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 Tuesday, March 8, 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 Jack, (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?
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 view 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“
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.
There was only one person that the OSHA man Jack 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 think OSHA Jack 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 think he did 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 Jack 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 Jack. He reminded me a little of the guy a sidekick in Cheers named Paul Willson:
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.
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. I knew that I needed to have a hole watch, and I needed to check the air before I went into a confined space.
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, Jack 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. 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.
I took Jack 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 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:
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.
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:
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?
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:
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:
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!