I found out soon after I arrived at the Coal-fired power plant in Oklahoma the first summer I worked as a summer help that Safety was Job Number One. I was given a hard hat and safety glasses the first day I was there, and I watched a safety film on how to lift with my legs and not with my back. I thought the hard hat made me look really cool. Especially with the safety glasses that looked like someone wore as a scientist during the 1950s. Dark and square.
I used to keep a pair with me when I went back to school. When I was a senior at the University of Missouri, Columbia, while working at the Bakery on Broadway, I kept a pair with me at all times, along with a hat that I had stol…um…. borrowed from my dad and always forgot to return. (In fact, I still have that hat to this day).
That way, whenever someone suspected who I was, I would put on my glasses and hat and people would think I was Clark Kent. Anyway…. I diverse. I never thought about it being an Inspector Clouseau hat until one winter morning in the parking lot at the plant Louise Gates (later Louise Kalicki) called me Inspector Clouseau.
The yellow hard hat made me confident that I was part of the blue collar working class. Hard hats have a suspension system in them that make them look like it is riding too high on your head. You soon get used to it, but for the first couple of weeks I kept bumping into things because my hardhat made me taller than I was used to being.
This is this because of this great suspension system that causes the hat to ride so high on someone’s head. I learned about this not long after I arrived and Marlin McDaniel the A Foreman at the time told me to sort out of bunch of large steel chokers (or slings) in a wooden shack just inside the Maintenance shop by the door to the office elevator.
While I was bending over picking up the chokers (I mean…. While I was lifting with my legs and not my back…) and hanging them on pegs I suddenly found myself laying on the ground. At first I wasn’t sure what had happened because I hadn’t felt anything and it happened so fast. It seemed that my legs had just buckled under me.
I soon realized that one of the large chokers that I had just hung on a peg a couple of feet above my head had fallen off and struck me square in the middle of the hard hat. I was surprised by the force of the cable and how little I had felt. I became a true believer in wearing my hardhat whenever I was working. The steel rope had left a small gash across the hardhat that remained as a reminder to me of the importance of wearing my hardhat at all times.
Larry Riley used to comment to me that I didn’t need to wear it when we were in the truck driving somewhere. Especially when I was sitting in the middle in the back seat of the crew cab and it made it hard for him to see anything through the rear view mirror other than a yellow hard hat sticking up to the top of the cab.
During my first summer at the plant (1979), I did witness how easy it was for someone to hurt their back. I mean… really hurt their back. I was helping to carry a very large 30 foot long section of a wooden extension ladder. There were four of us. Each on one corner. I know that Tom Dean was behind me carrying one side of the back end. I believe that Ben Hutchinson and Aubrey Cargill were on the other side of the ladder.
As we were walking through the shop, Tom stepped on the floor drain just outside of the A Foreman’s office. The drain cover was missing and a wooden piece of plywood had been put in its place to cover the hole.
Large equipment had driven over the plywood and it was smashed down into the drain making a slight indention in the middle of the floor.
When Tom stepped on the piece of wood, he lost his balance, and ended up spinning himself around as he tried to remain holding onto the ladder. By doing this, he became slightly twisted, and at once he was in terrible pain. Back pain. I didn’t realize it at the time, but this one event was a critical turning point in Tom Dean’s career at the power plant. He was pretty well out the rest of the summer recuperating from the back injury.
The next summer when I returned to the plant, Tom was working in the tool room. Obviously a step down from being a mechanic. He was also very unhappy. You could tell by looking at him that he had lost the proud expression that he had wore the summer before.
I don’t remember how long Tom worked at the plant after that. I just know that it really made me sad to see someone’s life deteriorate during the snapshots that I had in my mind from the summer before to when I returned to see a man tortured not only by back pain, but by a feeling of inadequate self worth. Hurting your back is one of the most common and most serious injuries in an industrial setting. It is definitely a life changing event.
There were other tragedies during my time as a summer help and they didn’t necessarily have to do with something dangerous at work. One summer there was a young man working in the warehouse and tool room. I don’t remember his name. The next summer I asked where he had gone, and I learned that one morning he had woke up and found that he had become completely blind. It turned out that he had a very serious case of diabetes. The sugar levels in his blood had reached such dangerous levels that it destroyed his optic nerves overnight.
Then there was one of the Electricians, Bill Ennis. He would say that he was “Blind in one eye and couldn’t see out of the other one.” He was actually blind in one eye completely, and the other eye he was color blind. So, what he said was actually true.
It happened on occasion that people visiting the plant would be seriously hurt. Everyone at the plant was trained in first aid, and Power Plant Men, being the way that they are, are always willing to do whatever it takes to help someone out in time of trouble.
One day during lunch, a man came to the plant to fill the unleaded gas tank on the side of the garage in front of the warehouse. While he was reaching over the PTO (Power Take Off), His shirt sleeve caught in the spinning PTO shaft and broke his arm.
I remember Mickey Postman explaining what happened. His crew was eating lunch in the garage when they heard someone yelling for help. When they ran out to see what had happened, they found the man tied up in the PTO with one bone from his arm sticking straight out in the air. They quickly took care of him and treated him for shock as they waited for the Ambulance from Ponca City to arrive.
It is times like this that you wish would never happen, but you are glad that you had first aid training and you know what to do. This person could easily have died from this injury if not for the quick action of Mickey Postman and the rest of his crew. I believe other Power Plant Men that were there to help was Dale Mitchell, George Alley, Don Timmons and Preston Jenkins. Mickey would know for sure. I’ll leave it up to him to remind me.
I have illustrated these tragic events to demonstrate the importance of making Safety Job Number One. The Power Plant Men didn’t have to be told by a safety video to know how important it was. They all knew examples of tragedies such as these.
Each month the plant would have the Monthly Safety Meeting, and every Monday morning each crew would have their own safety meeting. Safety pamphlets would be read, safety videos would be watched. Campaigns would be waged to re-emphasize the importance of proper lifting techniques. Everyone in the plant had to take the Defensive Driving course.
The last summer I worked as a summer help in 1982 was the first summer that everyone was required to take the Defensive Driving course. The course was being given by Nancy Brien (I think that was her last name) and Ken Couri. We learned a lot of defensive driving slogans like, “Is the Pass really necessary?” “Slow down, ride to the right, ride off the road” (when an emergency vehicle is approaching), “Use the Two Second Rule” (Only, I think it was 3 seconds at that time). “Do a Circle For Safety” etc….
My friend Tim Flowers and another summer help were carpooling during that time and we made signs with those slogans on them. Then when we were driving home in my little Honda Civic, we would hold one of those signs up in the back window so that the Power Plant person that was following us home (Usually Dick Dale and Mike Gibbs) would wonder what it said, and would pull up closer to read the sign, and it would say, “Use the 3 second rule”, or “If you can read this, you are too close”.
That was when I began wearing my seat belt all the time. Before that, it was not common for people to wear seat belts. They only had the lap belt before that, and those weren’t the safest things in the world. Especially since they would get lost inside the seat. I attribute the Defensive Driving Course that I took while I was a summer help at the plant for my safe record as a driver. There were a number of tips that I learned then, that I still use all the time today.
There is one advantage to wearing a hardhat that I didn’t realize until I left the power plant in 2001. It is that you never have to worry about hair loss on the top of your head. Whenever you are outside at the plant, you always wear your hardhat and safety glasses. When I changed jobs to become a software developer at Dell, I would find that just by walking down the street in the neighborhood in Texas, I would quickly develop a sunburn on the top of my head.
During the years of wearing a hardhat, I may have been losing my hair, but it never occurred to me. Not until I had a sunburn on the top of my head. I wondered at times if people would look at me funny if I showed up for work in my cubicle at Dell (when we had cubicles) wearing a yellow hardhat. Oh, and a pair of super stylish safety glasses like those shown at the top of this post.
You know when you are young, and I’m sure this has happened to all of you at one point in your life, you dream that you get off of the school bus at your school in the morning only to find that you are still wearing your pajamas. — Yeah. I thought you would remember that one. Well. I still have dreams of showing up at my desk job wearing a hardhat and safety glasses. I don’t realize it until I lift my hardhat up to wipe the sweat off of my brow, then I quickly look around to see if anyone noticed as I stuff the hardhat under the desk.