Tag Archives: lanyard

Power Plant Painting Lessons with Aubrey Cargill

Originally Posted March 9, 2012.  I have added some pictures and slightly edited:

I had the feeling it would be an interesting day when the first thing that Stanley Elmore asked me when I sat down for our morning meeting was, “Kelvin, are you afraid of heights?”  Well, since before that day I hadn’t been afraid of heights, I told him I wasn’t.  I decided not to mention that my name was really “Kevin”, since I thought he was only calling me “Kelvin” as a joke.

Then Stanley, who liked most of all to joke around with people, started hinting through facial expressions of excitement (such as grinning real big and raising his eyebrows up to where his hair line used to be when he was younger) and by uttering sounds like “boy, well, yeah…. huh, I guess we’ll see” while shaking his head as if in disbelief.  He told me to get with Aubrey after the meeting because there was a job I needed to help him out with. (Ok.  I know.  Ending a terribly constructed sentence with a preposition).

Aubrey Cargill was our painter.  He worked out of the garage that I worked out of the last 3 years of working as a summer help.  There was a paint room in the back of the garage on the side where the carpenter, Fred Hesser built cabinets and other great works of art.

Fred was the best carpenter I have ever met, as well as one of the finest gentlemen I have ever known.  He wasn’t in the category of Power Plant man, as he didn’t involve himself in most of the power plant operations or maintenance, but to this day, Power Plant Men from all over Oklahoma can visit Sooner Plant on overhaul and admire the woodworking masterpieces created by Carpenter Fred many years earlier.

I had worked with Aubrey my first year as a summer help.  The garage hadn’t been built yet, and Aubrey had not been assigned as a painter, as both units were still under construction.  Aubrey was the same age as my father and in his mid-forties that first summer.

His favorite buddy was Ben Hutchinson.  Whereever one went, the other was not far away.  All during the first summer, the lake on the hill was still being filled by pumping water up from the Arkansas river.

Map of the Power Plant Lake

Map of the Power Plant Lake.  The power plant is on the northwest corner of the lake.  The Arkansas River is in the upper right corner of the map

Most of the last two weeks that summer I worked with Aubrey and Ben picking up driftwood along the dikes that were built on the lake to route the water from the discharge from the plant to the far side of the lake from where the water enters the plant to cool the condensers.  The idea is that the water has to flow all the way around the lake before it is used to cool the condenser again.  So, Ben and Aubrey took turns driving a big dump truck down the dike while I walked down one side of the dike around the water level and Aubrey or Ben walked down the other side, and we would toss wood up the dike into the dump truck.

A Ford Dump Truck

A Dump Truck

This was quite a throw, and often resulted in a big log being tossed up the dike just to hit the side of the dump truck creating a loud banging sound.  Anyway, when you consider that there are probably about 6 miles of dikes all together, it was quite a task to clean up all the driftwood that had accumulated in this man made lake.  After doing this for two weeks I learned the true meaning of the word “bursitis”.

After the morning meeting with Stanley Elmore I followed Aubrey into the carpenter shop, where he pointed to two buckets of paint that I was to carry, while he grabbed a canvas tool bag filled with large paint brushes and other painting tools and some white rope that looked like it had the seat of wooden swing on one end.  Aubrey nodded to Fred, and I understood by this that Fred had created the wooden swing that had four pieces of rope knotted through each of the corners of the seat and were connected to the main rope using some kind of small shackle.  When I asked Aubrey what that was, he told me that it is was a Boatswain Chair.  “Oh.” I think I said, “It looks like a swing.”

On the way to the boilers, we stopped by the tool room and I checked out a safety belt.  I could see Aubrey nodding at Bud Schoonover about my having to check out a safety belt, and what implication that had.  I of course preferred to think that my fellow employees would not purposely put me in harms way, so I went along acting as if I was oblivious to whatever fate awaited me.

We took the elevator on #1 Boiler to the 11th floor (which is actually about 22 stories up.  There are only 12 stops on the boiler elevator, but the building is really 25 stories to the very top.  So Power Plant men call the extra floors things like 8 1/2 when you get off the elevator where it says 8, and go up one flight of stairs.

Aubrey explained to me that we need to paint a drain pipe that is below us a couple of floors that goes down from there to just above floor 7 1/2 where it turns.  He said that he could paint the rest, but he needed my help to paint the pipe where it drops straight down, because there isn’t any way to reach it, except by dropping someone off the side of the boiler over a handrail and lowering them down to the pipe, and that turned out to be me.

He explained how the safety belt worked.  He said that I clip the lanyard in the ring at the top of the boatswain chair so that if I slip off the chair I wouldn’t fall all the way down, and then he could gradually lower me on down to the landing.

He didn’t explain to me at the time that the weight of my body free-falling three feet before coming to the end of the lanyard would have been a sufficient enough force to snap the white rope in half.  I guess he didn’t know about that.  But that was ok for me, because I didn’t know about it either — at the time.  We didn’t use Safety Harnesses at that time.  Just a belt around the waist.

A Safety Belt like this, only skinnier without all the extra padding

A Safety Belt like this, only skinnier without all the extra padding

So as I tied the canvas bag to the bottom of the chair, I saw Aubrey quickly wrap the rope around the handrail making some sort of half hitch knot.  I wasn’t too sure about that so I asked Aubrey where he learned to tie a knot like that and he told me in the Navy.  That was all I needed to hear.  As soon as he told me he learned knot tying in the Navy, I felt completely secure.  I figured if anyone knew the right way to tie a knot it’s someone in the Navy.

I clipped the lanyard in the shackle at the top of the boatswain chair and headed over the handrail.  I situated the chair to where I had my feet through it when I went over and the chair was up by my waist.  As I lowered myself down, I came to rest on the boatswain chair some 210 feet up from the ground.

It is always windy in this part of Oklahoma in the summer, and the wind was blowing that day, so, I began to spin around and float this way and that.  That continued until Aubrey had lowered me down to the pipe that I was going to paint and I was able to wrap my legs around it and wait for my head to stop spinning.

Then Aubrey lowered down another rope that had a bucket of paint tied to it.   Then I began my job of painting the pipe as Aubrey had hold of the rope and was slowly lowering me down.  Luckily Aubrey didn’t have to sneeze, or wasn’t chased by a wasp while he was doing this.  Thinking about that, I kept my legs wrapped around the pipe pretty tight just in case Aubrey had a heart attack or something.

The pipe really did need painting.  So, I knew this wasn’t completely just a joke to toss me out on a swing in the middle of the air hanging onto a rope with one hand while attempting to paint a pipe.  It had the red primer on it that most of the piping had before it was painted so it looked out of place with all the other silver pipes, but I couldn’t help thinking about Jerry Lewis in the Movie, “Who’s Minding the Store” where Jerry Lewis is told to paint the globe on the end of a flagpole that is located out the window on a top floor of the building, and he begins by trying to climb out on the flagpole with a bucket of paint in his mouth with little success.  But like Jerry, I figured it had to be done, so I just went ahead and did it.

Jerry Lewis tasked with painting the gold ball on the end of a flag pole on the top floor of a department store

Jerry Lewis tasked with painting the gold ball on the end of a flag pole on the top floor of a department store

Fortunately, I found out right away that I wasn’t afraid of heights, even at this height and under these conditions.  So, instead of fainting away, I just painted away and finally ended up on floor 7  1/2 which is right next to the Tripper Gallery.  I think I finished this a little after morning break but I don’t think Aubrey wanted to stop for break just to lower me down and then have to start from the top again lowering me all the way down one more time.

This brings me to another point.  Notice where I landed.  Right next to the Tripper Gallery.  Power Plant ingenuity has a way of naming parts of the plant with interesting names.  The first time I heard that we were going to the tripper gallery to shovel coal, I half expected to see paintings lining the walls.  It sounded like such a nice place to visit…. “Tripper Gallery”.  It sort of rolls off your tongue.  Especially if you try saying it with a French accent.

The Tripper Gallery is neither eloquent nor French.  It is where the coal from the coal yard is dumped into the Coal Silos just above the Bowl Mills.  — Yes.  Bowl Mills.  I know.  It sounds like a breakfast cereal.  Almost like Malt-O-Meal in a bowl.

So, the Tripper Gallery is a long narrow room (hence the word Gallery), and there are two machines called Trippers that travels from one silo to the next dumping coal from the conveyor belt down into the coal silo, and when the silo is full, a switch is triggered (or tripped) which tells the machine to go to the next silo.  Since the switch “trips” and tells the machine to move, they call the machine the “Tripper”.

 

Here is a picture of a clean tripper gallery I found on Google Images

Here is a picture of a clean tripper gallery transporting grain or something other than coal I found on Google Images

I know.  That last paragraph didn’t have anything to do with painting the drain pipe.  But I thought since I mentioned the Tripper Gallery, I might as well explain what it is.  Anyway, when we returned to the shop I watched as Stanley Elmore went over to Aubrey to see how I did when I found out he was going to drop me over the side of the boiler in a wooden chair.  I could see that Aubrey gave him a good report because Stanley looked a little disappointed that this Power Plant Joke (even though essential), hadn’t resulted in visibly shaking me up.

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Luxuries and Amenities of a Power Plant Labor Crew

Originally Posted on August 11, 2012.  Added a picture of Larry Riley:

When I was a janitor at the Power Plant there were times when we were christened by being allowed to work with the Labor Crew on jobs that needed to be done in a hurry.  Larry Riley was the foreman of the Labor Crew.  I had worked with Larry Riley during the summers when I was a summer help, and I always held him in high esteem.

I think he knew that, and he said he was glad to have me working for him whenever they were in a pinch to complete a job in a hurry.  I have described Larry as reminding me of the Marlboro Man, as he had a moustache that looked like his.

Yep. That’s the Marlboro Man

I finally found a picture of Larry taken a couple of decades later… Here he is:

Larry Riley 20 years after I first met him. He has a much newer hardhat in this picture

Larry Riley 20 years after I first met him. He has a much newer hardhat in this picture

The wonderful thing about working in a Power Plant is that when you drive through the gate in the morning, you never know what you might be doing that day.   Even after 20 years at the plant, I was still amazed by the diversity of jobs a person could do there.  Anyone who spent those 20 years actually working instead of doing a desk job, would know a lot about all kinds of equipment and instruments, and temperatures.

When I was young I was able to go to Minnesota to visit my cousins in a place called “Phelp’s Mill”.  Named after an old mill along a river that was a “self service” museum.  Across the road and on the hill loomed a big foreboding house where my cousins lived during the summers.  We would play hide-and-seek in that mill, which was mainly made out of wood.  It was 4 stories high if you include the basement and had a lot of places to hide.

Phelps Mill, MN where we played as a boy.  You can see the house on the hill in the background

This is a picture of the inside of Phelps Mill by Shawn Turner: http://www.flickr.com/photos/32364049@N04/7174048516/

When I began working in the Power Plant, I realized one day that this was like that old mill only on a much bigger scale.  You could spend half of a life time wandering around that plant before you actually knew where everything was.  Each day brought something new.  My first years as a summer help, most of the “emergencies” that I would take part in had to do with cleaning up coal.  When I was able to work with the Labor Crew, things became a lot more interesting.

One day in the spring of 1983 when I arrived at work ready to mop the floor and sweep and dust the Turbine Generators, I was told that I needed to get with Chuck Ross an A foreman over the Labor Crew at the time, because I was going to work with the Labor Crew that day.  I was told to bring my respirator… Which usually had meant it was time to shovel coal.  This day was different.

Chuck brought me to the Tool room and asked Bif Johnson to give me a new Rubber Mallet.

New Rubber Mallet just like this

I went with the labor crew up on #1 Boiler just above the Air Preheater Baskets that I didn’t know existed at the time…  The Boiler had been shutdown over night because there was a problem with the airflow through the boiler and we had to go in the duct and clean the Slag Screen.

Diagram of a boiler

Diagram of a boiler

Below the Economizer and above the air preheater in the diagram above.

“Slag Screen,” I thought… That sounds like a fancy word for something that was  probably just some kind of filter or something….  I knew that Power Plant Engineers liked to give fancy words to make the Plant sound more like a Palace.

As I mentioned before… there are places like:  The Tripper Gallery.  Hopper Nozzle Booster Pump. Generator Bathtub.  The Gravimetric Feeder Deck — I liked that one, it sounded like you were on a ship.  Travelling Water Screens.  There were long names for some, like “Force Draft Fan Inboard Bearing Emergency Lube Oil Pump” (try saying that with a lisp).  Anyway, I could go on and on.

Larry Riley explained to us that we needed to work as fast as we could to clean the slag screen because they wanted to bring this unit back online in the evening.  We couldn’t wait for the unit to cool down much, so we were only allowed to go in the hot air duct for 10 minutes at a time because of the heat.

So, in I went.  The first thing I noticed as I stuck my head in the door was that there wasn’t any immediate place to stand.  There was only a hole below me that went down into the darkness.  So I looked around for something to grab onto to pull myself in.  Once my body was in the door I was able to walk along a beam next to this big screen.  It looked similar to a screen on a window at home only the wires were about 1/2 inch apart.  Something like this:

A picture of a similar slag screen

Oh, and there was one more thing that I noticed…. It was incredibly HOT.  I was wearing leather gloves so I could grab onto the structure to hold myself up, but if I leaned against the screen with my arm, it would burn it.  I was just wearing a tee shirt.  I don’t know the exact temperature, but I have worked in similar heat at other times, and I would say that it was around 160 degrees.  I was not wearing my  hard hat because there was a strong wind blowing to try and cool the boiler down.

The problem is that we were on the tail end of the air flowing out of the boiler, and it was carrying all that heat right onto us.  At 160 degrees your hard hat will become soft so that you can squish it like a ball cap.  I was wearing Goggles as well, and that helped keep my eyes from drying out since everything else went dry the moment I stuck my head in there.

Anyway, I threw the lanyard for my safety belt around a pipe that ran diagonal across my path, and held onto it with one hand while with my other hand I began pounding on the screen with the rubber mallet.  I had to breathe very shallow because the air was so hot.  Breathing slowly gave the air time to cool off a bit before it went down into my throat.

This was a new adventure for me.  There are some Brave Power Plant Men that work on the “Bowl Mill” crew that have worked in these conditions for weeks at a time.  I suppose you grow used to it after a while.  Kind of like when you eat something with Habenero Sauce.  The first time it just very painful.  Then a few weeks later, you’re piling it on your tortilla chips.

After my first 10 minutes were over, someone at the door, (which was hard to see) hollered for me, so I made my way back to the door and emerged into the cool air of the morning.  I noticed that Larry Riley gave me a slightly worried look and I wondered what it meant.  I realized what it was moments later when I went to remove the respirator off of my face.  I only had one filter cartridge in the respirator.

Half-face respirator

The other one was missing.  I thought that was silly of me to go in there with only one filter.  No wonder it seemed like I was breathing a lot of dust.  Then I thought…. No.  I know I had both filters when I went in the duct.  I must have lost one while I was in there.  Maybe with all that banging I knocked it off.

Anyway, 10 minutes later it was time for me to go back in there, and this time I made sure my filters were securely screwed onto the respirator.  I worried in the back of my mind that I may have ruined my lungs for life by breathing all that silicon-based fly ash because I was feeling a little out of breathe (for the next 10 years).

Anyway, halfway through my 10 minutes in the duct I reached up with my hand to make sure my filters were still tightly screwed in place, and to my astonishment, they weren’t tight.  I tried tightening them, but I couldn’t screw them tight.  The respirator itself had become soft in the heat and the plastic was no longer stiff enough to keep the filter tight.  It made sense then why I had lost my filter the first time.  It must have fallen down into the abyss of darkness that was right behind me while I was banging on that slag screen.

After working on the screen for an hour or so, we took a break.  When we returned the temperature in the boiler had dropped considerably, and I was able to stay in the duct the rest of the day without having to climb in and out all the time.

Larry had an air powered needle gun brought up there and someone used that for a while cleaning the screen.  It is what it sounds like.  It has rods sticking out the end of a gun looking tool that vibrate wildly when you pull the trigger.  I don’t know what the real name is for it, but it cleaned slag screens a lot faster than my beating the screen with the rubber mallet all day.

Needle Gun

I did beat that screen all day.  When it was time to leave I brought the mallet back to the tool room, and it looked like this:

Rubber Mallet after banging on a slag screen all day

I had worn the rubber off of the  mallet.  When I brought the mallet back to the tool room, Bif said, “What is this?”  I said I was just returning the mallet that I had borrowed that morning.  He said something about how I must be some kind of a he-man or crazy.   I was too worried about my lungs to think about how much my wrists were aching from taking that pounding all day.

A couple of months later I was promoted to the Labor Crew.  Chuck Ross had kept saying that he couldn’t wait for me to go to the Labor Crew because he wanted me to work for him.  The very day that I started on the Labor Crew, the plant had a going-away party for Chuck Ross.  He was leaving our plant to go work at another one in Muskogee.

During the party Chuck presented me with the rubber mallet that I had used that day cleaning the slag screen.  He said he had never seen anything like that before.  He was sorry he was going to leave without having the opportunity to have me working for him.

I felt the same way about Chuck.  I have always kept that rubber mallet laying around the house since 1983 when I received it.  My wife sometimes picks it up when she is cleaning somewhere and says, “Do you still want this?” With a hopeful look, like someday I may say that it is all right if she throws it away.

Of course I want to keep it.  It reminds me of the days when I was able to work with True Power Plant Men in their natural environment.  The slag screen was later deemed unnecessary and was removed from the boiler.

It also reminds me of other things.  Like how quickly something can happen that changes your life forever.

Questions from that day have always remained with me.

How much ash did I breathe in?  I couldn’t see much more than a few feet in front of me as I banged on that screen knocking ash down all over me.  What did it do to my lungs?

What if I had taken a step back or slipped off of that beam before I had walked to the other end to secure my safety lanyard?  I know now what was below me then.  I would have fallen about 20 feet down to some fins, and then down another 20 feet onto the air preheater baskets.  It would have taken a while to retrieve me, once someone figured out that I was missing.

What does that much heat do to your body… or your brain?

I know these are things that go through the minds of True Power Plant Men.  I worked with them for years improving the safety of the power plant.  All-in-all, no one ever died when I was there, though some came close.  The Slogan over the Shift Supervisor’s Office said, “Safety is job #1”.  That wasn’t there to try to convince us that Safety was important.  It was there as a testimony to everyone who had already made that decision.

Comments from the previous repost:

  1. Jonathan Caswell August 12, 2014

    GLAD that you made it….even if the mallet didn’t!!!

    I can dig it. When I was hired for Security at one post…I really looked forward to working with and for that particular Supervisor who’d hired me. No such luck–she was gone in a month or two. THAT hurt! 🙂

  2. Ron Kilman August 13, 2014

    If the environment is too hot for a respirator to function properly in, it’s too hot for people to work in (if safety is actually job #1). I saw too many examples of “Get the Unit Back On is Job #1″.

 

Luxuries and Amenities of a Power Plant Labor Crew

Originally Posted on August 11, 2012.  Added a picture of Larry Riley:

When I was a janitor at the Power Plant there were times when we were christened by being allowed to work with the Labor Crew on jobs that needed to be done in a hurry.  Larry Riley was the foreman of the Labor Crew.  I had worked with Larry Riley during the summers when I was a summer help, and I always held him in high esteem.

I think he knew that, and he said he was glad to have me working for him whenever they were in a pinch to complete a job in a hurry.  I have described Larry as reminding me of the Marlboro Man, as he had a moustache that looked like his.

Yep. That’s the Marlboro Man

I finally found a picture of Larry taken a couple of decades later… Here he is:

Larry Riley 20 years after I first met him.  He has a much newer hardhat in this picture

Larry Riley 20 years after I first met him. He has a much newer hardhat in this picture

The wonderful thing about working in a Power Plant is that when you drive through the gate in the morning, you never know what you might be doing that day.   Even after 20 years at the plant, I was still amazed by the diversity of jobs a person could do there.  Anyone who spent those 20 years actually working instead of doing a desk job, would know a lot about all kinds of equipment and instruments, and temperatures.

When I was young I was able to go to Minnesota to visit my cousins in a place called “Phelp’s Mill”.  Named after an old mill along a river that was a “self service” museum.  Across the road and on the hill loomed a big foreboding house where my cousins lived during the summers.  We would play hide-and-seek in that mill, which was mainly made out of wood.  It was 4 stories high if you include the basement and had a lot of places to hide.

Phelps Mill, MN where we played as a boy.  You can see the house on the hill in the background

This is a picture of the inside of Phelps Mill by Shawn Turner: http://www.flickr.com/photos/32364049@N04/7174048516/

When I began working in the Power Plant, I realized one day that this was like that old mill only on a much bigger scale.  You could spend half of a life time wandering around that plant before you actually knew where everything was.  Each day brought something new.  My first years as a summer help, most of the “emergencies” that I would take part in had to do with cleaning up coal.  When I was able to work with the Labor Crew, things became a lot more interesting.

One day in the spring of 1983 when I arrived at work ready to mop the floor and sweep and dust the Turbine Generators, I was told that I needed to get with Chuck Ross an A foreman over the Labor Crew at the time, because I was going to work with the Labor Crew that day.  I was told to bring my respirator… Which usually had meant it was time to shovel coal.  This day was different.

Chuck brought me to the Tool room and asked Bif Johnson to give me a new Rubber Mallet.

New Rubber Mallet just like this

I went with the labor crew up on #1 Boiler just above the Air Preheater Baskets that I didn’t know existed at the time…  The Boiler had been shutdown over night because there was a problem with the airflow through the boiler and we had to go in the duct and clean the Slag Screen.

Diagram of a boiler

Diagram of a boiler

Below the Economizer and above the air preheater in the diagram above.

“Slag Screen,” I thought… That sounds like a fancy word for something that was  probably just some kind of filter or something….  I knew that Power Plant Engineers liked to give fancy words to make the Plant sound more like a Palace.

As I mentioned before… there are places like:  The Tripper Gallery.  Hopper Nozzle Booster Pump. Generator Bathtub.  The Gravimetric Feeder Deck — I liked that one, it sounded like you were on a ship.  Travelling Water Screens.  There were long names for some, like “Force Draft Fan Inboard Bearing Lube Oil Pump” (try saying that with a lisp).  Anyway, I could go on and on.

Larry Riley explained to us that we needed to work as fast as we could to clean the slag screen because they wanted to bring this unit back online in the evening.  We couldn’t wait for the unit to cool down much, so we were only allowed to go in the hot air duct for 10 minutes at a time because of the heat.

So, in I went.  The first thing I noticed as I stuck my head in the door was that there wasn’t any immediate place to stand.  There was only a hole below me that went down into the darkness.  So I looked around for something to grab onto to pull myself in.  Once my body was in the door I was able to walk along a beam next to this big screen.  It looked similar to a screen on a window at home only the wires were about 1/2 inch apart.  Something like this:

A picture of a similar slag screen

Oh, and there was one more thing that I noticed…. It was incredibly HOT.  I was wearing leather gloves so I could grab onto the structure to hold myself up, but if I leaned against the screen with my arm, it would burn it.  I was just wearing a tee shirt.  I don’t know the exact temperature, but I have worked in similar heat at other times, and I would say that it was around 150 degrees.  I was not wearing my  hard hat because there was a strong wind blowing to try and cool the boiler down.

The problem is that we were on the tail end of the air flowing out of the boiler, and it was carrying all that heat right onto us.  At 160 degrees your hard hat will become soft so that you can squish it like a ball cap.  I was wearing Goggles as well, and that helped keep my eyes from drying out since everything else went dry the moment I stuck my head in there.

Anyway, I threw the lanyard for my safety belt around a pipe that ran diagonal across my path, and held onto it with one hand while with my other hand I began pounding on the screen with the rubber mallet.  I had to breathe very shallow because the air was so hot.  Breathing slowly gave the air time to cool off a bit before it went down into my throat.

This was a new adventure for me.  There are some Brave Power Plant Men that work on the “Bowl Mill” crew that have worked in these conditions for weeks at a time.  I suppose you grow used to it after a while.  Kind of like when you eat something with Habenero Sauce.  The first time it just very painful.  Then a few weeks later, you’re piling it on your tortilla chips.

After my first 10 minutes were over, someone at the door, (which was hard to see) hollered for me, so I made my way back to the door and emerged into the cool air of the morning.  I noticed that Larry Riley gave me a slightly worried look and I wondered what it meant.  I realized what it was moments later when I went to remove the respirator off of my face.  I only had one filter cartridge in the respirator.

Half-face respirator

The other one was missing.  I thought that was silly of me to go in there with only one filter.  No wonder it seemed like I was breathing a lot of dust.  Then I thought…. No.  I know I had both filters when I went in the duct.  I must have lost one while I was in there.  Maybe with all that banging I knocked it off.

Anyway, 10 minutes later it was time for me to go back in there, and this time I made sure my filters were securely screwed onto the respirator.  I worried in the back of my mind that I may have ruined my lungs for life by breathing all that silicon-based fly ash because I was feeling a little out of breathe (for the next 10 years).

Anyway, halfway through my 10 minutes in the duct I reached up with my hand to make sure my filters were still tightly screwed in place, and to my astonishment, they weren’t tight.  I tried tightening them, but I couldn’t screw them tight.  The respirator itself had become soft in the heat and the plastic was no longer stiff enough to keep the filter tight.  It made sense then why I had lost my filter the first time.  It must have fallen down into the abyss of darkness that was right behind me while I was banging on that slag screen.

After working on the screen for an hour or so, we took a break.  When we returned the temperature in the boiler had dropped considerably, and I was able to stay in the duct the rest of the day without having to climb in and out all the time.

Larry had an air powered needle gun brought up there and someone used that for a while cleaning the screen.  It is what it sounds like.  It has rods sticking out the end of a gun looking tool that vibrate wildly when you pull the trigger.  I don’t know what the real name is for it, but it cleaned slag screens a lot faster than my beating the screen with the rubber mallet all day.

Needle Gun

I did beat that screen all day.  When it was time to leave I brought the mallet back to the tool room, and it looked like this:

Rubber Mallet after banging on a slag screen all day

I had worn the rubber off of the  mallet.  When I brought the mallet back to the tool room, Bif said, “What is this?”  I said I was just returning the mallet that I had borrowed that morning.  He said something about how I must be some kind of a he-man or crazy.   I was too worried about my lungs to think about how much my wrists were aching from taking that pounding all day.

A couple of months later I was promoted to the Labor Crew.  Chuck Ross had kept saying that he couldn’t wait for me to go to the Labor Crew because he wanted me to work for him.  The very day that I started on the Labor Crew, the plant had a going-away party for Chuck Ross.  He was leaving our plant to go work at another one in Muskogee.

During the party Chuck presented me with the rubber mallet that I had used that day cleaning the slag screen.  He said he had never seen anything like that before.  He was sorry he was going to leave without having the opportunity to have me working for him.

I felt the same way about Chuck.  I have always kept that rubber mallet laying around the house since 1983 when I received it.  My wife sometimes picks it up when she is cleaning somewhere and says, “Do you still want this?” With a hopeful look, like someday I may say that it is all right if she throws it away.

Of course I want to keep it.  It reminds me of the days when I was able to work with True Power Plant Men in their natural environment.  The slag screen was later deemed unnecessary and was removed from the boiler.

It also reminds me of other things.  Like how quickly something can happen that changes your life forever.

Questions from that day have always remained with me.

How much ash did I breathe in?  I couldn’t see much more than a few feet in front of me as I banged on that screen knocking ash down all over me.  What did it do to my lungs?

What if I had taken a step back or slipped off of that beam before I had walked to the other end to secure my safety lanyard?  I know now what was below me then.  I would have fallen about 20 feet down to some fins, and then down another 20 feet onto the air preheater baskets.  It would have taken a while to retrieve me, once someone figured out that I was missing.

What does that much heat do to your body… or your brain?

I know these are things that go through the minds of True Power Plant Men.  I worked with them for years improving the safety of the power plant.  All-in-all, no one ever died when I was there, though some came close.  The Slogan over the Shift Supervisor’s Office said, “Safety is job #1”.  That wasn’t there to try to convince us that Safety was important.  It was there as a testimony to everyone who had already made that decision.

Comments from the previous repost:

  1. Jonathan Caswell August 12, 2014

    GLAD that you made it….even if the mallet didn’t!!!

    I can dig it. When I was hired for Security at one post…I really looked forward to working with and for that particular Supervisor who’d hired me. No such luck–she was gone in a month or two. THAT hurt! 🙂

  2. Ron Kilman August 13, 2014

    If the environment is too hot for a respirator to function properly in, it’s too hot for people to work in (if safety is actually job #1). I saw too many examples of “Get the Unit Back On is Job #1″.

 

Power Plant Painting Lessons with Aubrey Cargill

Originally Posted March 9, 2012.  I have added some pictures and slightly edited:

I had the feeling it would be an interesting day when the first thing that Stanley Elmore asked me when I sat down for our morning meeting was, “Kevin, are you afraid of heights?”  Well, since before that day I hadn’t been afraid of heights, I told him I wasn’t.  Then Stanley, who liked most of all to joke around with people, started hinting through facial expressions of excitement (such as grinning real big and raising his eyebrows up to where his hair line used to be when he was younger) and by uttering sounds like “boy, well, yeah…. huh, I guess we’ll see” while shaking his head as if in disbelief.  He told me to get with Aubrey after the meeting because there was a job I needed to help him out with.

Aubrey Cargill was our painter.  He worked out of the garage that I worked out of the last 3 years of working as a summer help.  There was a paint room in the back of the garage on the side where the carpenter, Fred Hesser built cabinets and other great works of art.  He was the best carpenter I have ever met, as well as one of the finest gentlemen I have ever known.  He wasn’t in the category of Power Plant man, as he didn’t involve himself in most of the power plant operations or maintenance, but to this day, Power Plant Men from all over Oklahoma can visit Sooner Plant on overhaul and admire the woodworking masterpieces created by Carpenter Fred many years earlier.

I had worked with Aubrey my first year as a summer help.  The garage hadn’t been built yet, and Aubrey had not been assigned as a painter, as both units were still under construction.  Aubrey was the same age as my father and in his mid-forties that first summer.  His favorite buddy was Ben Hutchinson.  Whereever one went, the other was not far away.  All during the first summer, the lake on the hill was still being filled by pumping water up from the Arkansas river.

Map of the Power Plant Lake

Map of the Power Plant Lake.  The power plant is on the northwest corner of the lake.  The Arkansas River is in the upper right corner of the map

Most of the last two weeks that summer I worked with Aubrey and Ben picking up driftwood along the dikes that were built on the lake to route the water from the discharge from the plant to the far side of the lake from where the water enters the plant to cool the condensers.  The idea is that the water has to flow all the way around the lake before it is used to cool the condenser again.  So, Ben and Aubrey took turns driving a big dump truck down the dike while I walked down one side of the dike around the water level and Aubrey or Ben walked down the other side, and we would toss wood up the dike into the dump truck.

A Ford Dump Truck

A Dump Truck

This was quite a throw, and often resulted in a big log being tossed up the dike just to hit the side of the dump truck creating a loud banging sound.  Anyway, when you consider that there are probably about 6 miles of dikes all together, it was quite a task to clean up all the driftwood that had accumulated in this man made lake.  After doing this for two weeks I learned the true meaning of the word “bursitis”.

After the morning meeting with Stanley Elmore I followed Aubrey into the carpenter shop, where he pointed to two buckets of paint that I was to carry, while he grabbed a canvas tool bag filled with large paint brushes and other painting tools and some white rope that looked like it had the seat of wooden swing on one end.  Aubrey nodded to Fred, and I understood by this that Fred had created the wooden swing that had four pieces of rope knotted through each of the corners of the seat and were connected to the main rope using some kind of small shackle.  When I asked Aubrey what that was, he told me that it is was a Boatswain Chair.  “Oh.” I think I said, “It looks like a swing.”

On the way to the boilers, we stopped by the tool room and I checked out a safety belt.  I could see Aubrey nodding at Bud Schoonover about my having to check out a safety belt, and what implication that had.  I of course preferred to think that my fellow employees would not purposely put me in harms way, so I went along acting as if I was oblivious to whatever fate awaited me.

We took the elevator on #1 Boiler to the 11th floor (which is actually about 22 stories up.  There are only 12 stops on the boiler elevator, but the building is really 25 stories to the very top.  So Power Plant men call the extra floors things like 8 1/2 when you get off the elevator where it says 8, and go up one flight of stairs.

Aubrey explained to me that we need to paint a drain pipe that is below us a couple of floors that goes down from there to just above floor 7 1/2 where it turns.  He said that he could paint the rest, but he needed my help to paint the pipe where it drops straight down, because there isn’t any way to reach it, except by dropping someone off the side of the boiler over a handrail and lowering them down to the pipe, and that turned out to be me.

He explained how the safety belt worked.  He said that I clip the lanyard in the ring at the top of the boatswain chair so that if I slip off the chair I wouldn’t fall all the way down, and then he could gradually lower me on down to the landing.  he didn’t explain to me at the time that the weight of my body free-falling three feet before coming to the end of the lanyard would have been a sufficient enough force to snap the white rope in half.  I guess he didn’t know about that.  But that was ok for me, because I didn’t know about it either — at the time.  We didn’t use Safety Harnesses at that time.  Just a belt around the waist.

A Safety Belt like this, only skinnier without all the extra padding

A Safety Belt like this, only skinnier without all the extra padding

So as I tied the canvas bag to the bottom of the chair, I saw Aubrey quickly wrap the rope around the handrail making some sort of half hitch knot.  I wasn’t too sure about that so I asked Aubrey where he learned to tie a knot like that and he told me in the Navy.  That was all I needed to hear.  As soon as he told me he learned knot tying in the Navy, I felt completely secure.  I figured if anyone knew the right way to tie a knot it’s someone in the Navy.

I clipped the lanyard in the shackle at the top of the boatswain chair and headed over the handrail.  I situated the chair to where I had my feet through it when I went over and the chair was up by my waist.  As I lowered myself down, I came to rest on the boatswain chair some 210 feet up from the ground.

It is always windy in this part of Oklahoma in the summer, and the wind was blowing that day, so, I began to spin around and float this way and that.  That continued until Aubrey had lowered me down to the pipe that I was going to paint and I was able to wrap my legs around it and wait for my head to stop spinning.

Then Aubrey lowered down another rope that had a bucket of paint tied to it.   Then I began my job of painting the pipe as Aubrey had hold of the rope and was slowly lowering me down.  Luckily Aubrey didn’t have to sneeze, or wasn’t chased by a wasp while he was doing this.  Thinking about that, I kept my legs wrapped around the pipe pretty tight just in case Aubrey had a heart attack or something.

The pipe really did need painting.  So, I knew this wasn’t completely just a joke to toss me out on a swing in the middle of the air hanging onto a rope with one hand while attempting to paint a pipe.  It had the red primer on it that most of the piping had before it was painted so it looked out of place with all the other silver pipes, but I couldn’t help thinking about Jerry Lewis in the Movie, “Who’s Minding the Store” where Jerry Lewis is told to paint the globe on the end of a flagpole that is located out the window on a top floor of the building, and he begins by trying to climb out on the flagpole with a bucket of paint in his mouth with little success.  But like Jerry, I figured it had to be done, so I just went ahead and did it.

Jerry Lewis tasked with painting the gold ball on the end of a flag pole on the top floor of a department store

Jerry Lewis tasked with painting the gold ball on the end of a flag pole on the top floor of a department store

Fortunately, I found out right away that I wasn’t afraid of heights, even at this height and under these conditions.  So, instead of fainting away, I just painted away and finally ended up on floor 7  1/2 which is right next to the Tripper Gallery.  I think I finished this a little after morning break but I don’t think Aubrey wanted to stop for break just to lower me down and then have to start from the top again lowering me all the way down one more time.

This brings me to another point.  Notice where I landed.  Right next to the Tripper Gallery.  Power Plant ingenuity has a way of naming parts of the plant with interesting names.  The first time I heard that we were going to the tripper gallery to shovel coal, I half expected to see paintings lining the walls.  It sounded like such a nice place to visit…. “Tripper Gallery”.  It sort of rolls off your tongue.  Especially if you try saying it with a French accent.

The Tripper Gallery is neither eloquent nor French.  It is where the coal from the coal yard is dumped into the Coal Silos just above the Bowl Mills.  — Yes.  Bowl Mills.  I know.  It sounds like a breakfast cereal.  Almost like Malt-O-Meal in a bowl.  So, the Tripper Gallery is a long narrow room (hence the word Gallery), and there are two machines called Trippers that travels from one silo to the next dumping coal from the conveyor belt down into the coal silo, and when the silo is full, a switch is triggered (or tripped) which tells the machine to go to the next silo.  Since the switch “trips” and tells the machine to move, they call the machine the “Tripper”.

 

Here is a picture of a clean tripper gallery I found on Google Images

Here is a picture of a clean tripper gallery transporting grain or something other than coal I found on Google Images

I know.  That last paragraph didn’t have anything to do with painting the drain pipe.  But I thought since I mentioned the Tripper Gallery, I might as well explain what it is.  Anyway, when we returned to the shop I watched as Stanley Elmore went over to Aubrey to see how I did when I found out he was going to drop me over the side of the boiler in a wooden chair.  I could see that Aubrey gave him a good report because Stanley looked a little disappointed that this Power Plant Joke (even though essential), hadn’t resulted in visibly shaking me up.

Luxuries and Amenities of a Power Plant Labor Crew — Repost

Originally Posted on August 11, 2012.  Added a picture of Larry Riley:

When I was a janitor at the Power Plant there were times when we were christened by being allowed to work with the Labor Crew on jobs that needed to be done in a hurry.  Larry Riley was the foreman of the Labor Crew.  I had worked with Larry Riley during the summers when I was a summer help, and I always held him in high esteem.  I think he knew that, and he said he was glad to have me working for him whenever they were in a pinch to complete a job in a hurry.  I have described Larry as reminding me of the Marlboro Man, as he had a moustache that looked like his.

Yep. That’s the Marlboro Man

I finally found a picture of Larry taken a couple of decades later… Here he is:

Larry Riley 20 years after I first met him.  He has a much newer hardhat in this picture

Larry Riley 20 years after I first met him. He has a much newer hardhat in this picture

The wonderful thing about working in a Power Plant is that when you drive through the gate in the morning, you never know what you might be doing that day.   Even after 20 years at the plant, I was still amazed by the diversity of jobs a person could do there.  Anyone who spent those 20 years actually working instead of doing a desk job, would know a lot about all kinds of equipment and instruments, and temperatures.

When I was young I was able to go to Minnesota to visit my cousins in a place called “Phelp’s Mill”.  Named after an old mill along a river that was a “self service” museum.  Across the road and on the hill loomed a big foreboding house where my cousins lived during the summers.  We would play hide-and-seek in that mill, which was mainly made out of wood.  It was 4 stories high if you include the basement and had a lot of places to hide.

Phelps Mill, MN where we played as a boy.  You can see the house on the hill in the background

This is a picture of the inside of Phelps Mill by Shawn Turner: http://www.flickr.com/photos/32364049@N04/7174048516/

When I began working in the Power Plant, I realized one day that this was like that old mill only on a much bigger scale.  You could spend half of a live time wandering around that plant before you actually knew where everything was.  So, each day brought something new.  My first years as a summer help, most of the “emergencies” that I would take part in had to do with cleaning up coal.  When I was able to work with the Labor Crew, things became a lot more interesting.

One day in the spring of 1983 when I arrived at work ready to mop the floor and sweep and dust the Turbine Generators, I was told that I needed to get with Chuck Ross an A foreman over the Labor Crew at the time, because I was going to work with the Labor Crew that day.  I was told to bring my respirator… Which usually had meant it was time to shovel coal.  This day was different.

Chuck brought me to the Tool room and asked Bif Johnson to give me a new Rubber Mallet.

New Rubber Mallet just like this

I went with the labor crew up on #1 Boiler just above the Air Preheater Baskets that I didn’t know existed at the time…  The Boiler had been shutdown over night because there was a problem with the airflow through the boiler and we had to go in the duct and clean the Slag Screen.

“Slag Screen,” I thought… That sounds like a fancy word for something that was  probably just some kind of filter or something….  I knew that Power Plant Engineers liked to give fancy words to make the Plant sound more like a Palace.  As I mentioned before… there are places like:  The Tripper Gallery.  Hopper Nozzle Booster Pump. Generator Bathtub.  The Gravimetric Feeder Deck — I liked that one, it sounded like you were on a ship.  Travelling Water Screens.  There were long names for some, like “Force Draft Fan Inboard Bearing Lube Oil Pump” (try saying that with a lisp).  Anyway, I could go on and on.

Larry Riley explained to us that we needed to work as fast as we could to clean the slag screen because they wanted to bring this unit back on in the evening.  We couldn’t wait for the unit to cool down much, so we were only allowed to go in the hot air duct for 10 minutes at a time.

So, in I went.  The first thing I noticed as I stuck my head in the door was that there wasn’t any immediate place to stand.  There was only a hole below me that went down into the darkness.  So I looked around for something to grab onto to pull myself in.  Once my body was in the door I was able to walk along a beam next to this big screen.  It looked similar to a screen on a window at home only the wires were about 1/2 inch apart.  Something like this:

A picture of a similar slag screen

Oh, and there was one more thing that I noticed…. It was incredibly HOT.  I was wearing leather gloves so I could grab onto the structure to hold myself up, but if I leaned against the screen with my arm, it would burn it.  I was just wearing a t-shirt.  I don’t know the exact temperature, but I have worked in similar heat at other times, and I would say that it was around 150 degrees.  I was not wearing my  hard hat because there was a strong wind blowing to try and cool the boiler down.

The problem is that we were on the tail end of the air flowing out of the boiler, and it was carrying all that heat right onto us.  At 160 degrees your hard hat will become soft so that you can squish it like a ball cap.  I was wearing Goggles as well, and that helped keep my eyes from drying out since everything else went dry the moment I stuck my head in there.

Anyway, I threw my lanyard around a pipe that ran diagonal across my path, and held onto it with one hand while with my other hand I began pounding on the screen with the rubber mallet.  I had to breathe very shallow because the air was so hot.  It gave the air time to cool off a bit before it went down into my throat.

This was a new adventure for me.  There are some Brave Power Plant Men that work on the “Bowl Mill” crew that have worked in these conditions for weeks at a time.  I suppose you grow used to it after a while.  Kind of like when you eat something with Habenero Sauce.  The first time it just very painful.  Then a few weeks later, you’re piling it on your tortilla chips.

After my first 10 minutes were over, someone at the door, (which was hard to see) hollered for me, so I made my way back to the door and emerged into the cool air of the morning.  I noticed that Larry Riley gave me a slightly worried look and I wondered what it meant.  I realized what it was moments later when I went to remove the respirator off of my face.  I only had one filter cartridge in the respirator.

Half-face respirator

The other one was missing.  I thought that was silly of me to go in there with only one filter.  No wonder it seemed like I was breathing a lot of dust.  Then I thought…. No.  I know I had both filters when I went in the duct.  I must have lost one while I was in there.  Maybe with all that banging I knocked it off.

Anyway, 10 minutes later it was time for me to go back in there, and this time I made sure my filters were securely screwed onto the respirator.  I worried in the back of my mind that I may have ruined my lungs for life by breathing all that silicon based fly ash because I was feeling a little out of breathe (for the next 10 years).

Anyway, halfway through my 10 minutes in the duct I reached up with my hand to make sure my filters were still tightly screwed in place, and to my astonishment, they weren’t tight.  I couldn’t screw them tight.  The respirator itself had become soft in the heat and the plastic was no longer stiff enough to keep the filter tight.  It made sense then why I had lost my filter the first time.  It must have fallen down into the abyss of darkness that was right behind me while I was banging on that slag screen.

After working on the screen for an hour or so, we took a break.  When we returned the temperature in the boiler had dropped considerably, and I was able to stay in the duct the rest of the day without having to climb in and out all the time.

Larry had an air powered needle gun brought up there and someone used that for a while cleaning the screen.  It is what it sounds like.  It has rods sticking out the end of a gun looking tool that vibrate wildly when you pull the trigger.  I don’t know what the real name is for it, but it cleaned slag screens a lot faster than my beating the screen with the rubber mallet all day.

Needle Gun

I did beat that screen all day.  When it was time to leave I brought the mallet back to the tool room, and it looked like this:

Rubber Mallet after banging on a slag screen all day

I had worn the rubber off of the  mallet.  When I brought the mallet back to the tool room, Bif said, “What is this?”  I said I was just returning the mallet that I had borrowed that morning.  He said something about how I must be some kind of a he-man or crazy.   I was too worried about my lungs to think about how much my wrists were aching from taking that pounding all day.

A couple of months later I was promoted to the Labor Crew.  Chuck Ross had kept saying that he couldn’t wait for me to go to the Labor Crew because he wanted me to work for him.  The very day that I started on the Labor Crew, the plant had a going-away party for Chuck Ross.  He was leaving our plant to go work at another one in Muskogee.

During the party Chuck presented me with the rubber mallet that I had used that day cleaning the slag screen.  He said he had never seen anything like that before.  He was sorry he was going to leave without having the opportunity to have me working for him.  I felt the same way about Chuck.  I have always kept that rubber mallet laying around the house since 1983 when I received it.  My wife sometimes picks it up when she is cleaning somewhere and says, “Do you still want this?” With a hopeful look, like someday I may say that it is all right if she throws it away.

Of course I want to keep it.  It reminds me of the days when I was able to work with True Power Plant Men in their natural environment.  The slag screen was later deemed unnecessary and was removed from the boiler.

It also reminds me of other things.  Like how quickly something can happen that changes your life forever.

Questions from that day have always remained with me.

How much ash did I breathe in?  I couldn’t see much more than a few feet in front of me as I banged on that screen knocking ash down all over me.  What did it do to my lungs?

What if I had taken a step back or slipped off of that beam before I had walked to the other end to secure my safety lanyard?  I know now what was below me then.  I would have fallen about 20 feet down to some fins, and then down another 20 feet onto the air preheater baskets.  It would have taken a while to retrieve me, once someone figured out that I was missing.

What does that much heat do to your body… or your brain?

I know these are things that go through the minds of True Power Plant Men.  I worked with them for years improving the safety of the power plant.  All-in-all, no one ever died when I was there, though some came close.  The Slogan over the Shift Supervisor’s Office said, “Safety is job #1”.  That wasn’t there to try to convince us that Safety was important.  It was there as a testimony to everyone who had already made that decision.

Power Plant Painting Lessons with Aubrey Cargill — Repost

Originally Posted March 9, 2012.  I have added some pictures and slightly edited:

I had the feeling it would be an interesting day when the first thing that Stanley Elmore asked me when I sat down for our morning meeting was, “Kevin, are you afraid of heights?”  Well, since before that day I hadn’t been afraid of heights, I told him I wasn’t.  Then Stanley, who liked most of all to joke around with people, started hinting through facial expressions of excitement (such as grinning real big and raising his eyebrows up to where his hair line used to be when he was younger) and by uttering sounds like “boy, well, yeah…. huh, I guess we’ll see” while shaking his head as if in disbelief.  He told me to get with Aubrey after the meeting because there was a job I needed to help him out with.

Aubrey Cargill was our painter.  He worked out of the garage that I worked out of the last 3 years of working as a summer help.  There was a paint room in the back of the garage on the side where the carpenter, Fred Hesser built cabinets and other great works of art.  He was the best carpenter I have ever met, as well as one of the finest gentlemen I have ever known.  He wasn’t in the category of Power Plant man, as he didn’t involve himself in most of the power plant operations or maintenance, but to this day, Power Plant Men from all over Oklahoma can visit Sooner Plant on overhaul and admire the woodworking masterpieces created by Carpenter Fred many years earlier.

I had worked with Aubrey my first year as a summer help.  The garage hadn’t been built yet, and Aubrey had not been assigned as a painter, as both units were still under construction.  Aubrey was the same age as my father and in his mid-forties that first summer.  His favorite buddy was Ben Hutchinson.  Whereever one went, the other was not far away.  All during the first summer, the lake on the hill was still being filled by pumping water up from the Arkansas river.

Most of the last two weeks that summer I worked with Aubrey and Ben picking up driftwood along the dikes that were built on the lake to route the water from the discharge from the plant to the far side of the lake from where the water enters the plant to cool the condensers.  The idea is that the water has to flow all the way around the lake before it is used to cool the condenser again.  So, Ben and Aubrey took turns driving a big dump truck down the dike while I walked down one side of the dike around the water level and Aubrey or Ben walked down the other side, and we would toss wood up the dike into the dump truck.

A Ford Dump Truck

A Dump Truck

This was quite a throw, and often resulted in a big log being tossed up the dike just to hit the side of the dump truck creating a loud banging sound.  Anyway, when you consider that there are probably about 6 miles of dikes all together, it was quite a task to clean up all the driftwood that had accumulated in this man made lake.  After doing this for two weeks I learned the true meaning of the word “bursitis”.

After the morning meeting with Stanley Elmore I followed Aubrey into the carpenter shop, where he pointed to two buckets of paint that I was to carry, while he grabbed a canvas bag filled with large paint brushes and other painting tools and some white rope that looked like it had the seat of wooden swing on one end.  Aubrey nodded to Fred, and I understood by this that Fred had created the wooden swing that had four pieces of rope knotted through each of the corners of the seat and were connected to the main rope using some kind of small shackle.  When I asked Aubrey what that was, he told me that it is was a Boatswain Chair.  “Oh.” I think I said, “It looks like a swing.”

On the way to the boilers, we stopped by the tool room and I checked out a safety belt.  I could see Aubrey nodding at Bud Schoonover about my having to check out a safety belt, and what implication that had.  I of course preferred to think that my fellow employees would not purposely put me in harms way, so I went along acting as if I was oblivious to whatever fate awaited me.

We took the elevator on #1 Boiler to the 11th floor (which is actually about 22 stories up.  There are only 12 stops on the boiler elevator, but the building is really 25 stories to the very top.  So Power Plant men call the extra floors things like 8 1/2 when you get off the elevator where it says 8, and go up one flight of stairs.

Aubrey explained to me that we need to paint a drain pipe that is below us a couple of floors that goes down from there to just above floor 7 1/2 where it turns.  He said that he could paint the rest, but he needed my help to paint the pipe where it drops straight down, because there isn’t any way to reach it, except by dropping someone off the side of the boiler over a handrail and lowering them down to the pipe, and that turned out to be me.

He explained how the safety belt worked.  He said that I clip the lanyard in the ring at the top of the boatswain chair so that if I slip off the chair I wouldn’t fall all the way down, and then he could gradually lower me on down to the landing.  he didn’t explain to me at the time that the weight of my body free-falling three feet before coming to the end of the lanyard would have been a sufficient enough force to snap the white rope in half.  I guess he didn’t know about that.  But that was ok for me, because I didn’t know about it either — at the time.  We didn’t use Safety Harnesses at that time.  Just a belt around the waist.

A Safety Belt like this, only skinnier without all the extra padding

A Safety Belt like this, only skinnier without all the extra padding

So as I tied the canvas bag to the bottom of the chair, I saw Aubrey quickly wrap the rope around the handrail making some sort of half hitch knot.  I wasn’t too sure about that so I asked Aubrey where he learned to tie a knot like that and he told me in the Navy.  That was all I needed to hear.  As soon as he told me he learned knot tying in the Navy, I felt completely secure.  I figured if anyone knew the right way to tie a knot it’s someone in the Navy.

I clipped the lanyard in the shackle at the top of the boatswain chair and headed over the handrail.  I situated the chair to where I had my feet through it when I went over and the chair was up by my waist.  As I lowered myself down, I came to rest on the boatswain chair some 210 feet up from the ground.

It is always windy in this part of Oklahoma in the summer, and the wind was blowing that day, so, I began to spin around and float this way and that.  That continued until Aubrey had lowered me down to the pipe that I was going to paint and I was able to wrap my legs around it and wait for my head to stop spinning.

Then Aubrey lowered down another rope that had a bucket of paint tied to it.   Then I began my job of painting the pipe as Aubrey had hold of the rope and was slowly lowering me down.  Luckily Aubrey didn’t have to sneeze, or wasn’t chased by a wasp while he was doing this.  Thinking about that, I kept my legs wrapped around the pipe pretty tight just in case Aubrey had a heart attack or something.

The pipe really did need painting.  So, I knew this wasn’t completely just a joke to toss me out on a swing in the middle of the air hanging onto a rope with one hand while attempting to paint a pipe.  It had the red primer on it that most of the piping had before it was painted so it looked out of place with all the other silver pipes, but I couldn’t help thinking about Jerry Lewis in the Movie, “Who’s Minding the Store” where Jerry Lewis is told to paint the globe on the end of a flagpole that is located out the window on a top floor of the building, and he begins by trying to climb out on the flagpole with a bucket of paint in his mouth with little success.  But like Jerry, I figured it had to be done, so I just went ahead and did it.

Jerry Lewis tasked with painting the gold ball on the end of a flag pole on the top floor of a department store

Jerry Lewis tasked with painting the gold ball on the end of a flag pole on the top floor of a department store

Fortunately, I found out right away that I wasn’t afraid of heights, even at this height and under these conditions.  So, instead of fainting away, I just painted away and finally ended up on floor 7  1/2 which is right next to the Tripper Gallery.  I think I finished this a little after morning break but I don’t think Aubrey wanted to stop for break just to lower me down and then have to start from the top again lowering me all the way down one more time.

This brings me to another point.  Notice where I landed.  Right next to the Tripper Gallery.  Power Plant ingenuity has a way of naming parts of the plant with interesting names.  The first time I heard that we were going to the tripper gallery to shovel coal, I half expected to see paintings lining the walls.  It sounded like such a nice place to visit…. “Tripper Gallery”.  It sort of rolls off your tongue.  Especially if you try saying it with a French accent.

The Tripper Gallery is neither eloquent nor French.  It is where the coal from the coal yard is dumped into the Coal Silos just above the Bowl Mills.  — Yes.  Bowl Mills.  I know.  It sounds like a breakfast cereal.  Almost like Malt-O-Meal in a bowl.  So, the Tripper Gallery is a long narrow room (hence the word Gallery), and there are two machines called Trippers that travels from one silo to the next dumping coal from the conveyor belt down into the coal silo, and when the silo is full, a switch is triggered (or tripped) which tells the machine to go to the next silo.  Since the switch “trips” and tells the machine to move, they call the machine the “Tripper”.

I know.  That last paragraph didn’t have anything to do with painting the drain pipe.  But I thought since I mentioned the Tripper Gallery, I might as well explain what it is.  Anyway, when we returned to the shop I watched as Stanley Elmore went over to Aubrey to see how I did when I found out he was going to drop me over the side of the boiler in a wooden chair.  I could see that Aubrey gave him a good report because Stanley looked a little disappointed that this Power Plant Joke (even though essential), hadn’t resulted in visibly shaking me up.

Luxuries and Amenities of a Power Plant Labor Crew — Repost

Originally Posted on August 11, 2012:

When I was a janitor at the Power Plant there were times when we were christened by being allowed to work with the Labor Crew on jobs that needed to be done in a hurry.  Larry Riley was the foreman of the Labor Crew.  I had worked with Larry Riley during the summers when I was a summer help, and I always held him in high esteem.  I think he knew that, and he said he was glad to have me working for him whenever they were in a pinch to complete a job in a hurry.  I have described Larry as reminding me of the Marlboro Man, as he had a moustache that looked like his.

Yep. That’s the Marlboro Man

The wonderful thing about working in a Power Plant is that when you drive through the gate in the morning, you never know what you might be doing that day.   Even after 20 years at the plant, I was still amazed by the diversity of jobs a person could do there.  Anyone who spent those 20 years actually working instead of doing a desk job, would know a lot about all kinds of equipment and instruments, and temperatures.

When I was young I was able to go to Minnesota to visit my cousins in a place called “Phelp’s Mill”.  Named after an old mill along a river that was a “self service” museum.  Across the road and on the hill loomed a big foreboding house where my cousins lived during the summers.  We would play hide-and-seek in that mill, which was mainly made out of wood.  It was 4 stories high if you include the basement and had a lot of places to hide.

Phelps Mill, MN where we played as a boy.  You can see the house on the hill in the background

This is a picture of the inside of Phelps Mill by Shawn Turner: http://www.flickr.com/photos/32364049@N04/7174048516/

When I began working in the Power Plant, I realized one day that this was like that old mill only on a much bigger scale.  You could spend half of a live time wandering around that plant before you actually knew where everything was.  So, each day brought something new.  My first years as a summer help, most of the “emergencies” that I would take part in had to do with cleaning up coal.  When I was able to work with the Labor Crew, things became a lot more interesting.

One day in the spring of 1983 when I arrived at work ready to mop the floor and sweep and dust the Turbine Generators, I was told that I needed to get with Chuck Ross an A foreman over the Labor Crew at the time, because I was going to work with the Labor Crew that day.  I was told to bring my respirator… Which usually had meant it was time to shovel coal.  This day was different.

Chuck brought me to the Tool room and asked Bif Johnson to give me a new Rubber Mallet.

New Rubber Mallet just like this

I went with the labor crew up on #1 Boiler just above the Air Preheater Baskets that I didn’t know existed at the time…  The Boiler had been shutdown over night because there was a problem with the airflow through the boiler and we had to go in the duct and clean the Slag Screen.

“Slag Screen,” I thought… That sounds like a fancy word for something that was  probably just some kind of filter or something….  I knew that Power Plant Engineers liked to give fancy words to make the Plant sound more like a Palace.  As I mentioned before… there are places like:  The Tripper Gallery.  Hopper Nozzle Booster Pump. Generator Bathtub.  The Gravimetric Feeder Deck — I liked that one, it sounded like you were on a ship.  Travelling Water Screens.  There were long names for some, like “Force Draft Fan Inboard Bearing Lube Oil Pump” (try saying that with a lisp).  Anyway, I could go on and on.

Larry Riley explained to us that we needed to work as fast as we could to clean the slag screen because they wanted to bring this unit back on in the evening.  We couldn’t wait for the unit to cool down much, so we were only allowed to go in the hot air duct for 10 minutes at a time.

So, in I went.  The first thing I noticed as I stuck my head in the door was that there wasn’t any immediate place to stand.  There was only a hole below me that went down into the darkness.  So I looked around for something to grab onto to pull myself in.  Once my body was in the door I was able to walk along a beam next to this big screen.  It looked similar to a screen on a window at home only the wires were about 1/2 inch apart.  Something like this:

A picture of a similar slag screen

Oh, and there was one more thing that I noticed…. It was incredibly HOT.  I was wearing leather gloves so I could grab onto the structure to hold myself up, but if I leaned against the screen with my arm, it would burn it.  I was just wearing a t-shirt.  I don’t know the exact temperature, but I have worked in similar heat at other times, and I would say that it was around 150 degrees.  I was not wearing my  hard hat because there was a strong wind blowing to try and cool the boiler down.

The problem is that we were on the tail end of the air flowing out of the boiler, and it was carrying all that heat right onto us.  At 160 degrees your hard hat will become soft so that you can squish it like a ball cap.  I was wearing Goggles as well, and that helped keep my eyes from drying out since everything else went dry the moment I stuck my head in there.

Anyway, I threw my lanyard around a pipe that ran diagonal across my path, and held onto it with one hand while with my other hand I began pounding on the screen with the rubber mallet.  I had to breathe very shallow because the air was so hot.  It gave the air time to cool off a bit before it went down into my throat.

This was a new adventure for me.  There are some Brave Power Plant Men that work on the “Bowl Mill” crew that have worked in these conditions for weeks at a time.  I suppose you grow used to it after a while.  Kind of like when you eat something with Habenero Sauce.  The first time it just very painful.  Then a few weeks later, you’re piling it on your tortilla chips.

After my first 10 minutes were over, someone at the door, (which was hard to see) hollered for me, so I made my way back to the door and emerged into the cool air of the morning.  I noticed that Larry Riley gave me a slightly worried look and I wondered what it meant.  I realized what it was moments later when I went to remove the respirator off of my face.  I only had one filter cartridge in the respirator.

Half-face respirator

The other one was missing.  I thought that was silly of me to go in there with only one filter.  No wonder it seemed like I was breathing a lot of dust.  Then I thought…. No.  I know I had both filters when I went in the duct.  I must have lost one while I was in there.  Maybe with all that banging I knocked it off.

Anyway, 10 minutes later it was time for me to go back in there, and this time I made sure my filters were securely screwed onto the respirator.  I worried in the back of my mind that I may have ruined my lungs for life by breathing all that silicon based fly ash because I was feeling a little out of breathe (for the next 10 years).

Anyway, halfway through my 10 minutes in the duct I reached up with my hand to make sure my filters were still tightly screwed in place, and to my astonishment, they weren’t tight.  I couldn’t screw them tight.  The respirator itself had become soft in the heat and the plastic was no longer stiff enough to keep the filter tight.  It made sense then why I had lost my filter the first time.  It must have fallen down into the abyss of darkness that was right behind me while I was banging on that slag screen.

After working on the screen for an hour or so, we took a break.  When we returned the temperature in the boiler had dropped considerably, and I was able to stay in the duct the rest of the day without having to climb in and out all the time.

Larry had an air powered needle gun brought up there and someone used that for a while cleaning the screen.  It is what it sounds like.  It has rods sticking out the end of a gun looking tool that vibrate wildly when you pull the trigger.  I don’t know what the real name is for it, but it cleaned slag screens a lot faster than my beating the screen with the rubber mallet all day.

Needle Gun

I did beat that screen all day.  When it was time to leave I brought the mallet back to the tool room, and it looked like this:

Rubber Mallet after banging on a slag screen all day

I had worn the rubber off of the  mallet.  When I brought the mallet back to the tool room, Bif said, “What is this?”  I said I was just returning the mallet that I had borrowed that morning.  He said something about how I must be some kind of a he-man or crazy.   I was too worried about my lungs to think about how much my wrists were aching from taking that pounding all day.

A couple of months later I was promoted to the Labor Crew.  Chuck Ross had kept saying that he couldn’t wait for me to go to the Labor Crew because he wanted me to work for him.  The very day that I started on the Labor Crew, the plant had a going-away party for Chuck Ross.  He was leaving our plant to go work at another one in Muskogee.

During the party Chuck presented me with the rubber mallet that I had used that day cleaning the slag screen.  He said he had never seen anything like that before.  He was sorry he was going to leave without having the opportunity to have me working for him.  I felt the same way about Chuck.  I have always kept that rubber mallet laying around the house since 1983 when I received it.  My wife sometimes picks it up when she is cleaning somewhere and says, “Do you still want this?” With a hopeful look, like someday I may say that it is all right if she throws it away.

Of course I want to keep it.  It reminds me of the days when I was able to work with True Power Plant Men in their natural environment.  The slag screen was later deemed unnecessary and was removed from the boiler.

It also reminds me of other things.  Like how quickly something can happen that changes your life forever.

Questions from that day have always remained with me.

How much ash did I breathe in?  I couldn’t see much more than a few feet in front of me as I banged on that screen knocking ash down all over me.  What did it do to my lungs?

What if I had taken a step back or slipped off of that beam before I had walked to the other end to secure my safety lanyard?  I know now what was below me then.  I would have fallen about 20 feet down to some fins, and then down another 20 feet onto the air preheater baskets.  It would have taken a while to retrieve me, once someone figured out that I was missing.

What does that much heat do to your body… or your brain?

I know these are things that go through the minds of True Power Plant Men.  I worked with them for years improving the safety of the power plant.  All-in-all, no one ever died when I was there, though some came close.  The Slogan over the Shift Supervisor’s Office said, “Safety is job #1”.  That wasn’t there to try to convince us that Safety was important.  It was there as a testimony to everyone who had already made that decision.

Power Plant Painting Lessons with Aubrey Cargill — Repost

Originally Posted March 9, 2012.  I have added some pictures and slightly edited:

I had the feeling it would be an interesting day when the first thing that Stanley Elmore asked me when I sat down for our morning meeting was, “Kevin, are you afraid of heights?”  Well, since before that day I hadn’t been afraid of heights, I told him I wasn’t.  Then Stanley, who liked most of all to joke around with people, started hinting through facial expressions of excitement (such as grinning real big and raising his eyebrows up to where his hair line used to be when he was younger) and by uttering sounds like “boy, well, yeah…. huh, I guess we’ll see” while shaking his head as if in disbelief.  He told me to get with Aubrey after the meeting because there was a job I needed to help him out with.

Aubrey Cargill was our painter.  He worked out of the garage that I worked out of the last 3 years of working as a summer help.  There was a paint room in the back of the garage on the side where the carpenter, Fred Hesser built cabinets and other great works of art.  He was the best carpenter I have ever met, as well as one of the finest gentlemen I have ever known.  He wasn’t in the category of Power Plant man, as he didn’t involve himself in most of the power plant operations or maintenance, but to this day, Power Plant Men from all over Oklahoma can visit Sooner Plant on overhaul and admire the woodworking masterpieces created by Carpenter Fred many years earlier.

I had worked with Aubrey my first year as a summer help.  The garage hadn’t been built yet, and Aubrey had not been assigned as a painter, as both units were still under construction.  Aubrey was was the same age as my father and in his mid-forties that first summer.  His favorite buddy was Ben Hutchinson.  Whereever one went, the other was not far away.  All during the first summer, the lake on the hill was still being filled by pumping water up from the Arkansas river.

Most of the last two weeks that summer I worked with Aubrey and Ben picking up driftwood along the dikes that were built on the lake to route the water from the discharge from the plant to the far side of the lake from where the water enters the plant to cool the condensers.  The idea is that the water has to flow all the way around the lake before it is used to cool the condenser again.  So, Ben and Aubrey took turns driving a big dump truck down the dike while I walked down one side of the dike around the water level and Aubrey or Ben walked down the other side, and we would toss wood up the dike into the dump truck.

A Ford Dump Truck

A Dump Truck

This was quite a throw, and often resulted in a big log being tossed up the dike just to hit the side of the dump truck creating a loud banging sound.  Anyway, when you consider that there are probably about 6 miles of dikes all together, it was quite a task to clean up all the driftwood that had accumulated in this man made lake.  After doing this for two weeks I learned the true meaning of the word “bursitis”.

After the morning meeting with Stanley Elmore I followed Aubrey into the carpenter shop, where he pointed to two buckets of paint that I was to carry, while he grabbed a canvas bag filled with large paint brushes and other painting tools and some white rope that looked like it had the seat of wooden swing on one end.  Aubrey nodded to Fred, and I understood by this that Fred had created the wooden swing that had four pieces of rope knotted through each of the corners of the seat and were connected to the main rope using some kind of small shackle.  When I asked Aubrey what that was, he told me that it is was a Boatswain Chair.  “Oh.” I think I said, “It looks like a swing.”

On the way to the boilers, we stopped by the tool room and I checked out a safety belt.  I could see Aubrey nodding at Bud Schoonover about my having to check out a safety belt, and what implication that had.  I of course preferred to think that my fellow employees would not purposely put me in harms way, so I went along acting as if I was oblivious to whatever fate awaited me.

We took the elevator on #1 Boiler to the 11th floor (which is actually about 22 stories up.  There are only 12 stops on the boiler elevator, but the building is really 25 stories to the very top.  So Power Plant men call the extra floors things like 8 1/2 when you get off the elevator where it says 8, and go up one flight of stairs.

Aubrey explained to me that we need to paint a drain pipe that is below us a couple of floors that goes down from there to just above floor 7 1/2 where it turns.  He said that he could paint the rest, but he needed my help to paint the pipe where it drops straight down, because there isn’t any way to reach it, except by dropping someone off the side of the boiler over a handrail and lowering them down to the pipe, and that turned out to be me.

He explained how the safety belt worked.  He said that I clip the lanyard in the ring at the top of the boatswain chair so that if I slip off the chair I wouldn’t fall all the way down, and then he could gradually lower me on down to the landing.  he didn’t explain to me at the time that the weight of my body free-falling three feet before coming to the end of the lanyard would have been a sufficient enough force to snap the white rope in half.  I guess he didn’t know about that.  But that was ok for me, because I didn’t know about it either — at the time.  We didn’t use Safety Harnesses at that time.  Just a belt around the waist.

A Safety Belt like this, only skinnier without all the extra padding

A Safety Belt like this, only skinnier without all the extra padding

So as I tied the canvas bag to the bottom of the chair, I saw Aubrey quickly wrap the rope around the handrail making some sort of half hitch knot.  I wasn’t too sure about that so I asked Aubrey where he learned to tie a knot like that and he told me in the Navy.  That was all I needed to hear.  As soon as he told me he learned knot tying in the Navy, I felt completely secure.  I figured if anyone knew the right way to tie a knot it’s someone in the Navy.

I clipped the lanyard in the shackle at the top of the boatswain chair and headed over the handrail.  I situated the chair to where I had my feet through it when I went over and the chair was up by my waist.  As I lowered myself down, I came to rest on the boatswain chair some 210 feet up from the ground.

It is always windy in this part of Oklahoma in the summer, and the wind was blowing that day, so, I began to spin around and float this way and that.  That continued until Aubrey had lowered me down to the pipe that I was going to paint and I was able to wrap my legs around it and wait for my head to stop spinning.

Then Aubrey lowered down another rope that had a bucket of paint tied to it.   Then I began my job of painting the pipe as Aubrey had hold of the rope and was slowly lowering me down.  Luckily Aubrey didn’t have to sneeze, or wasn’t chased by a wasp while he was doing this.  Thinking about that, I kept my legs wrapped around the pipe pretty tight just in case Aubrey had a heart attack or something.

The pipe really did need painting.  So, I knew this wasn’t completely just a joke to toss me out on a swing in the middle of the air hanging onto a rope with one hand while attempting to paint a pipe.  It had the red primer on it that most of the piping had before it was painted so it looked out of place with all the other silver pipes, but I couldn’t help thinking about Jerry Lewis in the Movie, “Who’s Minding the Store” where Jerry Lewis is told to paint the globe on the end of a flagpole that is located out the window on a top floor of the building, and he begins by trying to climb out on the flagpole with a bucket of paint in his mouth with little success.  But like Jerry, I figured it had to be done, so I just went ahead and did it.

Jerry Lewis tasked with painting the gold ball on the end of a flag pole on the top floor of a department store

Jerry Lewis tasked with painting the gold ball on the end of a flag pole on the top floor of a department store

Fortunately, I found out right away that I wasn’t afraid of heights, even at this height and under these conditions.  So, instead of fainting away, I just painted away and finally ended up on floor 7  1/2 which is right next to the Tripper Gallery.  I think I finished this a little after morning break but I don’t think Aubrey wanted to stop for break just to lower me down and then have to start from the top again lowering me all the way down one more time.

This brings me to another point.  Notice where I landed.  Right next to the Tripper Gallery.  Power Plant ingenuity has a way of naming parts of the plant with interesting names.  The first time I heard that we were going to the tripper gallery to shovel coal, I half expected to see paintings lining the walls.  It sounded like such a nice place to visit…. “Tripper Gallery”.  It sort of rolls off your tongue.  Especially if you try saying it with a French accent.

The Tripper Gallery is neither eloquent nor French.  It is where the coal from the coal yard is dumped into the Coal Silos just above the Bowl Mills.  — Yes.  Bowl Mills.  I know.  It sounds like a breakfast cereal.  Almost like Malt-O-Meal in a bowl.  So, the Tripper Gallery is a long narrow room (hence the word Gallery), and there are two machines called Trippers that travels from one silo to the next dumping coal from the conveyor belt down into the coal silo, and when the silo is full, a switch is triggered (or tripped) which tells the machine to go to the next silo.  Since the switch “trips” and tells the machine to move, they call the machine the “Tripper”.

I know.  That last paragraph didn’t have anything to do with painting the drain pipe.  But I thought since I mentioned the Tripper Gallery, I might as well explain what it is.  Anyway, when we returned to the shop I watched as Stanley Elmore went over to Aubrey to see how I did when I found out he was going to drop me over the side of the boiler in a wooden chair.  I could see that Aubrey gave him a good report because Stanley looked a little disappointed that this Power Plant Joke (even though essential), hadn’t resulted in visibly shaking me up.

Luxuries and Amenities of a Power Plant Labor Crew

When I was a janitor at the Power Plant there were times when we were christened by being allowed to work with the Labor Crew on jobs that needed to be done in a hurry.  Larry Riley was the foreman of the Labor Crew.  I had worked with Larry Riley during the summers when I was a summer help, and I always held him in high esteem.  I think he knew that, and he said he was glad to have me working for him whenever they were in a pinch to complete a job in a hurry.  I have described Larry as reminding me of the Marlboro Man, as he had a moustache that looked like his.

Yep. That’s the Marlboro Man

The wonderful thing about working in a Power Plant is that when you drive through the gate in the morning, you never know what you might be doing that day.   Even after 20 years at the plant, I was still amazed by the diversity of jobs a person could do there.  Anyone who spent those 20 years actually working instead of doing a desk job, would know a lot about all kinds of equipment and instruments, and temperatures.

When I was young I was able to go to Minnesota to visit my cousins in a place called “Phelp’s Mill”.  Named after an old mill along a river that was a “self service” museum.  Across the road and on the hill loomed a big foreboding house where my cousins lived during the summers.  We would play hide-and-seek in that mill, which was mainly made out of wood.  It was 4 stories high if you include the basement and had a lot of places to hide.

Phelps Mill, MN where we played as a boy

This is a picture of the inside of Phelps Mill by Shawn Turner: http://www.flickr.com/photos/32364049@N04/7174048516/

When I began working in the Power Plant, I realized one day that this was like that old mill only on a much bigger scale.  You could spend half of a live time wandering around that plant before you actually knew where everything was.  So, each day brought something new.  My first years as a summer help, most of the “emergencies” that I would take part in had to do with cleaning up coal.  When I was able to work with the Labor Crew, things became a lot more interesting.

One day in the spring of 1983 when I arrived at work ready to mop the floor and sweep and dust the Turbine Generators, I was told that I needed to get with Chuck Ross an A foreman over the Labor Crew at the time, because I was going to work with the Labor Crew that day.  I was told to bring my respirator… Which usually had meant it was time to shovel coal.  This day was different.

Chuck brought me to the Tool room and asked Bud Schoonover to give me a new Rubber Mallet.

New Rubber Mallet just like this

I went with the labor crew up on #1 Boiler just above the Air Preheater Baskets that I didn’t know existed at the time…  The Boiler had been shutdown over night because there was a problem with the airflow through the boiler and we had to go in the duct and clean the Slag Screen.

“Slag Screen,” I thought… That sounds like a fancy word for something that was  probably just some kind of filter or something….  I knew that Power Plant Engineers liked to give fancy words to make the Plant sound more like a Palace.  As I mentioned before… there are places like:  The Tripper Gallery.  Hopper Nozzle Booster Pump. Generator Bathtub.  The Gravimetric Feeder Deck — I liked that one, it sounded like you were on a ship.  Travelling Water Screens.  There were long names for some, like “Force Draft Fan Inboard Bearing Lube Oil Pump”.  Anyway, I could go on and on.

Larry Riley explained to us that we needed to work as fast as we could to clean the slag screen because they wanted to bring this unit back on in the evening.  We couldn’t wait for the unit to cool down much, so we were only allowed to go in the hot air duct for 10 minutes at a time.

So, in I went.  The first thing I noticed as I stuck my head in the door was that there wasn’t any immediate place to stand.  There was only a hole below me that went down into the darkness.  So I looked around for something to grab onto to pull myself in.  Once my body was in the door I was able to walk along a beam next to this big screen.  It looked similar to a screen on a window at home only the wires were about 1/2 inch apart.  Something like this:

A picture of a similar slag screen

Oh, and there was one more thing that I noticed…. It was incredibly HOT.  I was wearing leather gloves so I could grab onto the structure to hold myself up, but if I leaned against the screen with my arm, it would burn it.  I was just wearing a t-shirt.  I don’t know the exact temperature, but I have worked in similar heat at other times, and I would say that it was around 150 degrees.  I was not wearing my  hard hat because there was a strong wind blowing to try and cool the boiler down.

The problem is that we were on the tail end of the air flowing out of the boiler, and it was carrying all that heat right onto us.  At 160 degrees your hard hat will become soft so that you can squish it like a ball cap.  I was wearing Goggles as well, and that helped keep my eyes from drying out since everything else went dry the moment I stuck my head in there.

Anyway, I threw my lanyard around a pipe that ran diagonal across my path, and held onto it with one hand while with my other hand I began pounding on the screen with the rubber mallet.  I had to breathe very shallow because the air was so hot.  It gave the air time to cool off a bit before it went down into my throat.

This was a new adventure for me.  There are some Brave Power Plant Men that are on the “Bowl Mill” crew that have worked in these conditions for weeks at a time.  I suppose you grow used to it after a while.  Kind of like when you eat something with Habenero Sauce.  The first time it just very painful.  Then a few weeks later, you’re piling it on your tortilla chips.

After my first 10 minutes were over, someone at the door, (which was hard to see) hollered for me, so I made my way back to the door and emerged into the cool air of the morning.  I noticed that Larry Riley gave me a slightly worried look and I wondered what it meant.  I realized what it was moments later when I went to remove the respirator off of my face.  I only had one filter cartridge in the respirator.

Half-face respirator

The other one was missing.  I thought that was silly of me to go in there with only one filter.  No wonder it seemed like I was breathing a lot of dust.  Then I thought…. No.  I know I had both filters when I went in the duct.  I must have lost one while I was in there.  Maybe with all that banging I knocked it off.

Anyway, 10 minutes later it was time for me to go back in there, and this time I made sure my filters were securely screwed onto the respirator.  I worried in the back of my mind that I may have ruined my lungs for life by breathing all that silicon based fly ash because I was feeling a little out of breathe.

Anyway, halfway through my 10 minutes in the duct I reached up with my hand to make sure my filters were still tightly screwed in place, and to my astonishment, they weren’t tight.  I couldn’t screw them tight.  The respirator itself had become soft in the heat and the plastic was no longer stiff enough to keep the filter tight.  It made sense then why I had lost my filter the first time.  It must have fallen down into the abyss of darkness that was right behind me the entire time I was banging on that slag screen.

After working on the screen for an hour or so, we took a break.  When we returned the temperature in the boiler had dropped considerably, and I was able to stay in the duct the rest of the day without having to climb in and out all the time.

Larry had an air powered needle gun brought up there and someone used that for a while cleaning the screen.  It is what it sounds like.  It has rods sticking out the end of a gun looking tool that vibrate wildly when you pull the trigger.  I don’t know what the real name is for it, but it cleaned slag screens a lot faster than my beating the screen with the rubber mallet all day.

Needle Gun

I did beat that screen all day.  When it was time to leave I brought the mallet back to the tool room, and it looked like this:

Rubber Mallet after banging on a slag screen all day

I had worn the rubber off of the  mallet.  When I brought the mallet back to the tool room, Bif said, “What is this?”  I said I was just returning the mallet that I had borrowed that morning.  He said something about how I must be some kind of a he-man or crazy.   I was too worried about my lungs to think about how much my wrists were aching from taking that pounding all day.

A couple of months later I was promoted to the Labor Crew.  Chuck Ross had kept saying that he couldn’t wait for me to go to the Labor Crew because he wanted me to work for him.  The very day that I started on the Labor Crew the plant had a going away party for Chuck Ross, because he was leaving our plant to go work at another one.

During the party Chuck presented me with the rubber mallet that I had used that day cleaning the slag screen.  He said he had never seen anything like that before.  He was sorry he was going to leave without having the opportunity to have me working for him.  I felt the same way about Chuck.  I have always kept that rubber mallet laying around the house since 1983 when I received it.  My wife sometimes picks it up when she is cleaning somewhere and says, “Do you still want this?” With a hopeful look like someday I may say that it is all right if she throws it away.

Of course I want to keep it.  It reminds me of the days when I was able to work with True Power Plant Men in their natural environment.  The slag screen was later deemed unnecessary and was removed from the boiler.

It also reminds me of other things.  Like how quickly something can happen that changes your life forever.

Question from that day have always remained with me.

How much ash did I breathe in?  I couldn’t see much more than a few feet in front of me as I banged on that screen knocking ash down all over me.  What did it do to my lungs?

What if I had taken a step back or slipped off of that beam before I had walked to the other end to secure my safety lanyard?  I know now what was below me then.  I would have fallen about 20 feet down to some fins, and then down another 20 feet onto the air preheater baskets.  It would have taken a while to retrieve me, once someone figured out that I was missing.

What does that much heat do to your body… or your brain?

I know these are things that go through the minds of True Power Plant Men.  I worked with them for years improving the safety of the power plant.  All-in-all, no one ever died when I was there, though some came close.  The Slogan over the Shift Supervisor’s Office said, “Safety is job #1”.  That wasn’t there to try to convince us that Safety was important.  It was there as a testimony to the everyone who had already made that decision.