Tag Archives: Clearance

Power Plant Lock Out – Tag Out or Just Tag Out

Originally Posted July 12, 2013:

All safe electricians worth their salt know about OSHA regulation 1910.147(c)(3). Only Power Plant electricians have learned more about OSHA regulation 1910.147(a)(1)(ii)(C). Section 147 has to do with locking out and tagging a power source in order to protect the employees working on the circuit. 147(a)(1)(ii) says that Power plants are exempt from section 147. In other words, if you are working in a power plant it is all right to have a less stringent lock-out/tag-out procedure in place than if you didn’t work in a power plant.

One of the first things I learned from Charles Foster, my foreman when I became an electrician was how to remove the “heaters” from a breaker relay in order to protect myself from an “unauthorized” operation of the breaker. That means…. in case someone accidentally turned on the breaker and started up the motor or whatever else I was working on. “Heaters” are what we called the overloads that trip a 480 volt breaker when the circuit uses more power than it is supposed to be using. They are called heaters, because they literally “heat up” in order to trip the breaker.

typical 480 volt overload heaters

typical 480 volt overload heaters

Charles Foster told me the following story about my bucket buddy Diana Lucas (later Diana Brien):

Dee was wiring up a sump pump at the bottom of the coal dumper. The motor had been taken out while the pump had been repaired. Once back in place Dee was sent to wire it back up. The proper clearance had been taken to work on the motor. That is, she had gone to the Shift Supervisor’s office in the Control Room to request a clearance on the motor. Then later she had witnessed the operator opening the 480 volt breaker and place the clearance tag on the breaker.

A typical Clearance Tag. Our tags had the word

A typical Clearance Tag. Our tags had the word “Clearance” at the top. We called them a “Hold Tag”

The tag is signed by the Shift Supervisor and is only to be removed by an operator sent by the Shift Supervisor. It is placed through a slot in the handle on the breaker that keeps the breaker from closing unless the tag is removed first…. well… that’s the theory anyway.

Dee had just finished hooking the three leads in the junction box together with the cable coming into the box using two wrenches. She reached down into her tool bucket that she was using as her stool to get some rubber tape to begin wrapping the connections. The three bare connections were sticking out in front of her face.

A large vertical pump motor

A large vertical pump motor

The Junction box is the box on the right side of this motor. At this point the cover would be off and the wires would be sticking straight out. As she reached into the bucket, the motor turned on and began running.

Startled, Dee stopped what she was doing. I suppose she also pinched herself to make sure she wasn’t dreaming. Then I suppose she checked her diaper to make sure it was still dry. Then I suppose she may have said a few choice words whether anyone was around to hear them or not. Maybe not all in that order.

For those of you who don’t realize what this meant. It meant that if the motor had started running about 5 to 10 seconds later, someone, some time later may have made their way down to the west end of the dumper sump only to find one charred Diana Lucas (who never would have later become Diana Brien). They might not have recognized her at first. I can assure you. It wouldn’t have been pretty.

You see… someone had removed the Hold Tag and purposely started up the motor totally disregarding the clearance. I won’t mention any names, but his initials were Jerry Osborn.

So, after Charles told me this story, he showed me what to do to prevent this from ever happening to me.

Charles and I went to the Shift Supervisor’s office to take a clearance on a motor. Then we followed the operator to the breaker and watched him open the breaker and put the tag on the handle. Then we signed something and the operator left.

After the operator left, Charles told me to open the breaker and slip the hold tag through the slot in the door so that the door could open without removing the tag. I followed his directions.

Once the door was open, he told me to remove the three heaters on the bottom of the relay and hide them at the bottom of the breaker box.

480 volt relay with the 3 heaters at the bottom. That white square is an overload reset button. in front of the first heater

480 volt relay with the 3 heaters at the bottom. That white square is an overload reset button. in front of the first heater.  The black squares with the W 34 on them are the heaters.

You see… with the heaters removed, even if someone were to close the breaker and try to start the motor, the electricity would never leave the breaker box because I had just created an open circuit between the relay and the wires going to the motor.

Well… If you don’t learn from history you are bound to repeat it. No. I’m not going to change subjects and start talking about making it illegal to own guns.

Anyway, there is always a chance for something to go wrong. The Peter Principle demands it. So, at one point, someone forgot to replace the heaters in the relay before returning their clearance. When the motor was tested for rotation, it didn’t work. At that point the electrician knew that they had forgotten to re-insert the heaters. So, they had to return to the breaker to install the heaters before the motor would run.

This didn’t set well with the Shift Supervisor, who has supreme power at the power plant…. well… besides the janitor who had total control over the toilet paper supply.

Technically we were not going around the hold tag by removing the heaters because they were downstream from the breaker handle which cut off the power to the relay. The Shift Supervisor on the other hand believed that the hold tag included everything in the breaker box, including the relay and heaters (which really was stretching it).

An argument ensued that pitted the shift supervisors and the supervisor of operations, Ted Holdges with the electricians. Ted argued that we should not be removing the heaters to keep ourselves from becoming electrocuted accidentally when someone inadvertently removes a hold tag and turns the breaker on and starts up a motor. Electricians on the other hand argued that if we were going to be exposed to the possibility of being electrocuted, we would rather not work on any circuit. Without being completely assured that we would not occasionally be blown to pieces when someone or something accidentally caused the circuit to become hot, we concluded it wasn’t worth it.

So, a compromise was reached. We could remove the heaters, but they had to be put in a plastic bag and attached to the hold tag on the outside of the breaker. That way, when the clearance was returned, not only were the heaters readily available the operator would know to contact the electrician to re-install the heaters. The electricians didn’t really like this alternative, but we agreed. We were assured that there wasn’t any way that a breaker was going to be turned on and operated with the heaters in them when someone was actually working on a circuit.

Fast forward three years. 1992.

Bill Ennis and Ted Riddle were working on replacing a large electric junction box on the stack out tower. The Stack Out Tower is the tower that pours the coal out on the coal pile. Halfway up this tower there is a large junction box where most of the electric cables passed through going to the top of the tower. Bill Ennis had taken a clearance on a number of motor and control breakers.

Bill returned from lunch one day to work on the junction box, removing the old cables. Putting new lugs on them and placing them in the new junction box. As he began working, he decided to take out his multimeter and check the wires he was about to work on….

We had a couple of these Simpson Analog Multimeters in the shop

We had a couple of these Simpson Analog Multimeters in the shop

Bill was surprised to find that one set of cables were hot. They had 480 volts on them. Everything in this box should have been dead. I suppose he pinched himself to make sure he wasn’t dreaming. Then I suppose he checked his diaper to make sure it was still dry. Then I suppose he said a few choice words that Ted may have heard if he was standing close by.  Maybe not all in that order.

What had happened was that there had been two clearances on this one particular motor. One of the electricians had returned his clearance, and had installed the heaters that were in the plastic bag on the front of the breaker and the motor had been tested for rotation and put back in service. The operator had taken both clearances off of the breaker by mistake.

Ok. It was time for another meeting. Something had gone wrong. If it had not been for the guardian angels of both Diana Brien and Bill Ennis, at this point we would have had at least two dead electricians, and believe me…. I know that when an operator had later climbed the stack out tower to check the equipment, if he had run across the body of Bill Ennis… it definitely wouldn’t have been pretty (even on a good day).

I attended this meeting with Ted Holdges as did most of the electricians. I began by telling Ted that when we had met three years earlier I was newly married and wouldn’t have minded so much if I was killed by being electrocuted because I was young and only had a wife who knew how to take care of herself. But now it was different. I had a little girl at home and I need to be around to help her grow up.

Ted looked surprised by my remark. I had just told him the way I felt about this whole situation. The argument that we were making was that we should be able to place locks on the breakers just like OSHA demanded from the other industries. We had demonstrated that we didn’t have a system that would protect us from human error. We needed something that definitely kept us safe.

We told Ted that even if we had locks, and for some reason the breaker just had to be closed and the electrician had forgotten to remove his lock, the shift supervisor could keep a master key in his office to remove the lock. He finally agreed. His problem was a loss of control. The thought was that the Shift Supervisor had ultimate power.

If you don’t learn from history you are bound to repeat it. No. I’m not going to change subjects and talk about socialized healthcare and how it destroys all concepts of quality and privacy.

So, as electricians, we weren’t really happy with this situation. We had a secret weapon against human error. Sure we would place a lock on the breaker. But after the operator would leave, before we placed our lock on the breaker, we might just open up the breaker box and remove the entire face off of the relay. It was similar to removing the heaters only it was bigger. It completely opened the circuit no matter what.

I hadn’t really planned on talking about this next story for a couple more years, but I’ll tell it now because it fits with this story.

In the month of May, 2001. I had already given my notice to leave the plant to work for Dell as a software developer. I was asked to work on a job with my old bucket buddy Diana Brien.

Diana-Brien

My Bucket Buddy Diana Brien

The problem was that there was a grounded three phase circuit up on the Surge Bin tower. It had been tracked down to the dust collectors located below the surge bin conveyor floor.

Dee and I walked up to the Gravimetric feeder deck to look at the breaker to make sure it was turned off. It had a Danger tag on it that had been placed by the Shift Supervisor.

A typical Danger tag used at the plant

A typical Danger tag used at the plant

The breaker was open and the message on the tag said “Do not close this breaker. The circuit is grounded”.

Ok. We walked up to the surge bin tower through the counter weight room for belts 18 and 19. We opened up the big junction box that fed the power to the two large dust collector motors on the landing behind us. After taking the cover off of the box, I took out my multimeter and checked the circuit.

Like this. Ok. So the multimeters had become more sophisticated over the years.

Like this. Ok. So the multimeters had become more sophisticated over the years.

The big copper bus was dead (that means, there was no electricity present).

So, Dee and I worked on locating the grounded circuit. I had just removed the cover to the junction box on one of the motors while Dee was removing some wires from the control panel when Larry Tapp arrived on the landing through the same route we had taken from the gravimetric feeder deck.

Larry asked us what we were doing. We told him we were tracking down the ground on the Dust Collectors. Larry looked surprised.

You see… Larry explained that he had just come from the Gravimetric feeder deck where he had just closed the breaker for the dust collectors. This particular breaker didn’t have a relay, as it was controlled by the control panel where Dee had been working.

So, I rechecked the copper bus with my multimeter and it was hot. 480 volts hot.

I had just been looking through my tool bucket for two wrenches to remove a piece of the bus work just to make sure the ground wasn’t in the box itself when Larry had arrived. In other words, if Larry had arrived 5 to 10 seconds later, he would have probably arrived to find Dee looking down at my body, stunned that I had just been electrocuted by a circuit that we had just tested and found dead.

If you don’t learn by history you are bound to repeat it.

You see… there is a difference between a Hold Tag and a Danger Tag. A hold tag is placed on a breaker after someone has requested a clearance by signing a form in the Shift Supervisor’s office in the control room. A Danger tag can be placed and removed at anytime by the person that placed the tag on the breaker.

So, I personally wrote this up as a “near” accident. We could have wiped our brow, pinched ourselves to make sure we weren’t dreaming. We could have checked our diaper to make sure it was still dry and then Dee could have said a few choice words that Larry Tapp would have agreed with (I have always had a mental block against expressing myself in that manner…. I found other ways). And we could have left this incident as a secret between Larry, Dee and I.

I thought it was a good time to remind the electricians throughout power production to follow the clearance procedures when working on high voltage circuits. Sure. Dee, Bill Ennis and I have powerful guardian Angels looking out for us…. but gee… I think we should be expected to look out for ourselves. So, I wrote up this incident to warn the rest of the team….. If we don’t learn from history, we are bound to repeat it.

I met with my roomie Steven Trammell, a month and a half later in Perkins Restaurant in Stillwater, Oklahoma to discuss his performance plan. I was a 360 Degree Assessment Counselor and my favorite roommate from 17 years earlier had chosen me to review his performance appraisal. During this meeting I asked Steven, who had driven from Harrah, Oklahoma from another power plant to meet with me, if he had read the near accident report about the dust collector at our plant.

My roomie told me that he had, and that he thought it seemed to unduly blame the electrician. I told him I was the electrician and that I wrote the report. After 18 years of being an electrician, I had become so relaxed in my job that I had become dangerous to myself and others. So, after I did a cause-effect analysis of the near accident, most of the cause had come from my own belief that I could circumvent clearance procedures and save time and still believe that I was being safe.

On my drive back to the plant after the meeting with my favorite roomie of all time, I had time to think about this…. I was going to be leaving the power plant in a little over a month to work for Dell as a programmer. I knew this when I had been negligent with the Danger tag. I could have caused the death of both Dee and I. I will sure be glad to be in Texas. — Only.. I will miss my friends most of all.

I leave the Power Plant with this one thought…. If you don’t learn from history, you are bound to repeat it. I mean it… This time I really do.

Comments from the previous posts:

  1. Ron Kilman July 13, 2013:

    This is a great story. I thank God for His guardian angels and I thank you for taking responsibility. It was always difficult investigating accidents because people are a little reluctant to share their mistakes with the world. But a wise man knows it’s better to have a bruised ego than a fried friend.

Larry McCurry July 13, 2013:

Kevin,

  1. As an old time operator and having follows in my fathers footsteps as a Shift Supervisor, The answer to all of these problems to add steps to the clearance procedure to make sure the heaters were removed and then replaced. The second was definitely an operator error, and I agree with you about it, The Shift supervisors did argue for it however the hubris of certain power hungry people managed to intimidate and control the situation. You do not ever work on equipment without your own clearance or a plan that includes the SS, as you mentioned He is the operating authority, or was until a person by the initials of Jim Arnold rewrote the procedures and made himself the Authority.

Jack Curtis August 12, 2013:
Good Story Indeed.
There is, I’m sure, a gene in human DNA labeled: “Murphy” that assures that anything that can happen, does. And in total ignorance, I’ll bet that some constant percentage of plant electricians were fried. I suppose the onset of computer controls has reduced that but that it still happens at a lower rate. The way you and your friends sort of automatically reached for your multimeters is a clue! These are shocking, highly-charged stories…
NEO July 16, 2014
Yep, and even c.3 rules fail on occasion. Most places I’ve worked the other key was at superintendent level, and required a veritable mountain of paperwork to acquire. G-d help anybody who lost his key! 🙂
Traditionally on distribution lines, we left our shotgun hanging on the (grounded) stinger to notify everyone since there is no (effective) way to LOTO a power line. Imagine my vocabulary one fine day up in Montana when I drove up to reenergize a tap to find it energized and a crew I had never seen putting my shotgun in their truck. That day, I got a profuse apology (and assurances) from the line superintendent in person, 50 miles from the office. I never worked dead again without three point grounding, and I require my people to use it as well, I don’t like funerals. Hot line is actually safer for most operations.
Dan Antion July 17, 2014
I have great respect for electricity, power tools and the threat of human error. That was a close call. Glad you had the presence of mind and experience to think to check again.
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Power Plant Men Learn to Cope with “Boring”

One of the most exhilarating moments a Power Plant Man may experience is when, while wearing a pair of high voltage gloves, they crank the handle of a High Voltage Switch closed in a substation.  The booming sound of the electricity crackling overhead and the echoing off of the hills and trees a mile away comes rumbling back!  I never could understand why the training required to be a certified substation switchman had to be the most boring class a Power Plant Man had to sit through.

An Electric Substation. Who would ever want to damage at something so beautiful?

An Electric Substation. Isn’t it beautiful?

I remember when I was young, every child had their own trampoline in their bedroom.  When your mom or dad confined you to your room, you could always find entertainment by jumping on the bed.  Then throwing up the blanket and letting it fall in a way that created a big blanket bubble, then you could plop yourself down in the middle as the mushroomed bed sheet burped the air out.

Once when I was young, my dad took my brother and me to Saint Louis because he was attending a meeting.  He was in the meeting most of the day, as we stayed in the hotel room.  This was back when you didn’t have 24 hour cable TV.  The day whizzed by as my brother and I jumped around between the two beds.  Leaping as high as we could, and pouncing from one bed to the other.  When our dad arrived after a day in meetings, he didn’t find a couple of young boys staring at the walls, he found two worn out kids who had just had one of the funnest days we could remember…. being cooped up in a hotel room all day long.

Contrast that to the first time I attended Substation Switchman Certification training.

The instructor explained at the beginning of the day long class that he was required to read through the company policies and procedures on substation switching before we were allowed to take the test.  There were a number of procedures that were practically duplicates of each other, so we had to listen to the same boring documents being read to us over and over again throughout the day.  This didn’t include just the switching procedures in the switchyard.  It also included the clearance procedures required before and after the switching has occurred.

Six hours later, I thought my eyelids had grown little lead weights on the end of every eyelash (and if you have ever seen how many eyelashes I have, you would know how serious of a situation this was).

That wasn’t the worst of it.  Switchman training back then was required every two years.  Think about this.  I was an electrician for 18 years.  During that time, I had to take Switchman training 7 times!  Each time the instructor had to read the entire text of the switchman policies and procedures.  Think of the most boring lecture or sermon you ever had to sit through, then multiply it by six, and you will understand the agony we had to endure each time to receive the Certified Switchman card for our wallets.

During the summer of 1995, after we had downsized to where we only had 7 electricians at the large coal-fired power plant in North Central Oklahoma, we decided we needed to train more operators to be switchman.  After all, they had the clearance part down already, and basically did lower voltage switching in the switchgears.  It made a lot of sense.

We told the switchman trainer that we wanted to add some hands-on practical training to the course to try to make training more exciting.  Andy Tubbs, the foreman who was also an electrician and long time switchman, worked to arrange it so that we could have the operators switch out a section of the substation after they had learned the boring part of their training.

Andy Tubbs - True Power Plant Electrician

Andy Tubbs – True Power Plant Electrician

After an entire day of sitting in a classroom.  The switchmen trainees had a real life opportunity to watch and experience switching out a real section of the substation.  They could wear the high voltage gloves and open the switches.

High Voltage gloves like this

High Voltage gloves like this

We also took switching orders and added some errors to them, and asked the students to review the orders to see if they would approve the switching before they went to the substation and to make any corrections necessary.  This is one of the steps a switchman is required to do before going out to switch.  They have to review each step of the switching and approve them.

Two years later in 1997, I was asked to go to Oklahoma City and become certified as a Switchman Trainer.  I remember going to the training center just north of Norman Oklahoma where I met our instructor, Harry McRee.  He was a trainer in his early 50’s.  He had been a safety trainer for years.

Harry McRee's Business Card

Harry McRee’s Business Card

Harry explained to us that he would like to make the switchman training more interesting, but the company’s requirements demanded that all of the documentation be read through entirely every time a person was re-certified.  Since the documentation took most of the day to read, his hands were sort of tied when it came to making the class more interesting.

To give you an idea… here is how many steps it takes just to take a clearance on a breaker in a plant…. We had to review each step of the process:

Clearance Procedures

Clearance Procedures

As a side note… In 1993, I had received a Masters in Religious Education from Loyola University in New Orleans.  My emphasis was on Adult Education.  So, when I went back to the plant and began developing the class for our plant, I thought I should be able to come up with some way to make the class more interesting.

I also thought that if it was possible for a couple of kids to keep themselves entertained all day just with a couple of beds in a hotel room, then something should be able to be done to make this ultra-boring class, more entertaining.

Since I was the “computer person” at the plant, I decided that I would use my computer as a learning aid.  I went to our substations and took pictures of everything I could find, so I could add them to a PowerPoint Project.  PowerPoint was fairly new at the time, so I decided to dazzle the class with animated fly-ins and popups, and cool transitions.  I also consolidated the various documents so that I wasn’t repeating myself throughout the day.  I brought my computer from home and set it up in the conference room.

I also employed my daughter Elizabeth to help me.  I figured if she could teach some of the training, and the students could see that even a seven year old can learn this, then maybe they would be a little more interested.  I had recently bought a new Ball Camera for my computer.  It was a new thing to have a camera on your computer.  They weren’t really used for things like Skype back then, since you only had 28,800 baud modems, which doesn’t give you very much bandwidth.  So needless to say.  No one in the room knew what that little white ball was.

White ball computer camera

White ball computer camera

I had my daughter dress up in one of my wife’s lab coats and wear over-sized glasses to give her the look of a teacher.  Then we created a number of short film clips that gave specific instructions.  Here are a few screenshots from the short videos we made:

Elizabeth, The Switchman Trainer

Elizabeth, The Switchman Trainer

At any moment her video would come flying in and she would often say….. “Look Class!  I know this is boring, but you HAVE to learn it!”

She would also fly in and say, “Pay Attention!  This is on the test!”

There were still a couple of videos that the switchmen-in-training had to watch that were boring, especially since we had all watched them many times in our careers.  I knew that during the videos, many would be falling asleep, so, I took my ball camera with me and kept it sitting on the table while we went through the training.  No one really knew what it was.

While we were watching the first boring video, I sat looking at my computer monitor, which no one in the room could see.  What I was doing was acting like I wasn’t paying any attention to anyone when I really was.  I had the ball camera in my hand.  I was looking for anyone who was dozing off.  Then I would take a movie clip of them nodding off.  Some fighting to keep their eyes open.  Others leaning way back in their chair with their mouth hanging wide open fast asleep.

I took the movie clips and put them about 5 slides later in the next section we were going to cover.  Just when they were ready to be bored from the next section of the class, I would present a slide to them with movie clips of them sleeping during the videos and Elizabeth would slide in from the bottom of the slide and say, “Look Class!  I know this is boring, but you HAVE to learn it!”

People Sleeping in Chairs. Just random pictures from Google. Not actual Power Plant Men

People Sleeping in Chairs. Just random pictures from Google. Not actual Power Plant Men

That was the clincher.  Once they realized that I had taken movie clips of them sleeping in the class just a few minutes earlier, they were all wide awake the rest of the day.  No one dared to nod off again.  It worked great!  When the second video was playing, you can be sure that everyone in the room was wide-eyed and wide awake.

When it came to the part where they took their test, they could use any notes they had taken.  Since Elizabeth had popped in and notified them about the parts that were going to be on the test, they were all prepared.  Here is a copy of the test they took:

Switchman Training Final Exam

Switchman Training Final Exam

Isn’t it funny that back then, you regularly used your Social Security Number for things like this?  We wouldn’t think of doing that today.

Later, after the class was over, Harry McRee, the trainer that had trained me in Oklahoma City, had heard how I had made the class interesting. So, he called me and asked if he could come out to our plant and see what I had done.  When he arrived I showed him all my material and gave him a copy of the PowerPoint and videos.  I told him he was free to use them however he wanted.

Because of this, I was asked to train the Power Plant Man in some other areas including general Windows training.  When a job to be the “official” trainer opened up at the plant, I applied for it…. but that is a topic for another post.  See the post “Power Plant Train Wreck“.

“I Think I Can, I Think I Can” and Other Power Plant Chants

Originally Posted on August 3, 2012 (I added a picture of Walt Oswalt):

The second summer as Summer Help at the Coal-fired Power Plant, was when I first worked out of the Automotive garage.  It wasn’t finished during the first summer.  The second summer when I began working in the garage, Jim Heflin, Larry Riley, Doug House  and Ken Conrad were the regular workers that mowed the fields using tractors with brush hogs, as I have explained in previous posts.  A summer help that also worked with us from Ponca City named David Foster was also able to mow grass using one of the new Ford tractors that we painted Orange to easily identify them as belonging to the Electric Company in Oklahoma.

I learned to drive the tractors later in the summer when I worked irrigating the fields in our attempt to grow grass (as told in the post “When a Power Plant Man Talks, It Pays To Listen“).  The next summer I was able to mow grass using a Brush Hog pulled behind a tractor:

brushhog

Almost Like this without the safety guards and just about as new

It didn’t take long before I had to mow grass on the side of the dam (and other levies).  The side of the dam has a very sharp incline, so while mowing grass on the side of the dam you sat more on the side of the tractor seat than on the seat itself.  Heavy weights were put on the front of the tractor and the back tires on the tractor were turned around so that they were farther apart than they would be otherwise.  This gave the tractor a lower, wider profile and a lower center of gravity helping to keep it from rolling over sideways down the slope.

Tractor Weights that fit on the front of the tractor

I had watched Jim, Larry, Ken and David mow grass along some very steep inclines the summer before without any tractors tumbling over, so I felt like it must be safe, even though looking at the tractors they still seemed a little “top heavy”.

The dam had a slope this steep but  much was taller

It was quite an eerie feeling the first time I actually mowed a slope this steep.  I experienced the same feeling as you have on a roller coaster when it hits the top of the hill and flings you down real fast when the tractor tire on the downhill side of the tractor rolls into a washed out spot on the dam causing the tractor to roll over just a little farther than you are used to.  It was definitely an adrenaline rush each time this happened, because it felt like the tractor was going to roll over.

That is when I remembered the story about the little engine that was trying to pull the train over the steep mountain, and he kept chanting, “I think I can, I think I can” over and over.  So, between each decade of the Rosary that I was saying while counting Hail Mary’s on my fingers, I added in an “I Think I can…” as an added prayer before the next “Our Father”.

The Little Power Plant Coal Train that Could

The Little Power Plant Coal Train that Could

In the time that I worked as a summer help we never turned over a tractor while mowing on a slope.  That isn’t to say that the tractors didn’t start to tip over.  It’s just that if you realize that the large back tractor tire has left the ground and is spinning freely, you could quickly turn the steering wheel downhill so that the tractor would turn downhill preventing it from rolling completely over.  The weight of the brush hog on the back helped to keep the tractor snug against the sloping dam.

Years later, after I left the Power Plant, in 2006, my father’s best friend, Tom Houghton, a Veterinarian in Lakeland, Florida was killed in a tractor accident at his family’s farm in Polo, Missouri.  This greatly effected my father.  He has not recovered from the loss of his friend still today.  As I was mowing grass and picturing my sudden demise if a tractor were to roll down the hill, my main concern was the sorrow my family would have felt by my death.  Needless to say… I never toppled a tractor.

It was during that same summer in 1981 that I first worked with the Power Plant Icon Walt Oswalt.  Every plant must have at least one person like Walt.  He is the type of person that once he has something in his mind about how to do something, nothing is going to change it.  I know many different stories about Walt Oswalt that have been shared with me, but this is one of my own.  Walt is a sandy-haired Irish-looking man that always reminded me of the little old man, Jackie Wright, on the Benny Hill Show.

Walt reminded me of Jackie Wright only with more hair

I now have an actual picture of Walt that I found laying around….

Walt Oswalt

Walt Oswalt — See the resemblence?  not much more hair

One Saturday while I had caught a ride to the Power Plant to do “coal cleanup” the crew was asked who would like to wash down belts 10 and 11.  These are the 1/2 mile long belts that go from the coalyard all the way up to the plant.  You can see them on the left side of the picture of the plant on the side of this post.  Finding the opportunity for a challenge, I volunteered.

I made my way up to the top of the Transfer tower where I found Walt Oswalt.  He was working out of the coalyard at the time and was helping us wash down 10 and 11 belt.  Wearing rainsuits and rubber boots we began at the top and worked our way down.  It didn’t look like this belt had been washed down for a while.  We could blast the tin enclosure with the high pressure hoses we were using to completely wash off all the coal dust that had built up over time.  This looked like it was going to be a fun job.

Then Walt pointed out to me that most of our work was under the belt where the coal had built up almost solid up to the belt itself so that the coal was rubbing on the rubber Uniroyal conveyor belt.  Remember, if the conveyor belt goes up, it has to go back down also.  So underneath the conveyor is where the belt returns.  it is a big loop.

Directly underneath this conveyor is the return for the belt

So, Walt Oswalt and I spent the rest of the day laying on the grating so we could see under the belts washing the coal down the slope of belt 10 and 11.  Under the conveyor is another set of rollers that the rubber conveyor belt rides on it’s return trip to the Crusher Tower.  During this time there were two chants that came to my mind…. One was, “Whistle While you Work”, since we seemed to be in some kind of coal mine working away like the Seven Dwarfs (you know…  Walt Disney… Walt Oswalt).  The other one was the song, “Workin’ In a Coal Mine” (…goin’ down down).

Disney’s Seven Dwarfs Mining

At one particular spot the coal had built up and packed itself in there so much that one of the rollers wasn’t able to turn and the belt was just rubbing on the roller.  After we had washed the coal away we could see that the roller was not able to turn still because the belt had worn it flat on one side.

Walt called the Control Room to shutdown the belt so that we could look at it.  We could see that the roller was bad.  For some reason the other belt (11) was out of commission so without this belt running, no coal was being sent up to the plant.  The coal silos and the surge bin hold enough coal for a while but not for too long during the summer when the units need to run at their maximum rate to supply the electricity needed by the customers.  We could have the belt shutdown for a while, but not for too long.

I followed Walt down the belt to the Crusher Tower wondering what he had in mind.  He didn’t tell me what we were going to do, so I just gathered my clues by watching what he did.  When we came out of the belt and left the Crusher I was surprised that it was already dark outside.  When I had left the Maintenance Shop it had been morning.  Now it was dark.  We had spent the entire day (12 hours at this point) in Belt 10 and 11.  I didn’t remember ever taking a break or eating lunch or even going to the bathroom.  Just holding the high pressure water hose, directing the stream down under the belt… all day.

We walked over to a new building that was still being built called the Coalyard Maintenance Building.  This was the new building that was going to be used by the new Labor Crew in a few months. Outside the building to one side was a Conex Box, as I have described before.  This is the kind of large box that you see on the CSX train commercials that are being transported by trains.

A Conex Box

We used them to store equipment used for specific jobs or crews.  In this case, the Conex box had conveyor equipment in it.  Walt found a long straight roller that is used under the Number 10 and 11 belts and tied it to a 2 wheel dolly.  We rolled it back to the Crusher Tower and began the long trek back up the belt.  I was pulling the dolly and Walt was carrying some large wrenches.

When we arrived at the spot where the roller had been worn, Walt called the control room to let them know we were beginning to work.  We pulled the safety cords on the side of the conveyor to ensure that the belt would not start, even though we were assured that a Clearance had been placed on the breaker in the Main Switchgear (where I began my first war with the spiders a year later.  See the post “Power Plant Spider Wars and Bugs in the Basement“).

Walt climbed over the belt and I stayed on the main walkway.   We worked upside down for a while unbolting the roller.  At one point we decided we needed some more suitable tools and headed back down the belt to the Coalyard Garage where the heavy equipment is serviced and brought back some large ratchet wrenches and sockets with an extension.

Socket Wrench with extension

I think the chant, “I think I can, I think I can” was running through my head on our second trip back up the conveyor belt.  I think it was around 10pm.  We finished changing the roller and decided to leave the old one laying in the walkway for the night.  Walt said he would bring it back to the coalyard on Monday morning.

We made our way back to the Maintenance shop where I took off the rain suit and rubber boots that I had been wearing all day and put my regular boots back on.  I went up to the control room and asked if anyone could give me a ride to Stillwater since the evening shift of operators were just getting off at 11pm. I believe it was Charles Buchanan that gave me a ride home that night in his little beat up pickup truck.

I never worked directly with Charles Buchanan since he was an operator.  The first impression that one may have is that he looks like a caricature of a construction worker in a comic strip.

First Impression of Charles Buchanan

Charles reaffirmed my belief that Power Plant Men are some of the nicest people you will ever meet.  There were a few times when I caught a ride with Charles to or from the plant.  Each time I felt honored to ride in his truck.  If I think about what chant was running through my mind as we were on our way home at night, I think it would be something like the song “You’ve Got a Friend”: “Winter, spring, summer, or fall, all you have to do is call, Lord, I’ll be there, yeah, yeah, you’ve got a friend….”

That is what all real Power Plant men and linemen are like.  Wherever you look in the United States, these great men and women work tirelessly to keep you safe by providing electricity to your homes.  Something we take for granted until the power goes out.

Recently when the power went out in the east, the linemen from this electric company drove with pride, eager to help those in need:

A convoy of Electric Company Trucks on their way from Oklahoma to Indiana to help return power to millions of Americans in the dark

Below I have included the lyrics for the song “You’ve Got a Friend” by Carole King and her husband James Taylor.  See how well it fits those people that work around the clock bringing the power to your home:

You just call out my name, and you know where ever I am
I’ll come running to see you again.
Winter, spring, summer, or fall, all you have to do is call and I’ll be there, yeah, yeah,
you’ve got a friend.

If the sky above you should turn dark and full of clouds
and that old north wind should begin to blow,
keep your head together and call my name out loud.
Soon I will be knocking upon your door.
You just call out my name, and you know where ever I am
I’ll come running to see you again.
Winter, spring, summer, or fall, all you have to do is call and I’ll be there.

Hey, ain’t it good to know that you’ve got a friend? People can be so cold.
They’ll hurt you and desert you. Well, they’ll take your soul if you let them,
oh yeah, but don’t you let them.

You just call out my name, and you know where ever I am
I’ll come running to see you again.
Winter, spring, summer, or fall, all you have to do is call, Lord, I’ll be there, yeah, yeah,
you’ve got a friend. You’ve got a friend.
Ain’t it good to know you’ve got a friend. Ain’t it good to know you’ve got a friend.
Oh, yeah, yeah, you’ve got a friend.

Here is a YouTube video of James Taylor singing this song:

If your aren’t able to play youtube videos directly from the picture… here is the link:  “You’ve got a Friend

Power Plant Lock Out – Tag Out or Just Tag Out

Originally Posted July 12, 2013:

All safe electricians worth their salt know about OSHA regulation 1910.147(c)(3). Only Power Plant electricians have learned more about OSHA regulation 1910.147(a)(1)(ii)(C). Section 147 has to do with locking out and tagging a power source in order to protect the employees working on the circuit. 147(a)(1)(ii) says that Power plants are exempt from section 147. In other words, if you are working in a power plant it is all right to have a less stringent lock-out/tag-out procedure in place than if you didn’t work in a power plant.

One of the first things I learned from Charles Foster, my foreman when I became an electrician was how to remove the “heaters” from a breaker relay in order to protect myself from an “unauthorized” operation of the breaker. That means…. in case someone accidentally turned on the breaker and started up the motor or whatever else I was working on. “Heaters” are what we called the overloads that trip a 480 volt breaker when the circuit uses more power than it is supposed to be using. They are called heaters, because they literally “heat up” in order to trip the breaker.

typical 480 volt overload heaters

typical 480 volt overload heaters

Charles Foster told me the following story about my bucket buddy Diana Lucas (later Diana Brien):

Dee was wiring up a sump pump at the bottom of the coal dumper. The motor had been taken out while the pump had been repaired. Once back in place Dee was sent to wire it back up. The proper clearance had been taken to work on the motor. That is, she had gone to the Shift Supervisor’s office in the Control Room to request a clearance on the motor. Then later she had witnessed the operator opening the 480 volt breaker and place the clearance tag on the breaker.

A typical Clearance Tag.  Our tags had the word

A typical Clearance Tag. Our tags had the word “Clearance” at the top. We called them a “Hold Tag”

The tag is signed by the Shift Supervisor and is only to be removed by an operator sent by the Shift Supervisor. It is placed through a slot in the handle on the breaker that keeps the breaker from closing unless the tag is removed first…. well… that’s the theory anyway.

Dee had just finished hooking the three leads in the junction box together with the cable coming into the box using two wrenches. She reached down into her tool bucket that she was using as her stool to get some rubber tape to begin wrapping the connections. The three bare connections were sticking out in front of her face.

A large vertical pump motor

A large vertical pump motor

The Junction box is the box on the right side of this motor. At this point the cover would be off and the wires would be sticking straight out. As she reached into the bucket, the motor turned on and began running.

Startled, Dee stopped what she was doing. I suppose she also pinched herself to make sure she wasn’t dreaming. Then I suppose she checked her diaper to make sure it was still dry. Then I suppose she may have said a few choice words whether anyone was around to hear them or not. Maybe not all in that order.

For those of you who don’t realize what this meant. It meant that if the motor had started running about 5 to 10 seconds later, someone, some time later may have made their way down to the west end of the dumper sump only to find one charred Diana Lucas (who never would have later become Diana Brien). They might not have recognized her at first. I can assure you. It wouldn’t have been pretty.

You see… someone had removed the Hold Tag and purposely started up the motor totally disregarding the clearance. I won’t mention any names, but his initials were Jerry Osborn.

So, after Charles told me this story, he showed me what to do to prevent this from ever happening to me.

Charles and I went to the Shift Supervisor’s office to take a clearance on a motor. Then we followed the operator to the breaker and watched him open the breaker and put the tag on the handle. Then we signed something and the operator left.

After the operator left, Charles told me to open the breaker and slip the hold tag through the slot in the door so that the door could open without removing the tag. I followed his directions.

Once the door was open, he told me to remove the three heaters on the bottom of the relay and hide them at the bottom of the breaker box.

480 volt relay with the 3 heaters at the bottom.  That white square is an overload reset button. in front of the first heater

480 volt relay with the 3 heaters at the bottom. That white square is an overload reset button. in front of the first heater

You see… with the heaters removed, even if someone were to close the breaker and try to start the motor, the electricity would never leave the breaker box because I had just created an open circuit between the relay and the wires going to the motor.

Well… If you don’t learn from history you are bound to repeat it. No. I’m not going to change subjects and start talking about making it illegal to own guns.

Anyway, there is always a chance for something to go wrong. The Peter Principle demands it. So, at one point, someone forgot to replace the heaters in the relay before returning their clearance. When the motor was tested for rotation, it didn’t work. At that point the electrician knew that they had forgotten to re-insert the heaters. So, they had to return to the breaker to install the heaters before the motor would run.

This didn’t set well with the Shift Supervisor, who has supreme power at the power plant…. well… besides the janitor who had total control over the toilet paper supply.

Technically we were not going around the hold tag by removing the heaters because they were downstream from the breaker handle which cut off the power to the relay. The Shift Supervisor on the other hand believed that the hold tag included everything in the breaker box, including the relay and heaters (which really was stretching it).

An argument ensued that pitted the shift supervisors and the supervisor of operations, Ted Holdges with the electricians. Ted argued that we should not be removing the heaters to keep ourselves from becoming electrocuted accidentally when someone inadvertently removes a hold tag and turns the breaker on and starts up a motor. Electricians on the other hand argued that if we were going to be exposed to the possibility of being electrocuted, we would rather not work on any circuit. Without being completely assured that we would not occasionally be blown to pieces when someone or something accidentally caused the circuit to become hot, we concluded it wasn’t worth it.

So, a compromise was reached. We could remove the heaters, but they had to be put in a plastic bag and attached to the hold tag on the outside of the breaker. That way, when the clearance was returned, not only were the heaters readily available the operator would know to contact the electrician to re-install the heaters. The electricians didn’t really like this alternative, but we agreed. We were assured that there wasn’t any way that a breaker was going to be turned on and operated with the heaters in them when someone was actually working on a circuit.

Fast forward three years. 1992.

Bill Ennis and Ted Riddle were working on replacing a large electric junction box on the stack out tower. The Stack Out Tower is the tower that pours the coal out on the coal pile. Halfway up this tower there is a large junction box where most of the electric cables passed through going to the top of the tower. Bill Ennis had taken a clearance on a number of motor and control breakers.

Bill returned from lunch one day to work on the junction box, removing the old cables. Putting new lugs on them and placing them in the new junction box. As he began working, he decided to take out his multimeter and check the wires he was about to work on….

We had a couple of these Simpson Analog Multimeters in the shop

We had a couple of these Simpson Analog Multimeters in the shop

Bill was surprised to find that one set of cables were hot. They had 480 volts on them. Everything in this box should have been dead. I suppose he pinched himself to make sure he wasn’t dreaming. Then I suppose he checked his diaper to make sure it was still dry. Then I suppose he said a few choice words that Ted may have heard if he was standing close by.

What had happened was that there had been two clearances on this one particular motor. One of the electricians had returned his clearance, and had installed the heaters that were in the plastic bag on the front of the breaker and the motor had been tested for rotation and put back in service. The operator had taken both clearances off of the breaker by mistake.

Ok. It was time for another meeting. Something had gone wrong. If it had not been for the guardian angels of both Diana Brien and Bill Ennis, at this point we would have had at least two dead electricians, and believe me…. I know that when an operator had later climbed the stack out tower to check the equipment, if he had run across the body of Bill Ennis… it definitely wouldn’t have been pretty (even on a good day).

I attended this meeting with Ted Holdges as did most of the electricians. I began by telling Ted that when we had met three years earlier I was newly married and wouldn’t have minded so much if I was killed by being electrocuted because I was young and only had a wife who knew how to take care of herself. But now it was different. I had a little girl at home and I need to be around to help her grow up.

Ted looked surprised by my remark. I had just told him the way I felt about this whole situation. The argument that we were making was that we should be able to place locks on the breakers just like OSHA demanded from the other industries. We had demonstrated that we didn’t have a system that would protect us from human error. We needed something that definitely kept us safe.

We told Ted that even if we had locks, and for some reason the breaker just had to be closed and the electrician had forgotten to remove his lock, the shift supervisor could keep a master key in his office to remove the lock. He finally agreed. His problem was a loss of control. The thought was that the Shift Supervisor had ultimate power.

If you don’t learn from history you are bound to repeat it. No. I’m not going to change subjects and talk about socialized healthcare and how it destroys all concepts of quality and privacy.

So, as electricians, we weren’t really happy with this situation. We had a secret weapon against human error. Sure we would place a lock on the breaker. But after the operator would leave, before we placed our lock on the breaker, we might just open up the breaker box and remove the entire face off of the relay. It was similar to removing the heaters only it was bigger. It completely opened the circuit no matter what.

I hadn’t really planned on talking about this next story for a couple more years, but I’ll tell it now because it fits with this story.

In the month of May, 2001. I had already given my notice to leave the plant to work for Dell as a software developer. I was asked to work on a job with my old bucket buddy Diana Brien.

Diana-Brien

My Bucket Buddy Diana Brien

The problem was that there was a grounded three phase circuit up on the Surge Bin tower. It had been tracked down to the dust collectors located below the surge bin conveyor floor.

Dee and I walked up to the Gravimetric feeder deck to look at the breaker to make sure it was turned off. It had a Danger tag on it that had been placed by the Shift Supervisor.

A typical Danger tag used at the plant

A typical Danger tag used at the plant

The breaker was open and the message on the tag said “Do not close this breaker. The circuit is grounded”.

Ok. We walked up to the surge bin tower through the counter weight room for belts 18 and 19. We opened up the big junction box that fed the power to the two large dust collector motors on the landing behind us. After taking the cover off of the box, I took out my multimeter and checked the circuit.

Like this.  Ok.  So the multimeters had become more sophisticated over the years.

Like this. Ok. So the multimeters had become more sophisticated over the years.

The big copper bus was dead (that means, there was no electricity present).

So, Dee and I worked on locating the grounded circuit. I had just removed the cover to the junction box on one of the motors while Dee was removing some wires from the control panel when Larry Tapp arrived on the landing through the same route we had taken from the gravimetric feeder deck.

Larry asked us what we were doing. We told him we were tracking down the ground on the Dust Collectors. Larry looked surprised.

You see… Larry explained that he had just come from the Gravimetric feeder deck where he had just closed the breaker for the dust collectors. This particular breaker didn’t have a relay, as it was controlled by the control panel where Dee had been working.

So, I rechecked the copper bus with my multimeter and it was hot. 480 volts hot.

I had just been looking through my tool bucket for two wrenches to remove a piece of the bus work just to make sure the ground wasn’t in the box itself when Larry had arrived. In other words, if Larry had arrived 5 to 10 seconds later, he would have probably arrived to find Dee looking down at my body, stunned that I had just been electrocuted by a circuit that we had just tested and found dead.

If you don’t learn by history you are bound to repeat it.

You see… there is a difference between a Hold Tag and a Danger Tag. A hold tag is placed on a breaker after someone has requested a clearance by signing a form in the Shift Supervisor’s office in the control room. A Danger tag can be placed and removed at anytime by the person that placed the tag on the breaker.

So, I personally wrote this up as a “near” accident. We could have wiped our brow, pinched ourselves to make sure we weren’t dreaming. We could have checked our diaper to make sure it was still dry and then Dee could have said a few choice words that Larry Tapp would have agreed with (I have always had a mental block against expressing myself in that manner…. I found other ways). And we could have left this incident as a secret between Larry, Dee and I.

I thought it was a good time to remind the electricians throughout power production to follow the clearance procedures when working on high voltage circuits. Sure. Dee, Bill Ennis and I have powerful guardian Angels looking out for us…. but gee… I think we should be expected to look out for ourselves. So, I wrote up this incident to warn the rest of the team….. If we don’t learn from history, we are bound to repeat it.

I met with my roomie Steven Trammell, a month and a half later in Perkins Restaurant in Stillwater, Oklahoma to discuss his performance plan. I was a 360 Degree Assessment Counselor and my favorite roommate from 17 years earlier had chosen me to review his performance appraisal. During this meeting I asked Steven, who had driven from Harrah, Oklahoma from another power plant to meet with me, if he had read the near accident report about the dust collector at our plant.

My roomie told me that he had, and that he thought it seemed to unduly blame the electrician. I told him I was the electrician and that I wrote the report. After 18 years of being an electrician, I had become so relaxed in my job that I had become dangerous to myself and others. So, after I did a cause-effect analysis of the near accident, most of the cause had come from my own belief that I could circumvent clearance procedures and save time and still believe that I was being safe.

On my drive back to the plant after the meeting with my favorite roomie of all time, I had time to think about this…. I was going to be leaving the power plant in a little over a month to work for Dell as a programmer. I knew this when I had been negligent with the Danger tag. I could have caused the death of both Dee and I. I will sure be glad to be in Texas. — Only.. I will miss my friends most of all.

I leave the Power Plant with this one thought…. If you don’t learn from history, you are bound to repeat it. I mean it… This time I really do.

Comments from the previous posts:

  1. Ron Kilman July 13, 2013:

    This is a great story. I thank God for His guardian angels and I thank you for taking responsibility. It was always difficult investigating accidents because people are a little reluctant to share their mistakes with the world. But a wise man knows it’s better to have a bruised ego than a fried friend.

Larry McCurry July 13, 2013:

Kevin,

  1. As an old time operator and having follows in my fathers footsteps as a Shift Supervisor, The answer to all of these problems to add steps to the clearance procedure to make sure the heaters were removed and then replaced. The second was definitely an operator error, and I agree with you about it, The Shift supervisors did argue for it however the hubris of certain power hungry people managed to intimidate and control the situation. You do not ever work on equipment without your own clearance or a plan that includes the SS, as you mentioned He is the operating authority, or was until a person by the initials of Jim Arnold rewrote the procedures and made himself the Authority.

Jack Curtis August 12, 2013:
Good Story Indeed.
There is, I’m sure, a gene in human DNA labeled: “Murphy” that assures that anything that can happen, does. And in total ignorance, I’ll bet that some constant percentage of plant electricians were fried. I suppose the onset of computer controls has reduced that but that it still happens at a lower rate. The way you and your friends sort of automatically reached for your multimeters is a clue! These are shocking, highly-charged stories…
NEO July 16, 2014
Yep, and even c.3 rules fail on occasion. Most places I’ve worked the other key was at superintendent level, and required a veritable mountain of paperwork to acquire. G-d help anybody who lost his key! 🙂
Traditionally on distribution lines, we left our shotgun hanging on the (grounded) stinger to notify everyone since there is no (effective) way to LOTO a power line. Imagine my vocabulary one fine day up in Montana when I drove up to reenergize a tap to find it energized and a crew I had never seen putting my shotgun in their truck. That day, I got a profuse apology (and assurances) from the line superintendent in person, 50 miles from the office. I never worked dead again without three point grounding, and I require my people to use it as well, I don’t like funerals. Hot line is actually safer for most operations.
Dan Antion July 17, 2014
I have great respect for electricity, power tools and the threat of human error. That was a close call. Glad you had the presence of mind and experience to think to check again.

Power Plant Men Learn to Cope with “Boring”

One of the most exhilarating moments a Power Plant Man may experience is when, while wearing a pair of high voltage gloves, they crank the handle of a High Voltage Switch closed in a substation.  The booming sound of the electricity crackling overhead and the echoing off of the hills and trees a mile away comes rumbling back!  I never could understand why the training required to be a certified substation switchman had to be the most boring class a Power Plant Man had to sit through.

An Electric Substation. Who would ever want to damage at something so beautiful?

An Electric Substation. Isn’t it beautiful?

I remember when I was a young, every child had their own trampoline in their bedroom.  When your mom or dad confined you to your room, you could always find entertainment by jumping on the bed.  Then throwing up the blanket and letting it fall in a way that created a big blanket bubble, then you could plop yourself down in the middle as the mushroomed bed sheet burped the air out.

Once when I was young, my dad took my brother and I to Saint Louis because he was attending a meeting.  He was in the meeting most of the day, as we stayed in the hotel room.  This was back when you didn’t have 24 hour cable TV.  The day whizzed by as my brother and I jumped around between the two beds.  Leaping as high as we could, and pouncing from one bed to the other.  When our dad arrived after a day in meetings, he didn’t find a couple of young boys staring at the walls, he found two worn out kids who had just had one of the funnest days we could remember…. being cooped up in a hotel room all day long.

Contrast that to the first time I attended Substation Switchman Certification training.

The instructor explained at the beginning of the day long class that he was required to read through the company policies and procedures on substation switching before we were allowed to take the test.  There were a number of procedures that were practically duplicates of each other, so we had to listen to the same boring documents being read to us over and over again throughout the day.  This didn’t include just the switching procedures in the switchyard.  It also included the clearance procedures required before and after the switching has occurred.

Six hours later, I thought my eyelids had grown little lead weights on the end of every eyelash (and if you have ever seen how many eyelashes I have, you would know how serious of a situation this was).

That wasn’t the worst of it.  Switchman training back then was required every two years.  Think about this.  I was an electrician for 18 years.  During that time, I had to take Switchman training 7 times!  Each time the instructor had to read the entire text of the switchman policies and procedures.  Think of the most boring lecture or sermon you ever had to sit through, then multiply it by six, and you will understand the agony we had to endure each time to receive the Certified Switchman card for our wallets.

During the summer of 1995, after we had downsized to where we only had 7 electricians at the large coal-fired power plant in North Central Oklahoma, we decided we needed to train more operators to be switchman.  After all, they had the clearance part down already, and basically did lower voltage switching in the switchgears.  It made a lot of sense.

We told the switchman trainer that we wanted to add some hands-on practical training to the course to try to make training more exciting.  Andy Tubbs, the foreman who was also an electrician and long time switchman, worked to arrange it so that we could have the operators switch out a section of the substation after they had learned the boring part of their training.

Andy Tubbs - True Power Plant Electrician

Andy Tubbs – True Power Plant Electrician

After an entire day of sitting in a classroom.  The switchmen trainees had a real life opportunity to watch and experience switching out a real section of the substation.  They could wear the high voltage gloves and open the switches.

High Voltage gloves like this

High Voltage gloves like this

We also took switching orders and added some errors to them, and asked the students to review the orders to see if they would approve the switching before they went to the substation and to make any corrections necessary.  This is one of the steps a switchman is required to do before going out to switch.  They have to review each step of the switching and approve them.

Two years later in 1997, I was asked to go to Oklahoma City and become certified as a Switchman Trainer.  I remember going to the training center just north of Norman Oklahoma where I met our instructor, Harry McRee.  He was a trainer in his early 50’s.  He had been a safety trainer for years.

Harry McRee's Business Card

Harry McRee’s Business Card

Harry explained to us that he would like to make the switchman training more interesting, but the company’s requirements demanded that all of the documentation be read through entirely every time a person was re-certified.  Since the documentation took most of the day to read, his hands were sort of tied when it came to making the class more interesting.

To give you an idea… here is how many steps it takes just to take a clearance on a breaker in a plant…. We had to review each step of the process:

Clearance Procedures

Clearance Procedures

As a side note… In 1993, I had received a Masters in Religious Education from Loyola University in New Orleans.  My emphasis was on Adult Education.  So, when I went back to the plant and began developing the class for our plant, I thought I should be able to come up with some way to make the class more interesting.

I also thought that if it was possible for a couple of kids to keep themselves entertained all day just with a couple of beds in a hotel room, then something should be able to be done to make this ultra-boring class, more entertaining.

Since I was the “computer person” at the plant, I decided that I would use my computer as a learning aid.  I went to our substations and took pictures of everything I could find, so I could add them to a PowerPoint Project.  PowerPoint was fairly new at the time, so I decided to dazzle the class with animated fly-ins and popups, and cool transitions.  I also consolidated the various documents so that I wasn’t repeating myself throughout the day.  I brought my computer from home and set it up in the conference room.

I also employed my daughter Elizabeth to help me.  I figured if she could teach some of the training, and the students could see that even a seven year old can learn this, then maybe they would be a little more interested.  I had recently bought a new Ball Camera for my computer.  It was a new thing to have a camera on your computer.  They weren’t really used for things like Skype back then, since you only had 28,800 baud modems, which doesn’t give you very much bandwidth.  So needless to say.  No one in the room knew what that little white ball was.

White ball computer camera

White ball computer camera

I had my daughter dress up in one of my wife’s lab coats and wear over-sized glasses to give her the look of a teacher.  Then we created a number of short film clips that gave specific instructions.  Here are a few screenshots from the short videos we made:

Elizabeth, The Switchman Trainer

Elizabeth, The Switchman Trainer

At any moment her video would come flying in and she would often say….. “Look Class!  I know this is boring, but you HAVE to learn it!”

She would also fly in and say, “Pay Attention!  This is on the test!”

There were still a couple of videos that the switchmen-in-training had to watch that were boring, especially since we had all watched them many times in our careers.  I knew that during the videos, many would be falling asleep, so, I took my ball camera with me and kept it sitting on the table while we went through the training.  No one really knew what it was.

While we were watching the first boring video, I sat looking at my computer monitor, which no one in the room could see.  What I was doing was acting like I wasn’t paying any attention to anyone when I really was.  I had the ball camera in my hand.  I was looking for anyone who was dozing off.  Then I would take a movie clip of them nodding off.  Some fighting to keep their eyes open.  Others leaning way back in their chair with their mouth hanging wide open fast asleep.

I took the movie clips and put them about 5 slides later in the next section we were going to cover.  Just when they were ready to be bored from the next section of the class, I would present a slide to them with movie clips of them sleeping during the videos and Elizabeth would slide in from the bottom of the slide and say, “Look Class!  I know this is boring, but you HAVE to learn it!”

People Sleeping in Chairs. Just random pictures from Google. Not actual Power Plant Men

People Sleeping in Chairs. Just random pictures from Google. Not actual Power Plant Men

That was the clincher.  Once they realized that I had taken movie clips of them sleeping in the class just a few minutes earlier, they were all wide awake the rest of the day.  No one dared to nod off again.  It worked great!  When the second video was playing, you can be sure that everyone in the room was wide-eyed and wide awake.

When it came to the part where they took their test, they could use any notes they had taken.  Since Elizabeth had popped in and notified them about the parts that were going to be on the test, they were all prepared.  Here is a copy of the test they took:

Switchman Training Final Exam

Switchman Training Final Exam

Isn’t it funny that back then, you regularly used your Social Security Number for things like this?  We wouldn’t think of doing that today.

Later, after the class was over, Harry McRee, the trainer that had trained me in Oklahoma City, had heard how I had made the class interesting. So, he called me and asked if he could come out to our plant and see what I had done.  When he arrived I showed him all my material and gave him a copy of the PowerPoint and videos.  I told him he was free to use them however he wanted.

Because of this, I was asked to train the Power Plant Man in some other areas including general Windows training.  When a job to be the “official” trainer opened up at the plant, I applied for it…. but that is a topic for another post.

Power Plant Men Learn to Cope with “Boring”

One of the most exhilarating moments a Power Plant Man may experience is when, while wearing a pair of high voltage gloves, they crank the handle of a High Voltage Switch closed in a substation.  The booming sound of the electricity crackling overhead and the echoing off of the hills and trees a mile away comes rumbling back!  I never could understand why the training required to be a certified substation switchman had to be the most boring class a Power Plant Man had to sit through.

An Electric Substation. Who would ever want to damage at something so beautiful?

An Electric Substation. Isn’t it beautiful?

I remember when I was a young, every child had their own trampoline in their bedroom.  When your mom or dad confined you to your room, you could always find entertainment by jumping on the bed.  Then throwing up the blanket and letting it fall in a way that created a big blanket bubble, then you could plop yourself down in the middle as the mushroomed bed sheet burped the air out.

Once when I was young, my dad took my brother and I to Saint Louis because he was attending a meeting.  He was in the meeting most of the day, as we stayed in the hotel room.  This was back when you didn’t have 24 hour cable TV.  The day whizzed by as my brother and I jumped around between the two beds.  Leaping as high as we could, and pouncing from one bed to the other.  When our dad arrived after a day in meetings, he didn’t find a couple of young boys staring at the walls, he found two worn out kids who had just had one of the funnest days we could remember…. being cooped up in a hotel room all day long.

Contrast that to the first time I attended Substation Switchman Certification training.

The instructor explained at the beginning of the day long class that he was required to read through the company policies and procedures on substation switching before we were allowed to take the test.  There were a number of procedures that were practically duplicates of each other, so we had to listen to the same boring documents being read to us over and over again throughout the day.  This didn’t include just the switching procedures in the switchyard.  It also included the clearance procedures required before and after the switching has occurred.

Six hours later, I thought my eyelids had grown little lead weights on the end of every eyelash (and if you have ever seen how many eyelashes I have, you would know how serious of a situation this was).

That wasn’t the worst of it.  Switchman training back then was required every two years.  Think about this.  I was an electrician for 18 years.  During that time, I had to take Switchman training 7 times!  Each time the instructor had to read the entire text of the switchman policies and procedures.  Think of the most boring lecture or sermon you ever had to sit through, then multiply it by six, and you will understand the agony we had to endure each time to receive the Certified Switchman card for our wallets.

During the summer of 1995, after we had downsized to where we only had 7 electricians at the large coal-fired power plant in North Central Oklahoma, we decided we needed to train more operators to be switchman.  After all, they had the clearance part down already, and basically did lower voltage switching in the switchgears.  It made a lot of sense.

We told the switchman trainer that we wanted to add some hands-on practical training to the course to try to make training more exciting.  Andy Tubbs, the foreman who was also an electrician and long time switchman, worked to arrange it so that we could have the operators switch out a section of the substation after they had learned the boring part of their training.

Andy Tubbs - True Power Plant Electrician

Andy Tubbs – True Power Plant Electrician

After an entire day of sitting in a classroom.  The switchmen trainees had a real life opportunity to watch and experience switching out a real section of the substation.  They could wear the high voltage gloves and open the switches.

High Voltage gloves like this

High Voltage gloves like this

We also took switching orders and added some errors to them, and asked the students to review the orders to see if they would approve the switching before they went to the substation and to make any corrections necessary.  This is one of the steps a switchman is required to do before going out to switch.  They have to review each step of the switching and approve them.

Two years later in 1997, I was asked to go to Oklahoma City and become certified as a Switchman Trainer.  I remember going to the training center just north of Norman Oklahoma where I met our instructor, Harry McRee.  He was a trainer in his early 50’s.  He had been a safety trainer for years.

Harry McRee's Business Card

Harry McRee’s Business Card

Harry explained to us that he would like to make the switchman training more interesting, but the company’s requirements demanded that all of the documentation be read through entirely every time a person was re-certified.  Since the documentation took most of the day to read, his hands were sort of tied when it came to making the class more interesting.

To give you an idea… here is how many steps it takes just to take a clearance on a breaker in a plant…. We had to review each step of the process:

Clearance Procedures

Clearance Procedures

As a side note… In 1993, I had received a Masters in Religious Education from Loyola University in New Orleans.  My emphasis was on Adult Education.  So, when I went back to the plant and began developing the class for our plant, I thought I should be able to come up with some way to make the class more interesting.

I also thought that if it was possible for a couple of kids to keep themselves entertained all day just with a couple of beds in a hotel room, then something should be able to be done to make this ultra-boring class, more entertaining.

Since I was the “computer person” at the plant, I decided that I would use my computer as a learning aid.  I went to our substations and took pictures of everything I could find, so I could add them to a PowerPoint Project.  PowerPoint was fairly new at the time, so I decided to dazzle the class with animated fly-ins and popups, and cool transitions.  I also consolidated the various documents so that I wasn’t repeating myself throughout the day.  I brought my computer from home and set it up in the conference room.

I also employed my daughter Elizabeth to help me.  I figured if she could teach some of the training, and the students could see that even a seven year old can learn this, then maybe they would be a little more interested.  I had recently bought a new Ball Camera for my computer.  It was a new thing to have a camera on your computer.  They weren’t really used for things like Skype back then, since you only had 28,800 baud modems, which doesn’t give you very much bandwidth.  So needless to say.  No one in the room knew what that little white ball was.

White ball computer camera

White ball computer camera

I had my daughter dress up in one of my wife’s lab coats and wear over-sized glasses to give her the look of a teacher.  Then we created a number of short film clips that gave specific instructions.  Here are a few screenshots from the short videos we made:

Elizabeth, The Switchman Trainer

Elizabeth, The Switchman Trainer

At any moment her video would come flying in and she would often say….. “Look Class!  I know this is boring, but you HAVE to learn it!”

She would also fly in and say, “Pay Attention!  This is on the test!”

There were still a couple of videos that the switchmen-in-training had to watch that were boring, especially since we had all watched them many times in our careers.  I knew that during the videos, many would be falling asleep, so, I took my ball camera with me and kept it sitting on the table while we went through the training.  No one really knew what it was.

While we were watching the first boring video, I sat looking at my computer monitor, which no one in the room could see.  What I was doing was acting like I wasn’t paying any attention to anyone when I really was.  I had the ball camera in my hand.  I was looking for anyone who was dozing off.  Then I would take a movie clip of them nodding off.  Some fighting to keep their eyes open.  Others leaning way back in their chair with their mouth hanging wide open fast asleep.

I took the movie clips and put them about 5 slides later in the next section we were going to cover.  Just when they were ready to be bored from the next section of the class, I would present a slide to them with movie clips of them sleeping during the videos and Elizabeth would slide in from the bottom of the slide and say, “Look Class!  I know this is boring, but you HAVE to learn it!”

People Sleeping in Chairs. Just random pictures from Google. Not actual Power Plant Men

People Sleeping in Chairs. Just random pictures from Google. Not actual Power Plant Men

That was the clincher.  Once they realized that I had taken movie clips of them sleeping in the class just a few minutes earlier, they were all wide awake the rest of the day.  No one dared to nod off again.  It worked great!  When the second video was playing, you can be sure that everyone in the room was wide-eyed and wide awake.

When it came to the part where they took their test, they could use any notes they had taken.  Since Elizabeth had popped in and notified them about the parts that were going to be on the test, they were all prepared.  Here is a copy of the test they took:

Switchman Training Final Exam

Switchman Training Final Exam

Isn’t it funny that back then, you regularly used your Social Security Number for things like this?  We wouldn’t think of doing that today.

Later, after the class was over, Harry McRee, the trainer that had trained me in Oklahoma City, had heard how I had made the class interesting. So, he called me and asked if he could come out to our plant and see what I had done.  When he arrived I showed him all my material and gave him a copy of the PowerPoint and videos.  I told him he was free to use them however he wanted.

Because of this, I was asked to train the Power Plant Man in some other areas including general Windows training.  When a job to be the “official” trainer opened up at the plant, I applied for it…. but that is a topic for another post.

“I Think I Can, I Think I Can” and Other Power Plant Chants

Originally Posted on August 3, 2012 (I added a picture of Walt Oswalt):

The second summer as Summer Help at the Coal-fired Power Plant, was when I first worked out of the Automotive garage.  It wasn’t finished during the first summer.  The second summer when I began working in the garage, Jim Heflin, Larry Riley, Doug House  and Ken Conrad were the regular workers that mowed the fields using tractors with brush hogs, as I have explained in previous posts.  A summer help that also worked with us from Ponca City named David Foster was also able to mow grass using one of the new Ford tractors that we painted Orange to easily identify them as belonging to the Electric Company in Oklahoma.

I learned to drive the tractors later in the summer when I worked irrigating the fields in our attempt to grow grass (as told in the post “When a Power Plant Man Talks, It Pays To Listen“).  The next summer I was able to mow grass using a Brush Hog pulled behind a tractor:

brushhog

Almost Like this without the safety guards and just about as new

It didn’t take long before I had to mow grass on the side of the dam (and other levies).  The side of the dam has a very sharp incline, so while mowing grass on the side of the dam you sat more on the side of the tractor seat than on the seat itself.  Heavy weights were put on the front of the tractor and the back tires on the tractor were turned around so that they were farther apart than they would be otherwise.  This gave the tractor a lower, wider profile and a lower center of gravity helping to keep it from rolling over sideways down the slope.

Tractor Weights that fit on the front of the tractor

I had watched Jim, Larry, Ken and David mow grass along some very steep inclines the summer before without any tractors tumbling over, so I felt like it must be safe, even though looking at the tractors they still seemed a little “top heavy”.

The dam had a slope this steep but  much was taller

It was quite an eerie feeling the first time I actually mowed a slope this steep.  I experienced the same feeling as you have on a roller coaster when it hits the top of the hill and flings you down real fast when the tractor tire on the downhill side of the tractor rolls into a washed out spot on the dam causing the tractor to roll over just a little farther than you are used to.  It was definitely an adrenaline rush each time this happened, because it felt like the tractor was going to roll over.

That is when I remembered the story about the little engine that was trying to pull the train over the steep mountain, and he kept chanting, “I think I can, I think I can” over and over.  So, between each decade of the Rosary that I was saying while counting Hail Mary’s on my fingers, I added in an “I Think I can…” as an added prayer before the next “Our Father”.

The Little Power Plant Coal Train that Could

The Little Power Plant Coal Train that Could

In the time that I worked as a summer help we never turned over a tractor while mowing on a slope.  That isn’t to say that the tractors didn’t start to tip over.  It’s just that if you realize that the large back tractor tire has left the ground and is spinning freely, you could quickly turn the steering wheel downhill so that the tractor would turn downhill preventing it from rolling completely over.  The weight of the brush hog on the back helped to keep the tractor snug against the sloping dam.

Years later, after I left the Power Plant, in 2006, my father’s best friend, Tom Houghton, a Veterinarian in Lakeland, Florida was killed in a tractor accident at his family’s farm in Polo, Missouri.  This greatly effected my father.  He has not recovered from the loss of his friend still today.  As I was mowing grass and picturing my sudden demise if a tractor were to roll down the hill, my main concern was the sorrow my family would have felt by my death.  Needless to say… I never toppled a tractor.

It was during that same summer in 1981 that I first worked with the Power Plant Icon Walt Oswalt.  Every plant must have at least one person like Walt.  He is the type of person that once he has something in his mind about how to do something, nothing is going to change it.  I know many different stories about Walt Oswalt that have been shared with me, but this is one of my own.  Walt is a sandy-haired Irish-looking man that always reminded me of the little old man, Jackie Wright, on the Benny Hill Show.

Walt reminded me of Jackie Wright only with more hair

I now have an actual picture of Walt that I found laying around….

Walt Oswalt

Walt Oswalt — See the resemblence?  not much more hair

One Saturday while I had caught a ride to the Power Plant to do “coal cleanup” the crew was asked who would like to wash down belts 10 and 11.  These are the 1/2 mile long belts that go from the coalyard all the way up to the plant.  You can see them on the left side of the picture of the plant on the side of this post.  Finding the opportunity for a challenge, I volunteered.

I made my way up to the top of the Transfer tower where I found Walt Oswalt.  He was working out of the coalyard at the time and was helping us wash down 10 and 11 belt.  Wearing rainsuits and rubber boots we began at the top and worked our way down.  It didn’t look like this belt had been washed down for a while.  We could blast the tin enclosure with the high pressure hoses we were using to completely wash off all the coal dust that had built up over time.  This looked like it was going to be a fun job.

Then Walt pointed out to me that most of our work was under the belt where the coal had built up almost solid up to the belt itself so that the coal was rubbing on the rubber Uniroyal conveyor belt.  Remember, if the conveyor belt goes up, it has to go back down also.  So underneath the conveyor is where the belt returns.  it is a big loop.

Directly underneath this conveyor is the return for the belt

So, Walt Oswalt and I spent the rest of the day laying on the grating so we could see under the belts washing the coal down the slope of belt 10 and 11.  Under the conveyor is another set of rollers that the rubber conveyor belt rides on it’s return trip to the Crusher Tower.  During this time there were two chants that came to my mind…. One was, “Whistle While you Work”, since we seemed to be in some kind of coal mine working away like the Seven Dwarfs (you know…  Walt Disney… Walt Oswalt).  The other one was the song, “Workin’ In a Coal Mine” (…goin’ down down).

Disney’s Seven Dwarfs Mining

At one particular spot the coal had built up and packed itself in there so much that one of the rollers wasn’t able to turn and the belt was just rubbing on the roller.  After we had washed the coal away we could see that the roller was not able to turn still because the belt had worn it flat on one side.

Walt called the Control Room to shutdown the belt so that we could look at it.  We could see that the roller was bad.  For some reason the other belt (11) was out of commission so without this belt running, no coal was being sent up to the plant.  The coal silos and the surge bin hold enough coal for a while but not for too long during the summer when the units need to run at their maximum rate to supply the electricity needed by the customers.  We could have the belt shutdown for a while, but not for too long.

I followed Walt down the belt to the Crusher Tower wondering what he had in mind.  He didn’t tell me what we were going to do, so I just gathered my clues by watching what he did.  When we came out of the belt and left the Crusher I was surprised that it was already dark outside.  When I had left the Maintenance Shop it had been morning.  Now it was dark.  We had spent the entire day (12 hours at this point) in Belt 10 and 11.  I didn’t remember ever taking a break or eating lunch.  Just holding the high pressure water hose, directing the stream down under the belt… all day.

We walked over to a new building that was still being built called the Coalyard Maintenance Building.  This was the new building that was going to be used by the new Labor Crew in a few months. Outside the building to one side was a Conex Box, as I have described before.  This is the kind of large box that you see on the CSX train commercials that are being transported by trains.

A Conex Box

We used them to store equipment used for specific jobs or crews.  In this case, the Conex box had conveyor equipment in it.  Walt found a long straight roller that is used under the Number 10 and 11 belts and tied it to a 2 wheel dolly.  We rolled it back to the Crusher Tower and began the long trek back up the belt.  I was pulling the dolly and Walt was carrying some large wrenches.

When we arrived at the spot where the roller had been worn, Walt called the control room to let them know we were beginning to work.  We pulled the safety cords on the side of the conveyor to ensure that the belt would not start, even though we were assured that a Clearance had been placed on the breaker in the Main Switchgear (where I began my first war with the spiders a year later.  See the post “Power Plant Spider Wars and Bugs in the Basement“).

Walt climbed over the belt and I stayed on the main walkway.   We worked upside down for a while unbolting the roller.  At one point we decided we needed some more suitable tools and headed back down the belt to the Coalyard Garage where the heavy equipment is serviced and brought back some large ratchet wrenches and sockets with an extension.

Socket Wrench with extension

I think the chant, “I think I can, I think I can” was running through my head on our second trip back up the conveyor belt.  I think it was around 10pm.  We finished changing the roller and decided to leave the old one laying in the walkway for the night.  Walt said he would bring it back to the coalyard on Monday morning.

We made our way back to the Maintenance shop where I took off the rain suit and rubber boots that I had been wearing all day and put my regular boots back on.  I went up to the control room and asked if anyone could give me a ride to Stillwater since the evening shift of operators were just getting off at 11pm. I believe it was Charles Buchanan that gave me a ride home that night in his little beat up pickup truck.

I never worked directly with Charles Buchanan since he was an operator.  The first impression that one may have is that he looks like a caricature of a construction worker in a comic strip.

First Impression of Charles Buchanan

Charles reaffirmed my belief that Power Plant Men are some of the nicest people you will ever meet.  There were a few times when I caught a ride with Charles to or from the plant.  Each time I felt honored to ride in his truck.  If I think about what chant was running through my mind as we were on our way home at night, I think it would be something like the song “You’ve Got a Friend”: “Winter, spring, summer, or fall, all you have to do is call, Lord, I’ll be there, yeah, yeah, you’ve got a friend….”

That is what all real Power Plant men and linemen are like.  Wherever you look in the United States, these great men and women work tirelessly to keep you safe by providing electricity to your homes.  Something we take for granted until the power goes out.

Recently when the power went out in the east, the linemen from this electric company drove with pride, eager to help those in need:

A convoy of Electric Company Trucks on their way from Oklahoma to Indiana to help return power to millions of Americans in the dark

Below I have included the lyrics for the song “You’ve Got a Friend” by Carole King and her husband James Taylor.  See how well it fits those people that work around the clock bringing the power to your home:

You just call out my name, and you know where ever I am
I’ll come running to see you again.
Winter, spring, summer, or fall, all you have to do is call and I’ll be there, yeah, yeah,
you’ve got a friend.

If the sky above you should turn dark and full of clouds
and that old north wind should begin to blow,
keep your head together and call my name out loud.
Soon I will be knocking upon your door.
You just call out my name, and you know where ever I am
I’ll come running to see you again.
Winter, spring, summer, or fall, all you have to do is call and I’ll be there.

Hey, ain’t it good to know that you’ve got a friend? People can be so cold.
They’ll hurt you and desert you. Well, they’ll take your soul if you let them,
oh yeah, but don’t you let them.

You just call out my name, and you know where ever I am
I’ll come running to see you again.
Winter, spring, summer, or fall, all you have to do is call, Lord, I’ll be there, yeah, yeah,
you’ve got a friend. You’ve got a friend.
Ain’t it good to know you’ve got a friend. Ain’t it good to know you’ve got a friend.
Oh, yeah, yeah, you’ve got a friend.

Here is a YouTube video of James Taylor singing this song:

If your aren’t able to play youtube videos directly from the picture… here is the link:  “You’ve got a Friend

Power Plant Lock Out – Tag Out or Just Tag Out

Originally Posted July 12, 2013:

All safe electricians worth their salt know about OSHA regulation 1910.147(c)(3). Only Power Plant electricians have learned more about OSHA regulation 1910.147(a)(1)(ii)(C). Section 147 has to do with locking out and tagging a power source in order to protect the employees working on the circuit. 147(a)(1)(ii) says that Power plants are exempt from section 147. In other words, if you are working in a power plant it is all right to have a less stringent lock-out/tag-out procedure in place than if you didn’t work in a power plant.

One of the first things I learned from Charles Foster, my foreman when I became an electrician was how to remove the “heaters” from a breaker relay in order to protect myself from an “unauthorized” operation of the breaker. That means…. in case someone accidentally turned on the breaker and started up the motor or whatever else I was working on. “Heaters” are what we called the overloads that trip a 480 volt breaker when the circuit uses more power than it is supposed to be using. They are called heaters, because they literally “heat up” in order to trip the breaker.

typical 480 volt overload heaters

typical 480 volt overload heaters

Charles Foster told me the following story about my bucket buddy Diana Lucas (later Diana Brien):

Dee was wiring up a sump pump at the bottom of the coal dumper. The motor had been taken out while the pump had been repaired. Once back in place Dee was sent to wire it back up. The proper clearance had been taken to work on the motor. That is, she had gone to the Shift Supervisor’s office in the Control Room to request a clearance on the motor. Then later she had witnessed the operator opening the 480 volt breaker and place the clearance tag on the breaker.

A typical Clearance Tag.  Our tags had the word "Clearance" at the top

A typical Clearance Tag. Our tags had the word “Clearance” at the top. We called them a “Hold Tag”

the tag is signed by the Shift Supervisor and is only to be removed by an operator sent by the Shift Supervisor. It is place through a slot in the handle on the breaker that keeps the breaker from closing unless the tag is removed first…. well… that’s the theory anyway.

Dee had just finished hooking the three leads in the junction box together with the cable coming into the box using two wrenches. She reached down into her tool bucket that she was using as her stool to get some rubber tape to begin wrapping the connections. The three bare connections were sticking out in front of her face.

A large vertical pump motor

A large vertical pump motor

The Junction box is the box on the right side of this motor. At this point the cover would be off and the wires would be sticking straight out. As she reached into the bucket, the motor turned on and began running.

Startled, Dee stopped what she was doing. I suppose she also pinched herself to make sure she wasn’t dreaming. Then I suppose she checked her diaper to make sure it was still dry. Then I suppose she may have said a few choice words whether anyone was around to hear them or not. Maybe not all in that order.

For those of you who don’t realize what this meant. It meant that if the motor had started running about 5 to 10 seconds later, someone, some time later may have made their way down to the west end of the dumper sump only to find one charred Diana Lucas (who never would have later become Diana Brien). They might not have recognized her at first. I can assure you. It wouldn’t have been pretty.

You see… someone had removed the Hold Tag and purposely started up the motor totally disregarding the clearance. I won’t mention any names, but his initials were Jerry Osborn.

So, after Charles told me this story, he showed me what to do to prevent this from ever happening to me.

Charles and I went to the Shift Supervisor’s office to take a clearance on a motor. Then we followed the operator to the breaker and watched him open the breaker and put the tag on the handle. Then we signed something and the operator left.

After the operator left, Charles told me to open the breaker and slip the hold tag through the slot in the door so that the door could open without removing the tag. I followed his directions.

Once the door was open, he told me to remove the three heaters on the bottom of the relay and hide them at the bottom of the breaker box.

480 volt relay with the 3 heaters at the bottom.  That white square is an overload reset button. in front of the first heater

480 volt relay with the 3 heaters at the bottom. That white square is an overload reset button. in front of the first heater

You see… with the heaters removed, even if someone were to close the breaker and try to start the motor, the electricity would never leave the breaker box because I had just created an open circuit between the relay and the wires going to the motor.

Well… If you don’t learn from history you are bound to repeat it. No. I’m not going to change subjects and start talking about making it illegal to own guns.

Anyway, there is always a chance for something to go wrong. The Peter Principle demands it. So, at one point, someone forgot to replace the heaters in the relay before returning their clearance. When the motor was tested for rotation, it didn’t work. At that point the electrician knew that they had forgotten to re-insert the heaters. So, they had to return to the breaker to install the heaters before the motor would run.

This didn’t set well with the Shift Supervisor, who has supreme power at the power plant…. well… besides the janitor who had total control over the toilet paper supply. Technically we were not going around the hold tag by removing the heaters because they were downstream from the breaker handle which cut off the power to the relay. The Shift Supervisor on the other hand believed that the hold tag included everything in the breaker box, including the relay and heaters (which really was stretching it).

An argument ensued that pitted the shift supervisors and the supervisor of operations, Ted Holdges with the electricians. Ted argued that we should not be removing the heaters to keep ourselves from becoming electrocuted accidentally when someone inadvertently removes a hold tag and turns the breaker on and starts up a motor. Electricians on the other hand argued that if we were going to be exposed to the possibility of being electrocuted, we would rather not work on any circuit. Without being completely assured that we would not occasionally be blown to pieces when someone or something accidentally caused the circuit to become hot, we concluded it wasn’t worth it.

So, a compromise was reached. We could remove the heaters, but they had to be put in a plastic bag and attached to the hold tag on the outside of the breaker. That way, when the clearance was returned, not only were the heaters readily available the operator would know to contact the electrician to re-install the heaters. The electricians didn’t really like this alternative, but we agreed. We were assured that there wasn’t any way that a breaker was going to be turned on and operated with the heaters in them when someone was actually working on a circuit.

Fast forward three years. 1992.

Bill Ennis and Ted Riddle were working on replacing a large electric junction box on the stack out tower. The Stack Out Tower is the tower that pours the coal out on the coal pile. Halfway up this tower there is a large junction box where most of the electric cables passed through going to the top of the tower. Bill Ennis had taken a clearance on a number of motor and control breakers.

Bill returned from lunch one day to work on the junction box, removing the old cables. Putting new lugs on them and placing them in the new junction box. As he began working, he decided to take out his multimeter and check the wires he was about to work on….

We had a couple of these Simpson Analog Multimeters in the shop

We had a couple of these Simpson Analog Multimeters in the shop

Bill was surprised to find that one set of cables were hot. They had 480 volts on them. Everything in this box should have been dead. I suppose he pinched himself to make sure he wasn’t dreaming. Then I suppose he checked his diaper to make sure it was still dry. Then I suppose he said a few choice words that Ted may have heard if he was standing close by.

What had happened was that there had been two clearances on this one particular motor. One of the electricians had returned his clearance, and had installed the heaters that were in the plastic bag on the front of the breaker and the motor had been tested for rotation and put back in service. The operator had taken both clearances off of the breaker by mistake.

Ok. It was time for another meeting. Something had gone wrong. If it had not been for the guardian angels of both Diana Brien and Bill Ennis, at this point we would have had at least two dead electricians, and believe me…. I know that when an operator had later climbed the stack out tower to check the equipment, if he had run across the body of Bill Ennis… it definitely wouldn’t have been pretty (even on a good day).

I attended this meeting with Ted Holdges as did most of the electricians. I began by telling Ted that when we had met three years earlier I was newly married and wouldn’t have minded so much if I was killed by being electrocuted because I was young and only had a wife who knew how to take care of herself. But now it was different. I had a little girl at home and I need to be around to help her grow up.

Ted looked surprised by my remark. I had just told him the way I felt about this whole situation. The argument that we were making was that we should be able to place locks on the breakers just like OSHA demanded from the other industries. We had demonstrated that we didn’t have a system that would protect us from human error. We needed something that definitely kept us safe.

We told Ted that even if we had locks, and for some reason the breaker just had to be closed and the electrician had forgotten to remove his lock, the shift supervisor could keep a master key in his office to remove the lock. He finally agreed. His problem was a loss of control. The thought was that the Shift Supervisor had ultimate power.

If you don’t learn from history you are bound to repeat it. No. I’m not going to change subjects and talk about socialized healthcare and how it destroys all concepts of quality and privacy.

So, as electricians, we weren’t really happy with this situation. We had a secret weapon against human error. Sure we would place a lock on the breaker. But after the operator would leave, before we placed our lock on the breaker, we might just open up the breaker box and remove the entire face off of the relay. It was similar to removing the heaters only it was bigger. It completely opened the circuit no matter what.

I hadn’t really planned on talking about this next story for a couple more years, but I’ll tell it now because it fits with this story.

In the month of May, 2001. I had already given my notice to leave the plant to work for Dell as a software developer. I was asked to work on a job with my old bucket buddy Diana Brien.

The problem was that there was a grounded three phase circuit up on the Surge Bin tower. It had been tracked down to the dust collectors located below the surge bin conveyor floor.

Dee and I walked up to the Gravimetric feeder deck to look at the breaker to make sure it was turned off. It had a Danger tag on it that had been placed by the Shift Supervisor.

A typical Danger tag used at the plant

A typical Danger tag used at the plant

The breaker was open and the message on the tag said “Do not close this breaker. The circuit is grounded”.

Ok. We walked up to the surge bin tower through the counter weight room for belts 18 and 19. We opened up the big junction box that fed the power to the two large dust collector motors on the landing behind us. After taking the cover off of the box, I took out my multimeter and checked the circuit.

Like this.  Ok.  So the multimeters had become more sophisticated over the years.

Like this. Ok. So the multimeters had become more sophisticated over the years.

The big copper bus was dead (that means, there was no electricity present).

So, Dee and I worked on locating the grounded circuit. I had just removed the cover to the junction box on one of the motors while Dee was removing some wires from the control panel when Larry Tapp arrived on the landing through the same route we had taken from the gravimetric feeder deck.

Larry asked us what we were doing. We told him we were tracking down the ground on the Dust Collectors. Larry looked surprised.

You see… Larry explained that he had just come from the Gravimetric feeder deck where he had just closed the breaker for the dust collectors. This particular breaker didn’t have a relay, as it was controlled by the control panel where Dee had been working.

So, I rechecked the copper bus with my multimeter and it was hot. 480 volts hot.

I had just been looking through my tool bucket for two wrenches to remove a piece of the bus work just to make sure the ground wasn’t in the box itself when Larry had arrived. In other words, if Larry had arrived 5 to 10 seconds later, he would have probably arrived to find Dee looking down at my body, stunned that I had just been electrocuted by a circuit that we had just tested and found dead.

If you don’t learn by history you are bound to repeat it.

You see… there is a difference between a Hold Tag and a Danger Tag. A hold tag is placed on a breaker after someone has requested a clearance by signing a form in the Shift Supervisor’s office in the control room. A Danger tag can be placed and removed at anytime by the person that placed the tag on the breaker.

So, I personally wrote this up as a “near” accident. We could have wiped our brow, pinched ourselves to make sure we weren’t dreaming. We could have checked our diaper to make sure it was still dry and then Dee could have said a few choice words that Larry Tapp would have agreed with (I have always had a mental block against expressing myself in that manner…. I found other ways). And we could have left this incident as a secret between Larry, Dee and I.

I thought it was a good time to remind the electricians throughout power production to follow the clearance procedures when working on high voltage circuits. Sure. Dee, Bill Ennis and I have powerful guardian Angels looking out for us…. but gee… I think we should be expected to look out for ourselves. So, I wrote up this incident to warn the rest of the team….. If we don’t learn from history, we are bound to repeat it.

I met with my roomie Steven Trammell, a month and a half later in Perkins Restaurant in Stillwater, Oklahoma to discuss his performance plan. I was a 360 Degree Assessment Counselor and my favorite roommate from 17 years earlier had chosen me to review his performance appraisal. During this meeting I asked Steven, who had driven from Harrah, Oklahoma from another power plant to meet with me, if he had read the near accident report about the dust collector at our plant.

My roomie told me that he had, and that he thought it seemed to unduly blame the electrician. I told him I was the electrician and that I wrote the report. After 18 years of being an electrician, I had become so relaxed in my job that I had become dangerous to myself and others. So, after I did a cause-effect analysis of the near accident, most of the cause had come from my own belief that I could circumvent clearance procedures and save time and still believe that I was being safe.

On my drive back to the plant after the meeting with my favorite roomie of all time, I had time to think about this…. I was going to be leaving the power plant in a little over a month to work for Dell as a programmer. I knew this when I had been negligent with the Danger tag. I could have caused the death of both Dee and I. I will sure be glad to be in Texas. — Only.. I will miss my friends most of all.

I leave the Power Plant with this one thought…. If you don’t learn from history, you are bound to repeat it. I mean it… This time I really do.

Comments from the previous posts:

  1. Ron Kilman July 13, 2013:

    This is a great story. I thank God for His guardian angels and I thank you for taking responsibility. It was always difficult investigating accidents because people are a little reluctant to share their mistakes with the world. But a wise man knows it’s better to have a bruised ego than a fried friend.

Larry McCurry July 13, 2013:

Kevin,

  1. As an old time operator and having follows in my fathers footsteps as a Shift Supervisor, The answer to all of these problems to add steps to the clearance procedure to make sure the heaters were removed and then replaced. The second was definitely an operator error, and I agree with you about it, The Shift supervisors did argue for it however the hubris of certain power hungry people managed to intimidate and control the situation. You do not ever work on equipment with out your own clearance or a plan that includes the SS, as you mentioned He is the operating authority, or was until a person by the initials of Jim Arnold rewrote the procedures and made himself the Authority.

Jack Curtis August 12, 2013:
Good Story Indeed.
There is, I’m sure, a gene in human DNA labeled: “Murphy” that assures that anything that can happen, does. And in total ignorance, I’ll bet that some constant percentage of plant electricians were fried. I suppose the onset of computer controls has reduced that but that it still happens at a lower rate. The way you and your friends sort of automatically reached for your multimeters is a clue! These are shocking, highly-charged stories…
NEO July 16, 2014
Yep, and even c.3 rules fail on occasion. Most places I’ve worked the other key was at superintendent level, and required a veritable mountain of paperwork to acquire. G-d help anybody who lost his key! 🙂
Traditionally on distribution lines, we left our shotgun hanging on the (grounded) stinger to notify everyone since there is no (effective) way to LOTO a power line. Imagine my vocabulary one fine day up in Montana when I drove up to reenergize a a tap to find it energized and a crew I had never seen putting my shotgun in their truck. That day, I got a profuse apology (and assurances) from the line superintendent in person, 50 miles from the office. I never worked dead again without three point grounding, and I require my people to use it as well, I don’t like funerals. Hot line is actually safer for most operations.
Dan Antion July 17, 2014
I have great respect for electricity, power tools and the threat of human error. That was a close call. Glad you had the presence of mind and experience to think to check again.

“I Think I Can, I Think I Can” and Other Power Plant Chants — Repost

Originally Posted on August 3, 2012:

The second summer as Summer Help at the Coal-fired Power Plant, was when I first worked out of the Automotive garage.  It wasn’t finished during the first summer.  The second summer when I began working in the garage, Jim Heflin, Larry Riley, Doug House  and Ken Conrad were the regular workers that mowed the fields using tractors with brush hogs, as I have explained in previous posts.  A summer help that also worked with us from Ponca City named David Foster was also able to mow grass using one of the new Ford tractors that we painted Orange to easily identify them as belonging to the Electric Company in Oklahoma.

I learned to drive the tractors later in the summer when I worked irrigating the fields in our attempt to grow grass (as told in the post “When a Power Plant Man Talks, It Pays To Listen“).  The next summer I was able to mow grass using a Brush Hog pulled behind a tractor:

brushhog

Almost Like this without the safety guards and just about as new

It didn’t take long before I had to mow grass on the side of the dam (and other levies).  The side of the dam has a very sharp incline, so while mowing grass on the side of the dam you sat more on the side of the tractor seat than on the seat itself.  Heavy weights were put on the front of the tractor and the back tires on the tractor were turned around so that they were farther apart than they would be otherwise.  This gave the tractor a lower, wider profile and a lower center of gravity helping to keep it from rolling over sideways down the slope.

Tractor Weights that fit on the front of the tractor

I had watched Jim, Larry, Ken and David mow grass along some very steep inclines the summer before without any tractors tumbling over, so I felt like it must be safe, even though looking at the tractors they still seemed a little “top heavy”.

The dam had a slope this steep but  much was taller

It was quite an eerie feeling the first time I actually mowed a slope this steep.  I experienced the same feeling as you have on a roller coaster when it hits the top of the hill and flings you down real fast when the tractor tire on the downhill side of the tractor rolls into a washed out spot on the dam causing the tractor to roll over just a little farther than you are used to.  It was definitely an adrenaline rush each time this happened, because it felt like the tractor was going to roll over.

That is when I remembered the story about the little engine that was trying to pull the train over the steep mountain, and he kept chanting, “I think I can, I think I can” over and over.  So, between each decade of the Rosary that I was saying while counting Hail Mary’s on my fingers, I added in an “I Think I can…” as an added prayer before the next “Our Father”.

The Little Power Plant Coal Train that Could

The Little Power Plant Coal Train that Could

In the time that I worked as a summer help we never turned over a tractor while mowing on a slope.  That isn’t to say that the tractors didn’t start to tip over.  It’s just that if you realize that the large back tractor tire has left the ground and is spinning freely, you could quickly turn the steering wheel downhill so that the tractor would turn downhill preventing it from rolling completely over.  The weight of the brush hog on the back helped to keep the tractor snug against the sloping dam.

Years later, after I left the Power Plant, in 2006, my father’s best friend, Tom Houghton, a Veterinarian in Lakeland, Florida was killed in a tractor accident at his family’s farm in Polo, Missouri.  This greatly effected my father.  He has not recovered from the loss of his friend still today.  As I was mowing grass and picturing my sudden demise if a tractor were to roll down the hill, my main concern was the sorrow my family would have felt by my death.  Needless to say… I never toppled a tractor.

It was during that same summer in 1981 that I first worked with the Power Plant Icon Walt Oswalt.  Every plant must have at least one person like Walt.  He is the type of person that once he has something in his mind about how to do something, nothing is going to change it.  I know many different stories about Walt Oswalt that have been shared with me, but this is one of my own.  Walt is a sandy-haired Irish-looking man that always reminded me of the little old man, Jackie Wright, on the Benny Hill Show.

Walt reminded me of Jackie Wright only with more hair

One Saturday while I had caught a ride to the Power Plant to do “coal cleanup” the crew was asked who would like to wash down belts 10 and 11.  These are the 1/2 mile long belts that go from the coalyard all the way up to the plant.  You can see them on the left side of the picture of the plant on the side of this post.  Finding the opportunity for a challenge, I volunteered.

I made my way up to the top of the Transfer tower where I found Walt Oswalt.  He was working out of the coalyard at the time and was helping us wash down 10 and 11 belt.  Wearing rainsuits and rubber boots we began at the top and worked our way down.  It didn’t look like this belt had been washed down for a while.  We could blast the tin enclosure with the high pressure hoses we were using to completely wash off all the coal dust that had built up over time.  This looked like it was going to be a fun job.

Then Walt pointed out to me that most of our work was under the belt where the coal had built up almost solid up to the belt itself so that the coal was rubbing on the rubber Uniroyal conveyor belt.  Remember, if the conveyor belt goes up, it has to go back down also.  So underneath the conveyor is where the belt returns.  it is a big loop.

Directly underneath this conveyor is the return for the belt

So, Walt Oswalt and I spent the rest of the day laying on the grating so we could see under the belts washing the coal down the slope of belt 10 and 11.  Under the conveyor is another set of rollers that the rubber conveyor belt rides on it’s return trip to the Crusher Tower.  During this time there were two chants that came to my mind…. One was, “Whistle While you Work”, since we seemed to be in some kind of coal mine working away like the Seven Dwarfs (you know…  Walt Disney… Walt Oswalt).  The other one was the song, “Workin’ In a Coal Mine” (…goin’ down down).

Disney’s Seven Dwarfs Mining

At one particular spot the coal had built up and packed itself in there so much that one of the rollers wasn’t able to turn and the belt was just rubbing on the roller.  After we had washed the coal away we could see that the roller was not able to turn still because the belt had worn it flat on one side.

Walt called the Control Room to shutdown the belt so that we could look at it.  We could see that the roller was bad.  For some reason the other belt (11) was out of commission so without this belt running, no coal was being sent up to the plant.  The coal silos and the surge bin hold enough coal for a while but not for too long during the summer when the units need to run at their maximum rate to supply the electricity needed by the customers.  We could have the belt shutdown for a while, but not for too long.

I followed Walt down the belt to the Crusher Tower wondering what he had in mind.  He didn’t tell me what we were going to do, so I just gathered my clues by watching what he did.  When we came out of the belt and left the Crusher I was surprised that it was already dark outside.  When I had left the Maintenance Shop it had been morning.  Now it was dark.  We had spent the entire day (12 hours at this point) in Belt 10 and 11.  I didn’t remember ever taking a break or eating lunch.  Just holding the high pressure water hose, directing the stream down under the belt… all day.

We walked over to a new building that was still being built called the Coalyard Maintenance Building.  This was the new building that was going to be used by the new Labor Crew in a few months. Outside the building to one side was a Conex Box, as I have described before.  This is the kind of large box that you see on the CSX train commercials that are being transported by trains.

A Conex Box

We used them to store equipment used for specific jobs or crews.  In this case, the Conex box had conveyor equipment in it.  Walt found a long straight roller that is used under the Number 10 and 11 belts and tied it to a 2 wheel dolly.  We rolled it back to the Crusher Tower and began the long trek back up the belt.  I was pulling the dolly and Walt was carrying some large wrenches.

When we arrived at the spot where the roller had been worn, Walt called the control room to let them know we were beginning to work.  We pulled the safety cords on the side of the conveyor to ensure that the belt would not start, even though we were assured that a Clearance had been placed on the breaker in the Main Switchgear (where I began my first war with the spiders a year later.  See the previous post “Power Plant Spider Wars and Bugs in the Basement“).

Walt climbed over the belt and I stayed on the main walkway.   We worked upside down for a while unbolting the roller.  At one point we decided we needed some more suitable tools and headed back down the belt to the Coalyard Garage where the heavy equipment is serviced and brought back some large ratchet wrenches and sockets with an extension.

Socket Wrench with extension

I think the chant, “I think I can, I think I can” was running through my head on our second trip back up the conveyor belt.  I think it was around 10pm.  We finished changing the roller and decided to leave the old one laying in the walkway for the night.  Walt said he would bring it back to the coalyard on Monday morning.

We made our way back to the Maintenance shop where I took off the rain suit and rubber boots that I had been wearing all day and put my regular boots back on.  I went up to the control room and asked if anyone could give me a ride to Stillwater since the evening shift of operators were just getting off at 11pm. I believe it was Charles Buchanan that gave me a ride home that night in his little beat up pickup truck.

I never worked directly with Charles Buchanan since he was an operator.  The first impression that one may have is that he looks like a caricature of a construction worker in a comic strip.

First Impression of Charles Buchanan

Charles reaffirmed my belief that Power Plant Men are some of the nicest people you will ever meet.  There were a few times when I caught a ride with Charles to or from the plant.  Each time I felt honored to ride in his truck.  If I think about what chant was running through my mind as we were on our way home at night, I think it would be something like the song “You’ve Got a Friend”: “Winter, spring, summer, or fall, all you have to do is call, Lord, I’ll be there, yeah, yeah, you’ve got a friend….”

That is what all real Power Plant men and linemen are like.  Wherever you look in the United States, these great men and women work tirelessly to keep you safe by providing electricity to your homes.  Something we take for granted until the power goes out.

Recently when the power went out in the east, the linemen from this electric company drove with pride, eager to help those in need:

A convoy of Electric Company Trucks on their way from Oklahoma to Indiana to help return power to millions of Americans in the dark

Below I have included the lyrics for the song “You’ve Got a Friend” by Carole King and her husband James Taylor.  See how well it fits those people that work around the clock bringing the power to your home:

You just call out my name, and you know where ever I am
I’ll come running to see you again.
Winter, spring, summer, or fall, all you have to do is call and I’ll be there, yeah, yeah,
you’ve got a friend.

If the sky above you should turn dark and full of clouds
and that old north wind should begin to blow,
keep your head together and call my name out loud.
Soon I will be knocking upon your door.
You just call out my name, and you know where ever I am
I’ll come running to see you again.
Winter, spring, summer, or fall, all you have to do is call and I’ll be there.

Hey, ain’t it good to know that you’ve got a friend? People can be so cold.
They’ll hurt you and desert you. Well, they’ll take your soul if you let them,
oh yeah, but don’t you let them.

You just call out my name, and you know where ever I am
I’ll come running to see you again.
Winter, spring, summer, or fall, all you have to do is call, Lord, I’ll be there, yeah, yeah,
you’ve got a friend. You’ve got a friend.
Ain’t it good to know you’ve got a friend. Ain’t it good to know you’ve got a friend.
Oh, yeah, yeah, you’ve got a friend.

Power Plant Lock Out – Tag Out or Just Tag Out — Repost

Originally Posted July 12, 2013:

All safe electricians worth their salt know about OSHA regulation 1910.147(c)(3).  Only Power Plant electricians have learned more about OSHA regulation 1910.147(a)(1)(ii)(C).  Section 147 has to do with locking out and tagging a power source in order to protect the employees working on the circuit.  147(a)(1)(ii) says that Power plants are exempt from section 147.  In other words, if you are working in a power plant it is all right to have a less stringent lock-out/tag-out procedure in place than if you didn’t work in a power plant.

One of the first things I learned from Charles Foster, my foreman when I became an electrician was how to remove the “heaters” from a breaker relay in order to protect myself from an “unauthorized” operation of the breaker.  That means…. in case someone accidentally turned on the breaker and started up the motor or whatever else I was working on.  “Heaters” are what we called the overloads that trip a 480 volt breaker when the circuit uses more power than it is supposed to be using.  They are called heaters, because they literally “heat up” in order to trip the breaker.

typical 480 volt overload heaters

typical 480 volt overload heaters

Charles Foster told me the following story about my bucket buddy Diana Lucas (later Diana Brien):

Dee was wiring up a sump pump at the bottom of the coal dumper.  The motor had been taken out while the pump had been repaired.  Once back in place Dee was sent to wire it back up.  The proper clearance had been taken to work on the motor.  That is, she had gone to the Shift Supervisor’s office in the Control Room to request a clearance on the motor.  Then later she had witnessed the operator opening the 480 volt breaker and place the clearance tag on the breaker.

A typical Clearance Tag.  Our tags had the word "Clearance" at the top

A typical Clearance Tag. Our tags had the word “Clearance” at the top.  We called them a “Hold Tag”

the tag is signed by the Shift Supervisor and is only to be removed by an operator sent by the Shift Supervisor.  It is place through a slot in the handle on the breaker that keeps the breaker from closing unless the tag is removed first…. well… that’s the theory anyway.

Dee had just finished hooking the three leads in the junction box together with the cable coming into the box using two wrenches.  She reached down into her tool bucket that she was using as her stool to get some rubber tape to begin wrapping the connections.  The three bare connections were sticking out in front of her face.

A large vertical pump motor

A large vertical pump motor

The Junction box is the box on the right side of this motor.  At this point the cover would be off and the wires would be sticking straight out.  As she reached into the bucket, the motor turned on and began running.

Startled, Dee stopped what she was doing.  I suppose she also pinched herself to make sure she wasn’t dreaming.  Then I suppose she checked her diaper to make sure it was still dry.  Then I suppose she may have said a few choice words whether anyone was around to hear them or not.  Maybe not all in that order.

For those of you who don’t realize what this meant.  It meant that if the motor had started running about 5 to 10 seconds later, someone, some time later may have made their way down to the west end of the dumper sump only to find one charred Diana Lucas (who never would have later become Diana Brien).  They might not have recognized her at first.  I can assure you.  It wouldn’t have been pretty.

You see… someone had removed the Hold Tag and purposely started up the motor totally disregarding the clearance.  I won’t mention any names, but his initials were Jerry Osborn.

So, after Charles told me this story, he showed me what to do to prevent this from ever happening to me.

Charles and I went to the Shift Supervisor’s office to take a clearance on a motor.  Then we followed the operator to the breaker and watched him open the breaker and put the tag on the handle.  Then we signed something and the operator left.

After the operator left, Charles told me to open the breaker and slip the hold tag through the slot in the door so that the door could open without removing the tag.   I followed his directions.

Once the door was open, he told me to remove the three heaters on the bottom of the relay and hide them at the bottom of the breaker  box.

480 volt relay with the 3 heaters at the bottom.  That white square is an overload reset button. in front of the first heater

480 volt relay with the 3 heaters at the bottom. That white square is an overload reset button. in front of the first heater

You see… with the heaters removed, even if someone were to close the breaker and try to start the motor, the electricity would never leave the breaker box because I had just created an open circuit between the relay and the wires going to the motor.

Well… If you don’t learn from history you are bound to repeat it.  No.  I’m not going to change subjects and start talking about making it illegal to own guns.

Anyway, there is always a chance for something to go wrong.  The Peter Principle demands it.  So, at one point, someone forgot to replace the heaters in the relay before returning their clearance.  When the motor was tested for rotation, it didn’t work.  At that point the electrician knew that they had forgotten to re-insert the heaters.  So, they had to return to the breaker to install the heaters before the motor would run.

This didn’t set well with the Shift Supervisor, who has supreme power at the power plant…. well… besides the janitor who had total control over the toilet paper supply.  Technically we were not going around the hold tag by removing the heaters because they were downstream from the breaker handle which cut off the power to the relay.  The Shift Supervisor on the other hand believed that the hold tag included everything in the breaker box, including the relay and heaters (which really was stretching it).

An argument ensued that pitted the shift supervisors and the supervisor of operations, Ted Holdges with the electricians.  Ted argued that we should not be removing the heaters to keep ourselves from becoming electrocuted accidentally when someone inadvertently removes a hold tag and turns the breaker on and starts up a motor.  Electricians on the other hand argued that if we were going to be exposed to the possibility of being electrocuted, we would rather not work on any circuit.  Without being completely assured that we would not occasionally be blown to pieces when someone or something accidentally caused the circuit to become hot, we concluded it wasn’t worth it.

So, a compromise was reached.  We could remove the heaters, but they had to be put in a plastic bag and attached to the hold tag on the outside of the breaker.  That way, when the clearance was returned, not only were the heaters readily available the operator would know to contact the electrician to re-install the heaters.  The electricians didn’t really like this alternative, but we agreed.  We were assured that there wasn’t any way that a breaker was going to be turned on and operated with the heaters in them when someone was actually working on a circuit.

Fast forward three years.  1992.

Bill Ennis and Ted Riddle were working on replacing a large electric junction box on the stack out tower.  The Stack Out Tower is the tower that pours the coal out on the coal pile.  Halfway up this tower there is a large junction box where most of the electric cables passed through going to the top of the tower.  Bill Ennis had taken a clearance on a number of motor and control breakers.

Bill returned from lunch one day to work on the junction box, removing the old cables.  Putting new lugs on them and placing them in the new junction box. As he began working, he decided to take out his multimeter and check the wires he was about to work on….

We had a couple of these Simpson Analog Multimeters in the shop

We had a couple of these Simpson Analog Multimeters in the shop

Bill was surprised to find that one set of cables were hot.  They had 480 volts on them.  Everything in this box should have been dead.  I suppose he pinched himself to make sure he wasn’t dreaming.  Then I suppose he checked his diaper to make sure it was still dry.  Then I suppose he said a few choice words that Ted may have heard if he was standing close by.

What had happened was that there had been two clearances on this one particular motor.  One of the electricians had returned his clearance, and had installed the heaters that were in the plastic bag on the front of the breaker and the motor had been tested for rotation and put back in service.   The operator had taken both clearances off of the breaker by mistake.

Ok.  It was time for another meeting.  Something had gone wrong.  If it had not been for the guardian angels of both Diana Brien and Bill Ennis, at this point we would have had at least two dead electricians, and believe me…. I know that when an operator had later climbed the stack out tower to check the equipment, if he had run across the body of Bill Ennis… it definitely wouldn’t have been pretty (even on a good day).

I attended this meeting with Ted Holdges as did most of the electricians.  I began by telling Ted that when we had met three years earlier I was newly married and wouldn’t have minded so much if I was killed by being electrocuted because I was young and only had a wife who knew how to take care of herself.  But now it was different.  I had a little girl at home and I need to be around to help her grow up.

Ted looked surprised by my remark.  I had just told him the way I felt about this whole situation.  The argument that we were making was that we should be able to place locks on the breakers just like OSHA demanded from the other industries.  We had demonstrated that we didn’t have a system that would protect us from human error.  We needed something that definitely kept us safe.

We told Ted that even if we had locks, and for some reason the breaker just had to be closed and the electrician had forgotten to remove his lock, the shift supervisor could keep a master key in his office to remove the lock.  He finally agreed.  His problem was a loss of control.  The thought was that the Shift Supervisor had ultimate power.

If you don’t learn from history you are bound to repeat it.  No.  I’m not going to change subjects and talk about socialized healthcare and how it destroys all concepts of quality and privacy.

So, as electricians, we weren’t really happy with this situation.  We had a secret weapon against human error.  Sure we would place a lock on the breaker.  But after the operator would leave, before we placed our lock on the breaker, we might just open up the breaker box and remove the entire face off of the relay.  It was similar to removing the heaters only it was bigger.  It completely opened the circuit no matter what.

I hadn’t really planned on talking about this next story for a couple more years, but I’ll tell it now because it fits with this story.

In the month of May, 2001.  I had already given my notice to leave the plant to work for Dell as a software developer.  I was asked to work on a job with my old bucket buddy Diana Brien.

The problem was that there was a grounded three phase circuit up on the Surge Bin tower.  It had been tracked down to the dust collectors located below the surge bin conveyor floor.

Dee and I walked up to the Gravimetric feeder deck to look at the breaker to make sure it was turned off.  It had a Danger tag on it that had been placed by the Shift Supervisor.

A typical Danger tag used at the plant

A typical Danger tag used at the plant

The breaker was open and the message on the tag said “Do not close this breaker.  The circuit is grounded”.

Ok.  We walked up to the surge bin tower through the counter weight room for belts 18 and 19.  We opened up the big junction box that fed the power to the two large dust collector motors on the landing behind us.  After taking the cover off of the box, I took out my multimeter and checked the circuit.

Like this.  Ok.  So the multimeters had become more sophisticated over the years.

Like this. Ok. So the multimeters had become more sophisticated over the years.

The big copper bus was dead (that means, there was no electricity present).

So, Dee and I worked on locating the grounded circuit.  I had just removed the cover to the junction box on one of the motors while Dee was removing some wires from the control panel when  Larry Tapp arrived on the landing through the same route we had taken from the gravimetric feeder deck.

Larry asked us what we were doing.  We told him we were tracking down the ground on the Dust Collectors.  Larry looked surprised.

You see… Larry explained that he had just come from the Gravimetric feeder deck where he had just closed the breaker for the dust collectors.  This particular breaker didn’t have a relay, as it was controlled by the control panel where Dee had been working.

So, I rechecked the copper bus with my multimeter and it was hot.  480 volts hot.

I had just been looking through my tool bucket for two wrenches to remove a piece of the bus work just to make sure the ground wasn’t in the box itself when Larry had arrived.  In other words, if Larry had arrived 5 to 10 seconds later, he would have probably arrived to find Dee looking down at my body, stunned that I had just been electrocuted by a circuit that we had just tested and found dead.

If you don’t learn by history you are bound to repeat it.

You see… there is a difference between a Hold Tag and a Danger Tag.  A hold tag is placed on a breaker after someone has requested a clearance by signing a form in the Shift Supervisor’s office in the control room.  A Danger tag can be placed and removed at anytime by the person that placed the tag on the breaker.

So, I personally wrote this up as a “near” accident.  We could have wiped our brow, pinched ourselves to make sure we weren’t dreaming.  We could have checked our diaper to make sure it was still dry and then Dee could have said a few choice words that Larry Tapp would have agreed with (I have always had a mental block against expressing myself in that manner…. I found other ways).  And we could have left this incident as a secret between Larry, Dee and I.

I thought it was a good time to remind the electricians throughout power production to follow the clearance procedures when working on high voltage circuits.  Sure.  Dee, Bill Ennis and I have powerful guardian Angels looking out for us…. but gee… I think we should be expected to look out for ourselves.  So, I wrote up this incident to warn the rest of the team….. If we don’t learn from history, we are bound to repeat it.

I met with my roomie Steven Trammell, a month and a half later in Perkins Restaurant in Stillwater, Oklahoma to discuss his performance plan.  I was a 360 Degree Assessment Counselor and my favorite roommate from 17 years earlier had chosen me to review his performance appraisal.   During this meeting I asked Steven, who had driven from Harrah, Oklahoma from another power plant to meet with me, if he had read the near accident report about the dust collector at our plant.

My roomie told me that he had, and that he thought it seemed to unduly blame the electrician.  I told him I was the electrician and that I wrote the report.  After 18 years of being an electrician, I had become so relaxed in my job that I had become dangerous to myself and others.  So, after I did a cause-effect analysis of the near accident, most of the cause had come from my own belief that I could circumvent clearance procedures and save time and still believe that I was being safe.

On my drive back to the plant after the meeting with my favorite roomie of all time, I had time to think about this…. I was going to be leaving the power plant in a little over a month to work for Dell as a programmer.  I knew this when I had been negligent with the Danger tag.  I could have caused the death of both Dee and I.  I will sure be glad to be in Texas.  — Only..  I will miss my friends most of all.

I leave the Power Plant with this one thought…. If you don’t learn from history, you are bound to repeat it.  I mean it… This time I really do.

 

Comments from the original post:

  1. Ron Kilman July 13, 2013:

    This is a great story. I thank God for His guardian angels and I thank you for taking responsibility. It was always difficult investigating accidents because people are a little reluctant to share their mistakes with the world. But a wise man knows it’s better to have a bruised ego than a fried friend.

Larry McCurry July 13, 2013:

Kevin,

  1. As an old time operator and having follows in my fathers footsteps as a Shift Supervisor, The answer to all of these problems to add steps to the clearance procedure to make sure the heaters were removed and then replaced. The second was definitely an operator error, and I agree with you about it, The Shift supervisors did argue for it however the hubris of certain power hungry people managed to intimidate and control the situation. You do not ever work on equipment with out your own clearance or a plan that includes the SS, as you mentioned He is the operating authority, or was until a person by the initials of Jim Arnold rewrote the procedures and made himself the Authority.

Jack Curtis August 12, 2013:
Good Story Indeed.
There is, I’m sure, a gene in human DNA labeled: “Murphy” that assures that anything that can happen, does. And in total ignorance, I’ll bet that some constant percentage of plant electricians were fried. I suppose the onset of computer controls has reduced that but that it still happens at a lower rate. The way you and your friends sort of automatically reached for your multimeters is a clue! These are shocking, highly-charged stories…