Tag Archives: Fluke

Power Plant Lock Out – Tag Out or Just Tag Out

Originally Posted July 12, 2013:

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

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

typical 480 volt overload heaters

typical 480 volt overload heaters

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

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

A typical Clearance Tag.  Our tags had the word

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

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

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

A large vertical pump motor

A large vertical pump motor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fast forward three years. 1992.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Diana-Brien

My Bucket Buddy Diana Brien

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

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

A typical Danger tag used at the plant

A typical Danger tag used at the plant

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Comments from the previous posts:

  1. Ron Kilman July 13, 2013:

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

Larry McCurry July 13, 2013:

Kevin,

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

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

Originally posted November 9, 2013:

One of the things I loved the most about being an electrician at the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma was that I spent a good deal of time troubleshooting and fixing Electronic Circuit boards. My Mentor Bill Rivers had taught me the fine art of repairing precipitator circuit boards to the point where I was very comfortable taking a board with burned out circuits and rebuilding it piece at a time until it worked well enough to be put back into service. There is something comforting about fixing electronic circuit boards.

A Circuit board with Electronic components

A Circuit board with Electronic components

I had even built a little test box out of a proximity switch on a Gaitronics phone receiver hook where I could plug a large Operational Amplifier into it and turn a little knob to test it, where it would light up little red LEDs. Like I said. It was really fun.

I had told my friend from High School, Jesse Cheng, who was now a doctor just graduating from Harvard with his Masters in Public Health how much fun I was having. Even though he was a medical doctor with an Engineering degree from Yale, he wished that he could do what I was doing. He even applied for an Engineering job at our plant so that he could at least come down to the electric shop where I would let him help me troubleshoot and repair all kinds of electronic circuit boards.

Unfortunately, he was overqualified for the job. Louise Gates asked me about him, since he had listed me as a reference on the job application. I explained to her that even though he was a Medical Doctor, what he really wanted to do was work in a power plant with the great bunch of people I had told him about. He would easily have given up his career to be blessed by the presence of such great Power Plant Men.

I will tell a side story about my Friend Jesse, before I proceed with the painful loss of those things that Power Plant Men love….

I met Jesse when I was a sophomore in High School. He was the student body president when I arrived at Rockbridge High School in Columbia, Missouri. We immediately became friends when we met. We both enjoyed the same things. The main thing was playing games, or solving puzzles.

I quickly learned that Jesse loved playing all kinds of games. So, when I would go over to his house, we would usually go down in the basement where he had a new game waiting for me. We would sit down there and play games until his mother would call us for dinner.

One day my brother came with me and we went down in the basement to play the game of Risk.

Risk Board Game

Risk Board Game

Jesse was beating us so bad that after the 3rd move, we joined forces only to have Jesse wipe us off of the map on the 4th turn. Then his mother called us for dinner.

Jesse’s mother was a small Chinese lady with a meek voice. When Jesse had guests over, she would cook his favorite meal. Chili. So, when it was time for dinner, she would call down to us from the top of the basement stairs, “Jesse! Come get your Chili!” I had heard that call to action many times, and I had obediently left whatever we were playing to go eat supper.

After we had finished dinner and talked with Jesse for a while, my brother and I left to go home. On the way home my brother started to chuckle. I asked him why, and he responded that he could still hear Jesse’s mother calling “Jesse! Come get your Chili!” in his head. It sounded funny to hear the small Asian voice calling to Jesse to come get his Chili.

So, that became a catch phrase for when you wanted to holler at someone, but didn’t have anything particular to say. We would just yell out, “Jesse! Come get your Chili!!” It always brought a smile to the faces of anyone who knew the story, and a confused look on the faces of any bystanders.

When I went to Columbia, Missouri to the University of Missouri, I told this story to the people that lived around me in Mark Twain Dormitory. I would smile when I would be heading back to the dorm after class and someone from a block away would spy me from their dorm window and would yell at the top of their lungs, “Jesse! Come get your Chili!!!”

Jesse was in town one day shortly after the Christmas break and came to visit me in the dorm. He walked off the elevator looking for the room where I lived. The Resident Assistant saw him and immediately asked him, “Are you Jesse Cheng?” When he replied that he was, he said, “Kevin is in Room 303.” When I answered the door, Jesse said he couldn’t figure out how everyone on the floor seemed to know who he was. I told him that “Everyone knows you Jesse! You’re my friend!”

So, there were times when I was at the plant where a Power Plant Man (or Woman) would yell to me, “Jesse! Come get your Chili!” No one can say that without a big smile on their face, and on mine. It’s poetry to my ears. Jesse’s mother forever lives on in our memories.

End of Side Story….

So, why am I talking about troubleshooting electronic circuit boards in a post about Power Plant Men losing the things they love most? Well… because all good things had to come to an end. Electronic circuit boards included.

When I went to search for a picture of an electronic circuit board on Google Images, I had to page down a couple of times before I found a partial picture of a circuit board that had capacitors, resistors and diodes on it. They just aren’t used much anymore. Everything has gone digital. Instead of troubleshooting electronic parts, you diagnose signals being sent between various processors and memory chips. It just isn’t quite the same.

So, lucky for Jesse that he wasn’t hired at our plant. By the time he would have showed up, we were no longer changing out transistors. We were programming chips. Now the circuit boards looked more like this:

A digital Circuit Board

A digital Circuit Board

Other things in the electric shop were taken away or became “unused” that I used to really enjoy using. We had a heat gun mounted on the wall where we would heat up bearings in order to put them on the shaft of the motor. We would stand there monitoring the bearing to see if it was hot enough… We would spit on our finger and drip the spit on the bearing. When the spit would sizzle, we knew the bearing was hot enough.

A heat gun like this

A heat gun like this

There was something comforting about the smell of hot grease from the bearing mixed with the smell of smoldering spit… Also in the winter, it felt good to warm yourself around the heat gun while you waited for the bearing to heat up.

Well. Eventually, we no longer used the heat gun. We had a fancier bearing heater that looked like a strange aluminum cone hat.

A bearing heater

A bearing heater

The bearing heater heated the bearing more uniformly, and we could use a special temperature pencil that would melt when the bearing reached the right temperature. No more boiling bearing grease smell, and no smoldering spit. Oh well….

When the bearing was the right temperature, we had a pair of large white Asbestos Gloves that we would wear to pick up the bearing and slap it onto the shaft of the motor. The pair of Asbestos gloves in our shop came from the old Osage Plant. They were made from genuine Asbestos. I suppose a white cloud of Asbestos dust would fly up in your face if you were overly moved by the song on the radio in the shop and felt a sudden urge to clap.

Asbestos Gloves worn when putting hot bearings on a motor shaft (for instance)

Asbestos Gloves worn when putting hot bearings on a motor shaft (for instance)

Well… You can imagine what happened to our Asbestos gloves. Those gloves that you knew were going to keep your hands from being burned as you picked up the scalding hot bearing. You never had to worry about being burned…. but…. oh well… They were taken away. Not deemed safe for use by humans.

In the shop when before and after we took apart a motor, we performed a test on the motor called, “Meggering the motor”. That is, we clipped a megger to the motor leads and one to the motor case and cranked a hand crank on the side of the Megger to generate 1,000 volts to see if the insulation in the motor was still good.

Meggers are much like an old telephone from way back, where you would turn a crank to call the operator. Or you could take it fishing with you and shock the fish in the water to make them float to the surface. But…. I wouldn’t know about that. I just heard stories from other Power Plant Men about it.

Old Crank Telephone

Old Crank Telephone

A manual crank megger was similar….

Megger with a Crank

Megger with a Crank

Alas…. After a while, a Meggar with a crank became a thing of the past, as did our Simpson Volt-Ohm Meter:

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

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

It wasn’t only electric shop equipment that the Power Plant Men held dear that kept disappearing. We used to wear safety belts at the plant to keep us from falling off of high places. Would you believe that these Safety Belts were taken away from the Power Plant Men as well?

Power Plant Men wore Safety Belts like this

Power Plant Men wore Safety Belts like this

I explained how the electronic circuit boards were replaced with digital cards. I also explained how the heat gun was replaced with a nifty new bearing heater, which was also almost made obsolete by another invention called an Induction heater.

An induction Bearing Heater

An induction Bearing Heater

This heater didn’t even get hot. The bearing would heat up by a magnetic field on the bar that would cause an electric current to build up around the bearing, causing it to heat up almost by magic.

The Asbestos Gloves were replaced with well padded Kevlar Gloves:

High Heat Kevlar Gloves

High Heat Kevlar Gloves

They worked just as well as the asbestos gloves without the Mesothelioma thrown in as a bonus.

As for the volt-ohm meters. Each electrician was eventually issued their own new Fluke Volt-Ohm Meter. I dare say. It was a step up from the old Simpson meter. A lot safer also:

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

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

And the Safety belt? Well… It turns out that if someone were to fall and be hanging from a safety belt, the injury caused by just dangling for any length of time on a safety belt while waiting to be rescued can be devastating to the human body. So, the belts were removed, and Power Plant Men everywhere were issued new and improved Safety Harnesses.

Safety Harness being worn by a plastic Power Plant Man

Safety Harness being worn by a plastic Power Plant Man

So… you see… What it boils down to is this…. Power Plant Men generally love their jobs. Real Power Plant Men I mean. So, whenever there is change, they feel the pain of loss. They lose those things they hold dear. Yeah. They know that whatever is replacing the things they are losing will most likely be a new and improved version of what they already had. I think it’s the nostalgia of how things used to be that they miss the most.

So. That is why Power Plant Men always seem to lose the things they love the most. Because they love doing what they do, and things are always changing. Power plant Men just change right along with it. But sometimes it hurts a little

Comments from original post:

  1. Ron November 9, 2013

    Great story, Kevin.
    When I transferred to the Seminole Plant, one of my jobs was to do the “daily sheets”. For each generating unit I calculated total MW, steam flow, gas burned, average temperatures and pressures, etc. We were privileged to have the first non-mechanical calculators in an OG&E Power Plant. The old calculators (I used at Mustang and Horseshoe Lake) were mechanical – motors, gears, shafts, levers, dials, and more gears. They made cool sounds when you hit the “Total” key. They even had a unique smell too. We paid $900 for each Monroe calculator in 1970. They didn’t make any noises. They didn’t give off any scent, either. But they were much faster, smaller, and lighter. I missed the old mechanicals. I still have the Post slide rule I used at OU too.

  2. Eve MEL Thomson November 9, 2013

    Sadly, change is progress. I used a blackboard, now it’s a white board!

  3. Wendell A. Brown November 11, 2013

    I loved your post, change comes in our lives but hopefully in our lives we blossom and become better for it, and always cherish the memories. I smiled a thousand times while reading it and will always remember “Jessie come eat your chili! Blessings!

  4. Jack Curtis November 13, 2013

    Change, yes…but it’s more than that. Old time craftsmen involved a lot of themselves in their work. I remember men who grabbed a wire to determine the voltage on it. A lot of work was done by feel, a sort of extra sense that craftsmen developed on the job. Projects came out right because they knew what was intended and how to make it happen that way. They were an important link in the chain of production.

    Now so much work is untouched by human hands; merely moved along by button-pushers who have replaced true craftsmen. An old time carpenter or electrician could do things today’s replacements never dream of. Cabinet makers and machinists are gone, replaced by machine operators. Much is no doubt gained, but so much is lost…

    An average man in those days, was pretty competent with his hands, expected to have a list of skills and competencies…and that’s gone, too.

 

Why Do Power Plant Men always Lose the Things they Love the Most?

Originally posted November 9, 2013:

One of the things I loved the most about being an electrician at the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma was that I spent a good deal of time troubleshooting and fixing Electronic Circuit boards. My Mentor Bill Rivers had taught me the fine art of repairing precipitator circuit boards to the point where I was very comfortable taking a board with burned out circuits and rebuilding it piece at a time until it worked well enough to be put back into service. There is something comforting about fixing electronic circuit boards.

A Circuit board with Electronic components

A Circuit board with Electronic components

I had even built a little test box out of a proximity switch on a Gaitronics phone receiver hook where I could plug a large Operational Amplifier into it and turn a little knob to test it, where it would light up little red LEDs. Like I said. It was really fun.

I had told my friend from High School, Jesse Cheng, who was now a doctor just graduating from Harvard with his Masters in Public Health how much fun I was having. Even though he was a medical doctor with an Engineering degree from Yale, he wished that he could do what I was doing. He even applied for an Engineering job at our plant so that he could at least come down to the electric shop where I would let him help me troubleshoot and repair all kinds of electronic circuit boards.

Unfortunately, he was overqualified for the job. Louise Gates asked me about him, since he had listed me as a reference on the job application. I explained to her that even though he was a Medical Doctor, what he really wanted to do was work in a power plant with the great bunch of people I had told him about. He would easily have given up his career to be blessed by the presence of such great Power Plant Men.

I will tell a side story about my Friend Jesse, before I proceed with the painful loss of those things that Power Plant Men love….

I met Jesse when I was a sophomore in High School. He was the student body president when I arrived at Rockbridge High School in Columbia, Missouri. We immediately became friends when we met. We both enjoyed the same things. The main thing was playing games, or solving puzzles.

I quickly learned that Jesse loved playing all kinds of games. So, when I would go over to his house, we would usually go down in the basement where he had a new game waiting for me. We would sit down there and play games until his mother would call us for dinner.

One day my brother came with me and we went down in the basement to play the game of Risk.

Risk Board Game

Risk Board Game

Jesse was beating us so bad that after the 3rd move, we joined forces only to have Jesse wipe us off of the map on the 4th turn. Then his mother called us for dinner.

Jesse’s mother was a small Chinese lady with a meek voice. When Jesse had guests over, she would cook his favorite meal. Chili. So, when it was time for dinner, she would call down to us from the top of the basement stairs, “Jesse! Come get your Chili!” I had heard that call to action many times, and I had obediently left whatever we were playing to go eat supper.

After we had finished dinner and talked with Jesse for a while, my brother and I left to go home. On the way home my brother started to chuckle. I asked him why, and he responded that he could still hear Jesse’s mother calling “Jesse! Come get your Chili!” in his head. It sounded funny to hear the small Asian voice calling to Jesse to come get his Chili.

So, that became a catch phrase for when you wanted to holler at someone, but didn’t have anything particular to say. We would just yell out, “Jesse! Come get your Chili!!” It always brought a smile to the faces of anyone who knew the story, and a confused look on the faces of any bystanders.

When I went to Columbia, Missouri to the University of Missouri, I told this story to the people that lived around me in Mark Twain Dormitory. I would smile when I would be heading back to the dorm after class and someone from a block away would spy me from their dorm window and would yell at the top of their lungs, “Jesse! Come get your Chili!!!”

Jesse was in town one day shortly after the Christmas break and came to visit me in the dorm. He walked off the elevator looking for the room where I lived. The Resident Assistant saw him and immediately asked him, “Are you Jesse Cheng?” When he replied that he was, he said, “Kevin is in Room 303.” When I answered the door, Jesse said he couldn’t figure out how everyone on the floor seemed to know who he was. I told him that “Everyone knows you Jesse! You’re my friend!”

So, there were times when I was at the plant where a Power Plant Man (or Woman) would yell to me, “Jesse! Come get your Chili!” No one can say that without a big smile on their face, and on mine. It’s poetry to my ears. Jesse’s mother forever lives on in our memories.

End of Side Story….

So, why am I talking about troubleshooting electronic circuit boards in a post about Power Plant Men losing the things they love most? Well… because all good things had to come to an end. Electronic circuit boards included.

When I went to search for a picture of an electronic circuit board on Google Images, I had to page down a couple of times before I found a partial picture of a circuit board that had capacitors, resistors and diodes on it. They just aren’t used much anymore. Everything has gone digital. Instead of troubleshooting electronic parts, you diagnose signals being sent between various processors and memory chips. It just isn’t quite the same.

So, lucky for Jesse that he wasn’t hired at our plant. By the time he would have showed up, we were no longer changing out transistors. We were programming chips. Now the circuit boards looked more like this:

A digital Circuit Board

A digital Circuit Board

Other things in the electric shop were taken away or became “unused” that I used to really enjoy using. We had a heat gun mounted on the wall where we would heat up bearings in order to put them on the shaft of the motor. We would stand there monitoring the bearing to see if it was hot enough… We would spit on our finger and drip the spit on the bearing. When the spit would sizzle, we knew the bearing was hot enough.

A heat gun like this

A heat gun like this

There was something comforting about the smell of hot grease from the bearing mixed with the smell of smoldering spit… Also in the winter, it felt good to warm yourself around the heat gun while you waited for the bearing to heat up.

Well. Eventually, we no longer used the heat gun. We had a fancier bearing heater that looked like a strange aluminum cone hat.

A bearing heater

A bearing heater

The bearing heater heated the bearing more uniformly, and we could use a special temperature pencil that would melt when the bearing reached the right temperature. No more boiling bearing grease smell, and no smoldering spit. Oh well….

When the bearing was the right temperature, we had a pair of large white Asbestos Gloves that we would wear to pick up the bearing and slap it onto the shaft of the motor. The pair of Asbestos gloves in our shop came from the old Osage Plant. They were made from genuine Asbestos. I suppose a white cloud of Asbestos dust would fly up in your face if you were overly moved by the song on the radio in the shop and felt a sudden urge to clap.

Asbestos Gloves worn when putting hot bearings on a motor shaft (for instance)

Asbestos Gloves worn when putting hot bearings on a motor shaft (for instance)

Well… You can imagine what happened to our Asbestos gloves. Those gloves that you knew were going to keep your hands from being burned as you picked up the scalding hot bearing. You never had to worry about being burned…. but…. oh well… They were taken away. Not deemed safe for use by humans.

In the shop when before and after we took apart a motor, we performed a test on the motor called, “Meggering the motor”. That is, we clipped a megger to the motor leads and one to the motor case and cranked a hand crank on the side of the Megger to generate 1,000 volts to see if the insulation in the motor was still good.

Meggers are much like an old telephone from way back, where you would turn a crank to call the operator. Or you could take it fishing with you and shock the fish in the water to make them float to the surface. But…. I wouldn’t know about that. I just heard stories from other Power Plant Men about it.

Old Crank Telephone

Old Crank Telephone

A manual crank megger was similar….

Megger with a Crank

Megger with a Crank

Alas…. After a while, a Meggar with a crank became a thing of the past, as did our Simpson Volt-Ohm Meter:

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

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

It wasn’t only electric shop equipment that the Power Plant Men held dear that kept disappearing. We used to wear safety belts at the plant to keep us from falling off of high places. Would you believe that these Safety Belts were taken away from the Power Plant Men as well?

Power Plant Men wore Safety Belts like this

Power Plant Men wore Safety Belts like this

I explained how the electronic circuit boards were replaced with digital cards. I also explained how the heat gun was replaced with a nifty new bearing heater, which was also almost made obsolete by another invention called an Induction heater.

An induction Bearing Heater

An induction Bearing Heater

This heater didn’t even get hot. The bearing would heat up by a magnetic field on the bar that would cause an electric current to build up around the bearing, causing it to heat up almost by magic.

The Asbestos Gloves were replaced with well padded Kevlar Gloves:

High Heat Kevlar Gloves

High Heat Kevlar Gloves

They worked just as well as the asbestos gloves without the Mesothelioma thrown in as a bonus.

As for the volt-ohm meters. Each electrician was eventually issued their own new Fluke Volt-Ohm Meter. I dare say. It was a step up from the old Simpson meter. A lot safer also:

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

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

And the Safety belt? Well… It turns out that if someone were to fall and be hanging from a safety belt, the injury caused by just dangling for any length of time on a safety belt while waiting to be rescued can be devastating to the human body. So, the belts were removed, and Power Plant Men everywhere were issued new and improved Safety Harnesses.

Safety Harness being worn by a plastic Power Plant Man

Safety Harness being worn by a plastic Power Plant Man

So… you see… What it boils down to is this…. Power Plant Men generally love their jobs. Real Power Plant Men I mean. So, whenever there is change, they feel the pain of loss. They lose those things they hold dear. Yeah. They know that whatever is replacing the things they are losing will most likely be a new and improved version of what they already had. I think it’s the nostalgia of how things used to be that they miss the most.

So. That is why Power Plant Men always seem to lose the things they love the most. Because they love doing what they do, and things are always changing. Power plant Men just change right along with it. But sometimes it hurts a littl

Comments from original post:

  1. Ron November 9, 2013

    Great story, Kevin.
    When I transferred to the Seminole Plant, one of my jobs was to do the “daily sheets”. For each generating unit I calculated total MW, steam flow, gas burned, average temperatures and pressures, etc. We were privileged to have the first non-mechanical calculators in an OG&E Power Plant. The old calculators (I used at Mustang and Horseshoe Lake) were mechanical – motors, gears, shafts, levers, dials, and more gears. They made cool sounds when you hit the “Total” key. They even had a unique smell too. We paid $900 for each Monroe calculator in 1970. They didn’t make any noises. They didn’t give off any scent, either. But they were much faster, smaller, and lighter. I missed the old mechanicals. I still have the Post slide rule I used at OU too.

  2. Eve MEL Thomson November 9, 2013

    Sadly, change is progress. I used a blackboard, now it’s a white board!

  3. Wendell A. Brown November 11, 2013

    I loved your post, change comes in our lives but hopefully in our lives we blossom and become better for it, and always cherish the memories. I smiled a thousand times while reading it and will always remember “Jessie come eat your chili! Blessings!

  4. Jack Curtis November 13, 2013

    Change, yes…but it’s more than that. Old time craftsmen involved a lot of themselves in their work. I remember men who grabbed a wire to determine the voltage on it. A lot of work was done by feel, a sort of extra sense that craftsmen developed on the job. Projects came out right because they knew what was intended and how to make it happen that way. They were an important link in the chain of production.

    Now so much work is untouched by human hands; merely moved along by button-pushers who have replaced true craftsmen. An old time carpenter or electrician could do things today’s replacements never dream of. Cabinet makers and machinists are gone, replaced by machine operators. Much is no doubt gained, but so much is lost…

    An average man in those days, was pretty competent with his hands, expected to have a list of skills and competencies…and that’s gone, too.

 

Power Plant Lock Out – Tag Out or Just Tag Out

Originally Posted July 12, 2013:

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

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

typical 480 volt overload heaters

typical 480 volt overload heaters

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

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

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

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

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

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

A large vertical pump motor

A large vertical pump motor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fast forward three years. 1992.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A typical Danger tag used at the plant

A typical Danger tag used at the plant

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Comments from the previous posts:

  1. Ron Kilman July 13, 2013:

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

Larry McCurry July 13, 2013:

Kevin,

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

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

Why Do Power Plant Men always Lose the Things they Love the Most? — Repost

Originally posted November 9, 2013:

One of the things I loved the most about being an electrician at the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma was that I spent a good deal of time troubleshooting and fixing Electronic Circuit boards.  My Mentor Bill Rivers had taught me the fine art of repairing precipitator circuit boards to the point where I was very comfortable taking a board with burned out circuits and rebuilding it piece at a time until it worked well enough to be put back into service.  There is something comforting about fixing electronic circuit boards.

A Circuit board with Electronic components

A Circuit board with Electronic components

I had even built a little test box out of a proximity switch on a Gaitronics phone receiver hook where I could plug a large Operational Amplifier into it and turn a little knob to test it, where it would light up little red LEDs.  Like I said.  It was really fun.

I had told my friend from High School, Jesse Cheng, who was now a doctor just graduating from Harvard with his Masters in Public Health how much fun I was having.  Even though he was a medical doctor with an Engineering degree from Yale, he wished that he could do what I was doing.  He even applied for an Engineering job at our plant so that he could at least come down to the electric shop where I would let him help me troubleshoot and repair all kinds of electronic circuit boards.

Unfortunately, he was overqualified for the job.  Louise Gates asked me about him, since he had listed me as a reference on the job application.  I explained to her that even though he was a Medical Doctor, what he really wanted to do was work in a power plant with the great bunch of people I had told him about.  He would easily have given up his career to be blessed by the presence of such great Power Plant Men.

I will tell a side story about my Friend Jesse, before I proceed with the painful loss of those things that Power Plant Men love….

I met Jesse when I was a sophomore in High School.  He was the student body president when I arrived at Rockbridge High School in Columbia, Missouri.  We immediately became friends when we met.  We both enjoyed the same things.  The main thing was playing games, or solving puzzles.

I quickly learned that Jesse loved playing all kinds of games.  So, when I would go over to his house, we would usually go down in the basement where he had a new game waiting for me.  We would sit down there and play games until his mother would call us for dinner.

One day my brother came with me and we went down in the basement to play the game of Risk.

Risk Board Game

Risk Board Game

Jesse was beating us so bad that after the 3rd move, we joined forces only to have Jesse wipe us off of the map on the 4th turn.  Then his mother called us for dinner.

Jesse’s mother was a small Chinese lady with a meek voice.  When Jesse had guests over, she would cook his favorite meal.  Chili.  So, when it was time for dinner, she would call down to us from the top of the basement stairs, “Jesse!  Come get your Chili!”  I had heard that call to action many times, and I had obediently left whatever we were playing to go eat supper.

After we had finished dinner and talked with Jesse for a while, my brother and I left to go home.  On the way home my brother started to chuckle.  I asked him why, and he responded that he could still hear Jesse’s mother calling “Jesse!  Come get your Chili!” in his head.  It sounded funny to hear the small Asian voice calling to Jesse to come get his Chili.

So, that became a catch phrase for when you wanted to holler at someone, but didn’t have anything particular to say.  We would just yell out, “Jesse!  Come get your Chili!!”  It always brought a smile to the faces of anyone who knew the story, and a confused look on the faces of any bystanders.

When I went to Columbia, Missouri to the University of Missouri, I told this story to the people that lived around me in Mark Twain Dormitory.  I would smile when I would be heading back to the dorm after class and someone from a block away would spy me from their dorm window and would yell at the top of their lungs, “Jesse!  Come get your Chili!!!”

Jesse was in town one day shortly after the Christmas break and came to visit me in the dorm.  He walked off the elevator looking for the room where I lived.  The Resident Assistant saw him and immediately asked him, “Are you Jesse Cheng?”  When he replied that he was, he said, “Kevin is in Room 303.”   When I answered the door, Jesse said he couldn’t figure out how everyone on the floor seemed to know who he was.  I told him that “Everyone knows you Jesse!  You’re my friend!”

So, there were times when I was at the plant where a Power Plant Man (or Woman) would yell to me, “Jesse!  Come get your Chili!”  No one can say that without a big smile on their face, and on mine.  It’s poetry to my ears.  Jesse’s mother forever lives on in our memories.

End of Side Story….

So, why am I talking about troubleshooting electronic circuit boards in a post about Power Plant Men losing the things they love most?  Well… because all good things had to come to an end.  Electronic circuit boards included.

When I went to search for a picture of an electronic circuit board on Google Images, I had to page down a couple of times before I found a partial picture of a circuit board that had capacitors, resistors and diodes on it.  They just aren’t used much anymore.  Everything has gone digital.  Instead of troubleshooting electronic parts, you diagnose signals being sent between various processors and memory chips.  It just isn’t quite the same.

So, lucky for Jesse that he wasn’t hired at our plant.  By the time he would have showed up, we were no longer changing out transistors.  We were programming chips.  Now the circuit boards looked more like this:

A digital Circuit Board

A digital Circuit Board

Other things in the electric shop were taken away or became “unused” that I used to really enjoy using.  We had a heat gun mounted on the wall where we would heat up bearings in order to put them on the shaft of the motor.  We would stand there monitoring the bearing to see if it was hot enough… We would spit on our finger and drip the spit on the bearing.  When the spit would sizzle, we knew the bearing was hot enough.

A heat gun like this

A heat gun like this

There was something comforting about the smell of hot grease from the bearing mixed with the smell of smoldering spit…  Also in the winter, it felt good to warm yourself around the heat gun while you waited for the bearing to heat up.

Well.  Eventually, we no longer used the heat gun.  We had a fancier bearing heater that looked like a strange aluminum cone hat.

A bearing heater

A bearing heater

The bearing heater heated the bearing more uniformly, and we could use a special temperature pencil that would melt when the bearing reached the right temperature.  No more boiling bearing grease smell, and no smoldering spit.  Oh well….

When the bearing was the right temperature, we had a pair of large white Asbestos Gloves that we would wear to pick up the bearing and slap it onto the shaft of the motor.  The pair of Asbestos gloves in our shop came from the old Osage Plant.  They were made from genuine Asbestos.  I suppose a white cloud of Asbestos dust would fly up in your face if you were overly moved by the song on the radio in the shop and felt a sudden urge to clap.

Asbestos Gloves worn when putting hot bearings on a motor shaft (for instance)

Asbestos Gloves worn when putting hot bearings on a motor shaft (for instance)

Well… You can imagine what happened to our Asbestos gloves.  Those gloves that you knew were going to keep your hands from being burned as you picked up the scalding hot bearing.  You never had to worry about being burned…. but…. oh well…  They were taken away.  Not deemed safe for use by humans.

In the shop when before and after we took apart a motor, we performed a test on the motor called, “Meggering the motor”.  That is, we clipped a megger to the motor leads and one to the motor case and cranked a hand crank on the side of the Megger to generate 1,000 volts to see if the insulation in the motor was still good.

Meggers are much like an old telephone from way back, where you would turn a crank to call the operator.  Or you could take it fishing with you and shock the fish in the water to make them float to the surface.   But…. I wouldn’t know about that.  I just heard stories from other Power Plant Men about it.

Old Crank Telephone

Old Crank Telephone

A manual crank megger was similar….

Megger with a Crank

Megger with a Crank

Alas…. After a while, a Meggar with a crank became a thing of the past, as did our Simpson Volt-Ohm Meter:

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

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

It wasn’t only electric shop equipment that the Power Plant Men held dear that kept disappearing.  We used to wear safety belts at the plant to keep us from falling off of high places.  Would you believe that these Safety Belts were taken away from the Power Plant Men as well?

Power Plant Men wore Safety Belts like this

Power Plant Men wore Safety Belts like this

I explained how the electronic circuit boards were replaced with digital cards.  I also explained how the heat gun was replaced with a nifty new bearing heater, which was also almost made obsolete by another invention called an Induction heater.

An induction Bearing Heater

An induction Bearing Heater

This heater didn’t even get hot.  The bearing would heat up by a magnetic field on the bar that would cause an electric current to build up around the bearing, causing it to heat up almost by magic.

The Asbestos Gloves were replaced with well padded Kevlar Gloves:

High Heat Kevlar Gloves

High Heat Kevlar Gloves

They worked just as well as the asbestos gloves without the Mesothelioma thrown in as a bonus.

As for the volt-ohm meters.  Each electrician was eventually issued their own new Fluke Volt-Ohm Meter.  I dare say.  It was a step up from the old Simpson meter.  A lot safer also:

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

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

And the Safety belt?  Well… It turns out that if someone were to fall and be hanging from a safety belt, the injury caused by just dangling for any length of time on a safety belt while waiting to be rescued can be devastating to the human body.  So, the belts were removed, and Power Plant Men everywhere were issued new and improved Safety Harnesses.

Safety Harness being worn by a plastic Power Plant Man

Safety Harness being worn by a plastic Power Plant Man

So… you see…  What it boils down to is this…. Power Plant Men generally love their jobs.  Real Power Plant Men I mean.  So, whenever there is change, they feel the pain of loss.  They lose those things they hold dear.  Yeah.  They know that whatever is replacing the things they are losing will most likely be a new and improved version of what they already had.  I think it’s the nostalgia of how things used to be that they miss the most.

So.  That is why Power Plant Men always seem to lose the things they love the most.  Because they love doing what they do, and things are always changing.  Power plant Men just change right along with it.  But sometimes it hurts a littl

Comments from original post:

  1. Ron   November 9, 2013

    Great story, Kevin.
    When I transferred to the Seminole Plant, one of my jobs was to do the “daily sheets”. For each generating unit I calculated total MW, steam flow, gas burned, average temperatures and pressures, etc. We were privileged to have the first non-mechanical calculators in an OG&E Power Plant. The old calculators (I used at Mustang and Horseshoe Lake) were mechanical – motors, gears, shafts, levers, dials, and more gears. They made cool sounds when you hit the “Total” key. They even had a unique smell too. We paid $900 for each Monroe calculator in 1970. They didn’t make any noises. They didn’t give off any scent, either. But they were much faster, smaller, and lighter. I missed the old mechanicals. I still have the Post slide rule I used at OU too.

  2. Eve MEL Thomson November 9, 2013

    Sadly, change is progress. I used a blackboard, now it’s a white board!

  3. Wendell A. Brown November 11, 2013

    I loved your post, change comes in our lives but hopefully in our lives we blossom and become better for it, and always cherish the memories. I smiled a thousand times while reading it and will always remember “Jessie come eat your chili! Blessings!

  4. Jack Curtis November 13, 2013

    Change, yes…but it’s more than that. Old time craftsmen involved a lot of themselves in their work. I remember men who grabbed a wire to determine the voltage on it. A lot of work was done by feel, a sort of extra sense that craftsmen developed on the job. Projects came out right because they knew what was intended and how to make it happen that way. They were an important link in the chain of production.

    Now so much work is untouched by human hands; merely moved along by button-pushers who have replaced true craftsmen. An old time carpenter or electrician could do things today’s replacements never dream of. Cabinet makers and machinists are gone, replaced by machine operators. Much is no doubt gained, but so much is lost…

    An average man in those days, was pretty competent with his hands, expected to have a list of skills and competencies…and that’s gone, too.

 

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

Originally Posted July 12, 2013:

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

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

typical 480 volt overload heaters

typical 480 volt overload heaters

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

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

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

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

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

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

A large vertical pump motor

A large vertical pump motor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fast forward three years.  1992.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A typical Danger tag used at the plant

A typical Danger tag used at the plant

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Comments from the original post:

  1. Ron Kilman July 13, 2013:

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

Larry McCurry July 13, 2013:

Kevin,

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

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

Why Do Power Plant Men always Lose the Things they Love the Most?

One of the things I loved the most about being an electrician at the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma was that I spent a good deal of time troubleshooting and fixing Electronic Circuit boards.  My Mentor Bill Rivers had taught me the fine art of repairing precipitator circuit boards to the point where I was very comfortable taking a board with burned out circuits and rebuilding it piece at a time until it worked well enough to be put back into service.  There is something comforting about fixing electronic circuit boards.

A Circuit board with Electronic components

A Circuit board with Electronic components

I had even built a little test box out of a proximity switch on a Gaitronics phone receiver hook where I could plug a large Operational Amplifier into it and turn a little knob to test it, where it would light up little red LEDs.  Like I said.  It was really fun.

I had told my friend from High School, Jesse Cheng, who was now a doctor just graduating from Harvard with his Masters in Public Health how much fun I was having.  Even though he was a medical doctor with an Engineering degree from Yale, he wished that he could do what I was doing.  He even applied for an Engineering job at our plant so that he could at least come down to the electric shop where I would let him help me troubleshoot and repair all kinds of electronic circuit boards.

Unfortunately, he was overqualified for the job.  Louise Gates asked me about him, since he had listed me as a reference on the job application.  I explained to her that even though he was a Medical Doctor, what he really wanted to do was work in a power plant with the great bunch of people I had told him about.  He would easily have given up his career to be blessed by the presence of such great Power Plant Men.

I will tell a side story about my Friend Jesse, before I proceed with the painful loss of those things that Power Plant Men love….

I met Jesse when I was a sophomore in High School.  He was the student body president when I arrived at Rockbridge High School in Columbia, Missouri.  We immediately became friends when we met.  We both enjoyed the same things.  The main thing was playing games, or solving puzzles.

I quickly learned that Jesse loved playing all kinds of games.  So, when I would go over to his house, we would usually go down in the basement where he had a new game waiting for me.  We would sit down there and play games until his mother would call us for dinner.

One day my brother came with me and we went down in the basement to play the game of Risk.

Risk Board Game

Risk Board Game

Jesse was beating us so bad that after the 3rd move, we joined forces only to have Jesse wipe us off of the map on the 4th turn.  Then his mother called us for dinner.

Jesse’s mother was a small Chinese lady with a meek voice.  When Jesse had guests over, she would cook his favorite meal.  Chili.  So, when it was time for dinner, she would call down to us from the top of the basement stairs, “Jesse!  Come get your Chili!”  I had heard that call to action many times, and I had obediently left whatever we were playing to go eat supper.

After we had finished dinner and talked with Jesse for a while, my brother and I left to go home.  On the way home my brother started to chuckle.  I asked him why, and he responded that he could still hear Jesse’s mother calling “Jesse!  Come get your Chili!” in his head.  It sounded funny to hear the small Asian voice calling to Jesse to come get his Chili.

So, that became a catch phrase for when you wanted to holler at someone, but didn’t have anything particular to say.  We would just yell out, “Jesse!  Come get your Chili!!”  It always brought a smile to the faces of anyone who knew the story, and a confused look on the faces of any bystanders.

When I went to Columbia, Missouri to the University of Missouri, I told this story to the people that lived around me in Mark Twain Dormitory.  I would smile when I would be heading back to the dorm after class and someone from a block away would spy me from their dorm window and would yell at the top of their lungs, “Jesse!  Come get your Chili!!!”

Jesse was in town one day shortly after the Christmas break and came to visit me in the dorm.  He walked off the elevator looking for the room where I lived.  The Resident Assistant saw him and immediately asked him, “Are you Jesse Cheng?”  When he replied that he was, he said, “Kevin is in Room 303.”   When I answered the door, Jesse said he couldn’t figure out how everyone on the floor seemed to know who he was.  I told him that “Everyone knows you Jesse!  You’re my friend!”

So, there were times when I was at the plant where a Power Plant Man (or Woman) would yell to me, “Jesse!  Come get your Chili!”  No one can say that without a big smile on their face, and on mine.  It’s poetry to my ears.  Jesse’s mother forever lives on in our memories.

End of Side Story….

So, why am I talking about troubleshooting electronic circuit boards in a post about Power Plant Men losing the things they love most?  Well… because all good things had to come to an end.  Electronic circuit boards included.

When I went to search for a picture of an electronic circuit board on Google Images, I had to page down a couple of times before I found a partial picture of a circuit board that had capacitors, resistors and diodes on it.  They just aren’t used much anymore.  Everything has gone digital.  Instead of troubleshooting electronic parts, you diagnose signals being sent between various processors and memory chips.  It just isn’t quite the same.

So, lucky for Jesse that he wasn’t hired at our plant.  By the time he would have showed up, we were no longer changing out transistors.  We were programming chips.  Now the circuit boards looked more like this:

A digital Circuit Board

A digital Circuit Board

Other things in the electric shop were taken away or became “unused” that I used to really enjoy using.  We had a heat gun mounted on the wall where we would heat up bearings in order to put them on the shaft of the motor.  We would stand there monitoring the bearing to see if it was hot enough… We would spit on our finger and drip the spit on the bearing.  When the spit would sizzle, we knew the bearing was hot enough.

A heat gun like this

A heat gun like this

There was something comforting about the smell of hot grease from the bearing mixed with the smell of smoldering spit…  Also in the winter, it felt good to warm yourself around the heat gun while you waited for the bearing to heat up.

Well.  Eventually, we no longer used the heat gun.  We had a fancier bearing heater that looked like a strange aluminum cone hat.

A bearing heater

A bearing heater

The bearing heater heated the bearing more uniformly, and we could use a special temperature pencil that would melt when the bearing reached the right temperature.  No more boiling bearing grease smell, and no smoldering spit.  Oh well….

When the bearing was the right temperature, we had a pair of large white Asbestos Gloves that we would wear to pick up the bearing and slap it onto the shaft of the motor.  The pair of Asbestos gloves in our shop came from the old Osage Plant.  They were made from genuine Asbestos.  I suppose a white cloud of Asbestos dust would fly up in your face if you were overly moved by the song on the radio in the shop and felt a sudden urge to clap.

Asbestos Gloves worn when putting hot bearings on a motor shaft (for instance)

Asbestos Gloves worn when putting hot bearings on a motor shaft (for instance)

Well… You can imagine what happened to our Asbestos gloves.  Those gloves that you knew were going to keep your hands from being burned as you picked up the scalding hot bearing.  You never had to worry about being burned…. but…. oh well…  They were taken away.  Not deemed safe for use by humans.

In the shop when before and after we took apart a motor, we performed a test on the motor called, “Meggering the motor”.  That is, we clipped a megger to the motor leads and one to the motor case and cranked a hand crank on the side of the Megger to generate 1,000 volts to see if the insulation in the motor was still good.

Meggers are much like an old telephone from way back, where you would turn a crank to call the operator.  Or you could take it fishing with you and shock the fish in the water to make them float to the surface.   But…. I wouldn’t know about that.  I just heard stories from other Power Plant Men about it.

Old Crank Telephone

Old Crank Telephone

A manual crank megger was similar….

Megger with a Crank

Megger with a Crank

Alas…. After a while, a Meggar with a crank became a thing of the past, as did our Simpson Volt-Ohm Meter:

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

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

It wasn’t only electric shop equipment that the Power Plant Men held dear that kept disappearing.  We used to wear safety belts at the plant to keep us from falling off of high places.  Would you believe that these Safety Belts were taken away from the Power Plant Men as well?

Power Plant Men wore Safety Belts like this

Power Plant Men wore Safety Belts like this

I explained how the electronic circuit boards were replaced with digital cards.  I also explained how the heat gun was replaced with a nifty new bearing heater, which was also almost made obsolete by another invention called an Induction heater.

An induction Bearing Heater

An induction Bearing Heater

This heater didn’t even get hot.  The bearing would heat up by a magnetic field on the bar that would cause an electric current to build up around the bearing, causing it to heat up almost by magic.

The Asbestos Gloves were replaced with well padded Kevlar Gloves:

High Heat Kevlar Gloves

High Heat Kevlar Gloves

They worked just as well as the asbestos gloves without the Mesothelioma thrown in as a bonus.

As for the volt-ohm meters.  Each electrician was eventually issued their own new Fluke Volt-Ohm Meter.  I dare say.  It was a step up from the old Simpson meter.  A lot safer also:

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

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

And the Safety belt?  Well… It turns out that if someone were to fall and be hanging from a safety belt, the injury caused by just dangling for any length of time on a safety belt while waiting to be rescued can be devastating to the human body.  So, the belts were removed, and Power Plant Men everywhere were issued new and improved Safety Harnesses.

Safety Harness being worn by a plastic Power Plant Man

Safety Harness being worn by a plastic Power Plant Man

So… you see…  What it boils down to is this…. Power Plant Men generally love their jobs.  Real Power Plant Men I mean.  So, whenever there is change, they feel the pain of loss.  They lose those things they hold dear.  Yeah.  They know that whatever is replacing the things they are losing will most likely be a new and improved version of what they already had.  I think it’s the nostalgia of how things used to be that they miss the most.

So.  That is why Power Plant Men always seem to lose the things they love the most.  Because they love doing what they do, and things are always changing.  Power plant Men just change right along with it.  But sometimes it hurts a little.

Power Plant Lock Out – Tag Out or Just Tag Out

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

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

typical 480 volt overload heaters

typical 480 volt overload heaters

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

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

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

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

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

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

A large vertical pump motor

A large vertical pump motor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fast forward three years.  1992.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A typical Danger tag used at the plant

A typical Danger tag used at the plant

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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