page of the Perkins Journal! Look in the lower right corner of the screenshot of the newspaper. The picture of Kimberly Jo Taylor Wilkins. — Yep. That’s right! The daughter of Yvonne and Patrick Taylor! I don’t know how many hundreds of stories I heard about Kimberly throughout the 9 or 10 months I spent carpooling with Yvonne each morning as we drove to the Power Plant. Here she was beginning a new phase in Kimberly’s life on the same page that Mike Rose was beginning a new phase in his life. Two unrelated stories of Power Plant People I worked with on the same page of a small town newspaper (Perkins Oklahoma, Population 2,863) 10 years after I left the plant to go work for Dell. — Isn’t that neat?

Power Plant Farm Fixing and Risk Management

We were told at the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma that we were going to have to stop doing the excellent job we were used to doing.  We no longer had time to make everything perfect.  We just had to patch things together enough so that it was fixed and leave it at that.  Jasper Christensen told us that we were going to have to “Farm Fix” things and work harder because we now only had half the employees.

Jasper Christensen

Jasper Christensen

Two things bothered me right away….

First, “Work Harder.”  What exactly does that mean?  How does one work harder?  When I pick up my tool bucket to go work on a job, should I put some extra bricks in it so that it is harder to carry?  What then?  Think about it… Shouldn’t we be working “Smarter” instead of “Harder”?  We were all hard workers (if that means, spending a good 8 hour day doing your job).  Any slackers were laid off 7 years earlier.

When I heard “Farm Fixing” I took offense to the reference.  Jasper had mentioned using baling wire to hold something up instead of taking the time to make our jobs look pretty.  As if baling wire was somehow synonymous with “Farm Fixing”.  My grandfather was a farmer….  I’ll talk about that in a bit….

Jasper also informed us that we were no longer stuck doing only our own trade.  So, an electrician should expect to help out as a mechanic or a welder as long as it wasn’t too involved.  Certain welding jobs, for instance, require a certified welder.  If the job was just to tack weld up a bracket somewhere, then I, as an electrician, could wheel a welding machine over there and weld it up.

After that initial meeting after we had been downsized to pint-sized, we met with our own teams.  Alan Kramer was my new foreman.  He encouraged us to learn the different skills from our teammates.

Alan Kramer

Alan Kramer

I asked Ed Shiever to teach me how to weld.  After about an hour, I decided I wasn’t too interested in melting metal using electricity.  I would leave it to the experts.  I was left with a sunburned chest, as I usually wore a V-Neck Tee Shirt in the summer.

Ed Shiever 15 years later

Ed Shiever Welder Extraordinaire

Jody Morse was a mechanic on our team, who had been a friend of mine since I was a janitor.  We had been on the labor crew together.  He asked me if he could do some electrical work with me.  He thought it would be a useful skill to learn.  I happily agreed to let him work alongside me running conduit and pulling wire around the precipitator hoppers.

Jody Morse

Jody Morse

It wouldn’t include working on any circuits where he might accidentally come into contact with anything live.  So, I thought this was a good starting point.  That was one of the first skills I learned as an electrician-in-training when I was taught by Gene Roget, a master of conduit bending.

I showed Jody how to bend the conduit and have it end up being the right length with the curves in the right place (which is a little tricky at first).  Then I showed Jody where the conduit needed to go, and where the wire needed to end up.  He said he wanted to do this all by himself, so I left him to it and left to do something else.

A little while later, Jody came back and said he had a slight problem.  He had cut the cable just a little bit too short (Yeah.  I had done that myself, see the post: “When Enough Power Plant Stuff Just Ain’t Enough“).  I looked at the problem with him, and he was about six inches too short.

Jody looked the job over and decided he had two options.  Pull some new longer cable, or try to make the existing cable work.He figured out that if he cut off 6 inches of the conduit, and sort of bent it out so that it was no longer exactly at 90 degrees, then it would still reach where it needed to go, only the conduit wouldn’t look so pretty because the conduit would appear a little cockeyed.  We figured this would be all right because Jasper had just finished telling us that we needed to make things not so pretty anymore.  Jody finished the job, and filled out the Maintenance Order indicating that the job was done.

The cable and conduit job had been requested by Ron Madron, one of the Instrument and Controls guys on our team.  When he went out and looked at the conduit, let’s just say that he wasn’t too impressed.  He went to Alan Kramer and complained that the conduit job was disgraceful.  I don’t remember his exact words, but when I heard about it, it sounded to me like he said “It was an abomination to all things electrical”.

I had always taken pride in my work, and doing a “sloppy” job was not normal for me.  I didn’t want Jody to feel bad about this because he was pretty proud of having completed the job all by himself without my help.  So I went and had a one-on-one with Ron and explained the situation to him.  I also told him that the next time he has  problem with something I did, come directly and talk to me about it instead of our foreman.  We’re all on the same team now.

I think once he realized the situation, he was more receptive.  Jody and I did go back out there and fix the issue by running a new cable that was long enough, with a new piece of conduit that was installed with the best of care so that it looked pretty.  — None of us informed Jasper that behind his back we were still performing our jobs with great care and precision.

 

Conduit Bending Basics

Conduit Bending Basics

The more I thought about the idea of “Farm Fixing” and “Risk Management” and how it was being applied at our plant, after about a year, I wrote a letter to the Superintendent over all the Power Plants, Jack Coffman.

Here is the letter I wrote (It was titled “Farm Fixing and Risk Management” — appropriate, don’t you think?):

Dear Jack Coffman,

I went through the Root Learning Class on Friday, September 6.  After the class our table remained to discuss with Bruce Scambler the situation that exists at the power plants concerning the way we maintain our equipment.  We attempted to discuss our concerns with our facilitator, however, the canyon depicted in the first visual became more and more evident the further we discussed it.

Roo-Learning-Canyon

The Canyon Root Learning Map

My two concerns are the terms “Farm Fixing” and “Risk Management”.  These are two good processes which I believe must be employed if we are to compete in an open market.  I do believe, however, that our management has misunderstood their true meaning and has turned them into catch phrases that are something totally different than they were originally intended.

I come from a family of farmers.  My father and grandfather were farmers.  I was concerned about our use of the term “Farm-fixed”, so I discussed the way we were using it in our company with my father and I have confirmed my understanding of the term.

My grandfather as a farmer was a Welder, a Blacksmith, a Carpenter, and an Engine Mechanic.  When a piece of machinery broke down while he was out harvesting or plowing a field, it is true that baling wire and a quick fix was needed to continue the work for the day.  There is a small window of opportunity when harvesting and the equipment had to be running during this time or the farmer’s livelihood was at stake.

That evening, however, the piece that broke was reworked and re-machined until it was better than the original store bought item.  Thus guaranteeing that it wouldn’t break down the following day.  If the repairs took all night to make it right, they would stay up all night repairing it correctly.  It was vital to their livelihood to have their machinery running as well as possible.

A Ford Tractor soon became my grandfather’s tractor as the original factory parts were replaced with more sturdy parts.  It wasn’t repainted (gold-plated), because they weren’t planning on selling their equipment.  The tractors and plows would last years longer than originally designed.  All this was before farming became a subsidized industry.

We need to “Farm-Fix” our equipment.  Our management however, focuses on the use of baling wire during an emergency and replaces the true meaning of Farm-Fixing with the meaning of “Jerry-Rigging”.  Which is merely a temporary fix while farming and is NOT farm-fixing something.  We have been maintaining our plant with quick fixes and have not been farm-fixing them.  If so, our equipment would be more reliable, and would last longer than originally intended.

Risk Management is another area that has been misunderstood by our management.  They have gone to school and have been trained in Risk Management.  I don’t believe they are using their tools in the way that they were taught.  They have taken the underlying idea that we may not need to make a change or repair a certain piece of equipment at this particular time and have made it the center of their idea of Risk Management.  Risk Management is more than that.  It is weighing the consequences of both actions against the cost and making an informed decision to determine the timing of maintenance.

Risk Management at our plant has become nothing more than speculation, or what I call “Wish Management”.  The decision is often made based on the immediate cost and downtime to delay maintenance without properly identifying the possible damage that could occur and the cost of that scenario.

The phrase “It’s run that way this long, it will probably be all right” is used to justify not repairing the equipment.  No real analysis is done.  Then we cross our fingers and “Wish” that it will continue running forever.

I believe in the concepts of Risk Management and Farm-fixing.  I think they are processes that should be used in our company to achieve and maintain “Best-In-Class”.  I am concerned, however, that if we continue on the course that we are on where “Wishing” and “Jerry-rigging” are our processes, it will only be a matter of time before our workers get killed and our plants melt down around us.

Kevin Breazile

Sooner Station

— End of the letter.  See?  I was always trying to stir things up.

The first summer I worked at the Power Plant as a summer help, we had a couple of floor drain covers in the maintenance shop that were missing from the floor drains.  Plywood had been used to cover the drains, which had been smashed down by the heavy equipment that traveled in and out of the shop.  One day during lunch I wrote a Maintenance Order to have the floor drain covers replaced and placed it on Marlin McDaniel’s (the only A Foreman at the time) desk.  I was only an 18 year old kid that was just learning my way around in the world and already stirring things up, but I figured this was an accident waiting to happen.

The very next day, a plant mechanic, Tom Dean stepped onto one of those floor drains while carrying a heavy ladder and seriously hurt his back.  It was a life changing event for Tom that immediately changed his career.  The next day, the drains had new covers.  I talked about this in the post:  “Power Plant Safety is Job Number One

Approximately one year after I wrote the Farm-fixing and Risk Management letter to Jack Coffman, we had a major incident at the power plant that was directly caused by the decision not to replace a coupling when it was known to be faulty (risk management, they called it).  It would have required extending an overhaul a day or two.  Instead, after half of the T-G floor burned to the ground and the plant was offline for about 3 months.  Millions of dollars of damage.  That is a story for another post.

Switching in the Power Plant Substation Switchyard

Originally posted on February 9, 2013:

The phone rang Saturday morning on March 17, 1984. Since we didn’t have caller ID at that time, I had to pick up the phone to tell who was on the other end. It was my foreman Charles Foster. He said he needed to go out to the plant to do some switching in the substation and he needed someone to help him. I had been an electrician for all of 5 months and this was the first time I had been involved with switching in the substation.

When I arrived at the plant 30 minutes later, the operators in the control room were busy putting Unit 1 online. Charles Foster had brought along his son Tim Foster. Tim was about 10 years old at the time. The operators didn’t have any certified switchmen available, and so the Shift Supervisor, Jim Padgett gave the go ahead for me to go with Charles and act as the “secondary” switchman. That is, I was the one that read and re-read the instructions while Charles would actually crank the switches.

Here is a picture of a typical substation you might run across:

Parts of a Typical Substation

Parts of a Typical Substation

I found this picture on the Department of Labor website. The Main substation at the power plant was much bigger than this one. Half of the substation was the 189,000 volt substation the other half was the 345,000 volt substation. For the particular switching that we were doing that day, we were in the 189 KV end of the substation. This is where Unit 1 fed power to the world.

This was my first experience doing something in the substation other than sub inspections and Transfer Trip and Carrier tests. I was a little surprised when Charles closed one of the air break switches and there was a loud crackling sound as an arc of electricity jumped from one switch to the next. Charles told me that was nothing. Just wait until I close the main switch from the transformer on Unit 2 in the 345 KV sub up the hill.

He was right. Later when I first opened that switch, it drew an arc about 3 feet long before it broke the circuit with a loud pop. You could hear the echo of the booming arc as the sound bounced off the nearby hills…..um…. if there had been hills… It was pretty flat…. being Oklahoma and all. I suppose it was bouncing off of the Power Plant and maybe some trees off in the distance. Well. Anyway. It did echo for a while.

After my first experience in the substation, I decided that substations were one of the neatest places to be. I later became certified as a switchman (multiple times, as you had to renew your certification every 2 or 3 years). Eventually becoming a Switchman trainer. Later when I was with my girlfriend, and even after she became my wife, and we would drive by a substation, I had to be careful not to run off the road since I was usually straining my neck to get a closer look at the substation.

This would result in Kelly become agitated (jokingly of course) that I was paying more attention to the substations than her. To this day, when we pass a substation, my wife Kelly will still let out a “hmmph” when I exaggeratedly ogle a passing substation. I mean…. Can you blame me?

Don't Substations look cool?

Don’t Substations look cool?

Well. Throughout the years, Substation switching became more an more safe. When I first began switching, we would just wear High Voltage rubber gloves and maybe a face shield. Later we had to wear an Arc Flash Protective suit just in case something blew up:

An Arc Flash Protector

An Arc Flash Protector (that’s a pretty creepy looking guy in there)

One time one of the switches broke and exploded in the 345 KV substation and we found a large piece of insulator 200 yards away. This suit wasn’t going to protect you from that. It was only going to keep you from being burned if there was a flash explosion.

In the early 1990’s there was what was known as the “EMF Scare”. That was the belief that the high voltage electric lines caused Leukemia. It was true that children in cities that lived near high voltage electric lines had a higher risk of having Leukemia than the general population. It also happened that these High Voltage lines ran right down major roadways, so that these same children were breathing a lot more exhaust from the cars and trucks on the road than your average person also.

Anyway. When we worked in the substation we all knew that we were being bathed in electricity. If I took my volt meter and dropped one end to the ground and held the other end up by my head, it would peg my meter out at 1000 volts. One day in the evening when it was time to go home, Scott Hubbard and I were delayed because a fuse block had burned up in a breaker panel in the 345 KV substation.

It was drizzling at the time, so you could hear the electricity about 30 feet above our heads crackling and popping. Scott and I were standing behind the pickup truck looking for spare parts in my tool bucket and I had poured out some nuts, bolts and screws onto the bed of the truck. As we were sifting through them looking for the parts we needed, both of us were thinking that I must have had some metal shavings mixed in with the nuts and bolts. When we would move them around we kept feeling like we were being stabbed by metal shavings….. It turned out that it was just sparks jumping from the truck to our fingers.

10 years after my first encounter in a substation, while I was on the Confined Space Rescue team, we had to be out at the plant at night because some people were working in the condenser and the Confined Space Rescue team had to be on site. So, while we were there, we were doing things like cleaning up shop and stuff. Ray Eberle was working with me, and he asked me if I had ever heard about holding up a fluorescent light in a substation and having it glow.

I told him that I had, and it does glow. We went to the electric shop where I retrieved a couple of new 4 foot fluorescent lamps and we headed to the 345 KV substation around midnight.

When we arrived, we climbed out of the truck, and I demonstrated how just by holding the fluorescent tube upright, it would light up:

Holding up Flourescent tubes under high voltage lines

Holding up Flourescent tubes under high voltage lines

Ray was fascinated by this, and was noticing how the tube would light up from the point where you were holding the tube on up. As he was experimenting with this new found knowledge, there was an odd popping sound that would occur about every 5 seconds. I was standing there watching Ray in the dark. Ray finally asked me…. “Where is that popping sound coming from?” I pointed down to his shoes and said. “There are sparking jumping from you shoe down to the ground.”

Looking down at his shoe in the dark, Ray could see about an inch long spark jumping from his shoe down into the large gravel we were standing on. He was startled by this and decided that he had enough scientific lessons for one night. So, we climbed back in the truck and headed back to the plant.

Anyway. During the time that we were having this EMF scare (EMF by the way stands for Electromotive Force), there had been some movie or a 60 Minutes episode on TV about it and it was causing a stir. So, people from Corporate Headquarters were going around trying to educate us about it. One way they did this was to show us how low the levels of EMFs were in the plant.

Well. You can’t convince an electrician that we aren’t constantly being bathed in electricity when we are out in the substation, because we all knew better. This guy came around with a special EMF gun just to show us how the plant was safe… We had a meeting where the engineers agreed that we hardly had any EMFs in the plant. The highest EMFs were found in a drill that mounted horizontally using an electromagnet.

When I heard this, I became skeptical of these findings. And the horizontal drill made me even more suspicious. Not that I minded the EMFs. I found them rather refreshing. They seemed to line up all my thought bubbles in my brain so that I could think better. Kind of like “magnet therapy”.

Then a couple of weeks later my suspicions were verified. Doug Link came down to the electric shop with a guy from Oklahoma City that was going to go with me out to the Substation to measure the EMF levels. — OK. I thought…. Let’s see what happens now… Because I already knew the EMF levels in the Substation just my licking my finger and sticking it in the air…

The guy from Corporate Headquarters took out a roller with a handle much like you would have to measure long distances. Only this had a couple of probes sticking out from either side horizontally. — Now…. Horizontally is the key, and that’s why when they said the Horizontal drill had the most EMFs in the plant, I became suspicious in the first place.

You see…. EMFs have direction. The two probes on the instrument that the man was wheeling around the substation were parallel with the high voltage lines. Therefore, you wouldn’t measure EMFs between the two probes. If the probes had been turned vertically (up and down), I am sure that the voltage (and the EMFs) would have blown the circuitry in the instrument. I say that because the guy that was wheeling this thing around the substation was being very careful not to tilt it one way or the other.

My suspicions were further confirmed when we were in the relay house looking at the results from when he circled the large transformer between the 189 and the 345 subs, and there was a large spike in EMFs at one spot. When we went to look at that spot, it was at the point where the high voltage bus turned down to go into the transformer…. Just like the Horizontal drill…. The direction was across the probes. You see…. EMFs are perpendicular to the flow of electricity. Or straight down from an overhead line. I mean… duh. You had to hold the fluorescent light upright to make it glow….

Well. I thought…. What do I do? Here is a guy trying to pull the wool over our eyes to make us believe that there aren’t any EMFs out there. I felt insulted. On the other hand, I didn’t care about the EMFs. I liked the EMFs. So, after looking at Doug Link straight in the eyes with an astonished look of disbelief that this guy thought we were so gullible to believe this magic act, I decided to let it go. Let him think he relieved our worry that didn’t exist in the first place. Why ruin his day. He had to drive 70 miles back to Corporate Headquarters. Why should he go all that way back thinking that he failed in his mission? So, all I could do was smile.

Anyway. Tim Foster, the 10 year old boy that was with his father, Charles Foster the first time I went to the substation to go switching, later grew up and became an electrician himself. Not only did he become an electrician, but he became an electrician in the same electric shop where his father had worked for 30 years. He works there to this day, and I’m sure that Tim now has an occasion to go switching in the same substation where I first met him. Bathing in the same EMFs. Feeling the same thrill when you open a 345 KV air switch with a loud Pop!

Replies from Previous Post

I do think substations look cool 🙂

Holy Cow! I am learning a lot about Power Plant Stations. This was very good!😊👍

I guess there has been some progress. We have 500KV lines bringing power into northern Virginia from West Virginia. People complain they are eyesores. Of course, if we we had enough sense to generate the power locally, we would not need 500KV lines 200 miles long.

The shoe sparks seem like the most wondrous part of all this. A fluorescent tube lighting up is kind of the expected effect; shoes, that’s different.

Yeah. The shoe sparks surprised me just as much as it did Ray. I’m just glad that he didn’t go up in flames. I knew it was just a static charge, but a charred Ray would have ruined the entire evening.

Yow! And I thought getting a 400-volt shock (DC, fortunately) when I was a teenager was frightening!

The OSHA Man Cometh

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An insulator like this only 3 foot long

An electric insulator like this only 3 foot long

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paul Willson in Cheers

Paul Willson in Cheers

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

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

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

Ron Kilman

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

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

Confined Space Air Monitor

Confined Space Air Monitor

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

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

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

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

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

Page 1 of the statement I signed

Page 1 of the statement I signed

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

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

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

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

Bill Cosby trying to look like Bill Bennett

Bill Cosby trying to smile like Bill Bennett

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

Comment from the original post

  1. Ron Kilman August 23, 2014

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

What Happens When Power Plant Gremlins Bite Back

Originally Posted October 4, 2014.

I suppose many of you have seen the movie Gremlins that came out in 1984. It’s a story about a creature named Gizmo who is a Mogwai that becomes a pet of an unsuspecting young man, who inadvertently breaks certain rules that were explained to him in specific detail. The first rule was Don’t get the Mogwai wet…. The second rule was Don’t feed a Mogwai past midnight. — There was another precaution, like Mogwai do not like Bright Lights. The Mogwai is a cute little pet designed to sell toys, and I think it was probably pretty successful.

When a Mogwai get wet, it pops out some fur balls that then turn into other Mogwai. You would think this would be good, but when the boy accidentally spills water on Gizmo, the new Mogwai turn out to be mischievous, where Gizmo is friendly and has a nice smile. The new Mogwai trick the boy into feeding them past midnight. This is when the trouble really begins. The cute fuzz ball Mogwai turn into Gremlins:

Gizmo from the movie Gremlins

Gizmo from the movie Gremlins

Stripe from the movie Gremlins

Stripe from the movie Gremlins

Can you guess which one is the Gremlin?

So, what does this have to do with Gremlins in a Power Plant? As it turns out something like Gremlins live in Power Power Plants. I know they did at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma where I worked as an electrician. Sometimes when you least expected it, a Gremlin would jump out and bite you.

At first a Power Plant Gremlin may appear like a nice cuddly Mogwai. For instance, one day when Stanley Elmore asked Hank Black to pull up to the front of the garage with the large P&H Crane to unload a large piece of equipment from a truck, or some such thing. I’m sure to Hank, this seemed like a nice cuddly Mogwai sort of a job.

A P&H Crane, just like the one at the plant

A P&H Crane, just like the one at the plant

Just think about it. Operating something with so much power and the ability to do so much work by just pulling a few levers and pressing a couple of petals, flipping a few switches. Not many people at the plant were privileged enough to have the opportunity to operate the P&H Crane. So, when Stanley asked Hank to lift that load and tote that bale, he hopped right to it.

Unfortunately, Hank didn’t realize when he climbed into the cab of the crane that the little Mogwai sitting in the seat next to him had been eating after midnight the night before…. One little pull of the wrong lever at the wrong time, and a little distraction that caused Hank to forget to put his outriggers out before trying to lift his heavy load, and the crane flipped over on its side.

Like this crane I found on Google Images

Like this crane I found on Google Images except our crane was laying all the way over on it’s side, but you get the idea

I wonder if Hank noticed the Gremlin jumping out of the cab just after that happened, or was he in too much of a state of shock. Though Hank appeared all right after that incident, he had injured his back in a way where he eventually had to leave permanently. I know that many years later after he left, he was still collecting a pay check from the company. Compliments of the Gremlin.

One day RD (Dick) McIntyre, Dale Mitchell, Don Timmons and George Alley were working underneath one of the four Intake Pumps, also known as the Condenser Water Pumps. These are the large water pumps that push the lake water through the condenser in order to cool the steam so that it can make another round through the boiler and end up turning the turbine once again. I believe each of these pumps can pump something like 189,000 gallons of water per minute. — One of the Power Plant Men at the plant can correct me if I’m mistaken.

A view of the coalyard from the top of the Smoke Stack

This is a view from the smoke stack. The four Intake pumps are at the bottom center

The crew was putting the coupling back on the pump if I remember this correctly…. and they needed to rotate the rotor of the motor or the pump in order to line it up or check the alignment. I wish I had a team picture of these four men, because they were the nicest bunch of old men. Especially when you were able to catch them all together. It seemed like the energy of their friendship made their group larger than the sum of the individuals. I’m sure while they were working on this job, all sprawled out underneath the pump motor, they had warm cuddly feelings just as if each of them was petting a Mogwai.

That’s when the Mogwai suddenly turned into a Gremlin. The team had put a strap wrench around the rotor (correct me if the details are wrong Mickey. You would know better than I) and were attempting to rotate the rotor. Dale Mitchell told me later that suddenly something slipped and the handle of the strap wrench swung around and smacked Dick McIntyre right in the forehead. Dick and Dale were just about as inseparable as Dick Dale was with his first and last name, so you can imagine how Dale felt that he had injured Dick.

Here is an interesting coincidence…. Dick Dale worked in the warehouse across the drive from the automotive garage where Dick and Dale (McIntyre and Mitchell respectively) worked, which was where the crane had tipped over with Hank Black in the driver seat. — I could stretch the coincidence to David Hankins, who used to drive a Black Trans Am. I would have mixed up David Hankins and Hank Black, because of David’s Black Trans Am, but David died in an auto accident early in 1980, and I don’t think Hank had arrived until shortly after. Racially, David Hankins was Black, and Hank Black was not. He was Native American. Anyway. I digress (which means… I have strayed from the topic of Gremlins).

When I think about Gremlins at the plant, Yvonne Taylor comes to mind. Not because she reminds me either of a Mogwai or a Gremlin, but because she encountered a Gremlin of sorts that sort of had a similar effect of spilling water on a Mogwai. I have recently reposted a story called “How Many Power Plant Men Can you Put in a 1982 Honda Civic” where I talked about Yvonne Taylor, one of the Chemists at the Plant.

Yvonne Taylor had worked as a Chemist at the plant since around 1980. We carpooled while I was a janitor and on the labor crew, almost until I joined the electric shop. So, I knew her pretty well. She liked to talk a lot, so I knew her a lot better than she knew me. As a chemist, she worked in the water treatment plant testing water quality, as well as testing our sewage treatment pond, and ground water, etc. She worked with a lot of different chemicals.

I was always fascinated with the chemistry lab. I had my own chemistry lab set up in the basement of our house when I was young. My dad would bring home different left over chemicals from work, and I would mix them, heat them, and light them on fire, and test their chemical properties… to the point of making gunpowder and exploding them in the backyard.

I think Yvonne had worked at the plant about 10 years when she developed a rash (or something) where she would become ill when working in the lab or in the water treatment plant. It was serious enough that Yvonne would have to take sick leave at times to recover. I first learned about her condition when I went to the chemistry lab for something and she was sitting in there wearing a paper filter mask. When I asked her why, she explained to me that she was trying to figure out what was causing her to become ill. She thought there might be some particles in the air in the lab or the water treatment plant that was causing it.

I think that the effects of Yvonne’s condition sounded a lot like what happens when someone develops an allergy to Latex. Yvonne would wear Latex gloves a lot when handling chemicals, so maybe that was it.

The sad part of the story is that Yvonne’s condition was severe enough that she had to leave the Power Plant and find another job. I don’t know where she went to work when she left the Electric Company. So, you see, Yvonne Taylor who happily went to work each morning ready to cuddle up to her chemicals just as if they were Mogwai, was finally chased away by Power Plant Gremlins.

In the post about the Honda Civic I mentioned that Yvonne’s husband Patrick had died in 2012. So, I wondered how Yvonne is doing lately, so I Googled her, knowing that she lived out in the country near Perkins Oklahoma…. But an interesting thing happened when I pulled up a page from the Perkins Journal for June 9, 2011.

I became confused when I saw this page. You see, the picture in the middle at the top is Mike Rose. He was an electrician I had worked with at the Power Plant, and I had recently re-posted a story about him called “River and Rose In the Power Plant Palace” Mike Rose had his own set of Gremlins which I may have mentioned in that post, but why, when I searched for Yvonne Taylor, did I pull up the a Newspaper Obituary of Mike Rose with the same picture of Mike I had posted in my post:

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

Mike Rose

Talk about a Coincidences:

I read through the entire page before I found Yvonne’s name in a totally unrelated article on the same page of the Perkins Journal! Look in the lower right corner of the screenshot of the newspaper. The picture of Kimberly Jo Taylor Wilkins. — Yep. That’s right! The daughter of Yvonne and Patrick Taylor! I don’t know how may hundreds of stories I heard about Kimberly throughout the 9 or 10 months I spent carpooling with Yvonne each morning as we drove to the Power Plant. Here she was beginning a new phase in Kimberly’s life on the same page that Mike Rose was beginning a new phase in his life. Two unrelated stories of Power Plant People I worked with on the same page of a small town newspaper (Perkins Oklahoma, Population 2,863) 10 years after I left the plant to go work for Dell. — Isn’t that neat?

Power Plant Farm Fixing and Risk Management

We were told at the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma that we were going to have to stop doing the excellent job we were used to doing.  We no longer had time to make everything perfect.  We just had to patch things together enough so that it was fixed and leave it at that.  Jasper Christensen told us that we were going to have to “Farm Fix” things and work harder because we now only had half the employees.

Jasper Christensen

Jasper Christensen

Two things bothered me right away….

First, “Work Harder.”  What exactly does that mean?  How does one work harder?  When I pick up my tool bucket to go work on a job, should I put some extra bricks in it so that it is harder to carry?  What then?  Think about it… Shouldn’t we be working “Smarter” instead of “Harder”?  We were all hard workers (if that means, spending a good 8 hour day doing your job).  Any slackers were laid off 7 years earlier.

When I heard “Farm Fixing” I took offense to the reference.  Jasper had mentioned using baling wire to hold something up instead of taking the time to make our jobs look pretty.  As if baling wire was somehow synonymous with “Farm Fixing”.  My grandfather was a farmer….  I’ll talk about that in a bit….

Jasper also informed us that we were no longer stuck doing only our own trade.  So, an electrician should expect to help out as a mechanic or a welder as long as it wasn’t too involved.  Certain welding jobs, for instance, require a certified welder.  If the job was just to tack weld up a bracket somewhere, then I, as an electrician, could wheel a welding machine over there and weld it up.

After that initial meeting after we had been downsized to pint-sized, we met with our own teams.  Alan Kramer was my new foreman.  He encouraged us to learn the different skills from our teammates.

Alan Kramer

Alan Kramer

I asked Ed Shiever to teach me how to weld.  After about an hour, I decided I wasn’t too interested in melting metal using electricity.  I would leave it to the experts.  I was left with a sunburned chest, as I usually wore a V-Neck Tee Shirt in the summer.

Ed Shiever 15 years later

Ed Shiever Welder Extraordinaire

Jody Morse was a mechanic on our team, who had been a friend of mine since I was a janitor.  We had been on the labor crew together.  He asked me if he could do some electrical work with me.  He thought it would be a useful skill to learn.  I happily agreed to let him work alongside me running conduit and pulling wire around the precipitator hoppers.

Jody Morse

Jody Morse

It wouldn’t include working on any circuits where he might accidentally come into contact with anything live.  So, I thought this was a good starting point.  That was one of the first skills I learned as an electrician-in-training when I was taught by Gene Roget, a master of conduit bending.

I showed Jody how to bend the conduit and have it end up being the right length with the curves in the right place (which is a little tricky at first).  Then I showed Jody where the conduit needed to go, and where the wire needed to end up.  He said he wanted to do this all by himself, so I left him to it and left to do something else.

A little while later, Jody came back and said he had a slight problem.  He had cut the cable just a little bit too short (Yeah.  I had done that myself, see the post: “When Enough Power Plant Stuff Just Ain’t Enough“).  I looked at the problem with him, and he was about six inches too short.

Jody looked the job over and decided he had two options.  Pull some new longer cable, or try to make the existing cable work.He figured out that if he cut off 6 inches of the conduit, and sort of bent it out so that it was no longer exactly at 90 degrees, then it would still reach where it needed to go, only the conduit wouldn’t look so pretty because the conduit would appear a little cockeyed.  We figured this would be all right because Jasper had just finished telling us that we needed to make things not so pretty anymore.  Jody finished the job, and filled out the Maintenance Order indicating that the job was done.

The cable and conduit job had been requested by Ron Madron, one of the Instrument and Controls guys on our team.  When he went out and looked at the conduit, let’s just say that he wasn’t too impressed.  He went to Alan Kramer and complained that the conduit job was disgraceful.  I don’t remember his exact words, but when I heard about it, it sounded to me like he said “It was an abomination to all things electrical”.

I had always taken pride in my work, and doing a “sloppy” job was not normal for me.  I didn’t want Jody to feel bad about this because he was pretty proud of having completed the job all by himself without my help.  So I went and had a one-on-one with Ron and explained the situation to him.  I also told him that the next time he has  problem with something I did, come directly and talk to me about it instead of our foreman.  We’re all on the same team now.

I think once he realized the situation, he was more receptive.  Jody and I did go back out there and fix the issue by running a new cable that was long enough, with a new piece of conduit that was installed with the best of care so that it looked pretty.  — None of us informed Jasper that behind his back we were still performing our jobs with great care and precision.

 

Conduit Bending Basics

Conduit Bending Basics

The more I thought about the idea of “Farm Fixing” and “Risk Management” and how it was being applied at our plant, after about a year, I wrote a letter to the Superintendent over all the Power Plants, Jack Coffman.

Here is the letter I wrote (It was titled “Farm Fixing and Risk Management” — appropriate, don’t you think?):

Dear Jack Coffman,

I went through the Root Learning Class on Friday, September 6.  After the class our table remained to discuss with Bruce Scambler the situation that exists at the power plants concerning the way we maintain our equipment.  We attempted to discuss our concerns with our facilitator, however, the canyon depicted in the first visual became more and more evident the further we discussed it.

Roo-Learning-Canyon

The Canyon Root Learning Map

My two concerns are the terms “Farm Fixing” and “Risk Management”.  These are two good processes which I believe must be employed if we are to compete in an open market.  I do believe, however, that our management has misunderstood their true meaning and has turned them into catch phrases that are something totally different than they were originally intended.

I come from a family of farmers.  My father and grandfather were farmers.  I was concerned about our use of the term “Farm-fixed”, so I discussed the way we were using it in our company with my father and I have confirmed my understanding of the term.

My grandfather as a farmer was a Welder, a Blacksmith, a Carpenter, and an Engine Mechanic.  When a piece of machinery broke down while he was out harvesting or ploughing a field, it is true that baling wire and a quick fix was needed to continue the work for the day.  There is a small window of opportunity when harvesting and the equipment had to be running during this time or the farmer’s livelihood was at stake.

That evening, however, the piece that broke was reworked and re-machined until it was better than the original store bought item.  Thus guaranteeing that it wouldn’t break down the following day.  If the repairs took all night to make it right, they would stay up all night repairing it correctly.  It was vital to their livelihood to have their machinery running as well as possible.

A Ford Tractor soon became my grandfather’s tractor as the original factory parts were replaced with more sturdy parts.  It wasn’t repainted (gold-plated), because they weren’t planning on selling their equipment.  The tractors and plows would last years longer than originally designed.  All this was before farming became a subsidized industry.

We need to “Farm-Fix” our equipment.  Our management however, focuses on the use of baling wire during an emergency and replaces the true meaning of Farm-Fixing with the meaning of “Jerry-Rigging”.  Which is merely a temporary fix while farming and is NOT farm-fixing something.  We have been maintaining our plant with quick fixes and have not been farm-fixing them.  If so, our equipment would be more reliable, and would last longer than originally intended.

Risk Management is another area that has been misunderstood by our management.  They have gone to school and have been trained in Risk Management.  I don’t believe they are using their tools in the way that they were taught.  They have taken the underlying idea that we may not need to make a change or repair a certain piece of equipment at this particular time and have made it the center of their idea of Risk Management.  Risk Management is more than that.  It is weighing the consequences of both actions against the cost and making an informed decision to determine the timing of maintenance.

Risk Management at our plant has become nothing more than speculation, or what I call “Wish Management”.  The decision is often made based on the immediate cost and downtime to delay maintenance without properly identifying the possible damage that could occur and the cost of that scenario.

The phrase “It’s run that way this long, it will probably be all right” is used to justify not repairing the equipment.  No real analysis is done.  Then we cross our fingers and “Wish” that it will continue running forever.

I believe in the concepts of Risk Management and Farm-fixing.  I think they are processes that should be used in our company to achieve and maintain “Best-In-Class”.  I am concerned, however, that if we continue on the course that we are on where “Wishing” and “Jerry-rigging” are our processes, it will only be a matter of time before our workers get killed and our plants melt down around us.

Kevin Breazile

Sooner Station

— End of the letter.  See?  I was always trying to stir things up.

The first summer I worked at the Power Plant as a summer help, we had a couple of floor drain covers in the maintenance shop that were missing from the floor drains.  Plywood had been used to cover the drains, which had been smashed down by the heavy equipment that traveled in and out of the shop.  One day during lunch I wrote a Maintenance Order to have the floor drain covers replaced and placed it on Marlin McDaniel’s (the only A Foreman at the time) desk.  I was only an 18 year old kid that was just learning my way around in the world and already stirring things up, but I figured this was an accident waiting to happen.

The very next day, a plant mechanic, Tom Dean stepped onto one of those floor drains while carrying a heavy ladder and seriously hurt his back.  It was a life changing event for Tom that immediately changed his career.  The next day, the drains had new covers.  I talked about this in the post:  “Power Plant Safety is Job Number One

Approximately one year after I wrote the Farm-fixing and Risk Management letter to Jack Coffman, we had a major incident at the power plant that was directly caused by the decision not to replace a coupling when it was known to be faulty (risk management, they called it).  It would have required extending an overhaul a day or two.  Instead, after half of the T-G floor burned to the ground and the plant was offline for about 3 months.  Millions of dollars of damage.  That is a story for another post.

What Happens When Power Plant Gremlins Bite Back

Originally Posted October 4, 2014.

I suppose many of you have seen the movie Gremlins that came out in 1984. It’s a story about a creature named Gizmo who is a Mogwai that becomes a pet of an unsuspecting young man, who inadvertently breaks certain rules that were explained to him in specific detail. The first rule was Don’t get the Mogwai wet…. The second rule was Don’t feed a Mogwai past midnight. — There was another precaution, like Mogwai do not like Bright Lights. The Mogwai is a cute little pet designed to sell toys, and I think it was probably pretty successful.

When a Mogwai get wet, it pops out some fur balls that then turn into other Mogwai. You would think this would be good, but when the boy accidentally spills water on Gizmo, the new Mogwai turn out to be mischievous, where Gizmo is friendly and has a nice smile. The new Mogwai trick the boy into feeding them past midnight. This is when the trouble really begins. The cute fuzz ball Mogwai turn into Gremlins:

Gizmo from the movie Gremlins

Gizmo from the movie Gremlins

Stripe from the movie Gremlins

Stripe from the movie Gremlins

Can you guess which one is the Gremlin?

So, what does this have to do with Gremlins in a Power Plant? As it turns out something like Gremlins live in Power Power Plants. I know they did at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma where I worked as an electrician. Sometimes when you least expected it, a Gremlin would jump out and bite you.

At first a Power Plant Gremlin may appear like a nice cuddly Mogwai. For instance, one day when Stanley Elmore asked Hank Black to pull up to the front of the garage with the large P&H Crane to unload a large piece of equipment from a truck, or some such thing. I’m sure to Hank, this seemed like a nice cuddly Mogwai sort of a job.

A P&H Crane, just like the one at the plant

A P&H Crane, just like the one at the plant

Just think about it. Operating something with so much power and the ability to do so much work by just pulling a few levers and pressing a couple of petals, flipping a few switches. Not many people at the plant were privileged enough to have the opportunity to operate the P&H Crane. So, when Stanley asked Hank to lift that load and tote that bale, he hopped right to it.

Unfortunately, Hank didn’t realize when he climbed into the cab of the crane that the little Mogwai sitting in the seat next to him had been eating after midnight the night before…. One little pull of the wrong lever at the wrong time, and a little distraction that caused Hank to forget to put his outriggers out before trying to lift his heavy load, and the crane flipped over on its side.

Like this crane I found on Google Images

Like this crane I found on Google Images except our crane was laying all the way over on it’s side, but you get the idea

I wonder if Hank noticed the Gremlin jumping out of the cab just after that happened, or was he in too much of a state of shock. Though Hank appeared all right after that incident, he had injured his back in a way where he eventually had to leave permanently. I know that many years later after he left, he was still collecting a pay check from the company. Compliments of the Gremlin.

One day RD (Dick) McIntyre, Dale Mitchell, Don Timmons and George Alley were working underneath one of the four Intake Pumps, also known as the Condenser Water Pumps. These are the large water pumps that push the lake water through the condenser in order to cool the steam so that it can make another round through the boiler and end up turning the turbine once again. I believe each of these pumps can pump something like 189,000 gallons of water per minute. — One of the Power Plant Men at the plant can correct me if I’m mistaken.

A view of the coalyard from the top of the Smoke Stack

This is a view from the smoke stack. The four Intake pumps are at the bottom center

The crew was putting the coupling back on the pump if I remember this correctly…. and they needed to rotate the rotor of the motor or the pump in order to line it up or check the alignment. I wish I had a team picture of these four men, because they were the nicest bunch of old men. Especially when you were able to catch them all together. It seemed like the energy of their friendship made their group larger than the sum of the individuals. I’m sure while they were working on this job, all sprawled out underneath the pump motor, they had warm cuddly feelings just as if each of them was petting a Mogwai.

That’s when the Mogwai suddenly turned into a Gremlin. The team had put a strap wrench around the rotor (correct me if the details are wrong Mickey. You would know better than I) and were attempting to rotate the rotor. Dale Mitchell told me later that suddenly something slipped and the handle of the strap wrench swung around and smacked Dick McIntyre right in the forehead. Dick and Dale were just about as inseparable as Dick Dale was with his first and last name, so you can imagine how Dale felt that he had injured Dick.

Here is an interesting coincidence…. Dick Dale worked in the warehouse across the drive from the automotive garage where Dick and Dale (McIntyre and Mitchell respectively) worked, which was where the crane had tipped over with Hank Black in the driver seat. — I could stretch the coincidence to David Hankins, who used to drive a Black Trans Am. I would have mixed up David Hankins and Hank Black, because of David’s Black Trans Am, but David died in an auto accident early in 1980, and I don’t think Hank had arrived until shortly after. Racially, David Hankins was Black, and Hank Black was not. He was Native American. Anyway. I digress (which means… I have strayed from the topic of Gremlins).

When I think about Gremlins at the plant, Yvonne Taylor comes to mind. Not because she reminds me either of a Mogwai or a Gremlin, but because she encountered a Gremlin of sorts that sort of had a similar effect of spilling water on a Mogwai. I have recently reposted a story called “How Many Power Plant Men Can you Put in a 1982 Honda Civic” where I talked about Yvonne Taylor, one of the Chemists at the Plant.

Yvonne Taylor had worked as a Chemist at the plant since around 1980. We carpooled while I was a janitor and on the labor crew, almost until I joined the electric shop. So, I knew her pretty well. She liked to talk a lot, so I knew her a lot better than she knew me. As a chemist, she worked in the water treatment plant testing water quality, as well as testing our sewage treatment pond, and ground water, etc. She worked with a lot of different chemicals.

I was always fascinated with the chemistry lab. I had my own chemistry lab set up in the basement of our house when I was young. My dad would bring home different left over chemicals from work, and I would mix them, heat them, and light them on fire, and test their chemical properties… to the point of making gunpowder and exploding them in the backyard.

I think Yvonne had worked at the plant about 10 years when she developed a rash (or something) where she would become ill when working in the lab or in the water treatment plant. It was serious enough that Yvonne would have to take sick leave at times to recover. I first learned about her condition when I went to the chemistry lab for something and she was sitting in there wearing a paper filter mask. When I asked her why, she explained to me that she was trying to figure out what was causing her to become ill. She thought there might be some particles in the air in the lab or the water treatment plant that was causing it.

I think that the effects of Yvonne’s condition sounded a lot like what happens when someone develops an allergy to Latex. Yvonne would wear Latex gloves a lot when handling chemicals, so maybe that was it.

The sad part of the story is that Yvonne’s condition was severe enough that she had to leave the Power Plant and find another job. I don’t know where she went to work when she left the Electric Company. So, you see, Yvonne Taylor who happily went to work each morning ready to cuddle up to her chemicals just as if they were Mogwai, was finally chased away by Power Plant Gremlins.

In the post about the Honda Civic I mentioned that Yvonne’s husband Patrick had died in 2012. So, I wondered how Yvonne is doing lately, so I Googled her, knowing that she lived out in the country near Perkins Oklahoma…. But an interesting thing happened when I pulled up a page from the Perkins Journal for June 9, 2011.

I became confused when I saw this page. You see, the picture in the middle at the top is Mike Rose. He was an electrician I had worked with at the Power Plant, and I had recently re-posted a story about him called “River and Rose In the Power Plant Palace” Mike Rose had his own set of Gremlins which I may have mentioned in that post, but why, when I searched for Yvonne Taylor, did I pull up the a Newspaper Obituary of Mike Rose with the same picture of Mike I had posted in my post:

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

Mike Rose

Talk about a Coincidences:

I read through the entire page before I found Yvonne’s name in a totally unrelated article on the same page of the Perkins Journal! Look in the lower right corner of the screenshot of the newspaper. The picture of Kimberly Jo Taylor Wilkins. — Yep. That’s right! The daughter of Yvonne and Patrick Taylor! I don’t know how may hundreds of stories I heard about Kimberly throughout the 9 or 10 months I spent carpooling with Yvonne each morning as we drove to the Power Plant. Here she was beginning a new phase in Kimberly’s life on the same page that Mike Rose was beginning a new phase in his life. Two unrelated stories of Power Plant People I worked with on the same page of a small town newspaper (Perkins Oklahoma, Population 2,863) 10 years after I left the plant to go work for Dell. — Isn’t that neat?

The OSHA Man Cometh

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An insulator like this only 3 foot long

An electric insulator like this only 3 foot long

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paul Willson in Cheers

Paul Willson in Cheers

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

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

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

Ron Kilman

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

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

Confined Space Air Monitor

Confined Space Air Monitor

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

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

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

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

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

Page 1 of the statement I signed

Page 1 of the statement I signed

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

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

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

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

Bill Cosby trying to look like Bill Bennett

Bill Cosby trying to smile like Bill Bennett

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

Comment from the original post

  1. Ron Kilman August 23, 2014

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

Power Plant Farm Fixing and Risk Management

We were told at the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma that we were going to have to stop doing the excellent job we were used to doing.  We no longer had time to make everything perfect.  We just had to patch things together enough so that it was fixed and leave it at that.  Jasper Christensen told us that we were going to have to “Farm Fix” things and work harder because we now only had half the employees.

Jasper Christensen

Jasper Christensen

Two things bothered me right away….

First, “Work Harder.”  What exactly does that mean?  How does one work harder?  When I pick up my tool bucket to go work on a job, should I put some extra bricks in it so that it is harder to carry?  What then?  Think about it… Shouldn’t we be working “Smarter” instead of “Harder”?  We were all hard workers (if that means, spending a good 8 hour day doing your job).  Any slackers were laid off 7 years earlier.

When I heard “Farm Fixing” I took offense to the reference.  Jasper had mentioned using bailing wire to hold something up instead of taking the time to make our jobs look pretty.  As if bailing wire was somehow synonymous with “Farm Fixing”.  My grandfather was a farmer….  I’ll talk about that in a bit….

Jasper also informed us that we were no longer stuck doing only our own trade.  So, an electrician should expect to help out as a mechanic or a welder as long as it wasn’t too involved.  Certain welding jobs, for instance, require a certified welder.  If the job was just to tack weld up a bracket somewhere, then I, as an electrician, could wheel a welding machine over there and weld it up.

After that initial meeting after we had been downsized to pint-sized, we met with our own teams.  Alan Kramer was my new foreman.  He encouraged us to learn the different skills from our teammates.

Alan Kramer

Alan Kramer

I asked Ed Shiever to teach me how to weld.  After about an hour, I decided I wasn’t too interested in melting metal using electricity.  I would leave it to the experts.  I was left with a sunburned chest, as I usually wore a V-Neck Tee Shirt in the summer.

Ed Shiever 15 years later

Ed Shiever Welder Extraordinaire

Jody Morse was a mechanic on our team, who had been a friend of mine since I was a janitor.  We had been on the labor crew together.  He asked me if he could do some electrical work with me.  He thought it would be a useful skill to learn.  I happily agreed to let him work alongside me running conduit and pulling wire around the precipitator hoppers.

Jody Morse

Jody Morse

It wouldn’t include working on any circuits where he might accidentally come into contact with anything live.  So, I thought this was a good starting point.  That was one of the first skills I learned as an electrician-in-training when I was taught by Gene Roget, a master of conduit bending.

I showed Jody how to bend the conduit and have it end up being the right length with the curves in the right place (which is a little tricky at first).  Then I showed Jody where the conduit needed to go, and where the wire needed to end up.  He said he wanted to do this all by himself, so I left him to it and left to do something else.

A little while later, Jody came back and said he had a slight problem.  He had cut the cable just a little bit too short (Yeah.  I had done that myself, see the post: “When Enough Power Plant Stuff Just Ain’t Enough“).  I looked at the problem with him, and he was about six inches too short.

Jody looked the job over and decided he had two options.  Pull some new longer cable, or try to make the existing cable work.He figured out that if he cut off 6 inches of the conduit, and sort of bent it out so that it was no longer exactly at 90 degrees, then it would still reach where it needed to go, only the conduit wouldn’t look so pretty because the conduit would appear a little cockeyed.  We figured this would be all right because Jasper had just finished telling us that we needed to make things not so pretty anymore.  Jody finished the job, and filled out the Maintenance Order indicating that the job was done.

The cable and conduit job had been requested by Ron Madron, one of the Instrument and Controls guys on our team.  When he went out and looked at the conduit, let’s just say that he wasn’t too impressed.  He went to Alan Kramer and complained that the conduit job was disgraceful.  I don’t remember his exact words, but when I heard about it, it sounded to me like he said “It was an abomination to all things electrical”.

I had always taken pride in my work, and doing a “sloppy” job was not normal for me.  I didn’t want Jody to feel bad about this because he was pretty proud of having completed the job all by himself without my help.  So I went and had a one-on-one with Ron and explained the situation to him.  I also told him that the next time he has  problem with something I did, come directly and talk to me about it instead of our foreman.  We’re all on the same team now.

I think once he realized the situation, he was more receptive.  Jody and I did go back out there and fix the issue by running a new cable that was long enough, with a new piece of conduit that was installed with the best of care so that it looked pretty.  — None of us informed Jasper that behind his back we were still performing our jobs with great care and precision.

 

Conduit Bending Basics

Conduit Bending Basics

The more I thought about the idea of “Farm Fixing” and “Risk Management” and how it was being applied at our plant, after about a year, I wrote a letter to the Superintendent over all the Power Plants, Jack Coffman.

Here is the letter I wrote (It was titled “Farm Fixing and Risk Management” — appropriate, don’t you think?):

Dear Jack Coffman,

I went through the Root Learning Class on Friday, September 6.  After the class our table remained to discuss with Bruce Scambler the situation that exists at the power plants concerning the way we maintain our equipment.  We attempted to discuss our concerns with our facilitator, however, the canyon depicted in the first visual became more and more evident the further we discussed it.

My two concerns are the terms “Farm Fixing” and “Risk Management”.  These are two good processes which I believe must be employed if we are to compete in an open market.  I do believe, however, that our management has misunderstood their true meaning and has turned them into catch phrases that are something totally different than they were originally intended.

I come from a family of farmers.  My father and grandfather were farmers.  I was concerned about our use of the term “Farm-fixed”, so I discussed the way we were using it in our company with my father and I have confirmed my understanding of the term.

My grandfather as a farmer was a Welder, a Blacksmith, a Carpenter, and an Engine Mechanic.  When a piece of machinery broke down while he was out harvesting or ploughing a field, it is true that baling wire and a quick fix was needed to continue the work for the day.  There is a small window of opportunity when harvesting and the equipment had to be running during this time or the farmer’s livelihood was at stake.

That evening, however, the piece that broke was reworked and re-machined until it was better than the original store bought item.  Thus guaranteeing that it wouldn’t break down the following day.  If the repairs took all night to make it right, they would stay up all night repairing it correctly.  It was vital to their livelihood to have their machinery running as well as possible.

A Ford Tractor soon became my grandfather’s tractor as the original factory parts were replaced with more sturdy parts.  It wasn’t repainted (gold-plated), because they weren’t planning on selling their equipment.  The tractors and plows would last years longer than originally designed.  All this was before farming became a subsidized industry.

We need to “Farm-Fix” our equipment.  Our management however, focuses on the use of baling wire during an emergency and replaces the true meaning of Farm-Fixing with the meaning of “Jerry-Rigging”.  Which is merely a temporary fix while farming and is NOT farm-fixing something.  We have been maintaining our plant with quick fixes and have not been farm-fixing them.  If so, our equipment would be more reliable, and would last longer than originally intended.

Risk Management is another area that has been misunderstood by our management.  They have gone to school and have been trained in Risk Management.  I don’t believe they are using their tools in the way that they were taught.  They have taken the underlying idea that we may not need to make a change or repair a certain piece of equipment at this particular time and have made it the center of their idea of Risk Management.  Risk Management is more than that.  It is weighing the consequences of both actions against the cost and making an informed decision to determine the timing of maintenance.

Risk Management at our plant has become nothing more than speculation, or what I call “Wish Management”.  The decision is often made based on the immediate cost and downtime to delay maintenance without properly identifying the possible damage that could occur and the cost of that scenario.

The phrase “It’s run that way this long, it will probably be all right” is used to justify not repairing the equipment.  No real analysis is done.  Then we cross our fingers and “Wish” that it will continue running forever.

I believe in the concepts of Risk Management and Farm-fixing.  I think they are processes that should be used in our company to achieve and maintain “Best-In-Class”.  I am concerned, however, that if we continue on the course that we are on where “Wishing” and “Jerry-rigging” are our processes, it will only be a matter of time before our workers get killed and our plants melt down around us.

Kevin Breazile

Sooner Station

— End of the letter.  See?  I was always trying to stir things up.

The first summer I worked at the Power Plant as a summer help, we had a couple of floor drain covers in the maintenance shop that were missing from the floor drains.  Plywood had been used to cover the drains, which had been smashed down by the heavy equipment that traveled in and out of the shop.  One day during lunch I wrote a Maintenance Order to have the floor drain covers replaced and placed it on Marlin McDaniel’s (the only A Foreman at the time) desk.  I was only an 18 year old kid that was just learning my way around in the world and already stirring things up, but I figured this was an accident waiting to happen.

The very next day, a plant mechanic, Tom Dean stepped onto one of those floor drains while carrying a heavy ladder and seriously hurt his back.  It was a life changing event for Tom that immediately changed his career.  The next day, the drains had new covers.  I talked about this in the post:  “Power Plant Safety is Job Number One

Approximately one year after I wrote the Farm-fixing and Risk Management letter to Jack Coffman, we had a major incident at the power plant that was directly caused by the decision not to replace a coupling when it was known to be faulty (risk management, they called it).  It would have required extending an overhaul a day or two.  Instead, after half of the T-G floor burned to the ground and the plant was offline for about 3 months.  Millions of dollars of damage.  That is a story for another post.