Originally posted August 2, 2014
Scott, Toby and I were all sitting in the front seat of Scott’s pickup truck on our way home from the coal-fired power plant in North Cental Oklahoma, because this particular pickup didn’t have a back seat. I guess that’s true for most pickup now that I think about it. It was in the fall of 1993 and I was on one of my rants about Power Plant Safety (again).
Scott Hubbard was focusing on the road and he was smiling. I think it was because the person that was talking on NPR (National Public Radio) had a pleasant voice.
Come to think of it… Scott was usually smiling.
I was going on and on about how the plant needed to take a completely didn’t approach to safety. I thought that we just looked at each accident as an isolated case and because of that we were missing the point. The point was that no one really goes to work with the idea that they want to do something that will hurt them. Power Plant Men in general don’t like having accidents. Not only does it hurt, but it is also embarrassing as well. Who doesn’t want that 20 year safety sticker?
I was in the middle of my safety rant all prepared to continue all the way from the plant to Stillwater, about 20 miles away when Toby quickly interrupted me. He said that he had received a safety pamphlet in the mail the other day that was saying the same things I had just said. It had talked about a way to change the culture of the plant to be more safe. Not using the same old techniques we were used to like Safety Slogan Programs (I was thinking…. but what about the Safety Slogan Pizza award at the end of the year? Would that go away? See the Post: “When Power Plant Competition Turns Terribly Safe“). Toby said that he read it and then set it aside as just another one of the many safety sales pitches a Plant Engineer might receive in a week.
He said he only remembered the pamphlet because I had just made a statement that was word-for-word right out of the safety pamphlet. I had said that the only way to change the Power Plant Safety Culture was to change the behavior first. Don’t try to change the culture in order to change the behavior. When I had earned my degree in Psychology years earlier, I had been told by one of my professors that the area of Psychology that works the best is Behavioral Psychology.
To some, this might sound like treating the symptoms instead of the actual cause of a problem. If your not careful that may be what you end up doing and then you ignore the root of the problem, which brings you back to where you were before you tried to change anything in the first place. Toby said he would give the pamphlet to me the next day.
So, the rest of the ride home was much more pleasant. Instead of finishing my rant about Safety, we just listened to the pleasant voices on National Public Radio. I was excited about the idea that someone might have a solution that I believed offered the best chance to change the direction of Safety at the plant away from blaming the employee, to doing something to prevent the next accident.
The next day, after we arrived at the plant, I made my way up to the front offices to Toby’s desk so that he could give me the safety pamphlet he had mentioned on the ride home. When he gave it to me, the title caught my eye right away. It was a pamphlet for a book called: “The Behavior-Based Safety Process, Managing Involvement for an Injury-Free Culture”. Now I was really excited. This sounded like it was exactly what I had been talking about with Toby and Scott. I sent off for the book right away.
When the book arrived I wanted to climb on the roof of my house and yell “Hallelujah!” I was suddenly one with the world! As I read through the book my chin became chapped because my head was nodding up and down in agreement so much that the windy draft caused by the bobbing motion chafed my chin.
I finished the book over the weekend. When I returned to work on Monday, I wrote another quick letter to the Plant Manager, Ron Kilman and the Assistant Plant Manager, Ben Brandt telling them that I would like to discuss an idea for a new safety program…. um…. process. Process is better than Program… as we learned in Quality Training. A process is the way you do something. A program is something you do, and when it’s over, you stop doing it.
Later that week, I met with Ron Kilman, Ben Brandt and Jasper Christensen in Ben’s office.
I had just read the book for the second time, I had already had 5 dreams about it, and I had been talking about it non-stop to Charles Foster and Scott Hubbard in the electric shop for days. So, I felt confident that I was prepared for the meeting. I still remember it well.
Ron asked me to explain how this new process would work and so I started right in….
In order for this process to work, you have to understand that when an accident occurs, it is the system that is broken. It isn’t the employee’s “fault”. That is, the employee didn’t wake up in the morning thinking they were going to work today to have an accident. Something went wrong along the way, and that is what you have to focus on in order to improve safety. Not so much the employee, but the entire system.
If people are unsafe, it is because “The System” has trained them to work unsafe (for the most part…. — there will always be someone like Curtis Love…. accidents sometimes traveled 45 miles just to attack Curtis Love).
The trick is to identify the problems with the system, and then take steps to improve them. Ben was nodding as if he didn’t quite buy what I was saying. Ron had looked over at Ben and I could tell that he was skeptical as well (as I knew they would, and should be…. I had already demonstrated that I was a major pain in the neck on many occasions, and this could have been just another attempt to wreak havoc on our plant management). So Ron explained a scenario to me and asked me how we would go about changing the system to prevent these accidents in the future….
Ron said, Bill Gibson went down to work on the Number 1 Conveyor Belt (at the bottom of the dumper where the coal is dumped from the trains).
While he was down there, he noticed that some bolts needed to be tightened. The only tool he had with him that could possibly tighten the bolts was a pair of Channel Locks.
All of us had a pair of Channel Locks. One of the most Handy-dandiest Tools around.
Ron continued…. So, instead of going back to the shop and getting the correct size wrench to tighten the bolts, Bill used the channel locks to tighten them. He ended up spraining his wrist. Now how are you going to prevent that?
I replied…. One of the most common causes for accidents is using the wrong tool. There are usually just a few reasons why the wrong tool is used. If you fix those reasons, then you can prevent this from happening. The main and obvious reason why this accident occurred was because the right tool wasn’t there with him. This could be fixed a number of ways. Bill and his team could have a small bag that they carry around that had the most likely tools they might need for inspecting the conveyors. They might have another bag of tools that they use when they need to go inspect some pumps… etc.
Another solution may be to mount a box on the wall at the bottom of the dumper and put a set of wrenches and other important tools in it. If that box had been there and Bill had found the loose bolts, he only would have to walk a few feet to get the right tool instead of trudging all the way back up to the shop and then all the way back down.
It wasn’t that Bill didn’t want to use the right tool. He didn’t want to bruise his wrist. He just wanted to tighten the bolts.
— This had their attention… I was able to quickly give them a real action that could be taken to prevent a similar accident in the future if they would take the effort to change the “System”. Even Ben Brandt leaned back in his chair and started to let his guard down a little.
This was when I explained that when someone does something, the reason they do it the way they do is comes down to the perceived consequences of their actions…
We were always being drilled about the ABC’s of First Aid from Randy Dailey during our yearly safety training. That is when you come across someone lying unconscious, you do the ABC’s by checking their Airway, the Breathing and their Circulation. I introduced Ron, Ben and Jasper to the ABC’s of Safety. Something completely different. The ABC’s of Safety are: Antecedents, Behavior and Consequences.
An Antecedent is something that triggers a particular behavior. In Bill’s case, it was finding the loose bolts on Conveyor 1. It triggered the behavior to tighten the bolts. Bill chose to use the wrong tool because the correct tool was not immediately available, so he weighed the consequences. The possible behavior choices were:
- I could use the pair of channel locks here in my pocket.
- I could spend the next 20 minutes climbing the 100 feet up out of the dumper and go over to the shop and grab a wrench and walk all the way back down here.
- I could leave the bolts loose and come back later when I have the right tool.
The consequences of these behaviors are:
- I could be hurt using the channel locks, but I haven’t ever hurt myself using them before, and the chances are small.
- I could be late for lunch and I would be all worn out after climbing back up to the shop. The chances of me being all worn out by the time I was done was very high.
- The loose bolts could fail if I waited to tighten them, and that could cause more damage to the equipment that would cause a lot more work in the future. The chance of this is low.
The behavior that a person will choose is the one that has an immediate positive consequence. If the odds of being hurt is small, it will not stop someone from doing something unsafe. Also, if the negative consequence is delayed, it will not weigh in the decision very highly. Positive consequences outweigh negative consequences.
So, in this case, the obvious choice for Bill was to use the channel locks instead of going back to get the right tool.
When I finished explaining this to Ron and Ben, (Jasper was nodding off to sleep at this point)… Ben asked where I came up with all of this. That was when I reached down and picked up the book that was sitting in my lap. I put it on the table. I said, I read about it in here:
Ben grabbed the book and quickly opened up the front cover and saw that I had written my name inside the cover. He said, “It’s a good thing you put your name in here or you would have just lost this book.” I told him he could read it if he wanted.
Ron said that he would consider what I had said, and a few day later he responded that since I had been requesting that we start up a Safety Task Force to address the plant safety concerns that he would go ahead and let us start it up, and that he wanted us to consider starting a Behavior-Based Safety Process in the future. — That will be another story…
Let me finish this post with a warning about the Behavior-Based Safety Process…
In order for this to work, it has to be endorsed from the top down, and it has to be implemented with the understanding that the employee is not the problem. Punishing employees for working unsafe will destroy any attempt to implement this process properly. Training everyone is essential. Especially management. I can’t emphasize this enough. In order to produce an accident-free culture, everyone has to keep it positive. Any changes in the system that helps prevent accidents is a good thing. Any unsafe behavior by an employee is a symptom that there is something wrong with the system that needs to be addressed. — Reprimanding an employee is destructive… unless of course, they intentionally meant to cause someone harm. — But then, they wouldn’t really be Power Plant Men, would they?
Comments from the original post:
Originally posted August 16, 2014.
I knew that we had our work cut out for us when Unit 1 was taken offline for a major overhaul on February 19, 1994 at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma. I had learned to expect the unexpected. I just never suspected this to happen. As acting foreman, I had a crew that consisted of a few of our own electricians, as well as a number of contract workers. I was also coordinating efforts between Brown & Root contractors that were going to be doing some major work inside the Precipitator (that takes the smoke out of the exhaust from the boiler) during the 12 weeks we were going to be offline and a Vacuum Truck Company that was going to vacuum ash out of the hoppers where the ash is collected and blown through pipes to the coal yard to be trucked away to make concrete.
When I inspected the precipitator during the first week, I had found numerous hoppers that had filled up with ash. One in particular hopper was so full that the ash had built up between the plates over 5 feet above the top of the hopper. Because of this, I had to coordinate with hoppers that were available for the Brown and Root contractors to begin building scaffolding, and those hoppers the vacuum truck needed to vacuum out first.
I had learned to deal with full hoppers the first time I entered the precipitator back when I was on the Labor Crew in 1983. Since that day, I had understood the potential dangers lying in wait. Especially with hoppers full of ash. See the Post “Angel of Death Passes By the Precipitator Door“.
The crew I was directly managing was on the Precipitator roof working on vibrators, insulators, transformers and rappers. I worked inside the precipitator aligning plates, and removing broken wires and cleaning insulators. The vacuum truck company vacuumed out the full hoppers by attaching a vacuum hose from a large vacuum truck to clean out pipes at the bottom of the hoppers. The Brown and Root crew climbed into the hoppers through an access door near the bottom of the hopper and constructed scaffolding in order to work at the top of the hoppers immediately below the plates.
This operation had been going on for 3 days and had seemed to be going smoothly. The Brown and Root crews and the vacuum truck crews were working shifts 24 hours a day. I would come in the morning and see the progress that had been made during the night. We kept a sheet taped to a beam in the hopper area that the vacuum truck would update when they had finished a hopper, and the Brown and Root crew indicated where they had finished building their scaffold.
On Thursday March 3, 1994, just after lunch, instead of making my way out to the precipitator to continue my work, I went up to the office area to meet in the conference room with the Safety Task Force. I was the leader of the task force, and we were meeting with upper management to work out some issues that I outlined in last week’s post. See “Taking Power Plant Safety To Task“. As you may have noticed, the last two weekly posts are a continuation of a long story.
Our meeting began shortly after 12:30 and we were discussing ways in which the Safety Task Force could work in a more cooperative way with the Maintenance Supervisor, Ken Scott. I felt that we were making good progress. We seemed to have come up with a few solutions, and we were just working out the details.
At 1:10 pm, the Electric A Foreman knocked on the door and opened it. He explained that there had been an accident at the precipitator in one of the hoppers and he thought that I might have been in the hopper at the time. He was checking to see if I was in the meeting. Once he was assured that I was all right, he left (presumably to tell the rest of my crew that I was not involved in the accident).
At this point, my head started to spin. What could have happened? None of my crew would have been in the hoppers. Maybe someone fell off of a scaffold and hurt themselves. I know I had locked out all of the electricity to the precipitator and grounded the circuits that have up to 45,000 volts of electricity when charged up, so, I’m pretty sure no one would have been electrocuted. Bill’s voice seemed real shaky when he entered the room, and when he saw me he was very relieved.
When working in a Power Plant, the Power Plant Men and Women become like a real family. Everyone cares about each other. Bill Bennett in some ways was like a father to me. In other ways, he was like an older brother. The nearest picture I have of Bill is a picture of Bill Cosby, as they looked similar:
I don’t know how long I was staring off into space counting my crew and thinking about what each of them would be doing. I was sure they were all on the roof. I knew that if a Brown & Root hand had been hurt that their own Safety Coordinator would be taking care of their injury. The thought of someone being hurt in a hopper sent flashbacks of the day I nearly dived off into the hopper full of ash ten and a half years earlier.
After about 5 minutes, Bill Bennett came back to the conference room, where we were still trying to focus on the task at hand. I don’t remember if we were doing any more good or not since I wasn’t paying any attention. Bill said that he needed for me to leave the meeting because they needed me out at the precipitator. Someone had been engulfed in fly ash!
Then I realized that the first time Bill had come to the room to check on me, he had mentioned that. I think I had blocked that from my mind. He had said that someone had been engulfed in ash, and they couldn’t tell if it was me or someone else. That was why he was so shaken up. Bill had thought that I may have died, or at least been seriously injured. The pain he was feeling before he saw me sitting in the room, alive and well, flooded my thoughts.
I quickly stood up and left the room. Bill and I quickly made our way to the precipitator. He said that Life Flight was on the way. One of the vacuum truck workers had climbed into the hopper to get the last bits of ash out of the hopper when a large amount of ash had broken loose above him and immediately engulfed him in the hopper.
When that happened there was a large boom and a cloud of ash came pouring out from the side of the precipitator. Scott Hubbard, who would have been my twin brother if I had been able to pick my own twin brother (though I never had a real twin brother)… heard the boom on the roof and when he looked down and saw the cloud of ash, immediately thought that I may have been hurt. I suppose he had called Bill Bennett on the radio and told him.
As we arrived at the precipitator, a young man was being carried out on a stretcher. A Life Flight from Oklahoma City was on it’s way, and landed just a few minutes later. I looked at the man all covered with ash. I could see how someone may have mistaken him for me. He was dressed like I was. A white t-shirt and jeans. He was unconscious.
Without going into detail as to the cause of the accident, as that will be in a later post, let me tell you about the heroic Power Plant Men and their actions before I had arrived on the scene…
James Vickers, a 26 year old vacuum truck worker, had climbed in the hopper carrying a shovel. He had a hole watch standing out the door keeping an eye on him. They had sucked out the hopper from the outside pipes and had banged on the walls in order to knock down any ash build up on the sides until they figured they had cleaned out the hopper.
James had opened the door to the hopper, and maybe because he saw some buildup on the hopper walls, he decided to climb in the hopper in order to knock it down with the shovel. While he was doing this, a large amount of ash that had bridged up in the plates above was knocked free all at once and immediately filled up the hopper probably more than half full.
James was crammed down into the throat of the hopper, which at the bottom is only about 8 inches in diameter with a plate across the middle about 2 feet above the throat of the hopper. He was immediately knocked unconscious by the impact.
The person assigned to be the hole watch was standing at the door to the hopper and when the ash fell down, he was knocked back about 6 or 7 feet when the ash came pouring out of the door. Panicking, He ran to the edge of the walkway yelling for help. Luckily, he was not also knocked unconscious, or this would pretty much have been the end of the story.
Men came running. Especially a couple of Power Plant Men working in the area. I wish I could remember who they were. When I try to think of the most heroic Power Plant Men I knew at the plant at the time, the list is about a long as my arm, so it is hard to narrow it down.
The Power Plant Men began to frantically dig the ash out of the hopper to uncover James Vickers. When they reached his head, they immediately cleared his face to where they could perform Mouth-to-Mouth resuscitation. They began breathing for James as soon as they could, and continued mouth-to-mouth as they dug out more of the ash.
As they dug the ash out, they were using their hardhats for shovels. When they tried to move James, they found that he had been crammed down into the bottom of the hopper to where he was trapped in the throat of the hopper. Heroically they continued without hesitation to breath for James, while simultaneously working to free him from the hopper. The shovel had been wedged into the bottom of the hopper with him.
Almost immediately after the accident happened, the control room became aware that someone had been engulfed in a hopper, they called Life Flight in Oklahoma City. A helicopter was immediately dispatched. By the time James was safely removed from the hopper, placed on a stretcher and carried out to the adjacent field, the Life Flight Helicopter was landing to take him to the Baptist Medical Center. I would say the helicopter was on the ground a total of about 3 or so minutes before it was took off again.
Bill and I inspected the hopper where the accident had taken place. On the ground below under the grating was a pile of ash, just like I had experienced years before when I almost bailed off into the hopper to look for my flashlight. I was suddenly filled with a tremendous amount of sorrow.
I was sorry for James Vickers, though I didn’t know who he was at the time. I was sorry for Bill Bennett who thought for a while that I had died in that hopper. I remembered hanging by one finger in a hopper only two rows down from this one, ten years ago with my life hanging by a thread, and I just wanted to cry.
So, I gave Bill a big hug as if I was hugging my own father and just started to cry. The whole thing was just so sad.
Meanwhile, in Oklahoma City….
On the roof of the Baptist Medical Center, a Triage unit had been setup waiting for the helicopter to arrive with James. Hazardous Waste protective suits were being worn by the people that were going to begin treating James. They had heard that he had been engulfed in hazardous chemicals which consisted of: Silica, Aluminum Oxide, Hexavalent Chromium, arsenic and other unsavory and hard to pronounce chemicals. The Life Flight People on the helicopter had to be scrubbed down by the Hazmat team as soon as they exited the helicopter to clean off the hazardous Fly Ash. The news reporters were all standing by reporting the incident.
Yes. The same fly ash that I went swimming in every day during the overhaul. The same fly ash that I tracked through the Utility Room floor when I came home at night. The same fly ash used to create highways all across the country. It’s true it has some carcinogenic material in it. I’m sure I have my share of Silica in my lungs today, since it doesn’t ever really clear out of there.
Besides the psychological trauma of a near-death experience, Jame Vickers was fairly unharmed considering what he went through. He came out of the ordeal with an eye infection. Randy Dailey pointed out that this was because the Safety Coordinator from Brown & Root had opened his eyes to check if he was alive when he was laying on the stretcher, and had let ash get in his eyes. Otherwise, he most likely wouldn’t have developed an eye infection.
When I arrived at home that evening I explained to my wife what had happened. She had heard something on the news about it, but hadn’t realized they were talking about our plant since the person was in Oklahoma City when the reporters were talking about it.
All I can say is… Some Safety Meetings in the past have been pretty boring, but nothing made me want to improve my Safety Attitude like the Safety Meeting we had that afternoon. I’m glad that I had to experience that only once in my career as a Plant Electrician.
Comments from the original post
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
I can remember four occasions while working at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma when I was told that something was impossible when I was already doing it. I mentioned two of those times in the posts “Toby O’Brien and doing the Impossible” and “Printing Impossible Fast News Post“. One day in May, 1992, I was asked to go to Oklahoma City to take some training. There was a new kind of network that I was going to be responsible to create at our plant. During the training, I learned a little about how to hook up the RS-232 connectors to the Dumb Terminals I was installing throughout the plant. During the training, I also learned a lot about what was impossible.
I mentioned installing all the dumb terminals in an earlier post “Working Smarter with Power Plant Dumb Terminals“. I won’t go into the details about running the cables throughout the plant because I already covered that in the earlier post. What I would rather talk about is the narrow understanding at the time about the possibilities of networking instead of the impossibilities that I was learning by everyone that tried to teach me the laws of physics through common sense.
After I was done installing the terminals in the most obvious places, some people came and asked me if there was a way to install computer ports in some unlikely places. Some were sort of “out-of-the-way”. For instance, Phil Harden asked if I could install a network jack in the middle of the Bowl Mill area so that the Instrument and Controls team could wheel their portable Compaq computer out there and run diagnostics on the equipment while connected to the network.
I also installed a jack in the environmental controls shack out by Unit 1 smoke stack for Tony Mena. Of course, I installed one in the Precipitator Control Room since that’s where I worked a lot, and a computer hooked to the network came in handy more than once. I was always eager to run network cable and hookup computers. It was one of my favorite past times.
One time early in 1993, the A Foreman’s office was going to be renovated. It was going to take about a month or more for the construction, so all the foremen needed somewhere to stay when the office was going to be out of commission. Tom Gibson asked me one day how many computers and printers I could hook up in the conference room. I told him as many as he wanted. For one thing, it was only just down the hall from the Telephone room where the X.25 modems connected to the microwave transmitter on the top of Unit 1 Boiler.
Since this was going to be temporary, I didn’t want to mount a lot of network jacks all over the conference room… well, maybe a few…. The rest, I just strung down the wall from the ceiling. I think all together we had 8 computers and a printer installed in that room.
During this time, we had a new clerk come to the plant. This was a rare occasion because it was rare that anyone ever left the plant. Jana Allenbaugh (later Jana Green) was our new clerk. She arrived on the first day when I had setup all the computers and everyone was moving out of the foremen’s office upstairs for their temporary stay.
I was just hooking up the printer, so I sent a long drawn out warning letter to the printer so that when I hooked it up in the Telephone room, it would start printing it out. I had done this before with Charles Patton… only, I don’t think Charles ever read what printed out…. See the post “Dick Dale and the Power Plant Printer Romance“. This time I printed out a warning to Jana from the printer itself. it told her that as a new employee, she probably needed to know not to trust anyone who wears a yellow hard hat. They were not to be trusted. Because they treated printers with disrespect. Hardly noticing them, and only talking to them when their paper gets stuck. It went on from there, but that was about the gist of it.
Anyway. Up to this point, I haven’t pointed out the areas of impossibilities that I was performing against all advice from those who knew better.
You see in 1992, when I had attended the training course in Oklahoma City to teach me all about the finer aspects of hooking up RS-232 connectors, I was told that this technology had it’s limitations. The most important being the distance from the modem you can install a printer without having some sort of other switch to boost the signal.
I was installing network cable that at the time was called “Cat 1”. That was about the lowest grade wire you could use for data. Actually, it wasn’t even considered fit for data, just voice. Well. I was using it…. all the documentation said that when using Cat1, you had to be within 50 feet from the switch. Well, in a plant where the control room was a good 100 yards from the telephone room, by the time you went up and down through ceiling, conduits, cable trays and wall, by the time the cable made it to the control room, it was at least 500 feet.
When running cable out to the shack by the smokestack I was able to use Cat 2 cable. This allowed a network cable to be around 500 feet long. When I ran this cable, it turned out to be longer than 1500 feet long. At least three times longer than the possible amount to run a network cable using this type of cable…. yet, I ran it, and Tony used it.
I know that if someone had asked Russell downtown at the Corporate Headquarters IT department, he would have said that this was as impossible as printing out the Fast News article on an IBM printer that I had printed out downtown. The truth was that there was a little data integrity lost by running a cable farther than possible by the laws of physics, but the system could easily handle the bad packets by resending them. The user never noticed that the connection was a little slower. No one ever complained that they couldn’t connect to the network.
A year after I had taken the initial training in hooking up network equipment, we learned all about the Quality process and how to think outside the box. See, “Power Plant Men have a Chance to Show Their Quality“. Between my father telling me that there is no word “Can’t” and Bob Kennedy saying that “I have a tool for that”, I had come to the conclusion that just about anything that needs to be done can be done. We just have to figure out how.
After we had taken the classes to learn about the quality process, one day I went to Ron Kilman’s office and I gave him a piece of paper. On it was a story about Processionary Caterpillars. It was significant, I thought, because it demonstrates what happens when people refuse to thing “outside the box”. The story goes like this:
Processionary Caterpillars feed upon pine needles. They move through the trees in a long procession, one leading and the others following – each with his eyes half closed and his head snugly fitted against the rear extremity of his predecessor.
Jean-Henri Fabre, the great French naturalist, after patiently experimenting with a group of the caterpillars, finally enticed them to the rim of a large flower pot. He succeeded in getting the first one connected up with the last one, thus forming a complete circle, which started moving around in a a procession, with neither a beginning nor end.
The naturalist expected that after a while they would catch on to the joke, get tired of their useless march and start off in some new direction. But not so….
Through sheer force of habit, the living, creeping circle kept moving around the rim of the pot – around and around, keeping the same relentless pace for seven days and seven nights – and would doubtless have continued longer had it not been for sheer exhaustion and ultimate starvation.
Incidentally, an ample supply of food was close at hand and plainly visible, but it was outside the range of the circle so they continued along the beaten path.
They were following instinct – habit – custom – tradition – precedent – past experience – standard practice – or whatever you may choose to call it, but they were following it blindly.
They mistook activity for accomplishment. They meant well – but went no place.
This post may seem like I am doing some bragging about my ability to think outside the box. My personality may be more apt to brag about my accomplishments than to recognize that everything I do and know is a gift from God. But in this case there is more to it than that. You see, even though my grandfather who was a sharecropper who worked his entire life farming land that didn’t belong to him, he was able to invent equipment to make his life easier. He could look at something in a catalog and build it…. I didn’t inherit this gene. I had to learn this way of thinking.
I used to get in arguments all the time at the power plant because I believed that I could do things that were equivalent to walking on water. It drove the engineers mad… Actually, they were mad all right, but just at me… .not in their minds…. Why was I so sure? I had been trained by the best.
If you have been reading my blog for the past two and a half years, you will know what I’m talking about…. I was trained by the best to think outside the box. To Power Plant Men, the Quality process was not a way to find out how to come up with quality ideas…. it was just a way to demonstrate what they already knew in a way where the Engineers and management could understand the benefit.
Here are some of the Power Plant Men that taught me the most about thinking outside the box:
Larry Riley, who taught me that you really can play music by the way you operate a backhoe.
Ken Conrad, who taught me that no matter how complicated a task, by breaking it down into simple steps, it is as simple as “Sweet Pea”.
Jim Heflin, who taught me that when all else fails, shake your head and say to yourself… “Well…. there it is…. let’s try that again a different way….”
Andy Tubbs who taught me that if you think you’re so smart that you don’t need to learn anymore, then it’s time you take out the blueprints and study it some more.
Floyd Coburn taught me that when it really looks hopeless, then prayer is always the best option.
Ed Shiever taught me that when you are extremely kind to your fellow man, when things begin to fail you, everyone will come to your aid.
Earl Frazier taught me that your memories will keep you loving those important to you long past the time when those people are lovable.
Kent Cowley taught me that you can still be a gentleman even when you are a boiler rat.
Mike Crisp taught me to look to the heavens in order to really understand the metal being shaped into a part by a lathe.
Bill Thomas taught me that loyalty to your fellow Power Plant Men comes from within your own heart, and not the actions of others.
Timothy Crain taught me that everything you do is for your family, no matter what situation they may find themselves.
Dale Mitchell taught me that personal integrity allows you to open your heart to even the most difficult people.
Juliene Alley taught me that one person can be everyone’s Mother when they are pure in heart.
Jerry Dale taught me that the more complicated the puzzle, the more humor will unravel it.
Bob Rowe taught me that simplicity makes more sense than trying to make things complicated.
I have listed a few (and only a few) of the Power Plant Men that as an accumulation, taught me to think outside the small box that I was in when I initially arrived at the Power Plant in 1979 when I first arrived as a Power Plant Summer Help until 2001 when I left to begin a new career as an IT professional (ouch… what a run-on sentence). This allowed me to think outside the box. I never would have made it to that position if it hadn’t been for the wonderful men and women who led me by the hand… sometimes kicking and screaming to the lid of the box so that I could peer outside and imagine other possibilities.
Comments from the previous post
Originally posted September 13, 2014.
I chalked it up to being a trouble maker when someone approached me in the electric shop one day to ask me if I would be an “Advocate of Change”. I figured this person asked me either because he thought I couldn’t resist fighting for a cause, or because he thought he might enjoy watching me make a fool out of myself. Either way, I accepted the challenge.
Last night I was watching TV with my son. We decided to watch a show where “If we weren’t careful, we might learn something.” It was a cartoon from my childhood called “Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids”. The episode was called “Smoke gets in your Hair”. The main theme was about the health hazards from smoking cigarettes. Nothing like Educational TV on a Friday Night. I told my son I had a Power Plant Story about that…
The coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma had recently made a change to the “Smoking Policy” at the power plant. New rules went in place that restricted smoking in the office areas. Specifically, it made any area that had a lower ceiling and was enclosed off limit to smokers.
This may seem like a normal restriction today, but this was January, 1990. Before that, smoking in an office was not out of the ordinary. In fact, in the A foreman’s office there was such a stink about not allowing smoking that a compromise was reached (at least for a while) where probes were mounted on the ceiling that was supposed to clean the smoke out of the air by ionizing the particles, causing them to stick to the walls and ceiling, and floor, and…. well… and you…
This became evident a few months later when the walls began turning darker and the ceiling tiles turned from white to a smoky shade of gray.
The company offered smoking cessation classes for anyone who wanted to quit smoking. I think as a whole, our medical insurance rates went down if we took these measures. Back then, it was common to have an ashtray in every office and on the break room tables. It seems rather odd now to think about it after living in an “anti-smoking” culture for the past 25 years.
A few years earlier there was an electrician that had tried to make the electric shop a No Smoking area. At that time, there were 5 electricians that smoked as well as our A foreman Bill Bennett, who often came to the electric shop for his smoke break. Bill Bennett had made it clear then that the electric shop was going to remain a smoking area. Just not in the office or the lab.
Times had changed by 1991. Three smokers had retired and Diana Brien had just declared that her New Year’s resolution was that this time she was going to give up smoking for good. She had tried that a few times before, but with the encouragement from Bill, the first time a stressful situation came around, she would start back up again.
I think my fellow electrician had seen that this was the perfect opportunity to try again to make the electric shop a “No Smoking” area. With Dee giving up cigarettes, this left only Mike Rose as the only smoker in the electric shop. — Well… and Bill Bennett, but technically his office was upstairs in the main office area.
Mike Rose was not just a smoker. He was an avid smoker. When I was watching Fat Albert, there was a father of one of the characters that was a smoker. He coughed a lot, and at one point, went on a coughing jag. When I saw that, I turned to my son, and I said, “That’s when Mike Rose would reach for a cigarette.”
I used to marvel at how after having a coughing jag, barely able to catch his breath, the first thing Mike Rose would do while leaning against the counter was reach in his vest pocket and pull out a pack of cigarettes and quickly light up. — All that stress from coughing…
So, with Dee on the wagon, and only Mike on the verge of keeling over any moment from…. well…. it wasn’t only smoking that made Mike teeter… I approached Bill Bennett and told him that I thought that it was time that we made the electric shop a “No Smoking” area. Bill replied right back that it would be over his dead body before the electric shop would be a “No Smoking” area.
I pointed out that Dee had just decided to quit smoking and that left only Mike Rose as a smoker in the shop. Bill said, it still wouldn’t be fair to the smokers in the shop. I had polled the electricians, and there were at least 5 people would like the shop to be smoke-free. So, with only one smoker, and 5 that would rather not have smoking, what was more fair?
Bill refused to give in, so I told him I would take it to Tom Gibson, our Electrical Supervisor (Bill’s boss). Bill said, “Ok, but I’m not going to bend on this one.” Bill was a chain smoker, and I didn’t really expect him to agree, but this was only the first step.
I had found in the past that in dealing with Tom Gibson, it is best to have some facts in your back pocket. It didn’t do any good to just go up there and whine about something. So, I signed up with a group called “Oklahoma Smoke-Free Coalition”.
I called them (this was before the World Wide Web had become popular) and asked them if they could send me some information about the problems with second-hand smoke. I told them what I was trying to do, and they said they would send me some pamphlets about the hazards of smoking with statistics. I was surprised a week later when I received, not only a few pamphlets but a large tube with anti-smoking posters. I hung one up in the electric shop and would change it out each week.
One poster showed the lungs of a healthy person, then the lungs of a smoker, then the lungs of someone who had quit smoking for 10 years, to show that if you gave up smoking and lived long enough, you could clear yourself up after a while. I had 25 posters, so, I thought I could put one up a week for 6 months.
Signing up with the Oklahoma Smoke Free Coalition was a strange step for me. It gave me a strange feeling because I am normally a very conservative person who doesn’t believe in restricting individual rights whenever feasible. I believe that people should have the right to smoke cigarettes, even though I don’t like it when people smoke around me.
The problem I have with smoking is that, it’s not just an individual smoking their own cigarette. When someone smokes in a room, they are imposing their smoke on everyone else. I believe in the individual having the right to breathe smoke free air and they shouldn’t have to leave a room just because someone else comes in there with a lit cigarette.
I understood that a lot of the people that are active in groups like “Oklahoma Smoke-Free Coalition” have a liberal agenda to curb individual rights in a large range of areas. So, I felt I was straddling a fence that made me uneasy. I resolved to keep this effort focused on one thing…. making the electric shop a smoke free area.
Armed with some statistics about the hazards of breathing second hand smoke, I went to Tom Gibson’s office to make my stand… (well, to ask the question anyway). I told Tom about the situation in the electric shop. I explained that Mike Rose was the only “current” smoker in the shop and I listed the names of the people in the shop that would rather have a smoke free shop.
I told him that even though we had a high ceiling, which had made our shop exempt from the “Smoke Free” office policy, we still felt as if we were in an enclosed room. The air supply for the office and lab was in the shop, and when people smoked in the shop, the smoke ended up in the office area. I mentioned some statistics about how second hand smoke could be dangerous. I also told him I was prepared to take this all the way to Corporate Headquarters if necessary.
To my surprise, Tom didn’t push back. I told him that I had talked to Bill and that he refused to let the shop be smoke free. So, Tom said that he would talk to Bill about it. — Not wanting to lose any time, I asked Tom if we could order some No Smoking signs to put on the doors in the shop. He agreed.
I was in a hurry to get this done because I knew that any day now, Dee would be back to smoking again, and then I would lose all the leverage I had with only having one smoker in the shop. Even Dee had said that she would support a smoke free shop if that’s what we wanted. So, it really came down to Mike and Bill.
More than 20 years later, Oklahoma is still fighting the smoking fight. Mary Fallin, the Governor of the State, has said that she supports cities and towns crafting their own anti-smoking laws. Coming from a Conservative Governor, I feel like I was in good company when fighting for the shop to become smoke free.
I know a few people at the plant were upset with me for restricting their right to smoke in the electric shop. Well, they knew I was a troublemaker when they hired me…
Now it seems like the culture in the United States has shifted so that we recognize the rights of individuals are actually impaired by someone smoking in your face. Sometimes I can just pass a smoker walking down the side walk, and my clothes smell like cigarette smoke the rest of the day.
I think that either noses become more aware of cigarette smoke when you don’t breathe it every day, or the cigarette companies put something in the cigarette to make the smell stronger than before. Today, I can sit in my car with my windows up, and if a car is in front or alongside me at an intersection while we are waiting for the light to change, I can smell the cigarette being smoked in another car.
It’s not just me, my son can smell it too. We can usually smell the cigarette before we see the person smoking it. One of us will say…. “Someone’s smoking.” And we’ll whip our heads around looking for the car. I guess our noses are more sensitive these days.
I know this phenomenon hasn’t reached Europe like it has in the United States. When visiting there, it is like being back in the 1970’s here with people standing around smoking on the street corners, and in the restaurants.
On a side note… I have a story about my mom….
My mom would smoke cigarettes some times when I was growing up. She would do that when she was on a diet. So, on occasion, my brother and I would find a pack of cigarettes lying around.
We had purchased a small metal container of “Cigarette Loads”.
These are small explosives you stick down in the end of a cigarette. When the flame reaches the load, it explodes, destroying the end of the cigarette. So, we put a Load in one of our mom’s cigarettes and put it back in the pack of cigarettes.
Well, my mom didn’t smoke very often, so I was confused a couple of months later when my mom picked me up from High School one day and I found that I was in trouble. My mom’s cigarette had blown up in her face and she wasn’t too happy about it.
End of that side story…. time for one more….
I have always bragged about never smoking a cigarette in my life…. but the truth is that one time I tried to smoke a cigarette… here is what happened….
I was in the 9th grade, and I had cooked the steaks for dinner on the grill in the backyard that evening…. After dinner I went for a walk in the weeds behind my house, which was one of the favorite things I enjoyed doing while growing up.
I ended up down the road from our house where a new church was being built. I walked around the outside of the brick building looking in the windows that were all open as the glass hadn’t been installed yet….
While looking through one window, I noticed a pack of cigarettes left by a construction hand laying on the window sill. I picked it up and there was one cigarette still in the package. I realized I had a book of matches in my pocket that I had used to light the charcoal grill that evening… No one was around, and no one could see me because there were no houses around behind the church where I was standing, so I thought…. “I’ll smoke this one cigarette just to see what it’s like.”
So, I put the cigarette in my mouth, and lit the match. At that very moment, out of nowhere, it began to rain. The rain immediately soaked the cigarette and put out the match. I threw them both on the ground as if they had burned my hand and walked quickly away from the church knowing full well what had just happened. The rain stopped just as suddenly as it began. I said out loud, “I received your message God. I’m not going to try that again!” I only needed that kick in pants once.
Comments from the Original post:
Originally posted September 20, 2014.
I remember the moment when it dawned on me that I may be witnessing an incredible Coal-fired Power Plant Conspiracy! I had just walked into the Control Room one morning in 1990 at the plant in North Central Oklahoma and saw the Shift Supervisor Jack Maloy and Merl Wright in a state of high concentration.
I always knew something was up when Jack Maloy was standing behind the large blue monitors near the Unit 1 Main Electric Board watching the big picture while the Control Room Operator Merl Wright was at the Main Control Panel turning knobs, tapping indicators to make sure they had the correct readings, twisting switches, holding them until red lights turned green…
Where had I seen this before? Something was telling me that everything wasn’t as it seemed. Sure… there was an emergency going on. There was no doubt about that. I knew that between Jack Maloy and Merl Wright, the current problem of the main boiler drum losing water was quickly going to be solved. I knew that Oklahoma City wasn’t going to experience any blackouts that day. This was a Cracker Jack team! But I couldn’t help thinking I had seen this somewhere before, and it was gnawing at my common sense.
Here is a picture of Jack Maloy’s team at the time:
I backed off in a corner to observe the situation while a crowd of operators began to grow to watch the master Shift Supervisor and his faithful Control Room Operator divert a disaster. Merl picked up the walkie talkie from the desk and called Larry Tapp ( Larry is the man in the light blue shirt in the front row in the middle. He’s the only one in the front row that is actually standing, while the rest are down on their knees while the picture is being taken).
Larry was on the boiler opening and closing valves. John Belusko, the Unit Supervisor was out there with him. I can’t tell you what magic they were performing, since I think that’s top secret. I figured that, because the operators seemed to be talking in code. Merl would key the microphone on the walkie talkie and say something like, “Larry, 45”. Larry would reply with something like “Quarter Turn”. “Position?”, “18 as far as I can tell”.
I translated the coded words to say: “….crawling under the path of the boom, whipped hold of a rope, secured one end to the bulwarks and then flinging the other like a lasso, caught it around the boom as it swept over his head, and at the next jerk, the spar was that way trapped and all was safe.” (Something I had read in Moby Dick, by Herman Melville).
Jack paced back and forth behind the counter with the monitors. Then he stopped and read the paper that was streaming out of the alarm printer as it continued humming as the paper piled up on the floor in front of him. Jack was a heavy smoker, and I could tell that right then he would rather be standing out on the T-G floor having a smoke at that moment. Before cigarettes were banned in the control room, Jack would have been pointing at that board with the cigarette.
When the water level began rising in the Boiler Drum, I could see the relieve on everyone’s face. I supposed it meant that a major catastrophe had been avoided due to the intricate knowledge that each operator possessed and their ability to quickly respond to any situation. This made the uneasy feeling I was having even worse. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had seen this before. Just like Deja Vu.
It wasn’t till about a week later when my mom asked me if I knew someone at work named Jack Maloy. She had been talking to a friend of hers from Church named Louise and she mentioned that her husband worked at the Power Plant north of town. I replied by saying that I knew Jack Maloy well. He is a Shift Supervisor. She said that his wife Louise told her that Jack was a real nice person, but she wished that he would go to Church more. She hoped he would come around to that some day.
Then my mom mentioned something that brought back that feeling of uneasiness again. She said that the Maloys had moved to Oklahoma in 1979 from California. I thought that was odd that Jack had only arrived in Oklahoma in 1979, as he was a Shift Supervisor for as long as I could remember. Maybe even as far back as 1979 when I first worked at the plant as a summer help.
In that case, he would have been hired as a Shift Supervisor straight from California. — That seemed odd, since the majority of Shift Supervisors had worked their way up from Auxiliary Operator to Control Room Operator to Unit Supervisor, then finally to Shift Supervisor. Why would Jack be hired fresh from California? And how did Jack know so much about being a Shift Supervisor at our plant so quickly?
Then it dawned on me. You see…. It all went back to a lunch break about a year earlier when Charles Foster, an Electric Foreman and I were eating lunch in the Electric Shop office. When we didn’t know what to talk about, our favorite past time was to talk about movies and TV shows we had watched. We would describe the movie in detail to each other. On this particular day, Charles was doing the talking, and he was telling me about a movie that had to do with a Power Plant in California (yeah. California).
As Charles described the story, he told me that there was this Shift Supervisor named Jack (yeah… like our Shift Supervisor… Jack Maloy), and he was such a good Shift Supervisor that he could tell that there was something wrong with the Boiler Feed Pumps just by the way the coffee in his coffee cup would vibrate. Yeah. He was that good.
Charles went on to tell me about how at one part of the movie the water level was dropping in a tank and it was imperative that they raise the water level or some big disaster was going to happen. — Now you see where I’m going with this? Yeah. Sounds familiar doesn’t it? At that time, the incident in the Control Room hadn’t happened yet with Jack Maloy.
The movie sounded interesting so, when I had the opportunity, we rented the VHS tape from the video store and I watched it. Sure enough. This is what I saw….
Here is Jack Maloy and Merl Wright from the team picture above:
Very similar don’t you think? Two Shift Supervisors named Jack from California with the exact same hairstyle. Two Control Room Operators that look like Wilford Brimley. Coincidence?
Even Wilford Brimley’s hairline is the same as Merl Wright’s hairline!
For those of you who don’t know yet. The name of the movie is: The China Syndrome. It is about a nuclear Power Plant that has a near meltdown:
Need more? Ok. — hey this is fun….. So…. This movie came out in 1979. The same year that Jack Maloy shows up in Oklahoma from California. Obviously an experienced Power Plant Shift Supervisor. Merl Wright went to work 10 months earlier in 1978 at an older power plant just down the road (The old Osage plant), and then shortly after, was transferred to the same plant with Jack Maloy, only to end up working for Jack.
Need more? The China Syndrome Movie came out on March 16, 1979. Jack Maloy began working at the Coal-Fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma February 26, 1979, just two and a half weeks earlier.
I mentioned this coincidence to Charles Foster one day, but as far as I know, I never mentioned it again to anyone else… Maybe Scott Hubbard, since he was my best friend as well…
So, here are my thoughts about this….
What if Jack Maloy was the Shift Supervisor being portrayed in the movie “The China Syndrome”? He needed to move out of California just before the movie came out just in case someone found out his true identity. Being a Shift Supervisor at a Nuclear Power Plant, he would surely be in high demand at any Electric Company. Our particular Power Plant was in an out-of-the-way location. Sort of like a “witness protection program”.
I don’t know Merl’s earlier background, so I can still think that he moved to Oklahoma from California and began working for the Electric Company on April 24, 1978 just two weeks before I moved to Oklahoma from Columbia, Missouri. Since I don’t know any better, I can continue thinking this. It makes it more fun that way. — Of course, Merl, who may on occasion read this blog, may correct me in the comment section below…
So, what was it that I was experiencing that morning when I walked in the control room? I mean… What was I “really” experiencing? If, suppose, Jack and Merl really are the two that were in the control room when the “China Syndrome” almost occurred? Was it just an innocent crisis where the water level somehow decided to drop to a dangerously low level all by itself because of a faulty valve that was supposed to be closed, but was really open?
Was Jack and Merl trying to relive the excitement they had felt years earlier when they worked in a nuclear plant and they almost melted a hole all the way from there to China? Was this what experienced bored Power Plant Heroes do during downtime? I suppose it’s possible. It could have been a drill drummed up to test the acuity of the operators. To keep them on their toes. All “Shipshape and Bristol Fashion” just like on the Pequod in Moby Dick.
Something to think about.
Today Merl still lives in Ponca City, Oklahoma. Jack Maloy has moved to Cape Carol, Florida with his wife Louise. I suppose now that he has more time on his hand, hopefully he has given up smoking and is now making his wife happy by attending Church regularly. We can only hope he is at peace, on the opposite side of the United States from California so he doesn’t accidentally run into his old cohorts.
We are all glad that on his way to Florida from California that Jack decided to stop for 25 or so years in Oklahoma to Supervise the Coal-fired Power Plant out in the middle of the countryside…. As Charles Champlin from the Los Angeles Times said of the movie “The China Syndrome” — “Stunning and Skillfully Executed!” — Yeah. That describes Merl and Jack. Either way… Conspiracy or not. These two men are my heroes!
I wish Merl and Jack the best rest of their lives!
Comments from the original post: (one of my most commented posts)
Originally Posted October 4, 2014.
I suppose many of you have seen the movie Gremlins that came out in 1984. It’s a story about a creature named Gizmo who is a Mogwai that becomes a pet of an unsuspecting young man, who inadvertently breaks certain rules that were explained to him in specific detail. The first rule was Don’t get the Mogwai wet…. The second rule was Don’t feed a Mogwai past midnight. — There was another precaution, like Mogwai do not like Bright Lights. The Mogwai is a cute little pet designed to sell toys, and I think it was probably pretty successful.
When a Mogwai get wet, it pops out some fur balls that then turn into other Mogwai. You would think this would be good, but when the boy accidentally spills water on Gizmo, the new Mogwai turn out to be mischievous, where Gizmo is friendly and has a nice smile. The new Mogwai trick the boy into feeding them past midnight. This is when the trouble really begins. The cute fuzz ball Mogwai turn into Gremlins:
Can you guess which one is the Gremlin?
So, what does this have to do with Gremlins in a Power Plant? As it turns out something like Gremlins live in Power Power Plants. I know they did at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma where I worked as an electrician. Sometimes when you least expected it, a Gremlin would jump out and bite you.
At first a Power Plant Gremlin may appear like a nice cuddly Mogwai. For instance, one day when Stanley Elmore asked Hank Black to pull up to the front of the garage with the large P&H Crane to unload a large piece of equipment from a truck, or some such thing. I’m sure to Hank, this seemed like a nice cuddly Mogwai sort of a job.
Just think about it. Operating something with so much power and the ability to do so much work by just pulling a few levers and pressing a couple of petals, flipping a few switches. Not many people at the plant were privileged enough to have the opportunity to operate the P&H Crane. So, when Stanley asked Hank to lift that load and tote that bale, he hopped right to it.
Unfortunately, Hank didn’t realize when he climbed into the cab of the crane that the little Mogwai sitting in the seat next to him had been eating after midnight the night before…. One little pull of the wrong lever at the wrong time, and a little distraction that caused Hank to forget to put his outriggers out before trying to lift his heavy load, and the crane flipped over on its side.
I wonder if Hank noticed the Gremlin jumping out of the cab just after that happened, or was he in too much of a state of shock. Though Hank appeared all right after that incident, he had injured his back in a way where he eventually had to leave permanently. I know that many years later after he left, he was still collecting a pay check from the company. Compliments of the Gremlin.
One day RD (Dick) McIntyre, Dale Mitchell, Don Timmons and George Alley were working underneath one of the four Intake Pumps, also known as the Condenser Water Pumps. These are the large water pumps that push the lake water through the condenser in order to cool the steam so that it can make another round through the boiler and end up turning the turbine once again. I believe each of these pumps can pump something like 189,000 gallons of water per minute. — One of the Power Plant Men at the plant can correct me if I’m mistaken.
The crew was putting the coupling back on the pump if I remember this correctly…. and they needed to rotate the rotor of the motor or the pump in order to line it up or check the alignment. I wish I had a team picture of these four men, because they were the nicest bunch of old men. Especially when you were able to catch them all together. It seemed like the energy of their friendship made their group larger than the sum of the individuals. I’m sure while they were working on this job, all sprawled out underneath the pump motor, they had warm cuddly feelings just as if each of them was petting a Mogwai.
That’s when the Mogwai suddenly turned into a Gremlin. The team had put a strap wrench around the rotor (correct me if the details are wrong Mickey. You would know better than I) and were attempting to rotate the rotor. Dale Mitchell told me later that suddenly something slipped and the handle of the strap wrench swung around and smacked Dick McIntyre right in the forehead. Dick and Dale were just about as inseparable as Dick Dale was with his first and last name, so you can imagine how Dale felt that he had injured Dick.
Here is an interesting coincidence…. Dick Dale worked in the warehouse across the drive from the automotive garage where Dick and Dale (McIntyre and Mitchell respectively) worked, which was where the crane had tipped over with Hank Black in the driver seat. — I could stretch the coincidence to David Hankins, who used to drive a Black Trans Am. I would have mixed up David Hankins and Hank Black, because of David’s Black Trans Am, but David died in an auto accident early in 1980, and I don’t think Hank had arrived until shortly after. Racially, David Hankins was Black, and Hank Black was not. He was Native American. Anyway. I digress (which means… I have strayed from the topic of Gremlins).
When I think about Gremlins at the plant, Yvonne Taylor comes to mind. Not because she reminds me either of a Mogwai or a Gremlin, but because she encountered a Gremlin of sorts that sort of had a similar effect of spilling water on a Mogwai. I have recently reposted a story called “How Many Power Plant Men Can you Put in a 1982 Honda Civic” where I talked about Yvonne Taylor, one of the Chemists at the Plant.
Yvonne Taylor had worked as a Chemist at the plant since around 1980. We carpooled while I was a janitor and on the labor crew, almost until I joined the electric shop. So, I knew her pretty well. She liked to talk a lot, so I knew her a lot better than she knew me. As a chemist, she worked in the water treatment plant testing water quality, as well as testing our sewage treatment pond, and ground water, etc. She worked with a lot of different chemicals.
I was always fascinated with the chemistry lab. I had my own chemistry lab set up in the basement of our house when I was young. My dad would bring home different left over chemicals from work, and I would mix them, heat them, and light them on fire, and test their chemical properties… to the point of making gunpowder and exploding them in the backyard.
I think Yvonne had worked at the plant about 10 years when she developed a rash (or something) where she would become ill when working in the lab or in the water treatment plant. It was serious enough that Yvonne would have to take sick leave at times to recover. I first learned about her condition when I went to the chemistry lab for something and she was sitting in there wearing a paper filter mask. When I asked her why, she explained to me that she was trying to figure out what was causing her to become ill. She thought there might be some particles in the air in the lab or the water treatment plant that was causing it.
I think that the effects of Yvonne’s condition sounded a lot like what happens when someone develops an allergy to Latex. Yvonne would wear Latex gloves a lot when handling chemicals, so maybe that was it.
The sad part of the story is that Yvonne’s condition was severe enough that she had to leave the Power Plant and find another job. I don’t know where she went to work when she left the Electric Company. So, you see, Yvonne Taylor who happily went to work each morning ready to cuddle up to her chemicals just as if they were Mogwai, was finally chased away by Power Plant Gremlins.
In the post about the Honda Civic I mentioned that Yvonne’s husband Patrick had died in 2012. So, I wondered how Yvonne is doing lately, so I Googled her, knowing that she lived out in the country near Perkins Oklahoma…. But an interesting thing happened when I pulled up a page from the Perkins Journal for June 9, 2011.
I became confused when I saw this page. You see, the picture in the middle at the top is Mike Rose. He was an electrician I had worked with at the Power Plant, and I had recently re-posted a story about him called “River and Rose In the Power Plant Palace” Mike Rose had his own set of Gremlins which I may have mentioned in that post, but why, when I searched for Yvonne Taylor, did I pull up the a Newspaper Obituary of Mike Rose with the same picture of Mike I had posted in my post:
Talk about a Coincidences:
I read through the entire page before I found Yvonne’s name in a totally unrelated article on the same page of the Perkins Journal! Look in the lower right corner of the screenshot of the newspaper. The picture of Kimberly Jo Taylor Wilkins. — Yep. That’s right! The daughter of Yvonne and Patrick Taylor! I don’t know how many hundreds of stories I heard about Kimberly throughout the 9 or 10 months I spent carpooling with Yvonne each morning as we drove to the Power Plant. Here she was beginning a new phase in Kimberly’s life on the same page that Mike Rose was beginning a new phase in his life. Two unrelated stories of Power Plant People I worked with on the same page of a small town newspaper (Perkins Oklahoma, Population 2,863) 10 years after I left the plant to go work for Dell. — Isn’t that neat?
I’m not exactly sure why, but after having written 144 Power Plant Stories about the Coal-Fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma, I have yet to really tell you about one of the most important Power Plant Men during my 20 year stay at the Power Plant Palace. I have mentioned many times that he was my carpooling buddy. I have called him my Power Plant Brother. I have explained many of his characteristics in other posts, but I have never really formally introduced you to the only person that would answer the Walkie Talkie radio and the gray phone with “Hubbard Here!”
There are a couple of reasons why I have waited until now I suppose. One of the reasons is that I have two very terrific stories about Scott and me that I will be telling next year, as they took place after the 1994 downsizing, which I will be covering next year. The other reason is that I wasn’t sure exactly how to tell you that at one point in my extraordinary career at the Power Plant Palace, I really didn’t have the warm-and-fuzzies for Scott Hubbard at all. In fact, the thought of Scott Hubbard to me early in my career as an electrician was rather a sour one.
Let me explain…. I wrote a post August, 2012 that explained that while I was on the labor crew the Power Plant started up a new crew called “Testing” (See the post: “Take a Note Jan” said the Supervisor of Power Plant Production). A rule (from somewhere…. we were told Corporate Headquarters) had been made that you had to have a college degree in order to even apply for the job. Two of us on Labor Crew had college degrees, and our A foremen asked us to apply for the jobs. When we did, we were told that there was a new rule. No one that already worked for the Electric Company could be considered for the new jobs. The above post explains this and what followed, so I won’t go into anymore detail about that.
When the team was formed, new employees were seen following around their new foreman, Keith Hodges (who is currently the Plant Manager of the same plant – I originally wrote this post in 2014).
Ok. While I’m on the subject of family pictures of the 1983 testing team’s new foreman, here is a more recent picture:
When we were on the labor crew and we would be driving down to the plant from our coal yard home to go do coal cleanup in the conveyor system, we would watch a group of about 10 people following Keith like quail following the mother hen around the yard learning all about their new home at the Power Plant. — I’ll have to admit that we were jealous. We knew all about the plant already, but we thought we had been judged, “Not Good Enough” to be on the testing team.
One of those guys on the new testing team was Scott Hubbard. Along with him were other long time Power Plant men like, Greg Davidson, Tony Mena, Richard Allen, Doug Black and Rich Litzer. Those old testers reading this post will have to remind me of others.
I joined the electric shop in 1983 a few months after the testing team had been formed, and I really would have rather been an electrician than on the testing team anyway, it was just the principle of the thing that had upset us, so I was still carrying that feeling around with me. So much so, that when the first downsizing in the company’s history hit us in 1988, and we learned that Scott Hubbard was going to come to the Electric Shop during the reorganization to fill Arthur Hammond’s place, who had taken the incentive package to leave (See the post “Power Plant Arguments with Arthur Hammond“), my first reaction was “Oh No!”
Diane Brien, my coworker (otherwise known as “my bucket buddy”) had told me that she had heard that Scott Hubbard was going to join our team to take Art’s place. When I looked disappointed, she asked me what was the problem.
After thinking about it for a moment, I said, “I don’t know. There’s just something that bugs me about Scott Hubbard”. — I knew what it was. I had just been angry about the whole thing that happened 5 years earlier, and I was still carrying that feeling around with me. I guess I hadn’t realized it until then. I also thought at the time that no one could really replace my dear friend Arthur Hammond who had abandoned the illustrious Power Plant Life to go try something else.
Anyway, Scott Hubbard came to our crew in 1988 and right away he was working with Ben Davis, so I didn’t see to much of him for a while as they were working a lot at a new Co-Gen plant at the Conoco (Continental) oil refinery in Ponca City. So, my bucket buddy, Dee and I carried on as if nothing had changed. That was until about 9 months later…. When I moved from Ponca City to Stillwater.
I had been living in Ponca City since a few months after I had been married until the spring of 1989. Then we moved to Stillwater. I had to move us on a Friday night out of the little run down house we were living in on 2nd Street in Ponca City to a much better house on 6th Avenue in Stillwater.
I felt like the Jeffersons when I moved from a Street to an Avenue!
I am mentioning the Friday night on May 5, 1989 because that was the day that I moved all our possessions out of the little junky house in Ponca City to Stillwater. My wife was out of town visiting her sister in Saint Louis, and I was not able to move all of our belongings in my 1982 Honda Civic, as the glove compartment was too small for the mattress:
I figured I was going to rent a U-Haul truck, load it up with all our possessions and drive the 45 miles to Stillwater. My only problem was figuring out how I was going to transport my car. While trying to figure it out, Terry Blevins and Dick Dale offered to not only help me with that, but they would help me move everything. Terry had an open trailer that he brought over and Dick Dale loaded his SUV with the rest of the stuff. With the one trailer, the SUV and my 1982 Honda Civic, all our possessions were able to be moved in one trip. — I didn’t own a lot of furniture. It consisted of one sofa, one 27 inch TV, One Kitchen Table a bed and a washer and dryer and boxes full of a bunch of junk like clothes, odds and ends and papers. — Oh. And I had a computer.
Once I was safely moved to Stillwater that night by my two friends, (who, had to drive back to Ponca City around 2:00 am after working all that Friday), my wife and I began our second three years of marriage living in a house on the busiest street in the bustling town of Stillwater, 6th Avenue. Otherwise known as Hwy 51. The best part of this move was that we lived across the street from a Braum’s. They make the best Ice Cream and Hamburgers in the state of Oklahoma! (or… well, they used to back then. I have heard rumors lately they have gone downhill – 2019 comment).
I keep mentioning that I’m mentioning this because of this reason or that, but it all boils down to how Scott Hubbard and I really became very good friends. You see…. Scott lived just south of Stillwater, and so, he had a pretty good drive to work each day. Now that I lived in Stillwater, and we were on the same crew in the electric shop, it only made sense that we should start carpooling with each other. So, we did.
Throughout the years that we carpooled, we also carpooled with Toby O’Brien and Fred Turner. I have talked some about Toby in previous posts, but I don’t believe I’ve mentioned Fred very often. He worked in the Instrument and Controls department, and is an avid hunter just like Scott. Scott and Fred had been friends long before I entered the scene and they would spend a lot of time talking about their preparations for the hunting season, then once the hunting season began, I would hear play-by-play accounts about sitting in dear stands waiting quietly, and listening to the sounds of approaching deer. I would hear about shots being fired, targets missed, prey successfully bagged, dressed and butchered. I would even be given samples of Deer Jerky.
I myself was not a hunter, but I think I could write a rudimentary “Hunter’s Survival Guide” just by absorbing all that knowledge on the way to work in the morning and again on the way home.
The thing I liked most about Scott Hubbard was that he really enjoyed life. There are those people that go around finding things to grumble about all the time, and then there are people like Scott Hubbard. He generally found the good in just about anything that we encountered. It rubbed off on the rest of the crew and it made us all better in the long run. I don’t think anyone could work around Scott Hubbard for very long and remain a cynical old coot no matter how hard they tried (unless your name was the same as your initials and it was spelled OD).
Scott Hubbard and I eventually started working together more and more until we were like two peas in a pod. Especially during outages and call outs in the middle of the night. I think the operators were used to seeing us working together so much that in the middle of the night when they needed to call out one of us, they just automatically called us both. So, we would meet at our usual carpooling spot and head out to the plant.
As I mentioned at the top of this post, I have two very good stories about Scott and myself. One of those has to do with a time when we were called out in the middle of the night to perform a special task. I won’t describe it now, so, I’ll tell a short story about one Saturday when we were called out on a Saturday to be on standby to do some switching in the Substation.
I believe one of the units was being brought back online, and Scott and I were at the plant waiting for the boiler and the Turbine to come up to speed. Things were progressing slower than anticipated, so we had to wait around for a while. This was about the time that the Soviet Union fell in 1991. We had been following this closely as new things were being learned each day about how life in Russia really was. I had a copy of the Wall Street Journal with me and as we sat in a pickup truck slowly driving around the wildlife preserve known as “The Power Plant”, I read an article about Life in the former Soviet Union.
The article was telling a story about how the U.S. had sent a bunch of food aid to Russia to help them out with their transition from slavery to freedom. The United States had sent Can Goods to Russia not realizing that they had yet to invent the can opener. What a paradigm shift. Thinking about how backward the “Other Super Power” was made our life at the “Super Power Plant” seem a lot sweeter. We even had military vets who still carried around their can openers on their key chains. I think they called them “P 38’s”
The conditions in Russia at the time reminded me of the beginning sentence of the classic novel “A Tale of Two Cities”, “Call me Ismael”….. Oh wait. That’s “Moby Dick”. No. I meant to say, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times!” — It’s funny how you remember certain moments in Power Plant history just like it was yesterday, and other memories are much more foggy. For instance, I don’t even remember the time when we… um…. oh well…..
The first thing that comes to the mind of any of the Power Plant Men at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Centeral Oklahoma when you mention Scott Hubbards name, is how Scott answers the radio when he is paged. He always replied with a cheerful “Hubbard Here!” After doing this for so long, that just about became his nickname. “Hubbard Here!” The latest picture I have of Scott Hubbard was during Alan Kramer’s retirement party at the plant a few years ago. I’m sure you can spot him. He’s the one with the “Hubbard Here smile!
I will leave you with the official Power Plant Picture. Here is a picture of Scott Hubbard in a rare moment of looking serious:
Does anyone know where the phrase, “Step on a Crack, Break Your Mother’s Back” came from? I’m sure there is a story behind that one. Maybe even a lot of different origins. I can distinctly remember a day in the Power Plant when a Power Plant Man stepped on a crack and broke his own back.
I remember looking out of the seventh floor window of my friends dorm room when I was a freshman in college watching students returning from classes about 6 months before the Power Plant Man broke his back. I was watching closely to see if any of them were purposely missing the cracks as they walked down the sidewalk toward the entrance. Out of about 20 people two of them purposely stepped over every crack in the sidewalk.
In the post “Power Plant Safety is Job Number One” I told the story about four of us were carrying a very long extension ladder through the maintenance shop at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma one summer morning in 1979 when Tom Dean stepped on a crack (well, it was a cracked piece of plywood that had been placed over a floor drain because the floor grate was missing), and when as he stepped on it, he lost his balance enough to twist himself around. By the time he stopped twirling, he was in immense pain as he had destroyed any chance for comfort for the next 6 months.
So, I could understand the dangers of stepping on cracks even when they appear to be insignificant. What that has to do with my mom I’m not sure. However, one day when my sister was walking with my mom on the campus of Oklahoma State University, my sister may have stepped on a crack at that time, as well as my mom, which sent her plummeting the five feet to the ground resulting in a broken hip.
This makes me wonder that since the times have changed, it may be time to change the saying to something else. Maybe something like “Smoke some crack, break your parent’s piggy bank” would be more appropriate for these times. Oh well, I’ve never been much of a poet.
Anyway, back to the subject of back pain.
The number one favorite topic during Safety Meetings at the Power Plant was Back Safety. We were told (and rightly so) that accidents where the back is injured cost the company and the employee more than any other injury. Once you really hurt your back, you can expect to have back pain the rest of your life. It only takes one time. — Times may have changed since 1979, so that now you can have some excellent back surgeries to help correct your back injuries. Even with these, you will never be completely free from back pain.
In the Power Plant Post, “When Power Plant Competition Turns Terribly Safe” I told a story about how our team came up with hundreds of safety slogans in an attempt to win the coveted Power Plant Safety Award Pizza at the end of the year. A Pizza that continued to allude us for 2 and a half years. During our meetings to invent the most catchy safety slogans, Andy Tubbs (or was it Ben Davis) came up with a slogan that said, “Lift with your legs, not your back. Or you may hear a lumbar crack”. — See. I wish I could come up with doozies like that! This takes the idea of a crack and a back and turns it around, if you think about it. Now instead of a crack hurting your back, its about a strain on your back creating a crack. — I know… probably just a coincidence….
One morning Sonny Kendrick, our electric specialist at the time, while sitting in the electric lab during break, let out a whopper of a sneeze. When he did, he suddenly knew what it felt like to experience tremendous back pain. One sneeze and he was out of commission for many weeks.
One day, when Charles Foster, my very close friend, and electric foreman, were talking about back pain, I realized that a good portion of Power Plant Men suffered with back pain. — At the risk of sounding like Randy Dailey teaching our Safety Class, I’m going to repeat myself, “You only have to hurt your back one time to have a lifetime of back pain.”
The company would focus a lot of their safety training around the importance of proper lifting techniques in order to prevent back accidents (not to be confused with backing accidents which is when you back out of a parking space — which is also a common accident — though usually less severe — unless you happen to be a Ford Truck). We would learn how to lift with our legs and not with our back.
You see, it wasn’t just that one sneeze that caused Sonny’s plunge into Back Pain Hell, and it wasn’t just stepping on the cracked plywood floor drain cover that broke Tom’s back (I know “Broke Back” is a misnomer since the back isn’t exactly broke). The problem is more systemic than that. This is just the final result of maybe years of neglecting your back through various unsafe activities.
The two important points I remember from watching the safety videos during our monthly safety meetings was that when you slouch while sitting, you put a needless strain on your lower back. So, by sitting with good posture, you help prevent a future of pain. The second point I remember is that you need to keep your stomach muscles strong. Strong stomach muscles take the weight off of your back when you’re just doing your regular job.
The big problem that finally causes the disc in your lumbar region of your spine to break after neglecting it through these other means is to lift a heavy object by bending over to pick it up instead of lifting the load with your legs. So, the phrase that we always heard was “Lift with your Legs. Not your Back”. You do this by bending your knees instead of just your hips.
Ok. I know you are all thinking the same thing I am thinking (right? Yeah. You are). Bending both your knees and hips saves your back. Isn’t there another word for when you bend your knees and hips at the same time? — Yeah. Yet, I don’t remember hearing it during any of our Safety Videos. — Oh. It was implied, they just never came out and said it…. What they really mean to say is, “Squat”. Yeah. “Squat”. When you bend your knees and hips, isn’t that “Squatting?”
Times have changed…. I mean….. Doesn’t everyone today have a “Squatty Potty”?
Don’t we all have “I ‘heart’ 2 Squat” tee-shirts?
To learn more, you can watch this video:
This doesn’t just work with the Squatty Potty to help you drop your loads, it also works when lifting heavy loads. So, remember the next time you are going to bend over to pick something up…. Squat instead.
Other lifting tips include keeping the load close to your body and not holding your breath but tightening your stomach muscles, and don’t lift something too bulky by yourself. Don’t twist your body when picking something up, face the load directly. A weightlifter once told me that when you lift, feel the weight on the heel of your feet, not on the balls of your feet.
Randy Dailey, the Safety Guru of our Power Plant, and an expert machinist invented a pen that you could put in your pocket protector in your shirt pocket that would alert you by beeping if you leaned over too far. It was an ingenious device to remind you to lift with your legs instead of your back.
In one of the safety videos we watched about back safety, there was a short stalky scientist that explained the dynamics of lifting and how easy it was to put a tremendous strain on your back by leaning over and picking something up. He said that “People choose the more simple way to pick something up. Not the easiest way.”
Doesn’t that sound like the same thing? Isn’t the simplest way the easiest way? Well. You would think so, but it isn’t always the case. This Doctor of Back-ology went on to explain his statement. He explained that the simplest way to pick up an object on the floor is to bend at the hip. It is one movement. Bend at the hip. — However…. The easiest way to pick up the object is to bend both your knees and your hips to pick up the object. Since you keep your back straight and you lift with your leg muscles that are the most powerful muscles in your body. He avoided using the word, “Squat”, but that’s what he meant.
In order to reduce back injuries at the plant, the company made back belts available at the plant.
Note that this picture not only shows a Power Plant Man wearing a Back Support Belt, but he also is wearing the right kind of Tee-Shirt. It has a vest pocket where you can put a Pocket Protector for your little screwdriver and your Back Alert Pen created by Randy Dailey.
The use of back belts was new around the late 1980’s. Even though we had them available through the tool room when we wanted them, few people wore them. The warehouse team wore them a lot. I suppose that is because they were lifting and moving things all day long.
In the warehouse Bob Ringwall, Darlene Mitchell and Dick Dale used to have back belts on when I would visit the warehouse to pick up a part, or to visit my friends. I don’t remember if Bud Schoonover would wear a back belt. How’s this for a slogan…. “Be a Safety Black Belt…. When Lifting, wear your Back Belt.” I know. I should stop when I’m ahead, only I’m so far behind now I may never catch up.
There was a question about whether wearing a back belt was really a good idea. It was thought that people might tend to substitute using their stomach muscles while lifting with the back belt, resulting in weaker stomach muscles. So we were cautioned not to go around wearing back belts all day long. Only when we were going to be doing a job where we had to do a lot of lifting. I suppose now, after years of research, there is a lot more data to tell us one way or the other. I haven’t heard what the latest injury jury has said on this subject.
Even though I titled this post “…Plain Ol’ Power Plant Back Pain”, there is nothing plain about back pain. I just thought it sounded like a catchy title.
I was lucky enough that during the 20 years I spent working at the Power Plant, I never really hurt my back. To this day, I have been able to avoid living with perpetual pain in my back. — I have been accused of causing pain in other people’s necks. Also, I don’t think the many times that people told me I was a pain in their back side, they were referring to the Lumbar region. I think they meant an area just below the tailbone. I hope that by bringing to their attention the benefits of the Squatty Potty that I have been able to relieve (or prevent) a little of that lower lumbar pain.
Now when someone says, “You don’t know Squat”, you can correct them!
Comments from the original post:
The trouble I had with my 1982 Honda Civic began when I thought I could use water instead of antifreeze in my radiator. I had never been much of a car person, but I figured I knew the basics. Especially after working in the Power Plant garage for three summers as a summer help on the yard crew. I thought the collective knowledge of Power Plant Men like Larry Riley, Doug House, Preston Jenkins and Jim Heflin had rubbed off on me… at least a little.
One very cold morning on the way to work at the coal-fired power plant in North Central Oklahoma, just north of the toll road spur from Stillwater to Tulsa, the temperature gauge in my car pegged out in the wrong direction indicating my engine was too hot. I pulled into the gas station/convenience store parking lot and parked my car. Another Power Plant Man was just coming out of the store, so I hitched a ride with him to work. It turned out that the freeze plug in engine block had blown out. My car had overheated and because of the location of the plug, the engine had to be slightly dismantled in order to replace it. — Or at least that was what the mechanic at the auto repair place said.
After that incident, I had developed a minor oil leak, which a year or so later caused my timing belt to fail because the oil had been leaking on it. Scott Hubbard and I were on the way to work, and when I was in the middle of the intersection at Bill’s Corner, my car just died. I coasted off the side of the road, and we bummed a ride to work with another Power Plant Man on their way to the plant. The way the 1982 Honda Civic was built, if your timing belt broke, it bent your piston rods, which caused the need to rebuild the engine.
The winter after my engine had been rebuilt, when it was my turn to drive Scott Hubbard and Fred Turner to work on a cold morning, on the way to work, my car would begin to sputter then finally die. After sitting on the roadside for a couple of minutes, it would start up again and we could go a few more miles, until it would do the same thing again. This would only happen when it was real cold outside.
I took my car to the mechanics that had rebuilt my engine, and by that time of the day, it was warm, and the car ran just fine. They couldn’t tell me what was causing it. I did this several times, and Scott and Fred were beginning to wonder if it was such a good idea carpooling with me and my unreliable Honda Civic. Especially on cold mornings. I had tried several times to get it fixed, and the mechanics finally told me to stop bothering them. They couldn’t fix my problem.
Then one morning at work during the winter of 1992-93, when I must have been looking a little despondent while walking to the tool room to see Bud Schoonover to get some supplies, Mike Crisp, one of the plant machinists asked me what was wrong. I told him about how my car was dying when I drove it to work. Then Mike described my problem to me. He asked, “Does it die only when it’s real cold outside?” “Yeah,” I replied. “Then after a couple of minutes it will start back up just fine?” “Yeah! That’s exactly it!” Mike said, “Oh. I can fix that with a busted screwdriver.”
I wasn’t sure if I had heard that correctly, so I repeated, “busted screwdriver?” “Yeah,” he said. Then he reached into his tool box drawer behind his lathe and pulled out an old broken screwdriver and said, “I have one right here. Where is your car?”
Mike and I went to the parking lot and opened the hood of the car. He took the top cover off of the carburetor. Then taking the short screwdriver he poked it into a hole… Not the carburetor hole, but one off to the side. He said it was a valve that was supposed to open when the engine was running in order to bring warm air from around the engine into the carburetor to keep it from “vapor locking”… or some such thing. By putting the screwdriver in the valve to hold it open all the time, I wouldn’t have any more problems with the car.
After that, the car worked great! I was happy. Fred Turner was happy. Scott Hubbard was happy….. Well. Scott Hubbard is always happy.
At this point in my career as a plant electrician, I was beyond being surprised by the vast collective knowledge of Power Plant Men. Though they live most of their lives confined within the plant ground of a single Power Plant for the most part, from that experience and the total experience of their fellow Power Plant Heroes, they have a vast knowledge of the entire world.
I had heard something like that when watching the BBC version of Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple once. In one episode, the Inspector Craddock was explaining to someone how Miss Marple could solve crimes. He said, “She knows the world only through the prism of that village and it’s daily life. And by knowing the village so thoroughly, she knows the world.” I immediately connected that phrase to the Power Plant Men I had the pleasure of working with for 20 years.
As a side note. This isn’t my favorite Miss Marple. My favorite by far is played by Margaret Rutherford:
You can immediately see my attraction to Margaret Rutherford. Who could resist such a strong women with such intense eyes and jutting jaw? — Anyway, you can see how that phrase applied to Power Plant Men as well. End of side note.
After Mike Crisp had fixed my car, when I would walk by him in the machine shop, he would sometimes stop and talk to me about things. One day he asked me if I had done anything interesting over the weekend, and I told him that I had been out in my yard looking at the stars through my telescope. That was about the most interesting thing that had happened that weekend.
Mike, to my surprise, instantly became interested in this subject. This surprised me, especially after he pointed out that he had never thought about getting a telescope or looking at the stars. I supposed I was surprised because he showed more than just a passing interest. He wanted to know more about my telescope, which was a cheap 4 1/2 inch reflecting telescope I had bought at Wal-Mart or some such place.
He asked me why I liked looking at the stars. I told him about looking at the moon and the planets, and seeing the rings around Saturn. My favorite pastime was looking at Nebulae (That’s plural for “Nebula” in case you were wondering).
Actually, my telescope was the next step above the picture above, as it had a counter weight and the pedestal mount was designed where you could set your latitude so that as the stars moved in the sky, you could swing your telescope around with the object you were watching. The pedestal shown above doesn’t do that. I had one like that as a boy, and as you followed the star, you had to adjust it up or down as you moved it west…. see…. that’s not interesting right? — But Mike Crisp thought it was.
A couple of weeks later when I was passing by the machine shop again, Mike called me over to his lathe. A piece of metal was taking shape as the lathe spun around and metal shavings were flying off in one direction and being deflected by a metal guard.
Mike picked up a magazine from the top of his toolbox and showed it to me. It was a catalog for telescopes. He wanted to ask my advice about whether to get an 8 inch telescope or go all out and buy a 10 inch one. The cost was considerably higher for the 10 inch telescope and he was wondering if it would be that much better.
Mike had been to an observatory since I had first talked to him about astronomy. Now he was going to purchase his own telescope. — I had had (yeah… there must be a better way to say that besides “had had”…. how about this)…. I had been through this discussion with myself in the past. I wanted a bigger telescope so that I could see more detail than I could get with my 4 1/2 inch reflecting telescope. I knew the cost of those really nice ones. I used to go to the observatory at the University of Missouri in Columbia when I was growing up and even had thought about becoming an astronomer as a career.
I felt confident when I told Mike that an 8 inch reflecting telescope was big enough for him. Considering where he lived, (outside Ponca City, Oklahoma), the altitude (900 feet above sea level), he wasn’t going to gain enough with a 10 inch telescope to justify the extra cost. — Especially on a machinist’s salary. — I didn’t tell him that last part. You see…. I felt a little responsible for his sudden interest in astronomy, and I didn’t want his wife and children to go hungry so that Mike could get a better picture of the Horsehead Nebula.
Later Mike told me that he had ordered the 8 inch telescope and that he had poured a concrete pillar in his backyard to mount the telescope aligning it just right and at the right angle so that the mount would be able to be permanent. I continued to be amazed by not only his sudden interest in Astronomy, but by how he jumped into it so completely. I could see his excitement when he talked to me about it. — As I said above, I had hoped that the extra expense wasn’t putting a stress on his financial situation.
Not knowing Mike Crisp’s background, I never knew if he was an eccentric millionaire that had just decided to take up residence as a power plant machinist to experience more of life, or if he was just the type of person that when passionate about something would pour all his thought and effort into his passion. Either way, Mike Crisp was happy and seemed to enjoy what he was doing. I kept looking for signs of new stress on his face, but never saw it. — others at the plant might know different, but not me.
When the 1994 Rift came along (which I will discuss in a later post), Mike Crisp was one of the casualties. He was laid off on July 29, 2014 as were a lot of other great Power Plant Men. It wasn’t too long after Mike had made astronomy his hobby, and so I was worried that this extra financial burden may make his transition to a new life a little harder.
On the other hand. I have found that in times of extra stress, going out in the backyard and looking up at the sky and realizing the vastness of the universe helps put things in perspective. So, it might have turned out that Mike’s new hobby of looking to the stars for answers may have been just what he needed at that time.
I have not spoken to Mike since he was laid off in 1994 and I don’t know what ever became of him. I only know that the little time I spent with him talking in the machine shop for those few years have meant enough to me that I keep Mike and his family in my prayers to this day. I hope he found what he was looking for when he mounted that telescope to his concrete pedestal and turned his telescope to the heavens. I know I had found a good friend that day when I walked to the parking lot with Mike wondering how a broken screwdriver was going to fix my 1982 Honda Civic after the car mechanics in Stillwater, Oklahoma had given up on me. — Mike Crisp… Another one of my Power Plant Heroes.
Since originally posting this last year, David Evans a Power Plant Control Room Operator contacted me and told me that Mike would like to send me some pictures.
Later, Mike Crisp called me. He sent me beautiful photographs of the heavens that he took with his telescope. He assured me that he is still fascinated with the heavens. I will post some of the pictures he sent me below when I have the opportunity.