Originally posted on October 27, 2012:
I can’t say that the Coal-fired Power Plant located in the middle of the North Central Plains of Oklahoma had visitors on Halloween Night trick-or-treating looking for candy. I have mentioned before that we had an evil plant manager when I first arrived as a summer help at the plant that did what he could to make life miserable for his employees. That would sometimes send chills up your spine.
I could tell you stories about the coffin houses on top of the precipitators. I already told you about the Bug Wars in the Basement (see: “Power Plant Spider Wars and Bugs in the Basement“), and even about the Boiler Ghost that ate Bob Lillibridge (See: “Bob Liilibridge Meets the Boiler Ghost“). Instead, I’ll tell a simple story about the Evil Plant Manager and his bees.
One time out of the blue when I was a summer help in 1980, the Plant Manager asked me in a suspiciously benevolent voice if I would stay after work to help him tend to his bees. You see. Eldon Waugh was a beekeeper.
Beekeeping is a noble profession, and I admire their ability to make a good thing out of a seemingly bad situation. Sonny Karcher was a beekeeper. Sonny was a Hero of Mine.
The plant grounds was a great place for bees because we had fields full of clover. But Eldon and bees? I have a slightly different take on it. Bees are industrious workers that are single-minded. They each have their job, and they go about doing it. They are willing to give their life for their hive and in that way, are sort of unsung heroes. Or maybe bees do sing about their heroes and we just don’t know it. Maybe their buzzing away is at times a lament for those who have worked their wings away to the point that they are no longer able to contribute.
Sort of reminds you of a Power Plant Man.
Since I was carpooling at the time and didn’t have my own car, Eldon said that he would drive me back to Stillwater and drop me off at the corner of Washington and Lakeview where I normally was let off, where I would walk up to the University Estates where my parents lived (and still do – or did when I first wrote this post. Now they live across the street from me in Round Rock, Texas). So I went to Eldon’s office when I finished work that day, and I followed him down to his pickup truck. We drove up by the coalyard where he had a trailer that had a bunch of white boxes lined up, which housed his beehives.
Eldon Waugh gave me a hood that beekeepers wear to keep the bees from finding out what the beekeeper really looks like so the bees don’t attack them later when they are flying by and realize that they are the person that keeps interrupting their beehive.
Eldon explained to me that when a bee stings you, you don’t grab the stinger and pull it out because that injects the bee’s venom into your body when you squeeze it. Instead you take a straight edge, like a knife or piece of thin cardboard or something similar and you scrape it off.
That’s when I realized that Eldon had only given me a hood. He hadn’t given me a full beekeeper suit like I would see on TV or in the neighborhood when I was young and some beekeeper came to collect a swarm of bees that had settled in a tree across the street from our house.
Eldon proceeded to open the beehive boxes and inspect them. He had me hold things while he was doing this. He showed me things like how the Queen was kept in a smaller box inside the bigger one that kept it from leaving. Somehow this reminded me of the ball of fire in the boiler that produced the steam that turns the turbine that makes the electricity at the plant.
When he went to open one box he told me that this particular box had bees that were more troublesome than the other bees, and they liked to sting. “Ok.” I thought. “Thanks for letting me know.” Like that was going to help.
I had already resigned myself to the idea of being stung by a bee that was unhappy that the beekeeper had called an unscheduled inspection of the beehive when Eldon jumped back; Pulled off his hood and started batting around in the air. Sure enough. A bee had climbed up under his hood and had stung him on the back of the neck.
I took a key out of my pocket and scraped the stinger off as he whimpered and pointed to where the stinger was jabbing him. The bee was on his collar making peace with his maker (because bees die after they sting you) as I wiped him away. Besides that one incident, the rest of the time went smoothly. Eldon inspected his beehives. It seemed like he was looking for mold or moisture or some such thing. He was satisfied. When we left he gave me a jar of his “Eldon Waugh” Honey that he used to sell at the Farmer’s Market in Stillwater. Then he drove me back to Stillwater.
There was something surreal about this experience, and in a few days, I was compelled to write a poem about it. This is not a poem about Beekeepers in General. This is a poem about Eldon Waugh, the Beekeeper as I saw him. I don’t know where I placed it, so I can’t quote it now, so I’ll remake it up the best I can. You have to excuse me, because I am not a poet (as you could tell with the Bob Lillibridge Meets the Boiler Ghost story), so bear with me. It is short:
Bees diligently gathering nectar,
Weaving honey for the hive.
Pouring life into their work,
Spending energy for queen to stay alive.
Beekeeper gives shelter to be safe,
Benevolent ruler over all.
Sharing fields of flowers not of his making,
Protecting helpless and small.
When time to pay the dues,
Beekeeper expects all to comply.
If one tries to deny his share,
Sting him once and you will die.
Why is this a Halloween story? I know I speak harshly of Eldon Waugh and I know that when he went home he had a family like everyone else. I know that Bill Moler his assistant plant manager was the same way. If you met him at Church or somewhere else, he would treat you with the dignity that you deserved. Something happened to them when they drove through the plant gates (I felt), that made them think they were invulnerable and all powerful. Like Mister Burns in the Simpsons (as I was reminded this week).
It was Lord Acton (John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton) in a letter to Bishop Mandell Creighton in 1887 that said, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men”. At this particular power plant, because it was so far removed from Corporate Headquarters and any other Electric Company departments, the situation allowed the Plant Manager to be an absolute ruler. There wasn’t anyone there to look out for the employees.
A union had come through when the power plant was first coming online trying to get the plant to vote to join the union. Many employees had worked for unions before, and they preferred the tyranny of the evil plant manager over the stifling corruption of the union.
I remember the first summer I was at the plant (in 1979) when everyone was abuzz about the union election. Some people thought it would stop this “absolute power” syndrome infesting the two top dogs. Those employees that had worked for unions warned the rest that to me sounded like joining a union was like selling their soul to the devil. Some had even left their former employers to escape what they referred to as the “manipulation of their morals”. It came down to voting for the lesser of two evils.
I would like to point out that Lord Acton said that Great men are almost “Always” bad. There are exceptions. There was one great liberating moment in Power Plant history at our plant that occurred in 1987 the day that our new plant manager arrived at our plant. His name is Ron Kilman.
Ron called the maintenance department to a meeting to introduce himself to us in the main break room. I remember that when he began speaking he told us a joke about himself. I don’t recall the joke, but I do remember the reaction of the room. I’m sure our reaction puzzled Ron, because we were all stunned.
I gave Charles Foster a look that said, “I didn’t know Plant Managers could joke!” There must be some mistake. No rattling of chains. No “sacrifice your lives and families to provide honey for my table.” Ron was a rather likable person. It didn’t fit. What was he doing as a Plant Manager?
Throughout the almost 7 years that Ron was the plant manager, we were free from the tyranny of the “Beekeeper”. I have invited Ron to read my blog posts because he is one Plant Manger that even though he wasn’t one of the True Power Plant Men in the field showing their character daily by fighting dragons and saving fair maidens, he was our benevolent dictator that had the power to put his thumb down on the rest, but choosing “Might for Right” as King Arthur preferred.
Ok, so Ron Kilman doesn’t look exactly like King Arthur. That would be stretching it a little. Also… I’m sure some people found some reason to not like Ron Kilman through the years that he was Plant Manager. That would be because he made some unpopular decisions from time to time. That is the life of a Plant Manager.
When Ron first came to the plant, he really wanted to stay at the level of the regular working person. I believe that he meant it when he told us that. As the years went by, the demands of managing the large plant occupied so much of his time that little time was left to spend with the people he cared about.
I remember him saying that his manager demanded him to be downtown in Corporate Headquarters so many days a week, and that left him little time at the plant. He asked me what I thought would be a solution to this problem. I told him that I thought he should have a representative that would stay at the plant in his stead that would perform Plant activities and report to him directly. Sort of as an extension of himself. I was not thinking of his Assistant Plant Manager because he had his own job to do.
I was sometimes taken aback when Ron would ask a question like that because it surprised me that he valued my opinion. I will discuss Ron Kilman and why I believe that he is a man of great character in a later post. I only mention him here to show the contrast between Eldon Waugh and Ron. Both were in a position of ultimate power over their employees. One took the high road, and one took the low. Neither of them had ever been to Scotland as far as I know (ok. I had to add another rhyme… geez).
I also titled this post as a “Halloween Election” story. I told you the scary part… that was the story about the beekeeper, in case you forgot to be frightened by it. I also threw in the part about the Union Election as a meager attempt to rid the plant of total managerial tyranny. But the real reason I made this a story about an Election is because of the striking similarity between Ron Kilman and Mitt Romney. My Gosh! Have any of you noticed this? Am I the only one that sees the resemblance? Notice the chin, the hairline and even the gray side burns.
Happy Halloween, and good luck with the next election.
Comment from last Repost:
Originally posted March 14, 2014:
Early January, 1990 the entire maintenance shop at the coal-fired power plant in North Central Oklahoma was called to the break room which doubled as our main conference room in order to attend an important meeting. We watched as a new program was explained to us. It was a program called “We’ve Got the Power”. It centered around the idea that the best people who knew how to improve the operation of the plant were the people that worked there every day… The employees. When it was over, we were all given an Igloo Lunch box just for attending the meeting. We were also promised a lot more prizes in the future for participating in the program.
In order to participate further, we needed to sign up on a team. Preferably the team would be cross-functional, because, as they explained, a cross-functional team usually could come up with the most creative ideas for improving things at the plant. Once we signed up for the team each member on the team was given a gray windbreaker.
I don’t have an actual picture of the windbreaker I was given. I wore it to work for a number of months until we found out that the material was highly flammable and that it was not safe for us to wear it on the job. We were supposed to wear only flame retardant clothing. I kept the jacket for 15 years, but the jacket was made with material that disintegrated over time, and one day when I pulled it out of the closet to wear it, I found that it was literally falling apart on the hanger. I had no choice but to throw it away.
There were some interesting reactions to this program. I thought the program was a great idea and couldn’t wait until it began in order to submit our ideas for improving the plant. Others decided for some reason that they didn’t want to have any part in the program. Most of the Power Plant Men were eager to take part.
So, here’s how it worked. We had about 5 weeks to prepare our first ideas to submit to steering committee, which consisted of our plant manager Ron Kilman, the assistant plant manager Ben Brandt and I believe the Engineering Supervisor Jim Arnold. I don’t remember for sure if Jim Arnold was on the steering committee. We could only submit three ideas. At any given time, we could only have three ideas in the pipeline. Once a decision had been made about that idea, then we could submit another one.
I was the leader of the team that we assembled. It consisted of the following electricians besides myself: Scott Hubbard, Charles Foster and Terry Blevins. One mechanic Jody Morse. We also had two people from the warehouse on our team: Dick Dale and Darlene Mitchell. Here are their pictures:
I was somehow the luckiest guy in the plant to have some of the best brain power on my team. I will go into some of our ideas in a later post. Actually, I think I will have to have at least two more posts to completely cover this topic. For now, I just want to explain how this program worked and maybe share a thing or two about our team.
If one of the ideas we submitted was approved to be implemented, then we would receive an number of award points that was consistent with the amount of money the idea would save the company in one year. If it wasn’t a money saving idea or you couldn’t figure out how to calculate the savings, then there was a set amount of points that would be granted to the team. Each team member would receive the same number of points as everyone else on the team. Each person would receive the full savings of the idea.
We were given a catalog from a company called Maritz Inc. This is a company that specializes in employee motivation. They have been around a long time, and the gifts in the catalog ranged from small items such as a toaster, all the way up to pretty large pieces of furniture and other big items. I challenge the Power Plant Men who read this blog that were heavily involved in this program to leave a comment with the types of prizes they picked from this catalog.
The rules for the program were very specific, and there was a healthy (and in some cases, not so healthy) competition that ensued during the event. Once we were able to submit our ideas, we had 13 weeks to turn in all of our ideas. Keeping in mind that you could only have 3 ideas in the pipeline at a time. (well… they bent that rule at the last minute. — I’m sure Ron Kilman was thrilled about that).
I mentioned Ron Kilman, because for the entire 13 weeks and probably beyond, Ron (our plant manager) was sort of sequestered in his office reviewing the hundreds of ideas that were being turned in. At first some mistakes were made, and then there were attempts to correct those, and you can imagine that it was sort of organized (or disorganized) chaos for a while.
I will go into our ideas in a later post, but I will say that despite the fact that a good deal of our points were incorrectly allocated to other teams, we still came out in second place at our plant, and in sixth place in the company. Only the top 5 teams were able to go to Hawaii, and we were only a few points behind the fifth place team. So, all in all, I think our team was happy with our progress. Especially since we knew that over 200,000 of our points, were mistakenly given away and never corrected. Which would have made us close to 2nd place company-wide. Our team had no hard feelings when it was over. We felt that for the effort that we put into it, we were well rewarded.
In the middle of this program, my daughter was born and so a lot of my points went to purchasing things like a play pen, a baby swing, and a large assortment of baby toys. I had been such a miser in my marriage up to this point so that the majority of the furniture in our house had been purchased in Ponca City garage sales early on Saturday mornings. I had the idea that for the first few years of our marriage, we would live real cheap, and then work our way up gradually. That way, we would always feel like we were moving up in the world. The first house that we rented in Ponca City was a little dumpy old house for $250 per month.
I had been married for 4 years by the time this program rolled around, and when the first few boxes of prizes had just arrived at our house, one Sunday in April, a priest came to the house we were renting on Sixth Street in Stillwater, Oklahoma to bless the house.
When he walked in and saw a large box leaning against the wall in the living room, and not a stitch of furniture, he asked us if we were moving. I asked him what he meant. He said, “Well, you don’t have any furniture.” I said, “Oh. No. We’re not moving. We just have the furniture in the other room” (which was a spare bedroom that we used as the computer room. That was where our old couch was along with an old coffee table (both of which had been given to me by my friend Tim Flowers).
From this program I was able to furnish my entire living room. I had a nice sofa (with a fold out bed), a new coffee table with two matching end tables. All of them good quality. Through the years, we have replaced the sofa and the coffee table. I also had two Lazy Boys, which I still own, but we keep in the game room:
The biggest prize I purchased from this program was a real nice Thomasville Dining room table and chairs:
Two of the chairs are missing because they are across the street in my parents house (on loan).
So, you see, you could get some really nice prizes from this program. The furniture came along just at the time my family was beginning to grow.
When we were originally forming our team Ron Kilman’s secretary, Linda Shiever had joined our team. We had signed her up and had even held our first meeting. Then one day she came to me and told me that she was going to be a part of the steering committee. She was pretty excited about this because she figured that the steering committee, with all their hard work would be well off when it came to prizes. So, we wished her well.
During the program it turned out that the team that had the most work to do was the steering committee. They worked day and night on this program. They basically gave up their day job to focus solely on this program for those 13 weeks. As it turned out, they were the least compensated as far as awards went. So, it was turning out that Linda had left our team, which was raking in the points, to go to a team that was barely receiving any points.
When the time came to implement the projects that were selected, the foreman that was over the team that was going to implement an idea would receive a percentage of the award points for doing the implementation. I remember my foreman Andy Tubbs (who was on the winning team at our plant), coming to us and telling us that we were to go implement some ideas and that he was going to be receiving award points while we went to actually do the work. — It was just one of those interesting rules in this program.
Andy Tubbs, being the true Power Plant Man that he was, said this didn’t set too well with him. So, what he decided to do was spend the points that he was awarded for implementing ideas on prizes for the employees to use in the electric shop. I remember that he had purchased various different items that came in handy for us in the shop. I don’t remember off-hand what they were. If one of the electricians would leave a comment below to remind me… that would be great.
So. I was bothered by the idea that Linda Shiever had been coaxed onto her team with visions of grandeur, only to find out (like Ron found out), that all their hard work was not going to be compensated at a reasonable level. I never blamed Ron Kilman for this, because it made sense that Linda should be on that team anyway, since she spent her day in Ron’s office and he did need someone to help with the enormous amount of paperwork. So, I decided to help her out.
Two of our biggest ideas had been approved to save the company over $315,000 each per year (when we tracked it the following year, it ended up with a savings of $345,000). In order to implement the idea, I believe the implementer would receive either a half or a third of the points. So, I thought of a way to have Linda Shiever be the implementer of the idea.
I remember explaining to Ron Kilman that in order to implement this idea, since it mainly consisted of a process change to how the precipitator is powered up during start-up, we just needed someone that could type up the procedures so that we could place them in our precipitator manuals. I suggested that Linda Shiever would be the best person to type up the procedure. And that is what happened. She received the award points for implementing our biggest idea.
When it was all said and done, the company was able to quickly save a lot of money, and in some cases increase revenue. I think the biggest idea at our plant from the winning team came from Larry Kuennen who figured out a way to change the way the boiler was fired that greatly increased the efficiency. This one idea probably made the entire program worth the effort that everyone went through.
It’s amazing what happens when you add a little extra motivation. Great things can happen.
Comments from the Orignal Post:
Originally posted April 25, 2014:
Later in life, thinking back to when I was young, I sometimes wonder at how my first real friend, Mark Schlemper remained my friend throughout my childhood. I remember as a boy, there were times when I wasn’t the friendliest friend. Sometimes I was downright selfish. Mark, on the other hand, was always considerate. Not in an Eddie Haskell way, but in a sincere way. I learned a lot about being a kinder person from Mark, and I’m forever grateful.
I think if Mark had not been my friend during my childhood, then this story would have a very different ending.
Last Friday (April 18, 2014), I posted a story called “Vertan or Sand and Making Enemies of a Power Plant Man“. At the end of that post I explained that I had become the enemy of a team leader during the “We’ve Got The Power” program. I explained this program in the post: “Power Plant ‘We’ve Got The Power’ Program“. With all that said, here is the story:
I was a plant electrician at a coal-fired power plant in North Central Oklahoma when we took part in the “We’ve Got The Power” program. At the time, I was in charge of maintaining the Unit 1 precipitator. The precipitator is what takes the ash out of the exhaust from the boiler, so that you don’t normally see smoke coming out of a Power Plant Smokestack.
My bucket buddy in the Electric Shop, Diana Brien was on a team that tried an experiment on the Unit 1 precipitator by injecting sand into the intake duct in the hope that it would increase the performance. I didn’t put much faith in the experiment, because it was based on something that had happened almost a year earlier when sand was burned in the boiler in order to burn off the oil that had been soaked into the sand.
I hadn’t seen any sand build up in front of the precipitator during the next overhaul, and didn’t believe that any of it had been able to make it’s way through the economizer and the air preheaters to the precipitator.
When Ron Kilman asked me about it, I said that I didn’t think it would do any good, but also, it wouldn’t do any harm either, so I told Ron that I couldn’t see any reason not to do the experiment. Who knows. Maybe something unexpected would happen. — Something did, but not quite in the way anyone would have expected.
On the day of the experiment, sand was blown into the intake duct of the precipitator. When the experiment was taking place, Diana Brien sat at the precipitator computer behind the Unit 1 Alarm Panel in the Control Room. She was printing out readings every so many minutes as the experiment progressed.
At times, I walked by and checked on her to see how it was going. One time when I was standing there watching the readings on the computer, all of the sudden the Opacity shot up. Opacity is used to measure how much smoke is going out of the smoke stack. Something definitely happened to cause a large puff of smoke.
I switched screens to look at the power on each of the control cabinets. After a few seconds I found that cabinet 1A10 had zero Volts on the secondary side of the transformer. It should have been somewhere above 40 Kilovolts. The cabinet hadn’t tripped, but it wasn’t charging up the plates. Cabinet 1A10 was in the very back row of the precipitator, and when the power shuts off on the cabinet it readily lets go of the ash that had built up on it when the rappers on the roof strike the plates.
When I saw the puff occur, I knew where to go look, because this happened whenever one of the back cabinets was turned off. I told Dee that it looked like a fuse had blown on the cabinet. The ash was going to continue billowing out of the precipitator for a couple of hours if I didn’t go do something about it. So, I told Dee that I was going to go to the Precipitator Control Room and replace the fuse.
I passed through the electric shop to grab my tool bucket and headed out to the precipitator. When I arrived, I found the cabinet just as it had indicated on the computer. The fuse had obviously failed. Interesting timing. Coincidence? I thought it was. The fuses controlling the back cabinets were usually the ones that blew because we ran them at a much higher voltage than the rest of the cabinets (at the time).
I quickly replaced the fuse (after attaching grounding cables to the leads, and using a pair of high voltage gloves). Then I powered the cabinet back on.
I returned to the Control Room and told Dee that I replaced the fuse on cabinet 1A10. The opacity had returned to normal. I watched a few more minutes to make sure everything had stabilized, and then I left.
When Ron Kilman was evaluating the results of the experiment, he could plainly see that something strange had happened. Smoke had been pouring out of the smoke stack in the middle of the experiment. So, he asked me what I thought about it.
First of all, as a disclaimer, our team had our own experiments we had been conducting on the precipitator in hopes of coming up with money savings ideas. So, when I told Ron what had happened with the fuse blowing, I wondered if he would trust me to tell the truth, since I had my own skin in the game.
I explained in detail to Ron how the fuse had blown and that I was standing next to Dee watching the computer when the smoke started blowing out of the stack. I could tell that a fuse had blown by looking at the readings, so I went out and replaced the fuse. I told him that fuses do blow periodically in the back of the precipitator, but I couldn’t explain why it happened to fail at that particular time. After I gave him my explanation, he seemed satisfied that I was telling the truth.
I think a token amount of points were awarded to the team because something obviously had happened during the experiment, though it wasn’t clear that sand had anything to do with it. On the other hand, our team was awarded a large amount of points for increasing the precipitator performance using a different method that I may bring up in a later post. To the team that burned the sand, this looked a lot like foul play.
The leader of the team was the Shift Supervisor Jim Padgett. He became very upset when he found out that I had gone to the precipitator control room during the experiment and worked on the equipment. Our team had been awarded a lot of points that was enough to purchase the dining room table set that I have in my dining room today:
It became known throughout the control room and the electric shop that Jim Padgett viewed me as his enemy. The other electricians would jokingly refer to Jim as my “friend”, knowing that Jim had basically declared “war” on me. Any time someone in the shop would have something to say about Jim, they would say, “Kevin’s friend” Jim Padgett….”
When I first became aware that Jim was upset with me, I understood why. If I had been in his shoes I would probably feel the same way. It’s a rotten feeling when you believe that someone has cheated you out of something important. So, I decided up front that I was going to become Jim’s best friend. This is where I think my memory of Mark Schlemper with his patience for me as a boy helped me with this decision.
I had determined that any time Jim asked me to do something I wouldn’t hesitate to help him. It took about a year before Jim could look at me without grimacing. Finally, one day, he asked me if I would go look at something for him to see if we needed a clearance, or if it was something that could be fixed right away. It was something minor, but I knew that this was an indicator that the ice was finally beginning to melt. I was able to fix the problem on the spot, and returned to let him know.
Once we were on semi-speaking terms again, I took an opportunity one day to ask Jim if he would like to join our Computer Club. I had started a Computer Club in the Electric Shop. Anyone could join it for a one time fee of $5.00 that was used to buy shareware and disk cases. For a while I also published a newsletter letting the members of the club know what games and such we had that could be checked out.
Once Jim Padgett joined the Computer Club, it was much easier to have a regular conversation outside of the normal daily business. I had put the thought in my mind when I decided that Jim was going to become my best friend that nothing would make me happier than to be able to do something for Jim. That way, no matter what I was doing at the time, if Jim asked me to do something for him, I would drop whatever I was doing and do my best to help.
I could go on and on explaining how gradually over time, not only was Jim my friend, but Jim acted more and more as if I was his friend as well. Let me just say that the entire process took almost exactly ten years. I can remember the exact moment when Jim indicated to me that I had become his friend.
Here is what happened:
The phone next to my bed rang at 2:15 in the morning on Thursday February 17, 2000. I instantly knew what it meant when the phone rang in the middle of the night. It meant that someone at the plant was calling because there was a problem. Who else would be up on in the middle of the night? The night shift of course.
When I answered the phone, Jim Padgett said, “I hate to wake you up buddy.” I replied, “No. That’s okay. What’s up?” Jim explained that the dumper was down and a train was about halfway through dumping the coal and everything was dead in the water. I said, “Ok. I’ll be right out.”
I turned to Kelly and told her that I had to go fix the dumper. She already knew of course. I pulled on a pair of jeans, a flannel shirt, and on the way out the door, I slipped on my work boots and laced them up. Then I drove the 30 miles out to the plant.
It was just before 3:00 am when I arrived. I grabbed my hardhat from the electric shop and took the elevator up to the Control Room. Jim apologized again and told me that how the dumper acted when it shutdown. I went back down the elevator to the electric shop where I grabbed the key to the pickup truck and my tool bucket and left the electric shop into the cool night air.
Power Plants at night take on magical properties. It’s hard to explain. Lights shining from the 25 story boilers, noises from steam pipes. Hums from motors and transformers. Night Hawks screeching.
When I arrived at the coalyard, I went straight into the Dumper Switchgear where the relays that controlled the dumper were mounted. Having worked on the dumper for the past 17 years, I could troubleshoot the circuits in my sleep. — Actually, I may have done just that. It didn’t take long, and I had replaced a contact on a relay that had broken and had the Coalyard Operator test the dumper long enough to know it was going to work.
When I returned back to Control Room Jim was sitting in the Shift Supervisor’s office. I walked in and showed him the small relay contact that had caused the failure. Jim, looked at me and said something that I thought only a friend would say so casually. I won’t use his exact words, though I remember not only the exact words, I remember his exact expression. He indicated to me that he had passed some gas, and he was apologizing about it. I replied, “Well. That happens.” (No. Not the other thing that happens). I told him I was going to go home. It was about 3:40 by that time.
Jim wished me a good night, and smiling with gratitude, thanked me again for coming out. As I was going back to the parking lot, and on the way home driving through the dark, tired from being woken up in the middle of the night, I had a great feeling of peace. That brief conversation with Jim just before I left was so pleasant in an odd way that I knew we had become friends. This was such a long way from where we had been 10 years earlier when Jim had literally wanted to kill me (well, not that he actually would…).
When I arrived home, I peeled my clothes off in the utility room to keep from tracking coal all over the house. I set the small broken relay contact on the kitchen table as a token to my wife, so she could see why I was called out when she wakes up in the morning. I climbed back into bed around 4:15 to sleep for another two hours.
That morning when I arrived at the plant, the first thing I learned was that about the time that my alarm had woken me up that morning, Jim Padgett had left his shift and driven to his home in Ponca City. When he walked in the door to his house, he collapsed and died instantly of a heart attack. That would have been about 3 hours after the moment that we had said goodbye.
I grieved for Jim’s wife Jane, who had worked for a while at the plant before marrying Jim, but I didn’t grieve for Jim. Something told me, and maybe it was Jim, that he was at peace. In the moment that I heard about Jim’s death, I burned the conversation we had just had that morning into my mind so that I would never forget it.
To this day whenever I know that someone is upset with me for something that I have done to them personally (which still happens occasionally), I am determined that they will become one of my best friends. I will do anything for that person if they ask (unless, of course it is to “not be their friend”). I have my childhood friend Mark Schlemper to thank for the attitude that helped me decide to reach out to Jim Padgett. Without that experience while growing up, Jim and I would never have become friends.
I would like to leave you with a song that reminds me of Jim whenever I hear it. It is called “Bright Eyes” from the movie “Watership Down”. Art Garfunkel sings it:
Note: If you are not able to watch the video above, try clicking this link: Bright Eyes, Art Garfunkel
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Originally posted June 13, 2014:
When discussing Telephones at the Coal-Fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma, I have to remember that some of my readers have a completely different perspective of telephones than me. My children grew up probably never seeing a real rotary dial phone except in movies or old TV shows. It might be a little hard for them to imagine a telephone being a possible murder weapon. Telephones have come a long way since I grew up in the 1960’s and 70’s.
When you turned the dial on a Rotary phone you put your finger in the hole on the number you want to dial and then you swing it around until your finger bumps up against the metal bracket. When you pull your finger out of the hole, the phone sends a rapid succession of pulses to the telephone company telling them what number you just dialed. It was very… well…. tedious and manual…. and not even electronic. It was electric signals and switches. “Mechanical” is the word I think I’m trying to say.
Even the way you received a dial tone was by sending something called a “Ring-to-ground” signal to the telephone company. That would happen when you would lift the receiver off the hook. There are only two wires used to communicate in an old phone and only one of those had voltage on it. when you ground that wire (called the “Ring”) momentarily, the phone company would then send a dial tone to your phone.
You could actually do this on a dead phone line at times when the phone company had shut off your service. On an old pay phone, when the proper coin was inserted in the phone, the coin itself was used to ground the ring wire, thus telling the telephone company to send the dial tone, allowing you to use the phone. In 1983 there was a movie called “Wargames”.
I had learned about how these telephones worked from Bill Rivers just before going to watch this movie. During the movie Matthew Broderick’s character needed to make a phone call at a pay phone but didn’t have a coin. By taking the mouthpiece off of the transmitter, and using a metal pop top he found on the ground, he was able to ground the “ring” wire to the pay phone, and he received a dial tone. There was a good ol’ boy sitting behind me in the movie theater that said, “You can’t do that!” — Being the newly educated smart (-alec) guy I was, I turned around and said, “Yeah. You really can.”
Anyway. This isn’t a story so much about how old phones work. I just wanted to bring the younger readers back-to-date on phones since now they don’t really call them telephones anymore. It is more like, “Smart Phone” and “Cell Phone”, “Mobile Phone” or just “Phone”. The phone in the house isn’t even referred to as a telephone. We now call them “Home Phone” to distinguish them from the actual phones that we use.
Anyway, when I joined the electric shop in 1983, I learned about the phone system. We didn’t use the older Rotary Dial phones at the plant. We were one step up. We had “Touch Tone” Phones.
As I have mentioned in previous posts, we had our own telephone computer at the Power Plant. It was called a ROLM phone system. See the post “A Slap In the Face at a Gas-fired Power Plant“.
To give you an idea of the technology used by this phone system, you connected to it using a “teletype” terminal that you connected to a telephone by clipping the receiver in a cradle. Then you dialed the phone computer. When you connected, it was at 300 Baud. Think of 300 bytes per second, only using audio…. like a fax machine. — It was like connecting using a modem. 300 baud meant that when it typed out the results on the paper that scrolled out the top, you could watch it as it slowly printed out each line. The maximum speed of the terminal was 300 baud.
In this picture you can see the cradle in the back where the phone receiver would fit in those two rubber cups.
After many years of going to the lab to connect to the telephone computer to make changes and to monitor the telephone traffic, in 1992 I decided to bring my 8088 computer to work and set it on the desk in the electric shop. We didn’t have our own computer yet. At that time the only people that had computers were office workers and the Shift Supervisor. We had started a computer club and having a computer in the shop was a big help. I had just replaced this computer at home with a 486.
I had a modem on my computer, so I tried connecting to the telephone computer, and it worked! So, sometimes during lunch when Charles Foster and I were sitting there talking about movies we had seen while eating vegetables from his garden, I would connect to the ROLM computer and just watch the call log. I could see whenever someone was dialing in and out of the plant.
We had a special call in number into the plant that allowed you to make “trunk” calls. This is another term you don’t hear much anymore. You see….. for the younger readers (again)…. long distant calls used to cost a lot of money. You would be charged by how many minutes you were on the call. During the day, it could be as high as $3.00 a minute to call across the country. Amazing huh? Because today, most of you with cell phones and even your land lines (which are rarely real land lines anymore) long distant phone calls are now free with your phone plan.
Yeah, if you wanted to call someone in the next town over, you would have to pay a fee for every minute you were on the call…. That was when AT&T had a monopoly on the phone lines in the United States. Sure, you only payed $7.00 each month for your phone, but you could only call people in your immediate area or you would be charged extra.
A Trunk line gave you access to a much wider area. The Electric company had a trunk line that gave them access to most of Oklahoma. You could dial into a local number that would connect you to the company phone system. Then after entering the correct password number, you could dial access numbers that would take you to another office location in the electric company. Once on that phone system, you could dial to get an outside line, and then dial a local number in that area.
Our plant had three access numbers that allowed you to dial out locally to Stillwater, Ponca City and Pawnee. This was useful when a foreman needed to call people out to work. They could dial into the plant, then back out to one of these other towns and then dial the local phone number of the crew member they were trying to reach without incurring a personal charge on their phone line.
So, here I was in 1992 during lunch watching the phone traffic in and out of the plant (not exactly NSA style, but sort of), when I saw something unexpected. A long string of numbers showed up. Someone had dialed in on the Stillwater trunk, then dialed out to the Corporate Headquarters trunk, then out to Oklahoma City and from there they placed a long distance call to a phone number in the same area code. The prefix on the phone number was familiar to me. It was a Ponca City phone number. I had lived in Ponca City for three years when I had been married, from 1986 to 1989. I knew a Ponca City phone number when I saw one.
I thought this was odd, because it wouldn’t be normal for someone to dial from Stillwater through out plant to Oklahoma City only to call a Ponca City phone number when they could have dialed the local Ponca City access code. Then they wouldn’t have had to make a long distance call which bypassed our trunk call system causing the electric company to be billed for the long distance telephone call.
At the time I was a CompuServe user. This was when the World Wide Web was in it’s infancy. I was still using a DOS computer. When I connected to the Internet, it was either by using my dad’s Internet account from Oklahoma State University where I would use Telnet to access a bunch of mainframe computers all over the country, or I would use the DOS-based version of CompuServe. CompuServe was the king of Internet access before America Online came around and seemingly overnight made CompuServe obsolete.
In 1992, CompuServe had a service where you could look up phone numbers and find out whose number it was. Imagine that! Yeah. That was one of the neatest features on CompuServe! That and getting stock quotes. — Like I said…. There was no “www.whitepages.com” online. The only catch to using the reverse phone number feature, was that it was like making a long distance call. It cost money. You were charged by the minute for using the CompuServe reverse telephone number service, with the least amount being a dollar.
So, I bit the bullet and accessed the Phone Number lookup section of CompuServe. I quickly typed in the number. When the name and address of the user popped up, I quickly hit “Print Screen”, and then exited the service. My fee came to $1.00, but at least I knew what number had been dialed in Ponca City.
Charles, Scott Hubbard and I were a little excited by the time Terry Blevins walked into the electric shop office after lunch was over, I told him what I had seen.
When I told Terry the name of the person that had received the long distance call, he recognized the name right away. When I gave him the address, he was sure he knew who it was. The phone number belonged to the Music Director at the Ponca City High School. His son was attending college in Stillwater, Oklahoma.
Well, that sort of cinched it. We had a pretty good idea who had made the call. It was a college student calling home, who had been given the phone number most likely by a fellow student who knew the code to call home in Oklahoma City. So, the only local access code this guy knew was how to dial through our plant to Oklahoma City and back out where he was free (but it was not free for us) to make a long distance call home.
Armed with this knowledge, I headed up to the front office. I went straight to the Plant Manager, Ron Kilman’s office. I told Ron what I had found. I explained in detail how the person had dialed from Stillwater into our plant and then to Oklahoma City and out and then placed a long distance call to Ponca City leaving us with the phone bill. Since it was the middle of the day, the cost of a long distance call was not cheap.
I told Ron that I had used CompuServe to lookup the phone number and that Terry had said that it belonged to the Music Director at the Ponca City High School and that he had a son in college in Stillwater. I was all ready to pounce on this guy. This was a fraudulent use of the telephone service and there were some pretty strict laws then about stealing long distance from someone else.
Ron, being the more level-headed of the two of us thought about it for a minute and said, “What would be the best way to stop this from happening?” — Oh. Well. I was so intent on catching the culprit, I hadn’t thought about that angle…. “Well….” I said, “We could change the pass code used to log into our phone system. We would just have to tell our supervisors what the new number is.”
Ron asked me what it would take to do that. I told him I could do it in two minutes. We quickly settled on a new 4 digit pass code and I left his office and returned to the electric shop and made the change essentially turning the tables on the Telephone Interloper. I suppose the college student in Stillwater was lucky that our plant manager at the time was the type to forgive and forget.
Three years later the entire electric company phone system was replaced by a new AT&T computer which was managed by AT&T. As you can tell… Technology just keeps moving forward making seemingly really neat new inventions quickly obsolete.
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Power Plant Men learned about the “Law of the Hog” the first day they were introduced to the new “Quality Process”. I recently wrote a post about how the Power Plant Men at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma were trained to use various tools to help them formulate ideas quality improvement ideas at the plant in June, 1993. See the post “A Chance for Power Plant Men to Show Their Quality“. Even though we were hearing about the “Law of the Hog” for the first time, I recognized it right away. I had seen it in action the previous November 3, 1992.
What better way to convince a room full of skeptical Power Plant Men that the Quality Process is about improving the conditions at the plant than by first telling them what they already know in such a way that from then on they believe you really do know what you’re talking about. — I know. That was a confusing sentence, so let me explain. The instructor told us the story about “The Law of the Hog”.
This evidently was a story that had been going around since the late 70’s. It had to do with a saw mill in Oregon. This is the story the instructor told us…
A group of quality consultants, or… I think they called themselves Leadership consultants back then were visiting the saw mill because they evidently needed some help. While the consultants were learning about how the plant operated, they talked with the workers one-on-one and asked them how things were really done at the mill. That’s when the workers told the consultant about “The Hog”.
The Hog is a grinder that takes scrap wood and grinds it up into sawdust. The consultants had asked them how they worked with supervisors when they were “lacking” in leadership skills. (I would say “evidently” again here, but I’ve already used that word three times. And the last time was just now while explaining that I would like to use that word again, but… — I’ll have to think of another word…. let’s see… oh. I know…. Apparently…). Anyway, apparently, that was when they told the consultants about The Hog that lived in the shack off to one side of the main mill.
So, what happens is that when their supervisor uses a heavy hand to try to whip the workers into shape, the Hog is used for more than just chewing up scraps. When the workers were treated with disrespect, then “The Law of the Hog” went into effect. What happened then was that the workers would throw perfectly good pieces of wood into the Hog where it would be turned to dust (saw dust that is). Since the supervisors were measured on their productivity which took a beating when good wood would be destroyed (Yeah. I couldn’t help using the words Wood and Would together… And then using “Words”, “Wood” and “Would” all together while explaining my obsession). So, the workers would pay the supervisor back each time he displayed inferior leadership skills.
Oh yeah. The Power Plant Men knew all about that. The guys at Muskogee, however, didn’t use such indirect methods. They had one Assistant Plant Manager (I won’t tell you his name but I think his initials were Morehouse. well. Something House anyway), that treated his men with a little more than disrespect, and was surprised one night when the front door to his house was blown off the hinges. He was quickly reassigned to Oklahoma City. But then I have always said that something is in the water in Muskogee. See the post “Something is in the Water at the Muskogee Power Plant“.
When the Quality instructor was telling us the story about the “Law of the Hog” a few examples immediately entered my head. Well, one was the Six Hour Rule. I mentioned this in an earlier post where there was a complicated rule about how an employee could collect “black time” and double time when they were called out at night. As management tried to manipulate the rule to the detriment of the employee, the opposite effect actually happened. After trying to skimp on paying the double time the employee was accustomed to, that was the time when I made the most money from that rule. See the post “Power Plant Black Time and Six Hour Rules“.
This leads us to a dark and stormy day at the Power Plant…. November 3, 1992. The story actually begins the day before. Unit 2 had been offline for a “more than” minor overhaul (I believe it was a six week overhaul instead of the usual 4 weeks). I was the acting foreman for the crew that was working on the precipitator. Terry Blevins normally was in charge of the Unit 2 Precipitator, but for this overhaul, Scott Hubbard and I were assigned to make all the necessary precipitator repairs. The main reason was that new rapper controls were being installed, and Scott had a lot of experience doing this since he had installed them on Unit 1 already.
At that time, Scott and I were like twin brothers. Whatever he was doing… I had to be there to help. Scott would work on the roof of the precipitator generally, while I worked inside. We had been given some operators to help us along with a few contract workers to do the “grunt” work. That is, when you would ask them to do something, they would usually reply with a low moaning grunty sort of sound (I just made up that word…. grunty. It seemed to fit).
Needless to say (but I’ll say it anyway just in case any “Non-Precipitator Gurus” are reading this)…. in order to install the new digital rapper controls, a lot of wire had to be pulled and laid down on terminal blocks from some rapper cabinets to other cabinets across the precipitator. When I say a lot, I mean somewhere over 10 miles of wire. 15 feet at at time. — I was sure glad Scott was doing that while I was strolling away inside the precipitator quietly looking for plates out of alignment and broken wires dressed in my space suit. For a better understanding of what a precipitator does, see the post “Moon Walk in A Power Plant Precipitator“.
I was not inside the precipitator on November 3, 1992, however, I had already finished up inside the precipitator by that time and I was working on the roof in cabinet 2G1 (on the southeast corner) on that day. We had the radio on and I was sitting on my bucket listening to Rush Limbaugh throwing a fit (as he has been known to do from time-to-time). None of our help was doing any work that day. The “Law of the Hog” had come into play and a day of rest had been declared by the helpers.
I was working away laying down the wires on the terminal blocks inside the rapper cabinet while the rest of the crew (minus Scott Hubbard who was on the far side of the precipitator roof working in another cabinet) was sitting around dangling their feet from the walkway near my cabinet. Merl Wright and Jim Kanelakos (two operators) were there along with three contract help. During that day I spent a lot of time running back and forth between the office area and the precipitator roof.
Here is what happened:
On November 2, 1992, just before every one left for the day, the word came down that in the morning everyone was supposed to report to work at the usual 7:00 time. We were scheduled to work until 7:00 in the evening. A full 12 hour day, except for the 30 minutes for lunch (and three breaks). The reason we had to be told to show up at seven o’clock in the morning was because November 3rd was election day.
It was the normal practice to let the Power Plant Men vote before they came to work in the morning. We were being told that we were not supposed to vote in the morning and that we could leave early in the evening to go vote instead of voting in the morning. We were told in no uncertain terms that if we went to vote in the morning, then the amount of time we were late getting to work would be the amount of time we would have to leave at the end of a normal working day.
Let me try to explain what this meant, because on the surface, it looks fairly reasonable. Since the polls closed at seven in the evening when we would be leaving work, we could leave as early as we wanted in the evening to go vote in order to arrive in time before the polls closed. There were two things fundamentally wrong with this solution from a Power Plant Man point of view, though from a Plant Manager point of view, it looked quite reasonable.
The first problem was that this was the election between George Herbert Walker Bush and Bill Clinton (Now you know why Rush Limbaugh was throwing a fit). A very large turnout was expected, and a majority of the workers wanted to make sure and go to the polls to vote that day. With that said, it would be hard to determine what would be a good time to leave the plant to go vote in order to stand in line and cast a vote before the polls closed. Up to that time, polls had not been kept open later than their designated closing time, except to let people who were already waiting in line by the time the closing bell rang.
The second problem and the main problem was this….. Suppose a person did go vote in the morning…. It was a typical practice for the company to cover that person’s time and pay what was called “Black Time” while they went to vote in the morning. In this case, the plant manager was telling us that we basically couldn’t go vote in the morning without being “punished”. If the person waited and voted in the evening, they would lose their overtime which directly affects the bottom line on the home front.
Here is how the punishment would be administered…. If a person went to vote in the morning and was an hour late, and came in, say at eight o’clock instead of seven. Then they would have to leave when they had completed a regular eight hour day. That is, they would not receive any overtime that day.
Well. this didn’t effect me, because I had already early voted a couple of weeks earlier. I think Scott did too, when we realized we were going to be on overhaul working 12 hour days. Scott Hubbard and I carpooled together, so we were always careful to coordinate our efforts.
So, guess what happened…. Yeah. You guessed it…. especially if you knew Jim Kanelakos. He knew an “injustice” when he saw it, and so, he wasn’t going to let this one slide. He made sure to go vote the first thing in the morning, just like he had ever since he was old enough to vote. He arrived at the plant around 9 o’clock.
When he arrived on the Precipitator roof he told me that he had voted that morning and that the line at the polls where he voted was down the block 15 minutes before they opened. He said he didn’t care what anyone said, he was going to work until 7:00 that evening. He said, “Just let anyone try to send me home early,” with a big grin on his face and his pipe hanging from the corner of his mouth…. Oh. Let me remind you what Jim looked like:
This is a picture I found a few years ago on Google Images. It looked like Jim, so I copied it. Since then I have received a picture of the crew Jim was working on, so you can see an actual photo:
Well… When Tom Gibson, the Electric Supervisor came around asking if anyone had arrived late that morning, as acting foreman, what could I say? I told him that Jim Kanelakos had come in two hours late. Tom told me to send Jim home at 4:30. He would get his black time for voting early, but he would not receive any overtime for the day. I told Tom I would tell Jim. I also told him that Jim had already said that he was going to stay until 7:00 and expected to receive the normal pay that he would have received if he had worked the entire day.
This sent Tom into a rage. He wanted Jim taken off our crew and sent back to Operations right then and there. He said that he disobeyed orders and if it was up to him, he would fire him. I told Tom that we had a ton of work to do and that we needed everyone we could have until the overhaul was over. If we sent Jim back to Operations for the remainder of the overhaul, we might not be able to finish our work. We were working on a very tight schedule as it was.
I told Jim that Tom had told me to tell him to go home at 4:30 in the afternoon. Jim just laughed. He said he was going to go home at his regular time…. 7:00 pm. I said, “Ok. I am just telling you what Tom said. I’m going to have to tell him your reply.” Jim, who was my friend, said, “I know. Do what you have to do.”
I went back to the electric shop and when I walked in the shop Denise Anson, the receptionist paged me on the Gray Phone. She said I had a call. I told her to send it to the electric shop office. I was surprised when I answered the phone and Charles Campbell was on the other end of the line. News travels fast…. He was an attorney in Stillwater. He had heard that there was something going on at the plant that might have something to do with vote tampering.
I told him in detail what I knew about Jim Kanelakos and how he had went to vote in the morning after being told that he had to wait until the evening to vote, or he would be docked pay by missing out on scheduled overtime. I knew that Charles Campbell, unlike some attorneys, was an upstanding citizen in the community and was in no way an ambulance chaser, but when he heard this, I could immediately hear the eagerness in his voice. I had the impression by his remarks that if this panned out the right (I mean “the wrong”) way, he might be able to retire early. We ended the conversation by him saying, “Let me know if you hear about anyone that doesn’t get to vote that wanted to because they left work too late.” He was in total disbelief that the plant had made that policy.
Well, I found Tom Gibson in his office and I told him what Jim had replied to me. Tom became even more furious. (I only saw him this mad or his ears this red one other time… but that is another story). He repeated that he was going to try to have Jim fired for being insubordinate. This seemed to me to be unlike Tom who was always a very reasonable person. I don’t think it was anything personal against Jim, I think there was just something about someone who blatantly (in his mind) had ignored a policy that had been clearly given to him the evening before.
I ended up in the Plant Manager, Ron Kilman’s office. Ron, who took ultimate responsibility for the decision to tell the employees to not vote in the morning listened to Tom tell him what he thought about the whole thing. I had been in Ron’s office not too long before this incident to tell him that someone had been hacking through our phone system and it surprised me that Ron wanted to find a way to resolve the issue without raising a ruckus or harming anyone, even the perpetrator. See the post “Turning the Tables on a Power Plant Telephone Interloper“. When Ron was questioning me about the issue about what to do with Jim, I could tell that Ron really wanted to resolve this issue with as little conflict as possible.
I told Ron that I had talked to my attorney in Stillwater about what was happening and that he was very anxious to find out if anyone either lost any money because they voted early, or they were not able to vote at the end of the day. Ron said, “Well. We made this decision yesterday afternoon without really thinking it through. When the idea was suggested, it sounded like a good plan at the time. Then today I went and checked to see what we have done in the past, and we have always let people go vote in the morning.” Ron’s final decision was to let Jim continue working until seven o’clock and receive the proper black time for voting in the morning. I let Jim know.
Everything would have been all right except for one thing….. The Law of the Hog. You see, I had spent considerable time going back and forth throughout the day between the precipitator roof and the office area discussing this topic with both parties involved. The entire precipitator crew with the exception of Scott Hubbard, did absolutely no work the entire day. They kept waiting to see what was going to happen. We were now one day behind schedule.
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Originally posted: July 12, 2014:
Tom Gibson, the Electric Supervisor at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma didn’t have a clue the large can of worms he opened the day in 1988 when he told me to find out all I could about the company computer in Corporate Headquarters…. The one that ran all the important financial systems for the company. I remember going straight down to the Electric Shop office and sending a request for a username on the Honeywell Mainframe to the IT department, with Tom’s approval.
This story is a continuation of two previous stories…. Last week I wrote a post called: “Power Plant Customer Service Team Gone Wild“. This is the next shoe that dropped in that story…. Earlier this year I wrote a post called: “Toby O’Brien and Doing the Impossible“. Well, this is the second story in the list of “Impossible Things” Power Plant Electricians were able to accomplish when others said it couldn’t be done.
As a reminder… and in case you didn’t read last week’s post…. as a summary….. let me just say that I had printed out a form on every printer in the company as part of a “Quality Idea” our team was investigating. In doing so, I sent commands to the printers to change their quality settings, as well as the Font Size and a few other settings. When I ran the little known command that sent the document to every printer listed on the mainframe, I didn’t realize that this included all the billing, paycheck and work order printers that all had their special kinds of paper and setting for those particular jobs to run.
This was probably the biggest “Faux Pas” (pronounced “Foe Paw” — yeah…. French… which literally means: “False Step”) of my 18 years as an Electrician. Before I tell you about how the second shoe dropped… Let me explain that a few weeks before I had hit enter on the keyboard sending the disastrous command to the Mainframe, In June, 1993, I had found an interesting program on the Honeywell mainframe called “Magna 8”.
It had to do with creating reports from the main database. This was the entire database that ran the Electric Company Business! I thought this would be a great program to learn in order to create all kinds of reports for our plant that would help us understand where our efforts were being spent. I thought I might actually be able to tie our Maintenance Orders to the time the employees spent on them to their wages, and to the cost of the parts used…. Nothing like that existed at the time, and the little I was able to read from the Magna 8 User Manual on the mainframe, this seemed like just the ticket..
We had never heard of SAP, or other ERP systems at the time. — Oh… sorry… ERP stands for “Enterprise Resource Planning”. It does just that. It combines all the company’s business together in one application so that you can account for all the costs down to each machine, person, and part. If I could learn more about Magna 8, maybe I could start piecing these pieces together from the database. I was having one problem…. When I would page down in the user manual, it kept skipping the bottom half of every page….
I couldn’t figure out how to stop it from scrolling past the second half of each page. So, I called in a favor from the IT guys downtown and asked them if they could send me a printed copy of the Magna 8 User’s Manual. They said they would be glad to send me a copy. About a week later, I received the User Manual through company mail. It was about 4 inches thick.
There were different sections. One was called: “The Update Module”. Yeah…. That’s right…. It was used to enter data into the database…. I thought about that module for about 2 seconds and decided It would be best to stay away from that one. Then there was the “Reporting Module”.
That was the one I was looking for. — on a side note…. I know “for” is a preposition, and I know you aren’t supposed to end a sentence in a preposition, however, who doesn’t say, “That’s what I was looking for”? In these circumstances, I figure that I better approach it from a whole different angle…. like…. “That’s the section I really wanted.” — End side note.
A couple of weeks after I received the copy of the Magna 8 User Guide, I sent the infamous form to all the printers in the company, and that’s when I was sort of had all my “atta boys” taken away with that one “Uh Oh”. I was all prepared to watch my step while on the mainframe. About a week after the episode in Tom’s office when he told me not to send anything outside the plant without Ron Kilman’s permission, my foreman, Andy Tubbs came in the office and told me that in two days, I was supposed to go to some training in Oklahoma City.
“Oh. Training!” One of my favorite things! I always liked to learn new things. I asked Andy what the training was for (Oh geez… did I really say that? “For” at the end of the sentence again! — how about “I asked Andy what kind of training would I be taking” — yeah…. that’s what I said…). Andy replied, “Something called ‘Magna 8′”.
Oh No! I hadn’t asked for training! I had just asked for the user guide! Now I was scheduled to go to training in Oklahoma City and I knew that no one at the plant had “okay-ed” it. Now what was I supposed to do? I did the only thing I could think of at the time…. I asked Andy where I was supposed to go at Corporate Headquarters for the class.
Since I knew that this class hadn’t been approved by Tom Gibson or even our A Foreman Bill Bennett, I decided that I was going to go on my own dime…. that is, I wasn’t going to expense anything. I would pay for my own mileage and lunch, etc. Hopefully, no one would notice that I was gone that day. — Anyway, I could always fall back on the fact that my own Foreman Andy had told me to go….
So, when the day came, I drove to Oklahoma City and entered Corporate Headquarters dressed in my cleanest steel-toed work boots and my cleanest tee-shirt!
When I introduced myself to the instructor, Scott Overmeyer, I told him I was surprised that I had been scheduled for this class. He told me that since I had requested the User Guide that he figured that I should attend this course so that I would know how to use Magna 8 to create reports. — Well, that explained it.
The classroom was short on computers so we had to share one computer between two people. I sat in the back row on the right side if you are facing the instructor. A young lady sat next to me. Her name was something like Laura Burgert. We didn’t introduce ourselves right off the bat. We spent the morning learning about how our database was structured.
Our database was not what is referred to as a “relational database”. I’m not even sure if that term was being used at the time…. anyway, we had what is called a “Hierarchical Database”. The relationships are more like a family tree. If you needed to connect the data, you had to go up the tree to where you could go back down another branch… sort of like if you were into Genealogy and you were looking for your 3rd cousin twice removed. This was all new to me.
Anyway, this isn’t an important part of this story, so don’t strain your brain trying to figure it out.
When noon came around and we were just breaking for lunch, Laura Burgert said to me, “You’re Kevin Breazile! Oh my Gosh! You’re the guy that printed out that form on everyone’s printers!” I replied, “Yeah, that’s me. I sure was in trouble for that one.”
She replied that they had been trying to do something like that for a long time. Then she explained… “I work in the Communication Department and we create the Fast News Bulletins that are sent out to the printers….”
You see… this was what you had to do before e-mail was available…. When there was some news about the company that they wanted to disseminate to all the employees quickly, they would send out a Fast News bulletin to the printers and we would post it on the bulletin board in our area.
She continued to explain….. We have asked IT to give us a list of printers that we should send the Fast News Bulletins, because we know that our list is old and we are sending some to printers that messes up billing jobs and other things…. I said, “Yeah. I know all about those.”
She continued to explain some more…. IT told us there isn’t any way to tell which printers are good printers and which ones we shouldn’t be sending Fast News Bulletins. I replied, “Well…. I know which ones are good and which ones are not. I have all the forms that were sent to me. You can tell right away by the paper they are printed on, and if that’s not enough to give you a hint, just read the ‘colorful’ notes they wrote to me trying to convince me not to print on their printers anymore…”
Laura said it would be a great help if I could send those forms to her. I said I would do it as soon as I was back at the plant.
When I arrived at the plant the next morning, and Andy Tubbs told me that Tom Gibson was upset when he found that I had gone to Oklahoma City for training when Bill Bennett had mentioned it to him the day before. He had been all hot because he hadn’t approved any training and here I was going off on my own to Oklahoma City. I told Andy…. Well…. You did tell me to go….
Anyway, after that I gathered up the stack of around 500 forms and carried them up to the mail room where Denise Anson helped me put them in a small box to mail them to Laura Burgert.
A few weeks went by and Laura called me on the phone. She asked me how I had created the header on the forms. You see, I had created a header with the name of the company and part of the name was normally smaller and had one word over the top of another so….. well…… let me just show you…..
Notice the “GAS/AND” in the middle of the name of the company…. — This doesn’t look like anything to you today, because we now have laser printers and Publishers and all sorts of Word Art at our fingertips. But back then, printing this from a mainframe document took some work…. let me explain, just to give you an idea.
First, I had to space all the way out to where the word GAS starts, then I had to turn on the underline and decrease the font size to the size of the small letters and print out the word GAS then I had to turn off the underline and backspace the three characters, change the font back to the large size, then backspace all the way back to the beginning of the line, then print out the word Oklahoma and a space, then change the font back to small and print out the word AND then change the font back to the large size, and continue with the rest of the line. Yeah… I had to send backspace commands to the printer…. I was pretty proud of my header.
You can see by the Memo above that I had been using it for almost a year. The picture above isn’t even using the “Quality” setting on the printer which even made it look a lot sharper.
Anyway, on with the story…… The Fast News Bulletin’s header had a simple design. The “F” in Fast was created using a bunch of F’s. The A using a bunch of A’s. Like this:
Yeah… pretty embarass… um… I mean exciting huh? Laura was looking for a way to add some Quality to the Fast News Bulletin. I told her that I could create large block letters using the graphic commands on the printer I asked her what her printer ID was and I quickly created a Fast News Bulletin for her with a real header: Laura was excited and said that she may be getting back to me soon…. which she did a few weeks later. She asked if I could attend the first meeting of a new Task Force they had created to enhance the Fast News. I said I would be glad to attend, but I would first have to have permission from my Electric Supervisor before I could go.
She said she would take care of it…. and she did.
Ben Brandt, our Assistant Plant Manager wanted to know why I was being asked to show up to a Corporate Communication Task Force! — “Uh… I don’t know.” I replied. Knowing that everything I did outside the plant grounds was being questioned after my previous “misstep”.
So, one day I showed up at Corporate Headquarters again. Laura Burgert was there to greet me. She told me where to sit along a big long table in a meeting room. I was to sit about halfway down the table, while she sat on one end of the table.
When others came in, the IT person that was on the committee… I believe his name was Mike Russell sat on the far end from Laura. Laura opened the meeting by explaining the reason for the task force and when she finished she said, “For starters we were thinking that instead of using the ugly Fast News header we have been using, we would like to have a header like this…. And she passed a copy of the Fast News Bulletin I had printed out on her printer that day when she called me.
When Mike Russell saw it, he replied, “Our Printers can’t print a header like this.” Laura looked over at me, as if she wanted me to reply to Mike’s remark. So, I said, “This was printed out on the standard IBM network printer.”
Mike replied by saying, “No. Our printers can’t print like this. It’s impossible.” I repeated that this Fast News was printed out on Laura’s IBM printer from the mainframe just like the regular Fast News is printed out. I even told him that I could send him a copy of the header so that he could print it out and see for himself.
He said, “There’s no need to do that. Our printers can’t print this out.” — Though he held a bulletin in his hands that was printed out on our Standard IBM printer.
At the end of the meeting Laura thanked me for coming. She said, “See? This is what we have been dealing with. They probably weren’t going to be able to go anywhere with this.” I just nodded…. I thanked her for inviting me and I returned to the plant 75 miles north.
I guess it didn’t matter too much. A few months later and we were all being introduced to E-Mail, as I had been running telephone cable all over the plant so that we could set up a new NT Server network using Netware 4.0. Which used Novell’s GroupWise for e-mail. Fast News then just showed up in our Inbox.
It’s funny how things work out. What are the odds? I wreak havoc by sending a “rogue” form to printers that should be left alone, only to have those forms become useful to another department after I was “accidentally” enrolled in a training course where I happened to sit next to the one person in the company that could benefit from that printing blunder. Which then led her to look at ways to improve the Fast News Bulletin that she was responsible for creating….
Then the IT department refused to listen, but it didn’t matter anyway because new Technology quickly came along which began the process of weaning us off of the mainframe and onto a new state of the art network that later allowed us to use SAP a real ERP system that made the Magna 8 application that I went to learn in the first place obsolete.
I guess the Fast News Bulletin for the day is that Technology Moves Fast…. If you aren’t on for the ride, then you will be making statements like “That’s Impossible” and having a student in the 8th grade proving you wrong. It reminded me of what my dad always said when I was growing up… “Don’t ever say you can’t. — There’s always a way.”
Comments from the original post:
Originally posted August 2, 2014
Scott, Toby and I were all sitting in the front seat of Scott’s pickup truck on our way home from the coal-fired power plant in North Cental Oklahoma, because this particular pickup didn’t have a back seat. I guess that’s true for most pickup now that I think about it. It was in the fall of 1993 and I was on one of my rants about Power Plant Safety (again).
Scott Hubbard was focusing on the road and he was smiling. I think it was because the person that was talking on NPR (National Public Radio) had a pleasant voice.
Come to think of it… Scott was usually smiling.
I was going on and on about how the plant needed to take a completely didn’t approach to safety. I thought that we just looked at each accident as an isolated case and because of that we were missing the point. The point was that no one really goes to work with the idea that they want to do something that will hurt them. Power Plant Men in general don’t like having accidents. Not only does it hurt, but it is also embarrassing as well. Who doesn’t want that 20 year safety sticker?
I was in the middle of my safety rant all prepared to continue all the way from the plant to Stillwater, about 20 miles away when Toby quickly interrupted me. He said that he had received a safety pamphlet in the mail the other day that was saying the same things I had just said. It had talked about a way to change the culture of the plant to be more safe. Not using the same old techniques we were used to like Safety Slogan Programs (I was thinking…. but what about the Safety Slogan Pizza award at the end of the year? Would that go away? See the Post: “When Power Plant Competition Turns Terribly Safe“). Toby said that he read it and then set it aside as just another one of the many safety sales pitches a Plant Engineer might receive in a week.
He said he only remembered the pamphlet because I had just made a statement that was word-for-word right out of the safety pamphlet. I had said that the only way to change the Power Plant Safety Culture was to change the behavior first. Don’t try to change the culture in order to change the behavior. When I had earned my degree in Psychology years earlier, I had been told by one of my professors that the area of Psychology that works the best is Behavioral Psychology.
To some, this might sound like treating the symptoms instead of the actual cause of a problem. If your not careful that may be what you end up doing and then you ignore the root of the problem, which brings you back to where you were before you tried to change anything in the first place. Toby said he would give the pamphlet to me the next day.
So, the rest of the ride home was much more pleasant. Instead of finishing my rant about Safety, we just listened to the pleasant voices on National Public Radio. I was excited about the idea that someone might have a solution that I believed offered the best chance to change the direction of Safety at the plant away from blaming the employee, to doing something to prevent the next accident.
The next day, after we arrived at the plant, I made my way up to the front offices to Toby’s desk so that he could give me the safety pamphlet he had mentioned on the ride home. When he gave it to me, the title caught my eye right away. It was a pamphlet for a book called: “The Behavior-Based Safety Process, Managing Involvement for an Injury-Free Culture”. Now I was really excited. This sounded like it was exactly what I had been talking about with Toby and Scott. I sent off for the book right away.
When the book arrived I wanted to climb on the roof of my house and yell “Hallelujah!” I was suddenly one with the world! As I read through the book my chin became chapped because my head was nodding up and down in agreement so much that the windy draft caused by the bobbing motion chafed my chin.
I finished the book over the weekend. When I returned to work on Monday, I wrote another quick letter to the Plant Manager, Ron Kilman and the Assistant Plant Manager, Ben Brandt telling them that I would like to discuss an idea for a new safety program…. um…. process. Process is better than Program… as we learned in Quality Training. A process is the way you do something. A program is something you do, and when it’s over, you stop doing it.
Later that week, I met with Ron Kilman, Ben Brandt and Jasper Christensen in Ben’s office.
I had just read the book for the second time, I had already had 5 dreams about it, and I had been talking about it non-stop to Charles Foster and Scott Hubbard in the electric shop for days. So, I felt confident that I was prepared for the meeting. I still remember it well.
Ron asked me to explain how this new process would work and so I started right in….
In order for this process to work, you have to understand that when an accident occurs, it is the system that is broken. It isn’t the employee’s “fault”. That is, the employee didn’t wake up in the morning thinking they were going to work today to have an accident. Something went wrong along the way, and that is what you have to focus on in order to improve safety. Not so much the employee, but the entire system.
If people are unsafe, it is because “The System” has trained them to work unsafe (for the most part…. — there will always be someone like Curtis Love…. accidents sometimes traveled 45 miles just to attack Curtis Love).
The trick is to identify the problems with the system, and then take steps to improve them. Ben was nodding as if he didn’t quite buy what I was saying. Ron had looked over at Ben and I could tell that he was skeptical as well (as I knew they would, and should be…. I had already demonstrated that I was a major pain in the neck on many occasions, and this could have been just another attempt to wreak havoc on our plant management). So Ron explained a scenario to me and asked me how we would go about changing the system to prevent these accidents in the future….
Ron said, Bill Gibson went down to work on the Number 1 Conveyor Belt (at the bottom of the dumper where the coal is dumped from the trains).
While he was down there, he noticed that some bolts needed to be tightened. The only tool he had with him that could possibly tighten the bolts was a pair of Channel Locks.
All of us had a pair of Channel Locks. One of the most Handy-dandiest Tools around.
Ron continued…. So, instead of going back to the shop and getting the correct size wrench to tighten the bolts, Bill used the channel locks to tighten them. He ended up spraining his wrist. Now how are you going to prevent that?
I replied…. One of the most common causes for accidents is using the wrong tool. There are usually just a few reasons why the wrong tool is used. If you fix those reasons, then you can prevent this from happening. The main and obvious reason why this accident occurred was because the right tool wasn’t there with him. This could be fixed a number of ways. Bill and his team could have a small bag that they carry around that had the most likely tools they might need for inspecting the conveyors. They might have another bag of tools that they use when they need to go inspect some pumps… etc.
Another solution may be to mount a box on the wall at the bottom of the dumper and put a set of wrenches and other important tools in it. If that box had been there and Bill had found the loose bolts, he only would have to walk a few feet to get the right tool instead of trudging all the way back up to the shop and then all the way back down.
It wasn’t that Bill didn’t want to use the right tool. He didn’t want to bruise his wrist. He just wanted to tighten the bolts.
— This had their attention… I was able to quickly give them a real action that could be taken to prevent a similar accident in the future if they would take the effort to change the “System”. Even Ben Brandt leaned back in his chair and started to let his guard down a little.
This was when I explained that when someone does something, the reason they do it the way they do is comes down to the perceived consequences of their actions…
We were always being drilled about the ABC’s of First Aid from Randy Dailey during our yearly safety training. That is when you come across someone lying unconscious, you do the ABC’s by checking their Airway, the Breathing and their Circulation. I introduced Ron, Ben and Jasper to the ABC’s of Safety. Something completely different. The ABC’s of Safety are: Antecedents, Behavior and Consequences.
An Antecedent is something that triggers a particular behavior. In Bill’s case, it was finding the loose bolts on Conveyor 1. It triggered the behavior to tighten the bolts. Bill chose to use the wrong tool because the correct tool was not immediately available, so he weighed the consequences. The possible behavior choices were:
- I could use the pair of channel locks here in my pocket.
- I could spend the next 20 minutes climbing the 100 feet up out of the dumper and go over to the shop and grab a wrench and walk all the way back down here.
- I could leave the bolts loose and come back later when I have the right tool.
The consequences of these behaviors are:
- I could be hurt using the channel locks, but I haven’t ever hurt myself using them before, and the chances are small.
- I could be late for lunch and I would be all worn out after climbing back up to the shop. The chances of me being all worn out by the time I was done was very high.
- The loose bolts could fail if I waited to tighten them, and that could cause more damage to the equipment that would cause a lot more work in the future. The chance of this is low.
The behavior that a person will choose is the one that has an immediate positive consequence. If the odds of being hurt is small, it will not stop someone from doing something unsafe. Also, if the negative consequence is delayed, it will not weigh in the decision very highly. Positive consequences outweigh negative consequences.
So, in this case, the obvious choice for Bill was to use the channel locks instead of going back to get the right tool.
When I finished explaining this to Ron and Ben, (Jasper was nodding off to sleep at this point)… Ben asked where I came up with all of this. That was when I reached down and picked up the book that was sitting in my lap. I put it on the table. I said, I read about it in here:
Ben grabbed the book and quickly opened up the front cover and saw that I had written my name inside the cover. He said, “It’s a good thing you put your name in here or you would have just lost this book.” I told him he could read it if he wanted.
Ron said that he would consider what I had said, and a few day later he responded that since I had been requesting that we start up a Safety Task Force to address the plant safety concerns that he would go ahead and let us start it up, and that he wanted us to consider starting a Behavior-Based Safety Process in the future. — That will be another story…
Let me finish this post with a warning about the Behavior-Based Safety Process…
In order for this to work, it has to be endorsed from the top down, and it has to be implemented with the understanding that the employee is not the problem. Punishing employees for working unsafe will destroy any attempt to implement this process properly. Training everyone is essential. Especially management. I can’t emphasize this enough. In order to produce an accident-free culture, everyone has to keep it positive. Any changes in the system that helps prevent accidents is a good thing. Any unsafe behavior by an employee is a symptom that there is something wrong with the system that needs to be addressed. — Reprimanding an employee is destructive… unless of course, they intentionally meant to cause someone harm. — But then, they wouldn’t really be Power Plant Men, would they?
Comments from the original post:
Originally posted August 9, 2014
One of the phrases we would hear a lot at the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma was “Safety is Job Number One”. It’s true that this should be the case, but at times we found that safety was not the highest priority. It is easy to get caught up in the frenzy of a moment and Safety just seemed to take a second row seat to the job at hand.
Making Safety Job Number Two was usually unintentional, but sometimes on rare occasions, we found that it was quite deliberate. Not as a company policy, but due to a person’s need to exert their “Supervisory” Power over others. I mentioned one case in the post titled: “Power Plant Lock Out Tag Out, or Just Lock Out“.
During the summer of 1993, everyone at the plant learned about the Quality Process. I talked about this in the post: “A Chance for Power Plant Men to Show Their Quality“. I had joined the Action Team. This was a team of Power Plant Men that reviewed proposals turned in by the quality teams in order to determine if they had enough merit to be implemented. If they did, we would approve them. If we decided an idea was not appropriate enough to be implemented, we sent it back to the team that had written the proposal with an explanation why it was rejected.
Our team had turned in a proposal to create a Safety Task Force. One that would act like an Action Team similar to the one formed for the Quality Process. It seemed like a logical progression. I was the main proponent of the Safety Task Force, but to tell you the truth, it wasn’t all my idea.
Not only had other members of our Quality Team mentioned forming a Safety Task Force, but so did our Electric Supervisor, Tom Gibson. He had called me to his office one day on the pretense of me getting in trouble…. I say that, because whenever he would call me on the gray phone and respond, “Kevin. I want to see you in my office right now.” that usually meant that I had stepped on someone’s toes and I was in for a dressing down…
— Was I the only one that had this experience? It seemed that way. But then, I was usually the one “expanding my bubble” (as Charles Foster would say). When I arrived at Tom’s office, he asked me if I would ask our team to create a proposal for a Safety Task Force. I told him that I’m sure we would. We had already talked about it a couple of times in our meetings.
I didn’t mind playing “Bad Cop” in the game of “Good Cop, Bad Cop”. That is, it never bothered me to be the one that pushed an unpopular issue that really needed pushing. Where someone else would follow-up as the “Good Cop” in a way that takes away the bitter taste I left as “Bad Cop” by proposing the same solution I proposed only with a more positive twist.
At the time, I figured that Tom Gibson was going to be “Good Cop” in this effort since he had pulled me aside and asked me to initiate the proposal. As it turned out, I ended up playing both Bad Cop and Good Cop this time. I played the Good Cop when Ron Kilman had met with me to discuss a new Safety Idea. The Behavior-Based Safety Process. See the Post: “ABC’s of Power Plant Safety“.
I proposed the Safety Task Force in a sort of “Bad Cop” negative manner. That is, I had pointed out how our current system was failing, and other negative approaches. When I explained how the Behavior-Based Safety Process works as “Good Cop”, Ron had told me to go ahead and form the Safety Task Force.
I asked for volunteers to join the Safety Task Force. After I received a list of people that wanted to be on the Task Force, I chose a good cross-section of different roles and teams from both Maintenance and Operations. I had lofty visions of telling them all about the Behavior-Based Safety Process, and then going down the road of implementing this process at the plant.
I didn’t realize that the Power Plant Men had different ideas about what a Safety Task Force should be doing. They weren’t really interested in trying out some new Safety “Program”. I tried explaining that this was a “Process” not a “Program”, just like the Quality Process. They weren’t buying it.
We had Ground Rules that we created the first day that kept me from ramming anything down their throats, so I went along with the team and listened to their ideas. It turned out that even though the Power Plant Men on the Safety Task Force didn’t want to hear about my “beloved” Behavior-Based Safety Process, they did have good ideas on how to improve safety at the plant.
We decided that we would ask for Safety Proposals just like the Quality Process did. It was felt that the Safety Task Force didn’t have any real “authority” and a lot of people at the plant thought that without the authority to really do anything, the task force was going to be an utter failure.
We decided that the best way to show that the Task Force was going to be a successful force of change toward a safer Power Plant, we would ask for ideas on how to improve the safety at the plant. When we did, we were overwhelmed by the response. Safety Concerns poured in from all over the plant.
At one point we had over 250 active safety ideas that we had decided were worth pursuing. The members of the team would investigate the ideas assigned to them and see what it would take to make the requested changes. Because of the overwhelming response, it didn’t make much sense taking all the approved requests to the Plant Manager. So, in many cases, we decided that a trouble ticket would be sufficient.
I posted the progress of all the active ideas each week on every official bulletin board in the plant. This way, everyone could follow the progress of all of the ideas. As they were successfully completed, they went on a list of Safety Improvements, that I would post next to the list of active proposals.
I think the members of the Safety Task Force might have been getting big heads because at first it appeared that we were quickly moving through our list of plant Safety Improvements. A lot of the improvements were related to fixing something that was broken that was causing a work area to be unsafe. I say, some of us were developing a “big head” because, well, that was what had happened to me. Because of this, I lost an important perspective, or a view of the ‘Big Picture”.
I’ll give you an example that illustrates the “conundrum” that had developed.
We had created some trouble tickets to fix some pieces of equipment, and walkways, etc, that posed a safety risk. After several weeks of tracking their progress, we found that the trouble tickets were being ignored. It seemed that this came on all of the sudden. When we had first started the task force, many of our trouble tickets were being given a high priority, and now, we were not able to succeed in having even one trouble ticket completed in a week.
After going for two weeks without one of the trouble tickets being worked on, I went to Ron Kilman, the Plant Manager to see if we could have some of his “Top Down” support. To my surprise, he gave me the exact same advice that our Principal, Sister Francis gave our Eighth Grade class at Sacred Heart School in Columbia, Missouri when we ran to her with our problems.
Ok. Side Story:
Three times when I was in the eighth grade, our class asked Sister Francis to meet with us because we had an “issue” with someone. One was a teacher. We had a personal issue with the way she conducted herself in the class. Another was a boy in the 7th grade, and the fact that we didn’t want him to go with us on our yearly class trip because he was too disruptive. The third was a general discontent with some of the boys in the 5th and 6th grade because of their “5th and 6th grade” behavior.
In each case, Sister Francis told us the same thing (well almost the same thing). In the first two cases, she told us we had to handle them ourselves. We had to meet with the teacher and explain our problem and how we wanted her to change. We also had to meet with the boy in the seventh grade and personally tell him why we weren’t going to let him go on our trip. In each case it was awkward, but we did it.
In the case of the 5th and 6th graders, Sister Francis just said, “When you were in the 5th grade, if you acted the way these 5th graders acted to an eighth grader, what would happen? Well. Deal with this as you see fit. We all knew what she meant. When we were in the fifth grade, if we treated the eighth graders the way these guys treated us, they would have knocked us silly.
So, the next morning when I was approached by a fifth grader displaying the disrespectful behavior, I gave him a warning. When my warning was greeted with more “disrespect”, I did just what an eighth grader would have done when I was a fifth grader. I pushed him down the stairs. — Not hard. He didn’t tumble over or anything, but he ran straight to Sister Francis and told her what I had done.
Sister Francis came up to our room and told me to go to the principal’s office. — We only had 14 people in the Eighth Grade, so it wasn’t hard to find me. I protested that I was only doing what she authorized us to do the previous day. She agreed, but then she also explained that she had to respond the same way she would have responded to the eighth graders three years earlier if they had done the same thing.
I could tell by her expression, that my “punishment” was only symbolic. From that day on, the 5th and 6th graders that had been plaguing our class were no longer in the mood to bother us. We had gained their respect.
End of Side Story.
So, what did Ron Kilman tell me? He told me that if we were going to be a successful Safety Task Force, then we would need the cooperation of Ken Scott. Ken was the Supervisor of the Maintenance Shop and the one person that had been holding onto our trouble tickets. Ron said, “You will have to work this out with Ken yourself.” — Flashes of Ron Kilman wearing a black nun’s robe flashed through my head, and suddenly I felt my knuckles become sore as if they had been hit by a ruler. — No, I’m not going to draw you a picture.
So, we did what would have made Sister Francis proud. We asked Ken Scott to meet with us to discuss our “issue”. We pointed out to him that the trouble tickets we had submitted were safety issues and should have a higher priority. We also pointed out that we had not had one safety related trouble ticket completed in almost three weeks.
Then it was Ken’s turn…. He said, “Just because you say that something is a safety issue doesn’t make it one. Some of the trouble tickets submitted were to fix things that have been broken for years. I don’t think they are related to safety. I think people are using the safety task force to push things that they have wanted for a long time, and are just using “safety” as a way to raise the priority. Some of these ideas are costly. Some would take a lot of effort to complete and we have our normal tickets to keep the plant running.” — Well, at least when Ken stopped talking we knew exactly where he stood. He had laid out his concerns plain and clear.
The Safety Task Force members used some of the tools we had learned during the Quality Process, and asked the next question…. So, how do we resolve this issue? Ken said that he would like to be consulted on the ideas before a trouble ticket is created to see if it would be an appropriate route to take.
It was obvious now that we had been stepping all over Ken’s Toes and our “demands” had just made it worse. Ken felt like we had been trying to shove work down his throat and he put a stop to it. After hearing his side of the story, we all agreed that we would be glad to include Ken in all the safety issues that we thought would require a trouble ticket.
From that point, we had much more cooperation between Ken Scott and the Safety Task Force. Ken really wasn’t a problem at all when it came down to it. The way we had approached the situation was the real issue. Once we realized that, we could change our process to make it more positive.
This worked well with Ken, because he was forthright with us, and had spoken his mind clearly when we asked. This didn’t work with everyone of the people that pushed back. We had one person when we asked him if he could explain why he was blocking all our attempts to make changes, his only reply was “Because I am the barrier! I don’t have to tell you why!” That is another story. I’m not even sure that story is worth telling. I know that at least one person that reads this blog regularly knows who I am referring to, because he was in the room when this guy said that…. He can leave a comment if he would like….
I suppose when you are a Plant Manager, the last person you want to see at your Power Plant doorstep is the OSHA Man! That’s exactly what happened on Thursday, March 10, 1994 at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma. He was not paying a social call. He was there to conduct an investigation. One in which I was heavily involved.
In my post from last week, “Tragedy Occurs During Power Plant Safety Meeting” I described a near death accident where a contract worker was engulfed in fly ash in a precipitator hopper. The accident was all over the 5 o’clock news in Oklahoma City. The press was there when the Life Flight helicopter arrived at the hospital where they interviewed the flight crew. The OSHA office in the Federal building a few blocks from the Electric Company’s Corporate Headquarters had quickly assigned someone to the case. Armed with all the authority he needed, he began a full investigation of the accident.
The day before Gerald Young, (the OSHA Man) arrived, I had done some investigation myself into the accident. I was trying to figure out exactly what had happened. Why had someone who thought that he had emptied out a hopper so much so that he climbed inside, had suddenly become instantly engulfed in ash? Where did this large volume of ash come from, and why did it decide to suddenly break loose and fill the hopper at the particular moment when James Vickers had decided to climb into the hopper?
Larry Kuennan, the lead engineer had asked me to show him the hopper from the inside of the Precipitator, so he could have an idea of what took place. I told him he needed to put on a fly ash suit and a full face respirator in order to go into the precipitator. After we were all suited up, I took him on a tour of the inside. A sight few people have had the chance to experience. I could write an entire post just about the experience…. Oh…. maybe I already have. See “Moon Walk in a Power Plant Precipitator”
The hopper we needed to investigate was not at the edge, so, we had to squeeze our way around a few beams in order to see the hopper where the accident took place. When we arrived, I explained that when I had first inspected the precipitator, I had found that the ash had piled up five foot above the bottom of the plates because the feeder wasn’t feeding properly. So, I had figured that when they were vacuuming out the hopper, the ash that was lodged between the plates (that were 9 inches apart) must have still been there when James climbed into the hopper. Something had caused the ash to give way all at once.
Larry and I climbed down between the hoppers where we could see the bottle racks underneath the plates. The bottles are 30 pound anchors in the shape of the old style milk bottles. They are used to keep the tension on the wires, which are the electrodes that are normally charged with up to 45,000 volts of electricity when the precipitator is online.
When we sat down to look at the four bottle racks, I noticed right away that one row of bottles was about a foot and a half lower than the rest of the bottle racks. This didn’t make sense to me at first. I couldn’t think of any way that 176 wires and bottles would be lower than the rest of the wires in the hopper. It was a paradox that took a while to soak in.
When we left, Larry Kuennen made a statement I will never forget. He said, “Until now, I thought that Plant Electricians did nothing but twist wires together. I never thought they worked on things like this.” I replied, “We work on anything that has a wire connected to it. That includes almost everything in the plant.” He replied, “Well, I have a new appreciation for Plant Electricians.”
It wasn’t until I returned to the electric shop and heard Scott Hubbard’s recount of the accident (again). Scott and his crew was working on the roof of the precipitator when the accident happened. He said that when the accident happened he heard a loud bang. Sort of like an explosion. I told him what I had found inside the precipitator. This could only mean one thing…. An electric insulator on the roof of the precipitator that held up the wires on that bottle rack had broken. When that happened, it fell the foot and half causing all the ash that had been lodged between the plates to be jolted loose, engulfing James Vickers who had just climbed in the hopper below.
After lunch, Scott went up on the roof and opened the portal on the tension house that housed the insulator that held up that row of wires. Sure enough. The three foot by 3 inch diameter ceramic insulator had broken. Something that had never happened at the plant up to that point. A tremendous load must have been put on this insulator, or it must have been defective in order to just break. These insulators are designed to hold up to 10,000 pounds of weight. the weight of the bottles and wires altogether weighed about 6,000 pounds. This meant that about 4,000 pounds of ash was pressing down from the ash above in order for it to just pull apart.
There was only one person that the OSHA man Jerry wanted to speak to when he arrived at the plant (other than to arrange things). That was me. I was the acting foreman in charge of the operations in, on and below the precipitator when the accident happened. I was also just a regular hourly employee, not so “beholden” to the company that I would participate in any kind of “cover-up”.
The first thing OSHA Jerry wanted to see was the inside of the precipitator. So, I procured a respirator for him, and we climbed up to the landing where one enters the precipitator through side doors. The first thing he did when he arrived at the door was take out a measuring tape to measure the height of the door.
I hadn’t thought about it until that moment, but a new set of OSHA regulations had a new set of Confined Space regulations 1910.146 that dealt specifically with confined spaces. It had gone into effect on April 15, 1993. Here we were almost a year later. I had always treated the precipitator as a confined space, so I had always checked the air quality before I entered it.
So, I asked OSHA Jerry why he measured the size of the door. He said, he was checking if the entrance was “restricted” or “limited”. This was the requirement of a Confined space as stated in OSHA regulation 1910.146. I asked him how small does an entrance have to be to be restricted? He said, “Well. That’s not clearly defined. We could enter the precipitator by bending over and stepping in.
That was the first time I thought that maybe the precipitator itself may not really fit into the strict definition of a confined space. The hoppers do for sure, but does the precipitator? Hmm…. I wondered…. I still do come to think of it. The hoppers were definitely confined spaces by definition… “any space with converging walls, such as a hopper…..”
Oh. I forgot to describe OSHA Jerry. He reminded me a little of the guy who was a sidekick in Cheers named Paul Willson:
Actually, he looked so much like him that I thought of him right away.
When we were done inspecting the precipitator, we returned to the front office where we went to Tom Gibson’s (our Electric Supervisor) office. He closed the door and locked it. And he began to interview me by explaining that anything that was said in this room would be held in confidence. He explained that I could speak freely and that the Electric Company could do nothing to me for telling him the truth.
I thought… Ok…. um…. I have always been known for speaking my mind, so he wasn’t going to hear anything that I wouldn’t personally tell the Plant Manager, Ron Kilman to his face. Just ask Ron. I’m sure he would agree that I was pretty open about anything that popped into my mind.
He asked me if I had been trained how in the OSHA Confined Space regulations. I responded by saying that we had a class on it one day where we went over our new confined space requirements. That consisted of reading the company policy. I knew that I needed to have a hole watch, and I needed to check the air before I went into a confined space.
We checked to make sure there was 20.9% oxygen, that there was less than 10 parts per million Carbon Monoxide, less than 5 parts per million H2S (Hydrogen Sulfide) and that there was less than 5% explosive vapors. OSHA Jack wrote everything down.
Actually, while I was talking, Jerry asked me to pause often because he was writing everything I said word-for-word on a yellow notepad what I was saying.
While we were talking, I asked him a few questions also. I asked Jack how he decided to work for OSHA. Where he had come from (Kansas. Wichita, I think). How long he had been working for OSHA. Did he enjoy his job….. At times, I could get him to digress and tell me a story about his life.
As we continued with our interview over this grave accident that almost resulted in the loss of someone’s life, I was busy making a new friend. By the time he had asked me everything he needed to know, I knew all about how he had grown up in Kansas, and how he had gone from job-to-job until he had ended up in front of me… interviewing me.
When we had finished the interview, he explained to me that this was an official document that contained all the answers to the questions he had asked me. He said that this would be private and that the Electric Company would not be able to ever see what I said unless I wanted them to see it. I asked him if I could show it to them. He said he would give me a copy of it, and I could do whatever I wanted with it. He asked me to sign it. I did.
I took Jerry to the copy machine in the front office where he made copies for me. When he handed them to me, I shook his hand. I told him I enjoyed talking to him. I also told him that I wished him well. I showed him to the elevator, and he left the plant. I made a copy of the papers that I had signed and went directly to the plant manager Ron Kilman’s office and gave him a copy of the document I had signed.
Ron asked me how it went. I told him that it went fine. Here is everything we talked about. I had nothing to hide. It did amaze me that OSHA Jack thought I might want to “spill the beans” about something as if we were treated like peons where the King had total rule. — I guess he didn’t know that Eldon Waugh had retired in 1987.
From there, I went to Bill Bennett’s office. Bill Bennett was our A Foreman. His office was across the hall from Tom Gibson’s office where I had been interviewed for the previous 3 hours. — Yeah. 3 hours. OSHA Jerry didn’t know Shorthand.
Bill asked me how the interview went. I said it went fine. He said that Ron and Ben Brandt had been worried about me because the interview had lasted so long. Bill said he told them, “Don’t worry about Kevin. He probably has this guy wrapped around his little finger. He’s probably using his ‘psychology’ on him” I always loved Bill with all my heart. He knew me too well. I told Bill that I knew OSHA Jerry’s life story by the time we were done. Bill smiled…. just like this:
I smiled back at Bill. I returned to the Electric Shop to continue with Unit 1 Overhaul. After all. That was my “real” job. I put on my fly ash suit, my full face respirator, and my rubber boots and returned to the innards of the precipitator to continue where I had left off. I had a lot to think about as I scanned the Precipitator plates and wires in the dark with my flashlight safely strapped around my neck.
Comment from the original post
Originally posted August 30, 2014.
When a death or a near death occurs at a workplace due to an accident, OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) will investigate what happened. There are two reasons for this. If they find that the company has been negligent in following the safety regulations set down in CFR 1910, then they are fined (if the negligence is severe enough). OSHA also investigates the accident to see if changes are needed to regulations in order to protect employees due to new unsafe workplace conditions that are not currently covered under CFR 1910.
Because of the tragedy that happened at our plant that I outlined in the post: “Tragedy Occurs During Power Plant Safety Meeting” and after I had met with the OSHA man (Gerald Young) to give him my deposition as discussed in the post last week: “The OSHA Man Cometh“, the plant manager, the assistant plant manager, and I were summoned to the Department of Labor building in Oklahoma City at 10 o’clock on Monday April 18, 1994.
On a side note:
The Department of Labor office in Oklahoma City is just a couple of blocks from the Murrah Federal Building that was bombed exactly one year and one day after our visit on April 19, 1995. Not that there was any connection.
I mentioned this because I went to the Murrah building later that day after the meeting with OSHA to meet my brother for lunch. He was working there in the Marine Recruiting office at the time. I think he was a Major then. He changed jobs in June 1994 and moved to Washington D.C. I think. His replacement was killed in the bombing. Here he is Greg today as a full Marine Colonel:
End of Side Note:
I was asked by Ron Kilman our plant manager to show up at 9:00 am on Monday in the building south of our main corporate headquarters where we rented office space to meet with the guys from our own Safety Department because they were required to attend the OSHA meeting with us. The Department of Labor building was just across the parking lot and across the street from this building, so we planned to walk from there.
I drove myself because Ron said he had other meetings to attend in Oklahoma City after this meeting was over and he wouldn’t be driving back to the plant. That was why I arranged to have lunch with my brother.
When we met with the Corporate Safety Department Jack Cox told us how we should act during the meeting with OSHA. He didn’t tell us to do anything wrong, like withhold information. He just told us to answer all the questions as truthfully as we could. Don’t offer any information that isn’t directly asked by OSHA. Don’t argue with them if you disagree.
From what I understood from the conversation, we were supposed to be polite, truthful and don’t waste their time going down a rat hole with specifics. I was told that I shouldn’t have to say anything and I should be quiet unless I was asked a specific question. The Safety department would answer all the questions and make any statements that need to be made. I was assured by them that I had nothing to be worried about. I only needed to tell the truth if asked anything.
If you know my personality, I always want to throw in my 2 cents, even when I know it is wasted on the audience. But I took this seriously. We were going to be fined by OSHA for 10 different violations relating to the accident that occurred at the plant. I was there because I was directly in charge of the work that was being done when the accident occurred. It was my deposition that was used to determine about half of the violations.
After we had been briefed on how we should behave during the meeting, as a group we walked from the corporate building over to the Department Of Labor building. One of the safety guys was carrying a few binders. I think one was the company’s Policies and Procedures book (We called it the GP&P).
Upon entering the building we went to the 3rd floor where we were asked to wait in a room until OSHA was ready for the meeting. The room had a long table down the middle. As usual, I picked a seat about halfway down on one side. I remember Ron Kilman sitting across from me and about 2 seats down.
We waited and we waited….. 10:00 came and went, and no one came. We quietly discussed whether this was to make us more nervous by keeping us waiting. Then someone came to the door and apologized. They said that Robert B. Reich, the U.S. Secretary of Labor was in the office that day and that had thrown off everyone’s schedule.
This was quite a coincidence, and we wondered if Robert B. Reich (it seems like you need to put the B in his name in order to say it right) would be attending our meeting. That would sort of throw a whole new importance of me keeping my mouth shut to make sure I wasn’t putting my foot in it.
It seemed as if Mr. Reich had shown up unexpectedly. Or at least on short notice. Almost as if it was a surprise visit to check up on the place. He didn’t end up coming to our meeting. Now that I think about it. This was one day shy of being one year to the date that the Branch Davidians had burned themselves alive in Waco, which was one year and one day before the Murrah Building Bombing three blocks away from where we were sitting that morning. Aren’t coincidences interesting? Just saying…
More about why Robert B. Reich was there further below.
Around 10:30 four or five OSHA lawyers (I assume they were lawyers, they talked like they were), came in the room along with the Jerry that had interviewed me a few weeks earlier. They apologized again for being late due to the arrival of their “supreme” boss. They sort of sat at one end of the room and the people from our company was more on the other end. Jerry, the OSHA man, sat next to me in the middle.
I was saying a mantra to myself…. “Don’t say anything… just keep quiet and listen…. don’t say anything… just keep quiet and listen.
The meeting began by the Lady at the end of the table reading off the violations to us. I don’t remember all 10. I remember the most important violations. They mainly centered around the new Confined Space section of 1910. It was 1910.146 that dealt with confined spaces and it had gone into affect April 1, 1993, almost one year before the accident happened. Generally, OSHA gives companies about a year to comply to the new regulations, which kind of put us right on the edge since the accident at our plant had occurred on March 3, 1994.
Because of this, some of the violations were quickly removed. That lowered the number down to 6 violations right away. That was good. No one from our company had said a word yet, and already the OSHA lawyers seemed to be on our side. Then they read off a violation that said that our company had not implemented the required Confined Space Program as outlined in CFR 1910.146.
This was when our Safety Department leader, Jack Cox. said that we would like to contest that violation, because here is the company policy manual that shows that we implemented the Confined Space Program before the end of the year.
One of the OSHA lawyers responded by saying that we had not fully implemented it because we had not trained the employees how to follow the policy. When he made that statement, Ron Kilman contested it. He had a stack of papers that showed that each of the employees at the plant had taken the training and had signed a paper saying they had read the policy. Not only that, but the person that was hurt was not a company employee, they were an outside vendor who was hired by the company to vacuum out the hoppers.
The OSHA man said that just because they took the course did not mean that they were properly trained. Ron asked how do you know they weren’t properly trained. The OSHA man replied, “Because they didn’t follow all the rules. If they had, no one would have been hurt.” — What do you say to that? You can tell we weren’t properly trained because someone was hurt? I suppose that the OSHA rules were written in such a way that if you followed them to the letter, no matter what kind of mechanical failure happens, no one will be hurt. I could see the frustration on Ron’s face.
I was a little amused by Ron’s statement though because Jack Cox had told us to just let them answer all the questions and the first seemingly absurd thing the OSHA man had said, Ron had addressed. — I smiled and said to myself…. “Don’t say anything… just keep quiet and listen…”
One of the violations was that we didn’t have a Confined Space Rescue Team. That was true, we didn’t. There was something in the regulations that said, if a rescue team could arrive in a reasonable time from somewhere else, we didn’t have to have our own rescue team…. Well, we lived 20 miles from the nearest fire station equipped with a Confined Space Rescue team. So, there was that…. That was a legitimate violation.
The next violation was that we didn’t have a rescue plan for every confined space in the plant and each confined space was not clearly marked with a Confined Space sign. This was a legitimate violation.
The next violation was that we hadn’t coordinated efforts between different work groups working in confined spaces together. This was clearly stated in the regulations…. — Oh oh. that was me… I think I was mid-mantra when I heard that one. I had just said to myself… “…anything….just keep….” when I heard this violation. I stopped muttering to myself and immediately forgot that I was supposed to keep quiet.
I said, “But wait a minute. We did coordinate between the three groups that were working in the confined spaces. I was coordinating that. I had posted a sheet on a beam in the middle of the hopper area where the accident occurred where the Brown and Root contractors, and the vacuum truck contractors knew what hoppers were still full and which were safe to enter. I kept the sheet updated each day and so did the vacuum truck workers. They indicated when they had finished vacuuming out a hopper, and I would inspect it from above. When I deemed it safe, the Brown and Root contractors could enter the space. The accident occurred because one of the vacuum truck workers entered the confined space while still cleaning it out and before I had inspected it to make sure it was safe.”
Jerry (the OSHA man that had interviewed me turned and said, “Oh. I didn’t know that. Do you still have that piece of paper?” — Incredibly, I did. About a week after all the vacuuming had finished and all the hoppers were safe, I was walking through the hopper area under the precipitator where I found the paper with the duct tape still on it laying on the grating. Without realizing the importance, I picked it up and brought it back to the janitor closet behind the electric shop that we now used as a “Precipitator Fly Ash Cleanup Room”. I had laid it on a shelf there. The lawyers said, “Send us the original sheet and we will drop this violation.
Here is a copy of the piece of paper. The big black splotch at the top is what duct tape looks like when you make a copy of it.
Well, that worked out good. I had stepped out of line by opening my mouth before I had been asked a question, but everything worked out all right.
The final verdict was that we had four violations. We had to re-train our employees on Confined Spaces. We had to create a Confined Space Rescue Team. We had to put the correct signs on all of the confined spaces and we had to develop rescue plans for all of the confined spaces on the plant grounds. If we did that by August 1, 1994, the four remaining violations which amounted to a $40,000 fine would all be dropped. So, we had our work cut out for us. This not only impacted our plant, but all the Power Plants. The meeting was adjourned.
I already told you what I did after the meeting (I went and ate lunch with my brother). But I haven’t mentioned yet why Robert B. Reich had made a surprise visit to the Department of Labor building in Oklahoma City on April 18.
As it turned out, that morning, Labor Secretary Reich had come to Oklahoma City to hand deliver a $7.5 million fine to Dayton Tire Company. This was due to an accident that had resulted in a man, Bob L. Jullian, being crushed by a piece of machinery in the tire plant. He died a week and a half later at the age of 53.
Robert B. Reich had become so angry when he had studied the case on Friday that he wanted to hand deliver the citation himself the following Monday. That is how we ended up in the building at the same time on Monday, April 18, 1994. We resolved our dispute with OSHA on a congenial note and the citations were dropped on August 1. Dayton, however, was still fighting the conviction 18 years later, eventually paying around a $2 million penalty.
Now you know the rest of the story. Well, almost. Like I said, we had a lot of work to do in the next three and a half months.