Originally Posted July 26, 2013:
I suppose everyone at some point in their life wishes they could work at Disney World or some other place where there is one wonder after another throughout their day. Working in the Power Plant was a lot like that…. sometimes….. I have mentioned a few times that when you drove through the gate to the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma each morning, you never knew what was in store for that day. It was often a surprise. Sometimes the surprise was a wonder. Sometimes it was well…. surreal.
This is a story about one day in October 1986 during an overhaul while I was a plant electrician, where I entered a world totally foreign to just about anything I had encountered before. You may think this is an odd statement if you have read some of my other posts where I have found myself in oddly dangerous situations and my life was in the balance. Well…. this is one of those stories, with a new twist.
As I said, we were on overhaul. This meant that one of the two units was offline and major repairs were taking place to fix things that can only be done when the unit isn’t running. The two major areas of repair are the Turbine Generator and the Boiler. People come from the other plants to help out and get paid a lot of overtime working long hours to complete this feat.
At this time I was working on motors in the electric shop. I had been removing the fan motors from the large General Electric Transformer for Unit 1. Changing their bearings and testing them. Then putting them back in place. The transformer had 24 of these motors, so after the first few, the work was becoming pretty routine.
Somewhere between the 11th or 12th motor David McClure came into the shop. I think he may have been on the labor crew at the time. He had only been working at the plant for about 8 months. He was a welder, so I think if he had been on labor crew, they had quickly moved him into the welding shop because anybody with welding skills were always in high demand.
David told me that Bill Bennett had told him to ask me to help out with a problem in the boiler. Now. when I was on the labor crew, I had been in the boiler during an overhaul. I had worked on shaking tubes in the reheat section and cleaning the clinkers out of the economizer section. You can read about these moments of mania in the posts: “Bob Lillibridge Meets the Boiler Ghost” and “Cracking a Boiled Egg in the Boiler and Other Days You Wish You Could Take Back“.
During those times I knew that something was taking place in the superheat section of the boiler, but I wasn’t exactly sure what it was. You see, even when I was in the bottom ash hopper when it was being sandblasted, there was a wooden floor that had been put in above the hopper so that you couldn’t see the boiler overhead. This was the first time I was going to go into the boiler to actually work on something other than laying down the floor (which I had been lucky enough to do once when I was working on the labor crew).
So, I grabbed my tool bucket and David took me up to the main entrance into the boiler which was next to the door where Chuck Ross and Cleve Smith had been blown off of the landing by the Boiler Dragon six years earlier when I was a summer help (see the post: “Where Do Knights of the Past go to Fight Dragons Today?“). About 40 feet up from the concrete floor we climbed into the boiler.
This is where I first came face to face with Boiler Rats. These rats live in a boiler when it is taken offline. Shortly after the boiler is cooled down, these “boiler rats” move in and they spend the next 4 or 10 weeks (depending on the length of the overhaul), roaming around the boiler sniffing out boiler tubes that are in need of repair.
Some lights had been placed around the bottom of the boiler to shine up the 200 feet to the top of the boiler. That is the height of a 20 story building. Yes. That’s right. The inside of the boiler is as tall as a 20 story building. I couldn’t really see what was going on up there toward the top, but there was a boiler rat standing right there in the middle of the wooden floor staring at me with the grin (or snarl) that is typical of a rat. Not a cute rat like this:
Or even a normal rat like this:
No. These rats looked like Ron Hunt wearing his hillbilly teeth. More like this:
Yep. Red eyes and all, only the whiskers were longer. I would go into how the boiler rats smelled, but I didn’t want to get too personal….
Anyway, this one boiler rat that had been waiting for me said that he had just finished rigging up this sky climber so that he could take me up into the upper reaches of the dark to work on a sky climber that was stuck. He had rigged this sky climber up so that it would pull up next to the one that was hung up by the bottom of the high pressure boiler tubes that were hanging out over the top of the boiler.
If you have ever seen Window washers going up and down the side of a building washing windows, then you know what a sky climber is.
You see, the boiler rats would ride these sky climbers up from the wooden floor to the boiler tubes hanging down from the ceiling of the boiler. One had stopped working and they needed an electrician to go up and fix it so that they could continue working. That was my job…. I carry a badge…. oh… wait… that’s Sergeant Friday on Dragnet… I carry a tool bucket that doubles as a trash can and triples as a stool.
So, I climbed into the sky climber and up we went. I could see faint lights up above me where boiler rats were working away cutting and welding boiler tubes. As we took off, one of the boiler rats said that a little while just before I had arrived, someone from above had dropped a tool that came flying down and stuck right into the wooden plank floor. It had landed about 10 feet from another boiler rat. This answered a question that I had for some time…. it turned out to be true… Boiler Rats do have Guardian Angels too.
Anyway, Up into the darkness we went. The boiler rat (I believe this one was called Rodney… as in Rodney Meeks) operated the sky climber as I just enjoyed the ride. Looking down, I saw the spot lights getting smaller and dimmer. Looking up, I saw us approaching a group of hanging boiler rats, all doing their stuff. Some were resting. Some were welding. Some were looking off into space in a daze after having been in the boiler for so long they had forgotten their name.
There were names for these rats. One was called T-Bone. Another was called ET. There was a guy there called Goosman. Another boiler rat was called Frazier. I think it was John Brien that was staring off into space at the time, or was it Butch Ellis. Oh. Now I remember. Butch was on one sky climber staring off into space at the other sky climber where John Brien was staring back at him.
There were many other boiler rats there from other plants. They were all hanging down from the top of the boiler on these sky climbers like fruit hanging from a tree in the dark. Most of them paid no attention to my arrival.
We pulled up to the sky climber that was broken. I swung over the couple of feet from the one climber to the other, with a straight drop of about 160 feet down to the floor. I looked below so that I could calculate that in case I slipped and fell, how I would try to swing my body just as I fell so as to miss any boiler rats below. I wouldn’t have wanted to upset any boiler rat families by falling on their boiler rat breadwinners.
By Swinging my tool bucket toward the other sky climber, I followed the momentum so that it carried me over to the other platform, where I swung my bucket over the railing and climbed in. Once settled, I took out my flashlight so that I could look around my new six or eight foot world.
I tried the controls, and sure enough… nothing happened. Remembering my dropped flashlight almost exactly three years earlier that had almost cost me my life (see post: “Angel of Death Passes By The Precipitator Door“), I took extra care not to drop any tools on some unsuspecting souls below.
I took out my multimeter and checked the voltage coming into the main junction box and found that the problem was in the connect where the cable came into the box. So, this turned out to be a fairly easy fix. The cord had been pulled by something (geez. It was only hanging down 200 feet. I don’t know what might have been pulling on it) and had worked its way out of the connections.
I told Rod that I would be able to fix this quickly and went to work removing the connector from the cable, cutting off the end and preparing it to be reconnected to the connector. It was about that time that I became aware of something that had been going on since I had arrived, I just hadn’t noticed it. Maybe it was a remark one of the boiler rats had said. I think it was Goosman talking to Opal. He said something like “That George Jones can sure sing.”
That was it. That was the extra amount of strangeness that I had been experiencing since I had arrived. Someone had a radio that was playing country music. The music was echoing throughout the boiler so that all the hanging boiler rats could listen to it. I realized that Butch and Brien weren’t just staring off into space at each other. They were experiencing a moment of country music meditational bliss. The moment the current song was over someone off in the distance that I couldn’t see in the dark or because they were stuck up inside a rack of boiler tubes, let out a hoot of satisfaction. Butch and Brien rose and went back to work.
I have heard that it takes a village to raise a child…. Hillary Clinton even wrote a children’s book with that title once. I experienced something similar but strangely different that day in October 1986. A village of raised boiler rats, who for a moment, it seemed, some had stopped to sit by the welder’s campfire to listen to the tales being woven by the country music singer on the radio.
There was a sincere camaraderie between these individual boiler rats. A culture had grown inside this boiler that was completely foreign to me. I suppose the same thing happens to soldiers who put their lives on the line to protect our country. When you are in a position where one wrong step and someone dies. You bond to those around you in a unique way.
I am grateful for my brief encounter with the boiler rats that day. They had invited me into their lair because they needed my help. I was glad to have been able to fix there problem and be quickly on my way.
Though I never had a desire to become a boiler rat myself, during the many years where I walked alone throughout the inside of the precipitator I would sometimes hear the sounds coming down through the economizer from the Superheat section of the boiler. Maybe a faint hint of country music. I knew that the boiler rat village had come together again like a group of nomads that meet every winter to share stories. Sometimes I would take the plate straightening tool I carried and banged on the plates wondering if any of them would hear me way back up in the boiler. I doubt anyone ever did.
Comment from previous post:
Originally Posted on August 9, 2013:
I first ran across Power Plant Men totally by accident the summer of 1979 when I was 18 and I went to work as a summer help at a Power Plant in Oklahoma. I walked into the plant, and there they were. All standing there looking at me as if I was the new kid on the block. Which, of course, I was.
I had very little in common with this group of men. It was interesting enough to watch them at work, but it was equally as interesting to observe them after hours. I didn’t spend a lot of time with them myself. I often just listened to their stories of adventure on Monday Mornings. I think that was why the Monday Morning Safety Meeting was invented.
Like I said. I had little in common with these He-men. The only thing I could relate to was around Fishing. I had been fishing my entire childhood with my Father. Most everything else they did was foreign to me. Though, the first summer it seemed like the only things to do was to go fishing and to go over to the Peach Orchard by Marland, Oklahoma and pick peaches. Well, that, and go to Men’s Club dinners.
Like I’ve said twice now, I had little in common with this sunflower eatin’ bunch of men. I had just finished my first year as a college student and the only thing I knew to do during my free time was to play Dungeons and Dragons or Pinball. Actually, I was quite a pinball wizard and could usually spend all day on one quarter. This didn’t seem to impress the likes of this bunch, so I kept my Pinball Prowess to myself.
As I learned more about the Power Plant Men, I found out that they were a diverse group of men that had many different recreational activities. I have mentioned before that the evil plant Manager Eldon Waugh was a beekeeper, and so was my good friend Sonny Karcher. Even though Sonny spent a good portion of his time away from the plant doing some sort of farming, he enjoyed raising bees.
I mentioned in a previous post “Imitations and Innovations of Sonny Karcher” that Sonny liked to choose one thing about someone else and then take on that characteristic or possess a particular item that they had. So, I figured Sonny had become a beekeeper because he had a friend that did the same thing. I never thought that it was Eldon Waugh, since Sonny usually only chose something from someone he admired and Eldon made it a full time effort to make sure no one really liked him.
While I was a summer help I learned a few of the activities that Power Plant Men liked to do. For instance, I knew that Stanley Elmore liked to spend the weekend either making his yard look like something you would find in a Home and Garden magazine, or he liked cleaning his car and waxing his engine so that you could cook an egg right on it and not have to worry about any grit or grime between your teeth.
It goes without saying that the Power Plant Men that had families spent most of their free time with them. Those that didn’t have a family spent a lot of their time trying to avoid going down that path. So, they chose activities that would take them into the wilderness somewhere or maybe a river or two.
I heard very little talk of disgruntled husbands from the true Power Plant Men. The only story I can remember off the top of my head about a husband that was upset with his wife was Marlin McDaniel. He told us one Monday morning that he had to take his wife over his knee on Saturday. He explained it like this. “I was so mad at her that I grabbed her and laid her across my knees. I pulled up her skirt to spank her. I looked down to make sure I was aiming in the right direction… Then I paused for a moment… and I suddenly couldn’t remember what I was mad about.”
You know… It is funny because I had always thought that Marlin McDaniel looked like Spanky, and in the story he told about his wife, he was going to spank her. What are the odds of that?
It wasn’t until I entered the Electric Shop as an electrician in 1983 that I learned more about the recreational activities of Power Plant Men. I mean. I knew that Gene Day liked to drive around campus on weekends in his black pickup truck with the flames on it to impress the college girls, even if he was 50 years older than them. But besides that, I mean…..
Outside the welding shop on the lawn was a piece of art made from metal rods that had been created by the welders to resemble a cow with horns. It was used to practice lassoing. There was a certain group of Power Plant Men that took part in rodeos. Some riding on broncos, some lassoing cows and tying them up in knots. If I remember correctly, Andy Tubbs, one of the most intelligent electricians, was a rodeo clown. If you haven’t been to a rodeo, then you might not realize what a Rodeo Clown does.
Sure they stand around in bright colored clothes. These two guys aren’t just there for laughs. Here is a rodeo clown at work.
You see. When a contestant is riding a bull and they fall off, in order to keep the bull from turning around and goring the poor guy to death, a rodeo clown jumps into action and distracts the bull while the contestant is quickly spirited away to safety.
Jerry Mitchell had told me when I was still a summer help that you could tell who liked to participate in rodeos. They were usually missing one or more fingers. One of the rodeo hands explained it to me like this. When you lasso the cow, you quickly wrap the rope around the saddle horn. Just as you are doing that, the cow hits the end of the rope and goes flying back. This means that if you don’t get your fingers out of the way when you are wrapping the rope around the saddle horn, the rope will snap it right off.
January 1997 a new Instrument and Controls person came to work at the plant. Brent Kautzman was a rodeo person. We were sitting in a Confined Space Rescue team meeting once and Randy Dailey was espousing the dangers of roping cows in a rodeo when Brent said that he had his thumb cut off in a rodeo once. At first we looked at him as if he was just pulling our leg (or one of our fingers). He had all of his fingers.
Someone asked if they sewed his thumb back on. He said they weren’t able to do that. Instead they took one of his big toes and sewed it on his hand where his thumb had been. We were surprised when he showed us his thumb and sure enough. There was a big toe in place of his thumb.
Brent said that if he knew at the time how important a big toe is, he never would have done it. He said that he was young at the time, and he wanted to continue participating in rodeos, so he had them cut off his big toe and sew it on his hand. Anyway. Later, Brent returned to where he had come from, Richardton, North Dakota. He was a great guy, and a hard worker, but like myself, he wasn’t a True Power Plant Man.
The biggest source of recreation for Power Plant Men was Hunting. I would hear stories about how the hunters would send in their name for a drawing to be able to take part in the annual Elk Hunt in Montana. It was a lottery and they only picked so many people. So, the hunters would wait patiently each year to see if they were going to be able to make a trip to Montana.
Corporate Headquarters and the Evil Plant Manager wanted to make sure that not too many took off for Christmas because they wanted to ensure that enough people stayed in town in case there was an emergency at the plant and they needed to call everyone out. Christmas wasn’t really the problem at the plant as was “Hunting Season”.
There were two parts to deer hunting. The first few weeks it was bow season. You could go hunting for deer with a bow and arrows. Later you could hunt with a rifle. This was serious business in North Central Oklahoma. The Deer Hunters would prepare for this season all summer long. They would build their tree stands, and they would put out deer feeders to fatten up the deer.
People would become pretty sparse around when deer hunting season opened. At least or a few days. You could usually only kill one or two deer and that was your limit. Each year the number was decided by the population of deer.
If there were too many deer running around then the deer hunters could kill more. The whole idea of Deer Hunting from a Wildlife perspective was for population control. When there were too many deer, they would start passing around diseases and then all end up dying off anyway. So, this was a way of controlling the population.
A few times I was invited to join the Power Plant Men in their recreation. It was always a learning experience for both of us.
I was invited to Charles Foster’s house one summer to make pickles. We picked the cucumbers from Charles garden. Charles’ garden was the pride of Pawnee. I spent some time with his family that day, cleaning and boiling the cucumbers in vinegar in the pickle jars with the dill we had picked from his garden. I think often of the day I spent with Charles in his garden picking the cucumbers and in his house that evening.
I was also invited once to go to the Resort just outside of Pawnee known as “Pawnee Lake”. Diana Brien and Gary Wehunt and their spouses were camping out there and they invited me to join them the following morning. I showed up in the morning where we cooked breakfast, then they taught me the art of flying across the lake on a jet ski.
To me, this was sheer madness, but I bucked up and did it anyway. If I was going to die, doing it on a jet ski was as good of a place as any.
Then they invited me to play horseshoes. Well. I kindly declined saying that they didn’t really want me to play horseshoes. They said that they needed two teams of two, and they would really appreciate it if I joined them. So, I succumbed.
My first throw was very impressive as it bumped right up against the stake. I knew that this was just beginner’s luck, I really wasn’t a beginner. I had played a lot of horseshoes as a kid. Only, I had lost any sort of self-control when it came to letting lose of the horseshoe. I think it was my third throw that did it. The horseshoe literally ended up behind me. I think I almost hit Tek’s pickup. (Tek was Dee’s husband’s nickname or was it Tex?). When I let go of the horseshoe and it went flying through the air, everyone scattered.
There was an interesting character that came by when we were at the Pawnee Lake. His name was Trail Boss. He was a larger sociable person. Someone that you would think would come from a town called Pawnee, Oklahoma. There was another guy that was there that scattered when Trail Boss showed up. So, I made a comment to the Boss that he seemed to have quite an influence on people. I figured that was why they called him Trail Boss.
Anyway. There were a lot of other things that the Power Plant Men did for recreation. I could go on and on. Maybe some of the Power plant that read this blog will post some of them in the comments. I purposely didn’t mention anything about “Noodling” (except for just now). I think I’ll do that in another post some time later.
Though I was like a fish out of water when I was with the Power Plant Men enjoying their time off, I was always treated as if I belonged. No one made fun of me even when they were scattering to dodge a rogue horseshoe. When I went fishing with them as a new summer help when I was 18 years old, I was never shunned and no one ever looked down on me. I have to give them this: True Power Plant are patient people. They put up with me for 20 years. I can’t ask for more than that.
Comments from the previous repost:
Originally posted July 18, 2014
Given that a large Coal-fired Power Plant is like a small city complete with a water treatment system to supply drinking water to thirsty Power Plant Men, and it’s own complete sewage system to handle the volumes of human waste and toxic run-off, when I ask, “What is that strange smell?” You may expect the answer to be something like “Honeysuckle?” If you thought, rotten fish, diesel oil, ozone or sweaty arm pits, you would, of course, be wrong. Those are all the usual smells found in a Power Plant. Every so often, a smell would come by that would make you stop in your tracks and wonder…. “What’s that strange smell?”
Over the course of the 20 years I worked in the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma, there were times when a new smell would just come out of no where. There were other times when they would sneak up on me gradually, so that I wouldn’t even notice them until they were gone…. Then I would wonder why it was that I didn’t notice them when they were there.
One such smell that stung me like a bee would happen when I was on overhaul and I was walking out to the precipitator all covered in a fly ash suit from head-to-toe wearing a full face respirator with duct tape around all of the seams.
I was walking in the breezeway between the two boilers when I suddenly smelled a sharp sort of smell. It was a strange chemical I hadn’t ever noticed before. I looked around to see where it was coming from. There wasn’t anyone around, and I didn’t see anything chemical spill in the area that would account for it.
As I walked toward the precipitator, I looked up as I walked under the surge bin tower in time to see an operator coming down the stairs. He was smoking a cigarette. Besides that, everything else looked normal, except that the smell was almost overwhelming me at that point.
I went and climbed in the precipitator where I worked until break. When I came out, I blew the dust off of myself with a tiny instrument air hose that we kept on either side of the precipitator for just such an occasion. After the fly ash had been blown off of my suit, I leaned forward and pulled my respirator off of my face and breathed the fresh air.
Later that week, when I was heading back out to the precipitator and had just left the electric shop all dressed up in my suit, I had a whiff of that same smell. I couldn’t mistake it. It was a unique chemical smell. looking around, there wasn’t anyone or anything near me that would have been emitting such a toxic smell.
As I walked around the condenser to head toward the boiler, I saw that a couple of mechanics were carrying some planks of wood and laying them by the condenser in order to build a scaffold once they opened the condenser. One of the guys was smoking a cigarette. I wondered… Could it be a cigarette that smells so rancid? It didn’t seem likely, since I began detecting the smell when I was more than 40 yards away from the operator when he was descending from the Surge bin tower. I shouldn’t be able to smell a cigarette from that distance.
After a few more instances, I realized that it was cigarettes that I was smelling. I was amazed by how far away I could detect a cigarette when I was wearing my respirator. I figured that after it had filtered out all the particles bigger than 2 microns, the only particles and odors that were entering my respirator were easily detectable by my nose. And they didn’t smell anything like a cigarette.
I became so astute at detecting smokers, that one time I was walking through the breezeway with an unfortunate contract worker that had been commandeered to work with me, I was dressed in my fly ash suit and respirator. My helper wasn’t because he was going to be my hole watch while I was inside. I suddenly smelled that, now familiar, scent. I spun around once and then turned to the guy walking with me, who hardly knew who I was, and said, “Someone is smoking a cigarette!”
He looked around and no one was in sight. He said, “There isn’t anyone here.” I said, “Oh, there’s someone with a cigarette all right.” About that time a truck pulled around the end of the precipitator about 50 yards away with a couple of welders pulling a welding machine behind. Their windows were open, and hanging out of the driver side window was an arm, with a hand on the end holding a cigarette. As it drove by us, I pointed to the cigarette and said, “See. Cigarette.” He kept insisting I couldn’t have smelled that cigarette that far away… But with my respirator on, I could easily smell it.
One of the other strange Power Plant smell that I encountered during my tenure at the Power Plant was also while I was wearing my respirator and working in the precipitator. Only, I didn’t pay much attention to it until it was gone. Then I did everything I could to find the source of that smell, because to me, it was a sweet smell of success, even though it smelled more like a sweaty arm pit, or maybe even something worse.
I mentioned this smell in the post: “Moon Walk in a Power Plant Precipitator“. The precipitator is what takes the smoke out of the exhaust from the boiler, and collects it in hoppers and then blows it a half mile through a pipe to a silo on a hill by the coal pile, where it is trucked away to be made into concrete.
It was my job during an outage to repair the inside of the precipitator, and I was always looking for ways to improve the efficiency of the ash gathering abilities of this large piece of equipment.
I knew at certain times during an outage that the ash that had built up on the plates would all of the sudden decide to cake up and fall off in chunks leaving a perfectly clean plate. When that happened, then the odds of the precipitator running real well when we came back online was a lot better.
I also knew that after working long hours in the precipitator for a couple of weeks, I would feel all worn out like I had a flu. I would have to drag myself out of bed in the morning and I would even catch myself falling asleep on my feet inside the precipitator while I was inspecting it. I always figured it was just because we were working 10 or 12 hour days and I was getting older. Yeah…. 30 years old, and I was feeling every bit of it.
Then one day when I went to the tool room to get a couple of boxes of respirator filters Bud Schoonover told me that he couldn’t give me the regular hepa filter that I was used to using. I already knew that the regular filters weren’t good enough, so I asked him what else he had. He said, “Well…… I have some of these here…” I have mentioned that if Bud had been African American and a little bit skinnier and shorter, he would have been the spittin’ image of Aunt Esther from Sanford and Son’s. He would make this same expression:
Bud handed me a box of filters labeled: Organic Vapor Filter:
It wasn’t exactly what I was looking for, but I didn’t have much choice. I could see that it had a carbon filter on it as well as the regular filter, so I thought it would be all right.
The first thing I noticed when I stepped into the precipitator wearing the Organic Vapor filter was that the air inside the precipitator didn’t smell any different than the air outside. I wasn’t used to that. I was used to smelling a “boiler” sort of smell. After a couple of weeks that smell would turn more rancid. Sort of a sour smell. When I noticed that I wasn’t smelling the sour smell I quickly broke the seal on my filter and sniffed the air to verify that the filter was really blocking the stench that built up in the precipitator the past few weeks. Sure enough.
Then I noticed that I was no longer feeling tired in the morning. I was able to work all day without feeling fatigued. I came to the conclusion that whatever that smell was that was being blocked by this respirator had been causing me to feel ill. Now that it was gone I was beginning to believe that 30 years old wasn’t that old after all.
I was already curious about the smell in the precipitator because I had noticed that after a day or so after it showed up, the ash would just flake off of the plates in the precipitator. If we could find out what it was, maybe we could inject something in the inlet of the precipitator when it was online and needed to be cleaned after a bad start-up or after it had been running a while to make it run more efficiently.
So, I went to our resident Doctor of Chemistry, George Pepple. I wrote a post about him, see “Power Plant Doctor Does a Jig in a Puddle of Acid“. I explained to him about the smell and about how this particular filter filtered it out when a Hepa filter didn’t. And the effect it had on the ash on the plates. He listened intensely and I could tell that I had made him excited. There are only so many chemicals a plant chemist deals with on a normal basis, so when Dr. Pepple had an opportunity to explore something new, he jumped at the opportunity.
When I took him to the precipitator, he could smell the odor even before we began climbing the stairs up to the open hatchways. He described it as a sewage type of odor. Which I hadn’t really thought of before, but come to think of it, that would explain why an organic vapor filter would work on it. I suggested that the sulfur in the ash might be giving it that.
I had analyzed the chemicals that made up the coal that we received at our plant from Wyoming and I had tried to figure out how it might combine with moisture to create a new chemical. George explained that when the coal burns under such a high temperature, a lot of the chemicals are sort of encapsulated in ways that are not easily predictable.
George suggested that we approach this as a Safety issue and contact the Safety Department in Oklahoma City and have them see if they can put an analyzer in the precipitator to detect the chemical. When I contacted them, I talked with a lady called Julia Bevers (thanks Fred for reminding me of her last name). She told me to call her when the odor was strong during the next outage and she would bring some chemical detectors to the plant and I could place them in there and let them run overnight to collect samples.
Julia had said that she had heard that I was known as “Mr. Safety” at the plant. I don’t know why. Maybe it was because I was in the habit of complaining. And a number of the things I would complain about were safety issues.
Anyway, during the next outage as soon as I smelled the smell emanating from the precipitator I gave her a call and the next morning I received a call from Toby O’Brien, the Plant Engineer Extraordinaire. He called me and told me that Julia the Safety Lady was there in his office looking for me.
So, I went to Toby’s office and met “The Safety Lady.” I know I didn’t look at all like she expected. I was in a worn tee-shirt, not tucked in (on purpose) and worn out steal-toed boots. When I took her out to the Precipitator, I decided to take her across the Turbine Generator room and out the Third floor to the boiler where we walked through the boiler and over to the precipitator up and down ladders.
When we walked across the Turbine Floor, I didn’t have my usual pair of ear plugs hanging around my neck (they were in my pocket). As it was rather loud, Julia turned and said, “Shouldn’t we be wearing earplugs?” I replied, “Huh?” As if I couldn’t hear her. — I just love playing Power Plant Jokes on people that don’t even know what you’re up to… I’m sure when we were done, she went straight back to Toby and told him how shocked she was to find out how unsafe I was. — Me trying to keep a straight face the entire time.
To shorten a longer story, Julia gave me some indicators that would detect two different types of chemicals that she thought may be the culprit. I left the detectors in the precipitator overnight and then sent them back to Oklahoma City for analysis. They both came back negative leaving us with a mystery chemical.
Anyway, I never did find out what was causing that strange smell….
There was another strange smell that used to pop up in the Electric Shop when I had first become an electrician, but that just turned out to be one of our fellow electricians that liked to walk up to a group of electricians standing around talking, and then let loose a “silent but deadly” and then walk away and stand from a distance to see our reaction.
I won’t mention who that was, unless someone would like to leave a comment about that below….. Anyway. we all knew who it was when that happened as the electricians would yell out his name as the crowd quickly dispersed.
I decided to take a different approach. I would stand there thinking, trying to analyze the odor to see if I could tell what exactly this person had for supper the night before. I could tell one day when I said “Beef Stroganoff” and his face turned red that I had guessed pretty close to the mark….. That was the last time this noble Power Plant Man did that to a crowd of electricians….. at least when I was standing there… I can’t attest to any other time…. as I wasn’t there.
But I suppose that is proof that even early in my career I was interested in finding the source of that “strange smell”.
I suppose when you are a Plant Manager, the last person you want to see at your Power Plant doorstep is the OSHA Man! That’s exactly what happened on Thursday, March 10, 1994 at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma. He was not paying a social call. He was there to conduct an investigation. One in which I was heavily involved.
In my post from last week, “Tragedy Occurs During Power Plant Safety Meeting” I described a near death accident where a contract worker was engulfed in fly ash in a precipitator hopper. The accident was all over the 5 o’clock news in Oklahoma City. The press was there when the Life Flight helicopter arrived at the hospital where they interviewed the flight crew. The OSHA office in the Federal building a few blocks from the Electric Company’s Corporate Headquarters had quickly assigned someone to the case. Armed with all the authority he needed, he began a full investigation of the accident.
The day before Gerald Young, (the OSHA Man) arrived, I had done some investigation myself into the accident. I was trying to figure out exactly what had happened. Why had someone who thought that he had emptied out a hopper so much so that he climbed inside, had suddenly become instantly engulfed in ash? Where did this large volume of ash come from, and why did it decide to suddenly break loose and fill the hopper at the particular moment when James Vickers had decided to climb into the hopper?
Larry Kuennan, the lead engineer had asked me to show him the hopper from the inside of the Precipitator, so he could have an idea of what took place. I told him he needed to put on a fly ash suit and a full face respirator in order to go into the precipitator. After we were all suited up, I took him on a tour of the inside. A sight few people have had the chance to experience. I could write an entire post just about the experience…. Oh…. maybe I already have. See “Moon Walk in a Power Plant Precipitator”
The hopper we needed to investigate was not at the edge, so, we had to squeeze our way around a few beams in order to see the hopper where the accident took place. When we arrived, I explained that when I had first inspected the precipitator, I had found that the ash had piled up five foot above the bottom of the plates because the feeder wasn’t feeding properly. So, I had figured that when they were vacuuming out the hopper, the ash that was lodged between the plates (that were 9 inches apart) must have still been there when James climbed into the hopper. Something had caused the ash to give way all at once.
Larry and I climbed down between the hoppers where we could see the bottle racks underneath the plates. The bottles are 30 pound anchors in the shape of the old style milk bottles. They are used to keep the tension on the wires, which are the electrodes that are normally charged with up to 45,000 volts of electricity when the precipitator is online.
When we sat down to look at the four bottle racks, I noticed right away that one row of bottles was about a foot and a half lower than the rest of the bottle racks. This didn’t make sense to me at first. I couldn’t think of any way that 176 wires and bottles would be lower than the rest of the wires in the hopper. It was a paradox that took a while to soak in.
When we left, Larry Kuennen made a statement I will never forget. He said, “Until now, I thought that Plant Electricians did nothing but twist wires together. I never thought they worked on things like this.” I replied, “We work on anything that has a wire connected to it. That includes almost everything in the plant.” He replied, “Well, I have a new appreciation for Plant Electricians.”
It wasn’t until I returned to the electric shop and heard Scott Hubbard’s recount of the accident (again). Scott and his crew was working on the roof of the precipitator when the accident happened. He said that when the accident happened he heard a loud bang. Sort of like an explosion. I told him what I had found inside the precipitator. This could only mean one thing…. An electric insulator on the roof of the precipitator that held up the wires on that bottle rack had broken. When that happened, it fell the foot and half causing all the ash that had been lodged between the plates to be jolted loose, engulfing James Vickers who had just climbed in the hopper below.
After lunch, Scott went up on the roof and opened the portal on the tension house that housed the insulator that held up that row of wires. Sure enough. The three foot by 3 inch diameter ceramic insulator had broken. Something that had never happened at the plant up to that point. A tremendous load must have been put on this insulator, or it must have been defective in order to just break. These insulators are designed to hold up to 10,000 pounds of weight. the weight of the bottles and wires altogether weighed about 6,000 pounds. This meant that about 4,000 pounds of ash was pressing down from the ash above in order for it to just pull apart.
There was only one person that the OSHA man Jerry wanted to speak to when he arrived at the plant (other than to arrange things). That was me. I was the acting foreman in charge of the operations in, on and below the precipitator when the accident happened. I was also just a regular hourly employee, not so “beholden” to the company that I would participate in any kind of “cover-up”.
The first thing OSHA Jerry wanted to see was the inside of the precipitator. So, I procured a respirator for him, and we climbed up to the landing where one enters the precipitator through side doors. The first thing he did when he arrived at the door was take out a measuring tape to measure the height of the door.
I hadn’t thought about it until that moment, but a new set of OSHA regulations had a new set of Confined Space regulations 1910.146 that dealt specifically with confined spaces. It had gone into effect on April 15, 1993. Here we were almost a year later. I had always treated the precipitator as a confined space, so I had always checked the air quality before I entered it.
So, I asked OSHA Jerry why he measured the size of the door. He said, he was checking if the entrance was “restricted” or “limited”. This was the requirement of a Confined space as stated in OSHA regulation 1910.146. I asked him how small does an entrance have to be to be restricted? He said, “Well. That’s not clearly defined. We could enter the precipitator by bending over and stepping in.
That was the first time I thought that maybe the precipitator itself may not really fit into the strict definition of a confined space. The hoppers do for sure, but does the precipitator? Hmm…. I wondered…. I still do come to think of it. The hoppers were definitely confined spaces by definition… “any space with converging walls, such as a hopper…..”
Oh. I forgot to describe OSHA Jerry. He reminded me a little of the guy who was a sidekick in Cheers named Paul Willson:
Actually, he looked so much like him that I thought of him right away.
When we were done inspecting the precipitator, we returned to the front office where we went to Tom Gibson’s (our Electric Supervisor) office. He closed the door and locked it. And he began to interview me by explaining that anything that was said in this room would be held in confidence. He explained that I could speak freely and that the Electric Company could do nothing to me for telling him the truth.
I thought… Ok…. um…. I have always been known for speaking my mind, so he wasn’t going to hear anything that I wouldn’t personally tell the Plant Manager, Ron Kilman to his face. Just ask Ron. I’m sure he would agree that I was pretty open about anything that popped into my mind.
He asked me if I had been trained how in the OSHA Confined Space regulations. I responded by saying that we had a class on it one day where we went over our new confined space requirements. That consisted of reading the company policy. I knew that I needed to have a hole watch, and I needed to check the air before I went into a confined space.
We checked to make sure there was 20.9% oxygen, that there was less than 10 parts per million Carbon Monoxide, less than 5 parts per million H2S (Hydrogen Sulfide) and that there was less than 5% explosive vapors. OSHA Jack wrote everything down.
Actually, while I was talking, Jerry asked me to pause often because he was writing everything I said word-for-word on a yellow notepad what I was saying.
While we were talking, I asked him a few questions also. I asked Jack how he decided to work for OSHA. Where he had come from (Kansas. Wichita, I think). How long he had been working for OSHA. Did he enjoy his job….. At times, I could get him to digress and tell me a story about his life.
As we continued with our interview over this grave accident that almost resulted in the loss of someone’s life, I was busy making a new friend. By the time he had asked me everything he needed to know, I knew all about how he had grown up in Kansas, and how he had gone from job-to-job until he had ended up in front of me… interviewing me.
When we had finished the interview, he explained to me that this was an official document that contained all the answers to the questions he had asked me. He said that this would be private and that the Electric Company would not be able to ever see what I said unless I wanted them to see it. I asked him if I could show it to them. He said he would give me a copy of it, and I could do whatever I wanted with it. He asked me to sign it. I did.
I took Jerry to the copy machine in the front office where he made copies for me. When he handed them to me, I shook his hand. I told him I enjoyed talking to him. I also told him that I wished him well. I showed him to the elevator, and he left the plant. I made a copy of the papers that I had signed and went directly to the plant manager Ron Kilman’s office and gave him a copy of the document I had signed.
Ron asked me how it went. I told him that it went fine. Here is everything we talked about. I had nothing to hide. It did amaze me that OSHA Jack thought I might want to “spill the beans” about something as if we were treated like peons where the King had total rule. — I guess he didn’t know that Eldon Waugh had retired in 1987.
From there, I went to Bill Bennett’s office. Bill Bennett was our A Foreman. His office was across the hall from Tom Gibson’s office where I had been interviewed for the previous 3 hours. — Yeah. 3 hours. OSHA Jerry didn’t know Shorthand.
Bill asked me how the interview went. I said it went fine. He said that Ron and Ben Brandt had been worried about me because the interview had lasted so long. Bill said he told them, “Don’t worry about Kevin. He probably has this guy wrapped around his little finger. He’s probably using his ‘psychology’ on him” I always loved Bill with all my heart. He knew me too well. I told Bill that I knew OSHA Jerry’s life story by the time we were done. Bill smiled…. just like this:
I smiled back at Bill. I returned to the Electric Shop to continue with Unit 1 Overhaul. After all. That was my “real” job. I put on my fly ash suit, my full face respirator, and my rubber boots and returned to the innards of the precipitator to continue where I had left off. I had a lot to think about as I scanned the Precipitator plates and wires in the dark with my flashlight safely strapped around my neck.
Comment from the original post
Originally posted August 30, 2014.
When a death or a near death occurs at a workplace due to an accident, OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) will investigate what happened. There are two reasons for this. If they find that the company has been negligent in following the safety regulations set down in CFR 1910, then they are fined (if the negligence is severe enough). OSHA also investigates the accident to see if changes are needed to regulations in order to protect employees due to new unsafe workplace conditions that are not currently covered under CFR 1910.
Because of the tragedy that happened at our plant that I outlined in the post: “Tragedy Occurs During Power Plant Safety Meeting” and after I had met with the OSHA man (Gerald Young) to give him my deposition as discussed in the post last week: “The OSHA Man Cometh“, the plant manager, the assistant plant manager, and I were summoned to the Department of Labor building in Oklahoma City at 10 o’clock on Monday April 18, 1994.
On a side note:
The Department of Labor office in Oklahoma City is just a couple of blocks from the Murrah Federal Building that was bombed exactly one year and one day after our visit on April 19, 1995. Not that there was any connection.
I mentioned this because I went to the Murrah building later that day after the meeting with OSHA to meet my brother for lunch. He was working there in the Marine Recruiting office at the time. I think he was a Major then. He changed jobs in June 1994 and moved to Washington D.C. I think. His replacement was killed in the bombing. Here he is Greg today as a full Marine Colonel:
End of Side Note:
I was asked by Ron Kilman our plant manager to show up at 9:00 am on Monday in the building south of our main corporate headquarters where we rented office space to meet with the guys from our own Safety Department because they were required to attend the OSHA meeting with us. The Department of Labor building was just across the parking lot and across the street from this building, so we planned to walk from there.
I drove myself because Ron said he had other meetings to attend in Oklahoma City after this meeting was over and he wouldn’t be driving back to the plant. That was why I arranged to have lunch with my brother.
When we met with the Corporate Safety Department Jack Cox told us how we should act during the meeting with OSHA. He didn’t tell us to do anything wrong, like withhold information. He just told us to answer all the questions as truthfully as we could. Don’t offer any information that isn’t directly asked by OSHA. Don’t argue with them if you disagree.
From what I understood from the conversation, we were supposed to be polite, truthful and don’t waste their time going down a rat hole with specifics. I was told that I shouldn’t have to say anything and I should be quiet unless I was asked a specific question. The Safety department would answer all the questions and make any statements that need to be made. I was assured by them that I had nothing to be worried about. I only needed to tell the truth if asked anything.
If you know my personality, I always want to throw in my 2 cents, even when I know it is wasted on the audience. But I took this seriously. We were going to be fined by OSHA for 10 different violations relating to the accident that occurred at the plant. I was there because I was directly in charge of the work that was being done when the accident occurred. It was my deposition that was used to determine about half of the violations.
After we had been briefed on how we should behave during the meeting, as a group we walked from the corporate building over to the Department Of Labor building. One of the safety guys was carrying a few binders. I think one was the company’s Policies and Procedures book (We called it the GP&P).
Upon entering the building we went to the 3rd floor where we were asked to wait in a room until OSHA was ready for the meeting. The room had a long table down the middle. As usual, I picked a seat about halfway down on one side. I remember Ron Kilman sitting across from me and about 2 seats down.
We waited and we waited….. 10:00 came and went, and no one came. We quietly discussed whether this was to make us more nervous by keeping us waiting. Then someone came to the door and apologized. They said that Robert B. Reich, the U.S. Secretary of Labor was in the office that day and that had thrown off everyone’s schedule.
This was quite a coincidence, and we wondered if Robert B. Reich (it seems like you need to put the B in his name in order to say it right) would be attending our meeting. That would sort of throw a whole new importance of me keeping my mouth shut to make sure I wasn’t putting my foot in it.
It seemed as if Mr. Reich had shown up unexpectedly. Or at least on short notice. Almost as if it was a surprise visit to check up on the place. He didn’t end up coming to our meeting. Now that I think about it. This was one day shy of being one year to the date that the Branch Davidians had burned themselves alive in Waco, which was one year and one day before the Murrah Building Bombing three blocks away from where we were sitting that morning. Aren’t coincidences interesting? Just saying…
More about why Robert B. Reich was there further below.
Around 10:30 four or five OSHA lawyers (I assume they were lawyers, they talked like they were), came in the room along with the Jerry that had interviewed me a few weeks earlier. They apologized again for being late due to the arrival of their “supreme” boss. They sort of sat at one end of the room and the people from our company was more on the other end. Jerry, the OSHA man, sat next to me in the middle.
I was saying a mantra to myself…. “Don’t say anything… just keep quiet and listen…. don’t say anything… just keep quiet and listen.
The meeting began by the Lady at the end of the table reading off the violations to us. I don’t remember all 10. I remember the most important violations. They mainly centered around the new Confined Space section of 1910. It was 1910.146 that dealt with confined spaces and it had gone into affect April 1, 1993, almost one year before the accident happened. Generally, OSHA gives companies about a year to comply to the new regulations, which kind of put us right on the edge since the accident at our plant had occurred on March 3, 1994.
Because of this, some of the violations were quickly removed. That lowered the number down to 6 violations right away. That was good. No one from our company had said a word yet, and already the OSHA lawyers seemed to be on our side. Then they read off a violation that said that our company had not implemented the required Confined Space Program as outlined in CFR 1910.146.
This was when our Safety Department leader, Jack Cox. said that we would like to contest that violation, because here is the company policy manual that shows that we implemented the Confined Space Program before the end of the year.
One of the OSHA lawyers responded by saying that we had not fully implemented it because we had not trained the employees how to follow the policy. When he made that statement, Ron Kilman contested it. He had a stack of papers that showed that each of the employees at the plant had taken the training and had signed a paper saying they had read the policy. Not only that, but the person that was hurt was not a company employee, they were an outside vendor who was hired by the company to vacuum out the hoppers.
The OSHA man said that just because they took the course did not mean that they were properly trained. Ron asked how do you know they weren’t properly trained. The OSHA man replied, “Because they didn’t follow all the rules. If they had, no one would have been hurt.” — What do you say to that? You can tell we weren’t properly trained because someone was hurt? I suppose that the OSHA rules were written in such a way that if you followed them to the letter, no matter what kind of mechanical failure happens, no one will be hurt. I could see the frustration on Ron’s face.
I was a little amused by Ron’s statement though because Jack Cox had told us to just let them answer all the questions and the first seemingly absurd thing the OSHA man had said, Ron had addressed. — I smiled and said to myself…. “Don’t say anything… just keep quiet and listen…”
One of the violations was that we didn’t have a Confined Space Rescue Team. That was true, we didn’t. There was something in the regulations that said, if a rescue team could arrive in a reasonable time from somewhere else, we didn’t have to have our own rescue team…. Well, we lived 20 miles from the nearest fire station equipped with a Confined Space Rescue team. So, there was that…. That was a legitimate violation.
The next violation was that we didn’t have a rescue plan for every confined space in the plant and each confined space was not clearly marked with a Confined Space sign. This was a legitimate violation.
The next violation was that we hadn’t coordinated efforts between different work groups working in confined spaces together. This was clearly stated in the regulations…. — Oh oh. that was me… I think I was mid-mantra when I heard that one. I had just said to myself… “…anything….just keep….” when I heard this violation. I stopped muttering to myself and immediately forgot that I was supposed to keep quiet.
I said, “But wait a minute. We did coordinate between the three groups that were working in the confined spaces. I was coordinating that. I had posted a sheet on a beam in the middle of the hopper area where the accident occurred where the Brown and Root contractors, and the vacuum truck contractors knew what hoppers were still full and which were safe to enter. I kept the sheet updated each day and so did the vacuum truck workers. They indicated when they had finished vacuuming out a hopper, and I would inspect it from above. When I deemed it safe, the Brown and Root contractors could enter the space. The accident occurred because one of the vacuum truck workers entered the confined space while still cleaning it out and before I had inspected it to make sure it was safe.”
Jerry (the OSHA man that had interviewed me turned and said, “Oh. I didn’t know that. Do you still have that piece of paper?” — Incredibly, I did. About a week after all the vacuuming had finished and all the hoppers were safe, I was walking through the hopper area under the precipitator where I found the paper with the duct tape still on it laying on the grating. Without realizing the importance, I picked it up and brought it back to the janitor closet behind the electric shop that we now used as a “Precipitator Fly Ash Cleanup Room”. I had laid it on a shelf there. The lawyers said, “Send us the original sheet and we will drop this violation.
Here is a copy of the piece of paper. The big black splotch at the top is what duct tape looks like when you make a copy of it.
Well, that worked out good. I had stepped out of line by opening my mouth before I had been asked a question, but everything worked out all right.
The final verdict was that we had four violations. We had to re-train our employees on Confined Spaces. We had to create a Confined Space Rescue Team. We had to put the correct signs on all of the confined spaces and we had to develop rescue plans for all of the confined spaces on the plant grounds. If we did that by August 1, 1994, the four remaining violations which amounted to a $40,000 fine would all be dropped. So, we had our work cut out for us. This not only impacted our plant, but all the Power Plants. The meeting was adjourned.
I already told you what I did after the meeting (I went and ate lunch with my brother). But I haven’t mentioned yet why Robert B. Reich had made a surprise visit to the Department of Labor building in Oklahoma City on April 18.
As it turned out, that morning, Labor Secretary Reich had come to Oklahoma City to hand deliver a $7.5 million fine to Dayton Tire Company. This was due to an accident that had resulted in a man, Bob L. Jullian, being crushed by a piece of machinery in the tire plant. He died a week and a half later at the age of 53.
Robert B. Reich had become so angry when he had studied the case on Friday that he wanted to hand deliver the citation himself the following Monday. That is how we ended up in the building at the same time on Monday, April 18, 1994. We resolved our dispute with OSHA on a congenial note and the citations were dropped on August 1. Dayton, however, was still fighting the conviction 18 years later, eventually paying around a $2 million penalty.
Now you know the rest of the story. Well, almost. Like I said, we had a lot of work to do in the next three and a half months.
OSHA defines a confined space as a place with restricted access, or a place like a hopper with converging walls where you can get stuck. When the supervisors at the coal-fired power plant in North Central Oklahoma were asked to identify the confined spaces their workers had to work in, there were a few spaces that ended up on the list that made some wonder if they had just picked up a case of lice…. In other words, they began to scratch their heads.
Earlier I wrote a story about when a person was engulfed in ash in a Precipitator hopper and almost died, (See the post “Tragedy Occurs During a Power Plant Safety Meeting“). This led to an investigation by OSHA a man from OSHA (See the post “OSHA Man Cometh“). Then we were fined and were given a list of tasks that we had to perform by August 1, 1994 (See the post “Power Plant Men Being Summoned by the Department of Labor“). One of those tasks was to create a Confined Space Rescue Team.
The first task for the Rescue team was to put signs on all the confined spaces with a warning that this was a confined space and that you weren’t supposed to go in there unless you have a Confined Spaces Entry Permit.
After that, the Confined Space Rescue Team was was tasked with developing rescue plans for each confined space.
One of the confined spaces on the list that was supplied by the supervisors at the plant was the Battery Room in the Main Switchgear. This was added to the list by Tom Gibson who was the Electric Supervisor for the plant. According to OSHA’s definition of a confined space, a room like the Battery Room, which you entered by walking through a regular door, didn’t meet the definition of a Confined Space even when trying to stretch the definition in imaginary directions.
Tom Gibson explained that he wanted to add the Battery Rooms to the list because he thought that a dangerous condition could arise in the battery room if the ventilation fans failed and there was a build up of toxic gases from the batteries and someone walked in there and passed out. They would need to be rescued just as if they were in a confined space.
So, the Battery Room went on the list…. but the Confined Space Rescue Team decided that we weren’t going to create a rescue plan with much detail. We decided that we would just need to open the door and turn on the vent fan. Later, we were able to remove the battery room from the list.
It is interesting how some people come up with their justification for bending the definition of something like a confined space in order that the room would be considered a more hazardous place than normal. There were other ways to make this point besides trying to fit the big rectangular door into the size of a manhole cover.
When we put together the Confined Space Rescue Team, we had the Safety Task Force send out a intra-company letter to each person asking them if they would like to join the Confined Space Rescue Team. We wanted to get a good cross-section of people from different skill sets. I thought we did pretty good.
I can’t remember every one of the original members, but those that I can remember are:
Alan Hetherington, Jimmie Moore, Mike Vogle, Randy Dailey, Ray Eberle, Thomas Leach, Paul Mullon, George Clouse, myself and um…. I can’t remember the last one. Maybe one of you can remind me.
Once we had the list, the first thing we had to do was to be properly trained as a Confined Space Rescue Team. A company in Dallas, Texas was hired to come to our plant to train us to become Confined Space Rescuteers (I just made that word up… Sort of like Mouseketeers).
While we were taking the training, the trainers kept calling the lead trainer “Dad”, so we began to wonder if this was a family affair. The leader of the training team was much older than the others, and he did treat the young trainers like a father. At one point when one of the trainers was trying to get the lead trainer’s attention, he kept saying, “Dad! Dad!” just like a little kid would try to ask their dad if they could go outside now and play. The rest of us just kept looking at each other like…. yeah… he’s their dad.
It turned out that “Dad” was really just his initials. His name is David A. David, so they just called him Dad. I thought that was pretty neat and fitting since he did treat them all like he was their dad. When I later moved to Texas, I found that David David is a rather popular name down here. It seems like people named David David own a number of car dealerships in the Dallas area.
We were given special rescue harnesses to wear that was a lot like a regular safety harness, except the place where you clip on to the rope is down at your waist instead of up by your chest. This put the point where you are suspended at the center of your weight (if you are built like your average rescuer… I mean, you don’t have a shape like Santa Claus…. which, if you did, you were probably more likely to be a rescuee instead of a rescuer).
With the focal point in the center of your body, you could easily swing upside down, lay flat or sit straight up. It was pretty neat. You have probably seen someone wearing one of these before…. Tom Cruise demonstrated this technique in the first Mission Impossible movie:
We learned a lot of lessons in the Confined Space Rescue Team Training that I have never forgotten. One important statistic was that somewhere around 70 percent of people that die in confined spaces are ‘would be’ rescuers.
If you stop and think about this number for a moment, it is rather shocking (if true). This meant that more people died trying to rescue someone from a confined space than actual original victims.
The reason this happens is because when someone in a confined space is found to have passed out, people tend to rush in there to pull them out, not realizing that the reason the person passed out was because there was some sort of toxic gas or a lack of oxygen in the confined space that caused the first victim to pass out.
I remember a tragedy when I was going to college at the University of Missouri in Columbia, Missouri around the year 1980. I think it was at the Rolla campus where agriculture researchers had a large pit sort of like a deep empty swimming pool where they were doing some kind of experiment.
One of the people working on the project passed out in the bottom of the pit. Three other people in the area rushed down there to help the person. When they climbed down the ladder to help, each of them passed out, and all four of them ended up dead. There was some sort of poison gas that settled down in the pit that was fatal.
We knew then that it was important that we become properly trained as confined space rescuers. We have a culture in the United States to want to help someone in trouble. In some circumstances, a person could even be held liable if they don’t come to someone’s aid in an emergency. It is called a “Duty To Rescue”.
The problem with rushing into a confined space to rescue someone is that you may actually be putting more lives at risk if you are not properly trained. The first tool we used when we arrived at a confined space was an Air Monitor.
We checked the quality of the air in a confined space for 4 different conditions. First, there had to be enough Oxygen (20.9% hopefully). Not too much Carbon Monoxide, No Hydrogen Sulfide (smells like rotten eggs, only if you smell it briefly and then the smell goes away, it could be because it deadens the receptors in your nostrils making you think you’re safe when you’re not — that’s why you need to use a monitor instead of just your nose). Lastly, we check for an explosive atmosphere. In order to make sure we aren’t crawling into some place that is ready to explode.
The first skill we learned was to tie knots. We actually spent a lot of time learning about knot tying. We had to be able to tie them while wearing rescue gloves. Those are leather gloves that keep you from burning your hand when you are feeding a rope through your hands.
Some of the Rescue knots we learned how to tie were the Figure 8, the Figure 8 on a Bite, and a Figure 8 Follow Through. We also learned to tie a Prusik Knot that could be used to climb right up another rope like you were going up steps.
We learned to tie a Water Knot if we needed to extend the lengths of straps. Other knots were the Girth Hitch, the Double Fisherman’s knot, butterfly knot, and the right way to tie a square knot to make sure that you don’t end up with a granny knot and have your knot slip right off the end of the rope.
During the Confined Space course, we had to be able to tie these knots not only wearing our gloves, but we had to tie them behind our backs in the dark. After all, it was explained to us, that when you are rescuing people from a confined space crawling on your stomach wearing an SCBA (Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus), you will not be able to see the knots you have to tie in order to pull someone safely out of the hole.
The trainers would inspect our knots and they had to be perfect, or he would take them apart and we would have to do them again. You couldn’t have one rope crossing over another where it shouldn’t be, even if the knot was correct. The knot had to be picture perfect.”
“Dad” and the training company had a big black trailer that had a big metal maze where they could fill it with smoke. Then, they would put a safety manequin in the trailer somewhere and we would have to go in there wearing our safety equipment and rescue the dummy in the smoky dark maze during a hot summer day when it was about 100 degrees outside.
The most important thing we learned during that class was that even though our instinct is to go in and be a hero and rescue someone in trouble, we have to realize that the majority of the time when a person goes in a confined space to rescue someone they are retrieving a dead body.
The importance of this lesson is that it’s not worth risking the lives of the Confined Space Rescue Team when the person being rescued is most likely dead already. We needed to remember the statistic that 70% of people that die in confined spaces are would be rescuers.
As long as we kept that in mind, when the time came for us to dive right in and pull someone out, we would take the time to do it right and do it safely. What good is trying to rescue someone only to have our fellow rescuers die alongside the original victim?
During the major overhaul on Unit 1 during the spring of 1994 in retrospect, there were signs that something similar to the downsizing at the Oklahoma Electric company that had happened in 1988 was coming around again. The reason the company had to downsize was a little hard to swallow, but they were real. We had painted ourselves into a corner. The punishment was a downsizing (D-Day). The reason was that we had been very successful. The outcome was ironic.
I will save the details of the 1994 downsizing for a post in a few weeks. In this post, I want to talk about the Power Plant Men, and how we all played an important part in bringing the demise of 50% of our own workforce. I will also mention some of the True Power Plant Men that were let go because of the tremendous accomplishments achieved by those very same men.
Let me give you the rundown on the downsizing first before I list those Power Plant Men and Women who were “let go”.
At some point during the major overhaul we were led into the main break room and it was explained to us that the Oklahoma Corporation Commission had decided to lower the electric rates for our customers. At that time, we were selling electricity just about as cheap as anyone in the mid-west. It was explained to us that the Corporation Commission had studied our operation costs (using outdated data) and had decided that we no longer required the 5 cents per kilowatthour we were charging our customers and we would only be able to charge 4 cents from now on (I’m rounding I think). This was a 20 percent reduction in our revenue.
The majority of our costs were fuel and taxes. We couldn’t really reduce these costs (except for the obvious reduction in taxes that result from a lower revenue). The only place we really could cut costs was in personnel. It was a drop in the bucket compared to our other costs, but in order to produce electricity, we couldn’t really do without things like fuel, and transmission costs, etc. and the government wasn’t going to lower our taxes.
An early retirement package was presented to anyone 50 years old and older by a certain date. They could leave with full retirement benefits. The rest? Well, we had to wait our fate which was to take place on August 1, 1994 (or more precisely, the previous Friday, July 29).
This was the major overhaul where the man had been engulfed in ash in the precipitator hopper (see the post: “Tragedy Occurs During Power Plant Safety Meeting“) and I had to meet with the man from OSHA (see the post: “The OSHA Man Cometh“). The meeting in the break room took place about two weeks after our meeting with the Department of Labor in Oklahoma City (see the post: “Power Plant Men Summoned by Department of Labor“).
So, why do you think that the Oklahoma Corporation Commission thought that we were able to reduce our cost so drastically all of the sudden? We were guaranteed by law a 10% profit as we could not set the cost for our own electricity. This was controlled by the government. We just presented to them our operating costs and they figured out the rest. So, why did they think we could suddenly produce electricity cheaper than any other electric company in the country? Were we really that good?
I could point out that there was an election coming up for one of the members on the Corporation Commission, and this would be something under his belt that he could use to win re-election, but that would only be speculation. The truth was, we couldn’t maintain a 10% profit for our shareholders if we could only charge our customers 4 cents per kilowatthour.
Just as an example, in 1993, the electric company had made $2.72 per share for the shareholders, while by May 1994, we had only made $2.60 Though revenue had gone up by $29 million. This was only a 7% profit based on the revenue. The quarter after the first rate reduction (yeah, there were two) lowered the shareholder return to $2.12.
A year before the downsizing was announced the company had attempted to change their culture so that we could compete in a world where we didn’t have protected areas where we were guaranteed customers. We had instituted the “Quality Process”. I explained this in the post: “A Chance for Power Plant Men to Show Their Quality“. One of the major goals for this change in “attitude” was to make us more competitive with other electric companies. Well, even though we didn’t really like that the cost reduction was coming before we were ready, one way or the other, the Oklahoma Corporation Commission was going to hold us to that goal.
When describing some of the events that took place during this time, and discuss some of those Power Plant Men that were lost from our view, I feel like I should have some appropriate music playing in the background to express some sorrow for our own loss. So, take a few minutes and listen to this song before proceeding, because, it sets the mood for what I am about to say:
For those who can’t view the youtube link, here is a direct link: “Always On My Mind”
As could be expected, all the Power Plant Men were on edge since we were getting ready for another downsizing. We didn’t know how far down we were downsizing at the time, so we thought that by early retiring everyone 50 years and older, that this would take care of our plant. After all, we had a lot of old fogies wandering around. In the electric shop alone we had four who took the early retirement package (Mike Rose, Bill Ennis, Ted Riddle and O.D. McGaha). Bill Bennett, our A foreman and Tom Gibson our Electric Supervisor were also retiring. So, we were already losing 6 of the 16 people in our department. I’m sure each group was doing their own calculations.
As I mentioned above, I will not dwell so much on the actual downsizing here other than to mention that it became clear that every attempt to help the company out by reducing cost through the quality process was not going to be applied to our bottom line. It was going straight into the customer’s pocket, and maybe it should. This did lower the incentive to be efficient if our company didn’t see a direct Return On Investment, but at this point, it was a matter of surviving.
I wasn’t so concerned about my friends that were taking the early retirement package. Even though their long term plans were suddenly changed, they still were not left empty handed. It was those Power Plant Men that were let go that were too young to retire that I missed the most. I will list some here. I regret that I don’t have their pictures, because, well, this was just at the start of the World Wide Web, and people didn’t take digital pictures back then.
Some of the welders that I missed the most were Duane Gray, Opal Ward (previously Brien), Jim Grant, J.D. Elwood and Donnie Wood. Mike Crisp was the one Machinist that I missed the most. I don’t remember if Jerry Dale was old enough to take the retirement package.
Jerry Dale always seemed to have a positive attitude. One of the phrases I remember when thinking of Jerry was when he was driving me home when I was a summer help. Sonny Kendrick was in the truck with us. We had come upon a car that was travelling rather slow in Hwy 177. Jerry grabbed the handle to shift into a different gear and asked me if he should put it into overdrive and just drive over the car. For some reason, the look of total satisfaction when he said that has always stuck in my mind (or as Willie Nelson says, “You were always on my mind”).
Wayne Griffith was a dear friend that was on the Labor Crew (see the post: “Wayne Griffith and the Power Plant Computer Club“). He was let go along with Gail Mudgett.
We lost both janitors, John Fry (a friend to everyone. I recently wrote a post about John, “Power Plant Janitor John Fry Standing Guard as Floors Dry“) and Deanna Frank. Charlotte Smith from the warehouse found a job at Corporate Headquarters in Oklahoma City.
The mechanics lost the most, because there were more of them, A few of these were able to transfer to other areas in the company but most of them were let go. Here is the list of mechanics that were gone after August 1, 1994: Two Toms, Tom Flanagan and Tom Rieman, I think they both found jobs in other areas, as did Preston Jenkins and Ken Conrad (who used to call me “Sweet Pea”) See the post “Ken Conrad Dances with a Wild Bobcat“. Mike Grayson was let go. I still remember the first day Mike arrived when I was a summer help. He was there when we were fighting the dragon (See the post: “Where Do Knights of the Past Go to Fight Dragons Today“).
Two other mechanics who were greatly missed were Martin Prigmore (because without him, we didn’t have a certified P&H crane operator… kind of overlooked that one), and Tony Talbott who was the kindest Power Plant Man from Perry, Oklahoma. Martin Prigmore was later shot to death in Morrison Oklahoma in an encounter with his wife’s former husband.
The Instrument and Controls department lost Bill Gregory and Glen Morgan.
A side story about Glen Morgan (or was it Nick Gleason? Someone can correct me). One day, someone at the plant was listening to a Tulsa Radio Station when the news came on and said that the police were looking for Glen Morgan because he had just robbed a bank in Tulsa. They said that he was from Stillwater, Oklahoma, and they described his car. Whoever heard the radio told Glen that he was wanted for robbing a bank in his red car. So, he called home and asked his wife to look in the garage to see if his car was still there. It was. So, he quickly called the Tulsa police department and let them know that they had the wrong man.
Gary Wehunt was the one electrician that was let go. He had thought he was going to be picked 7 years earlier at the first downsizing. The one accomplishment that he was most proud of when he left was that he didn’t have any sick leave left over. He always made sure to take it as soon as he had accumulated a day.
I won’t list the operators that were downsized because I couldn’t tell which ones were old enough to retire or not and who was actually let go, if any. Maybe Dave Tarver can add that as a comment below (I will discuss Gerald Ferguson’s crew in an upcoming post). — Thanks Dave (see Dave’s comment below). Jim Kanelakos (which I remembered vividly) and Jack Delaney.
I do know that this was the second downsizing that Gene Day was old enough to retire, but he never took the package. Everyone knew he was as old as dirt, but for the obvious reason that everyone wanted to have him around for comic relief, no one ever considered the Power Plant could function without him. So, he stayed around for many years.
One thing about working in the Power Plant was that people were rarely fired. When it did happen, alcohol was usually involved. Sometimes a disability, such as was the case with Yvonne Taylor and Don Hardin.
About a year and a half before the downsizing one of the welders, Randy Schultz was let go because he repeatedly showed up to work intoxicated. I don’t remember the details, but it did seem that he spent a lot of time sleeping in one of the old Brown and Root warehouses in order to sober up. The company had to special order a hardhat for Randy because his head was too big for a standard hardhat. Randy was later wounded by a gun shot in Stillwater Oklahoma during a fight in the middle of the night.
Doug Link showed up one night a couple of months before the downsizing for a “Condenser Party” (when one of the condensers is open while the unit is still online, and it is cleaned out). Doug was ordering the workers to go into the condenser before all the safety precautions had been taken. He had been drinking. This was the night that I took Ray Eberle out to the Substation to light up the fluorescent bulbs (“See the post: “Switching in the Power Plant Substation Switchyard“).
I knew at the time that Doug was going through some hard times at home. I was sorry to see him go. He was one of the few engineers that took the time to listen to my incessant ramblings on just about any topic. I was glad to learn that after a very difficult time, Doug picked himself back up and regained his integrity.
Whether a person is laid off or fired, the results can be devastating. A person’s self-worth is suddenly shaken which throws the family into turmoil. The Power Plant Men and Women that were left at the plant after the downsizing knew this, and we were forever changed by the loss of such a large number of friends that we considered family all at once. It took us a couple of years to deal with the emotional impact. Even to this day, I do my best to keep them on “always on my mind”.
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