Originally posted March 28, 2014:
Ken Couri was the plant safety guru long before Randy Dailey showed up on April 16, 1984. Ken gave us our yearly Safety training on such things as first aid and CPR. When Randy came on the scene, our yearly safety training shifted into overdrive! Ken was the one that tested my driving when we took the Defensive Driving Course the summer of 1981 during my third summer as a summer help.
I remember that Ken climbed into the pickup truck parked outside the electric shop as I walked around to the driver side. I thought. This will be a cinch. I’m a great driver. I should come out of this with flying colors. I talked about this class in the post “Power Plant Safety is Job Number One“.
I had done my “Circle for Safety” by walking around the truck to make sure there weren’t any obstacles in the way. Which, by the way, is why AT&T trucks used to stick an orange cone at the back and front corner of their truck (maybe they still do. I haven’t noticed one lately). When an AT&T worker goes to pick up the orange cones, it forces them to look in front and behind the truck to make sure that there isn’t an obstacle behind or in front of it that they might hit when they leave the parking space.
I thought, right off the bat, I must really be impressing Ken Couri. Ken was a heavy equipment operator from the coalyard. He was a heavy equipment operator in more ways than one. In fact, I always thought of him as a gentle giant. Anyway, I thought, he probably hadn’t seen anyone do a circle for safety as geometrically circular as I was doing it. I had calculated the radius from the center of the truck to the front bumpers, added two feet and began my circle for safety checking both the front and back of the truck for obstacles. All clear.
I climbed into the truck, and without hesitation, grabbed my seat belt and strapped myself in. Smiling, I looked over at Ken, who was looking down at his checklist, apparently not paying any attention to me. Hmmm. Ok. Maybe he would be impressed by the way I backed out of the parking space.
I always had the habit of turning around and looking behind me as I backed out. So, I did just that. I carefully backed the truck out of the space while observing everything through the back window, momentarily glancing back to the front to make sure the truck didn’t strike anything as the truck pivoted around. Confident that I had done everything right, I noticed that Ken hadn’t looked up or written anything on the checklist.
He told me where to drive, and I put the truck in drive and headed in that direction. That is when I looked up at the rear view mirror for the first time. I suddenly realized I had made a grave error. I watched as Ken’s hand that held the pencil worked its way up the sheet to a particular checkbox and marked it.
You see, while I was busy creating my perfect Circle for Safety, Ken had climbed into the pickup and reached up and knocked the rear view mirror down so that it was way out of whack. I stopped the truck for a moment as I adjusted the mirror knowing full well that I was supposed to have done that long before I had put the truck in reverse. Well, that was that. No perfect score for me, and I was just beginning the test.
I didn’t know whether to feel bad about that, or to laugh about the way that Ken just sat there with no expression on his face as he checked the box that indicated that I hadn’t checked my rear view mirror before shifting into reverse as we had learned in the videos. I think I was so ashamed about not checking my rear view mirror before shifting into reverse so much that I didn’t even tell my best friend, Tim Flowers on the way home that day. Actually I was so disappointed with myself that this is the first time I have revealed this secret failure to anyone (other than Ken Couri of course, God rest his soul).
The one thing I remember most about Ken Couri during the yearly safety meetings was that he would tell us the story about Annie, who was our CPR dummy. Annie was a drowning victim in Paris France in the Seine river. Her real identity wasn’t known, but her drowning was considered such a tragedy, because someone so lovely as her had apparently committed suicide, and no one was around to save her.
Years later, a guy named Asmund Laerdal in Norway used her image to create the CPR mannequins known as Rescue Annie.
I am sort of an emotional person at the weirdest times, so whenever we had to practice CPR on Annie, I would get all choked up while trying not to let my coworkers see that I was having difficulty with performing CPR on a mannequin of a real person that had died from a real drowning back in the 1800’s. The only comfort I had was knowing that, as Ken Couri pointed out and Anna Edwards said in 2011: Her enigmatic smile is known to millions around the world and she has been kissed billions of times. (Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1393184/How-girl-drowned-Paris-kissed-face-time.html#ixzz2xJxJIJNj).
Once every year we would receive First Aid training from Ken and Randy. Each time we would hear the same stories about Safety and their importance. Randy, who had been a medic in the army had a full array of sayings (maybe the Power Plant men can add a comment to the post with some of his phrases). I wish I could remember them all at the same time.
Unfortunately they only come to me when an appropriate occasion arises. Like I see some unsafe act, or a possible situation where a tragedy could happen like the ones that Randy would describe. I remember his speech about the ABCs that you perform when you run across someone that is unconscious. You first “Assess” the situation. Then you check for “Breathing”, then you check their “Circulation”. He would always end by saying that “A weak pulse is hard to find.”
He would demonstrate this by tapping the dummy on the shoulder as an example and say, “Hey. Are you all right? You don’t want to perform CPR on someone that is only taking a nap in the park.” Then he would turn to one of us and say, “Call 911!” That was called, “implementing the EMS system. EMS stood for the “Emergency Medical System”. Then he would place his ear close to the mouth of the dummy while he was checking the pulse on the neck. He would repeat, “A week pulse is hard to find.”
In the past I may have described Randy Dailey as someone that would remind you of Barney Fife from the Andy Griffith Show… Maybe I haven’t, but he sort of does sometimes. You tell me.
Here is Randy Dailey:
Randy may occasionally remind a novice of Barney Fife, but to the experienced Power Plant Man, just looking at him and a Power Plant Man automatically thinks “Safety”! During the “We’ve Got the Power Program” (See the post: “Power Plant “We’ve Got the Power” Program) Randy Dailey invented a special pen that you could put in your handy dandy pocket protector worn by most respectable Power Plant Men that would beep at you if you were bent over too far and were putting yourself at risk of a back injury.
Randy had a lot of compassion as he trained us on safety. You could tell that he had an agenda, and that was to make sure that all of us came out of the class knowing how to provide the best first aid possible to our fellow Power Plant Men as possible. When he spoke to us about dressing a wound and performing CPR on someone who had no pulse, he never cracked a joke (well, except when he showed us how to create a diaper out of the triangular bandage).
He was serious about safety, and we carried that with us when we left the class. We knew that Randy had seen the worst of the worst during his life. I remember Monday, May 8 of 1989 we had just begun our safety training course. Randy may not have been thinking about the fact that he was turning 40 that day, but for some reason I had always known his birthday.
He told us a tragic story of a 4th of July celebration that he had attended. The topic was knowing when “not to do CPR”. I think he was in Arkansas. He was sitting in the bleachers watching the celebration when suddenly something went terribly wrong. As the crowd was watching the large explosions overhead creating huge balls of red and green and blue, there was suddenly an explosion on the ground that was unexpected.
A piece of metal shot out of the area where the fireworks were being ignited and flew into the crowd. I think he said it was a young lady that was struck in the head by a metal plate that cut the top of her head completely off just above the eyebrows. Randy went on to explain that in a case like this, CPR would obviously be useless, so use your common sense when assessing your surroundings.
Each year when Randy would tell this story, I would feel this sick feeling in my stomach, and I would taste this strange taste of blood in my mouth as the corners of my mouth would go down in disgust. This was an obvious tragedy that Randy witnessed, and the feelings I had were not so much about the person that was struck as they were instantly killed. It was because behind the stalwart face of Randy, while he told this story I could see the tremendous sorrow that he felt while recounting this story to us.
I knew, and I believe we all knew, that the reason that Randy was such a great Safety instructor was because he really and truly wanted to save lives. That was his ultimate goal. He would begin his mouth-to-mouth resuscitation training by quoting from the Bible. It was from Kings 4:34. He would say that mouth-to-mouth is found in the Bible. Then he would quote word-for-word from the book about Elisha saying:
“And he went up, and lay upon the child, and put his mouth upon his mouth, and his eyes upon his eyes, and his hands upon his hands: and he stretched himself upon the child; and the flesh of the child waxed warm.”
Randy pointed out, this is Mouth-to-mouth resuscitation in the Old Testament folks! So, when a situation arises, don’t be worried about germs and the like. Do what is necessary to save a life! Again I could see his mind flashing back to some tragedy that drove Randy on to make sure we were properly trained in First Aid and CPR.
Randy didn’t teach us Safety to gain “Bonus Points” from management as some pseudo-Power Plant Men did. Randy, from the day he came to the plant in May 8, 1984 (What a birthday present to become a Power Plant Man on your Birthday!) until the day I left on August 16, 2001, was a true hero to me. I don’t know if he ever served in combat. I don’t know if he ever received one little stripe or medal on his uniform in the Army. What I do know is that to this day I am eternally grateful that I have had the opportunity to meet one of the most remarkable souls of our time the day Randy Dailey showed up at the Power Plant. I have always been certain that God himself sent Randy to administer his Safety Wisdom to the Power Plant Men at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma! Randy continued to bless all of us year after year.
Originally posted April 12, 2014:
In an earlier post titled “Power Plant We’ve Got the Power Program” I explained how in 1990 we broke up into teams at the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma to find ways to save the Electric Company money. Before we were actually able to turn in our first set of ideas, we had a month or more to prepare those ideas and to turn them into proposals. During this time, and throughout the entire “We’ve Got the Power” program, teams who wanted to succeed and outdo the other teams became very secretive. Our team was definitely that way. We had secret experiments going on throughout the plant, and we didn’t want other teams to even know what areas we were investigating.
As the program progressed, a certain level of stress developed between teams. In a later post I will tell a story about how this level of stress led to a situation of suspicion and eventually even animosity. This post will not go into that situation. Instead I want to explain what our team did to try to alleviate some of the stress by devising a special “Power Plant Joke” that we played on the rest of the Power Plant Men (and Women).
There were some teams that had setup some experiments that they were running to see if their ideas may save the company money. Our team had several experiments running throughout the beginning months. All of which we carefully hid from prying eyes. We were proud of our stealthiness. Sneaking around, making sure we weren’t being followed when we went to take readings from our carefully hidden recorders and other devices.
Charles Foster, Scott Hubbard and I were sitting in the electric shop office discussing the stress level that had permeated the plant, and we thought we could take advantage of the stress by setting up a “We’ve Got The Power” Experiment out in the open that would be obvious to anyone that walked by. Only it would be a fake experiment designed to play a joke on the unsuspecting Power Plant Man.
Here is what we did….
Right outside the electric shop in the Turbine Generator basement there is a water fountain. We placed a hazard waste barrel a few feet away from the water fountain. Like this:
Then we mounted a junction box on the wall a few feet above the chemical waste barrel and a little to the right.
We turned the junction box so that the hinge was on the top, allowing the door to fall closed naturally. This was an important part of the setup to allow for the joke to automatically reset each time it was operated.
We ran some copper tubing from the water fountain water line over to the box. Then another copper line came out the bottom of the box and into the barrel. Next to that copper tube, another smaller copper tube came out of the bottom of the box and just bent toward the front of the box. It was not noticeable. We had a plastic hose coming out of the barrel and over to the drain next to the water fountain. Then we put Yellow Barrier Tape around the entire setup.
We tied Caution tags to the Barrier tape that said “We’ve Got the Power Experiment” Do not enter! I signed the tags.
There was an electric conduit running up from the junction box, that went up and into the wall about 6 feet above the junction box. So, this looked like a legitimate experiment going on, but for the life of anyone, no one would be able to tell what it was doing. — Mainly because it wasn’t doing anything….. At least not until someone went to investigate it.
So. Here is what would happen….
Employees would walk by and see the barrier tape with the hazardous waste barrel and the hoses and water lines coming from the back of the water fountain, with a junction box above it that was not completely closed. The door to the junction box was down, but not screwed closed. Conduit was going into the box, which meant that something electrical was probably inside Maybe a solenoid or something that was controlling the experiment.
They would read the Caution Tag that explained that this was a “We’ve Got the Power” experiment, and it would pique (pronounced “peak”) their curiosity enough that they couldn’t help but investigate it to see what was really going on.
So, what would invariably happen, was that someone would enter the area that was barrier taped off, and open the junction box to see what was inside. When they lifted the lid, they would find that they were instantly being soaked with water that would spray out of a small copper line pointing right at them directly under the junction box. At the same time, an alarm would go off above them behind the wall right above the electric shop office. It was very loud. A counter inside the junction box would register an “intruder’ had just opened the box.
So, as we would be sitting there during lunch, we would suddenly hear the alarm go off, and we could dart out the door to the Turbine Generator basement to find a drenched Power Plant Man. They were usually amused that they had fallen into the trap. I say usually, because I have the feeling that one particular person who found himself violating the barrier tape and getting soaked didn’t act too cordial about it. I’ll get to him later.
As I said, inside the box was a counter. It counted how many times the box had been opened and sprayed someone with water. So, we could go inspect it in the morning and we would know if anyone had looked at it while we were gone.
After the experiment had been there about a week, an overhaul began where Power Plant Men from different plants came to our plant to perform the overhaul. The plant would shut off one of the units and we would take it apart, and put it back together again fixing problems along the way (well. maybe not quite that drastic. It was a time to fix things that couldn’t be maintained or repaired while the unit was running).
So, the Power Plant Men at our plant, who by that time all knew about the bogus experiment just outside the electric shop, would bring unsuspecting Power Plant Men from other plants over to the see the “We’ve Got the Power” experiment going on in the hopes of seeing them get sprayed with water. So, a new round of alarms were going off during that time.
Eventually, when people had heard about the experiment, and knew that it was spraying people, they would approach the experiment with caution. When they opened the lid of the junction box, they would stand next to it against the wall in order to not get wet. The spray pattern from the crimped copper line was fairly wide, so you would have to stand practically against the wall next to the box in order to stay dry.
So, this was when we implemented Phase 2 of the experiment. — Yeah. It’s the second phase of many Power Plant Jokes that usually make the joke a much bigger success than the first phase. For instance, I have written a post about the “Psychological Profile of a Control Room Operator” in which I had played a joke on Gene Day, where after a week of preparing him for the final joke, I had coaxed him to look over my shoulder, only to have him read that according to his psychological profile, he was the type of person that would look over your shoulder and read your private material.
That would be a good joke in itself, but when Gene Day read that and began choking the life out of me, I pointed out to him the final statement in Gene Day’s profile which stated that he tends to choke people who try to help him by creating Psychological profiles of him. This second part of the joke is what really completes the joke and makes it a real success. The first part just makes it funny.
So, here is how we modified the experiment for Phase 2…. The nozzle that sprayed the employee actually came out the bottom of the box and elbowed to point toward the front of the box. So, what we did was we took a file and filed a tiny notch in the side of the copper tubing just below the junction box just above the elbow. The notch was on the side of the copper tube, and it was deep enough of a notch to make a little hole in the side of the copper line.
So, then, if someone was standing to the only side they could stand next to the box and the barrel and they opened up the lid of the Junction Box to show someone how the experiment worked, they wouldn’t notice right away, but a small stream of water would be spraying on their pants in just the appropriate location to make it look like the person had just pee’ed their pants.
Right when we had finished modifying the experiment for Phase 2, Howard Chumbley walked into the electric shop. He was a retired Electric Foreman, that I have written about in the post “Pioneers of Power Plant Fame Finally Find Peace“. He had come to visit the plant that day because there was going to be a Men’s Club lunch and he wanted to come and see some other old codgers that he used to work with that liked to attend the Men’s Club dinners. He always wanted to see us of course as well.
So, we told him about the “We’ve Got The Power” Joke Experiment just outside the electric shop that sprayed water on people. Of course, he wanted to see it, so we took him out and let him observe it. We explained that when you open the lid, an alarm goes off, the counter toggles and water sprays out of that little nozzle sticking out at the bottom. We told him he could try it if he wanted to see how it worked.
So, he climbed under the barrier tape and walked around the side of the junction box that didn’t have the barrel, and reached over and lifted the lid. The alarm when off, water sprayed out, and Howard laughed with glee to see how we had devised such a nice trick. After watching the water spray for about 3 or 4 seconds, he suddenly realized that something was wrong. He dropped the lid and looked down, only to find that it looked like he had just pee’ed his pants.
That was it! That was icing on the cake. Howard laughed even more when he realized what had happened.
The next morning when we came in the shop, we went to look at the experiment, it had been disassembled, or shutdown in some manner. I think some caution tag had been placed there by Gary Wright, the Shift Supervisor stating something like this was a safety hazard, or some such thing.
Anyway, when I went up to the Control Room to ask him why he shutdown our experiment he was adamant that it constituted Horseplay and someone could get hurt. Maybe when the water sprayed on them, they might jerk back and fall down and get hurt. Ok….
I suppose. Though, by the time he took it down, everyone at the plant already knew about it, and we were just in the Phase 2 part of the experiment. In this phase anyone who was looking at the experiment was doing it by opening up the door from the side, and peeing their pants and they wouldn’t jerk back……—- Oh….. I see…. Shift Supervisors don’t usually like to walk into the control room looking like they have just pee’ed their pants.
I will say that I hadn’t expected that type of reaction from Gary Wright, because up to that time, he seemed more mild-mannered than the rest of the Shift Supervisors. We just took it that the more upset Gary was with us about it, the more successful the joke had been implemented. The joke had played out by that time, and we were good with it either way.
After it was all said and done. We thought it did help to reduce the overall tension that was permeating the plant due to the “We’ve Got the Power Program”.
Originally posted May 2, 2014:
Last week I mentioned in the post “Making Friends from Foes – A Tale of Power Plant Woes” that Jim Padgett called me at 2:15 am one morning to tell me that the coal dumper was broken and he needed for me to come out to the plant to work on it. You may have wondered why a plant electrician living in North Central Oklahoma would answer the phone in the middle of the night when it most certainly meant that they would have to crawl out of bed and go to work to fix something that was broken. Why not just roll over and pretend that the phone never rang?
You see… I knew when the phone rang that it was the power plant, because in the 20 years that I worked at the plant, just about every time the phone rang after midnight it meant that I would have to get dressed, and drive 30 miles to the plant to work on something that was most likely going to be in a dusty dirty place. You could always count on the coal train dumper switchgear being covered with coal dust. That was the usual point of failure past the “witching hour”.
I suppose I could say there were two reasons why a Power Plant Man would answer the phone. One was that they were just all around nice guys and they wanted to help out any chance they could. The other reason was because of the pay.
Even though working at the power plant was perhaps one of the best jobs in the neighborhood (being the only job in the neighborhood, since the plant ground consisted of its own neighborhood out in the middle of nowhere), that didn’t mean that the pay was especially lucrative. That is, if a Power Plant Man had to rely on their base pay alone it would be difficult. So, in order to help the Brave Men and Women of Power Plant Fame pay their bills, many opportunities were provided for working overtime.
Think about this. What if, when I answered the call to save the day (uh… I mean the night) and spent 35 minutes driving out to the plant only to fix the problem in fifteen minutes? Then I would spend another 35 minutes driving back home with my clothes all full of coal dust, only to be paid a measly 15 minutes of over time? Even at double time, that would only be 30 minutes of pay. That would hardly cover the gas and the laundry soap.
Early in the life of this particular plant, it became apparent that something had to be done to motivate the heroic masters of Power Plant Maintenance to make the long lonely drive down Highway 177 at the wee hours of the morning. So, certain methods were devised to coax the restful souls to the phones when they rang. Once they answered the phone, then sheer guilt was enough to drag them out of the sack. It was that moment when the phone first began to ring, before the reasoning part of the brain kicked in and the more base reflexes such as those that were out to make an extra buck reacted instinctively that needed to be targeted.
So “Black Time” was introduced to the plant. Black time had probably been around long before the plant came into existence, but it came in handy when someone had to be called out in the middle of the night. Black time was the time that a person would be paid even though they didn’t actually work during that time. So, when a Power Plant Man was called out in the middle of the night, they would be guaranteed at least two hours of overtime even though they may only work for 15 minutes.
This would help defray the cost of gas and time for driving both ways to and from the plant. Anything from 7:30 pm to 7:00 am was paid as double-time. That is two times the normal base salary. So, two hours at double time came out to four hours of pay, or as much pay as someone would make for half of a day at work. That was some incentive for disturbing a Power Plant Man from their pleasant dreams of adventuring through the Power Plant Kingdom where the rule was always “Might For Right”. — Well, at least that’s what I was dreaming some of the time when the phone rang.
If Black Time wasn’t enough, it was taken a step further when the six hour rule was introduced. The Six Hour Rule was added fairly early on in the life of the Power Plant and went through a few variations when I was working at the plant. When it was first introduced, it came across as if someone downtown had made the decision that when someone is disturbed from their sleep during certain hours of their sleep cycle, it directly impacted their safety. Hence the Six Hour Rule was born.
Originally it worked like this…. The hours of midnight to 6:00 am were considered the prime sleeping hours for Heroic Power Plant Men. During this time, it was deemed that all Power Plant Men should be tucked in their beds dreaming of ways to work safely during the following day. Whenever this time period was disturbed, then the Electric Company should provide the loyal Power Plant Man for answering the call of duty during a time of early morning emergency by giving him back the same number of hours in black time so that he could go home and continue his all-important dreams and regeneration.
So, if I had been called out at one o’clock in the morning to work on something, and it took me two hours to fix it, then I could come into work two hours later in the morning. The first two hours of my regular work day would be payed as “Black Time”. — Makes sense… right? Two hours of work…. Come in two hours late in the morning…. black time… Easy to calculate.
This provided a pretty good incentive for going out to work in the middle of the night. First, you would get at least 2 hours of double time. Second, you would be able to make up for lost sleep by coming in late in the morning without having to lose any pay. You could also come in at the regular time and leave early in the afternoon if you wanted.
Well… That lasted for a few years, then the rules for the 6 hour rule began to change. Originally, even if the job was only 15 minutes, the least amount of black time that you would get was 2 hours. After all, it was an hour of driving for the large majority of the Power Plant Men that lived in a civilized village of more than 50 people. Later, the Six Hour Rule was changed so that only the actual time worked would count for the six hour rule.
This meant that if I drove all the way out to the plant to work on something that only took 15 minutes, then I could only come in 15 minutes late then next morning, even though I had spent at least an hour and 45 minutes away from my dreams of serving nobly in the Power Plant Palace. In that case the six hour rule didn’t apply anymore. I figured that someone who was short-sighted had come up with that idea. I’ll explain why in a few minutes.
The next phase of the Six Hour Rule came a few years after that… It was decided that after a person had been called out at night to fight the good fight, as soon as they left the plant, the six hour rule would start counting down. Let me explain this in a little more detail….
Say, I were called out to work in the middle of the night, and I worked from 1:00 am to 3:00 am (two hours). Then I left to go home at three. The hours start counting down so that by 5:00 am, the time I had spent at the plant were no longer valid, and I was expected to show up at work at the regular time. 8:00 am. Okay. So, in more and more cases (it would seem), the six hour rule would be made meaningless.
So, with this rule in place, if I was called out at midnight, and worked until 4:00 am, for a total of 4 hours, then by 8:00 am when I was supposed to be back at work all of the four hours would have ticked off and I would have no black time. I would have to show up at 8:00 am. See how that was supposed to basically take the six hour rule and make a joke out of it? (Or so, someone thought).
As most attempts at being underhanded without actually just coming out and telling us that it was decided that the Honorable Power Plant Men no longer needed their six hours of prime sleeping time to work safely the next day, the opposite effect was the result. Kind of like raising the minimum wage to help the workers, when you put more people out of work.
When the six hour rule was changed to count down from the time you left the plant, was when I made the most money from the six hour rule. I racked up loads of black time from this change as well as most Power Plant Men that were called out before Morning Prayers (Lauds). Here is how and why:
Suppose the phone rings and it is 1 o’clock in the morning. You decide to answer it and get called out to work on something that takes 15 minutes. You finish the job some time around 2:15 am (because, after all, you had to drive all the way out to the plant). What should you do now? If you go back home and go to bed, then because of the way the 6 hour rule worked, you would certainly have to come back to work at 8 o’clock. — hmm… You will still have collected 2 hours of double time. That’s something.
Look at the alternatives. What if you went to the shop and worked on some other tasks while you were already there? For Power Plant Maintenance Men, there is always something that needs to be fixed. You may even ask the Shift Supervisor, “While I’m here, is there anything else you want me to work on?” Shift Supervisors just love having their own personal maintenance man in the middle of the night eager to help. There is always something they could find that needs fixing.
So, instead of turning around and going home, invariably, after the 15 minute job was over, I would end up doing other jobs for the Shift Supervisor until morning. Well, once 6:00 am rolled around, it was really too late to drive home and then wait an hour and drive back. So, I would just stay until 8.
Now look what happened! Instead of 2 hours of double time, I worked from 2:00 to 8:00 with all but the last hour at double time, the last hour at time and a half. That comes to 11 1/2 hours of my base salary. Compare that to the 4 hours I would have received for 2 hours of double time.
But here is the best part. 8:00 rolls around. We have our morning meeting. Since I worked for 4 hours of the special 6 hours from midnight to 6, I get to leave at noon and get paid black time for the rest of the day.
What fun! Every time the six hour rule was reigned in to reduce black time it produced more black time. And how was that safer? The final tweaks to the 6 hour rule before it was basically abolished a few years later came during the fall of 1991. I’m not saying that this alone was the reason, but in 1992, the Power Plant had the highest Accident Rate since 1983. Somewhere around 23 accidents. Given that in 1983, we had 50% more employees, 1991 had a much higher accident rate.
The number of call-outs in the early hours of the morning were not as common as I may have made them out to be. So, I don’t mean to claim that the change in the six hour rule was ever the cause of even one additional accident. I studied all the accidents that happened that year, and even though some of them were the result of fatigue, it was usually because they had worked an extra long shift – over 12 hours, and were injured because they were tired. Not because they were affected by the six hour rule. The question was never asked if the person had been called out the night before.
Even though (as far as we know, because we never asked the question) the six hour rule changes didn’t directly cause any particular accident that year, it was a symptom of an overarching problem. A certain apathy toward safety had crept into the plant. The previous years, we had an excellent safety record. One of our best years was in 1987. I believe we had only 3 accidents that entire year. None of them serious.
I will discuss Safety in various other posts, so I won’t belabor the point now. The point I wanted to make from this post was that by focusing on the bottom line, or some other performance metric without putting your most important asset first (The Power Plant Man), almost always guarantees the opposite results.
Comments from the original post:
Originally posted May 9, 2014:
There were times when I was working at the Coal-Fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma when I wondered if there was anything that we couldn’t do. Surrounded by True Power Plant Men I found that when we were facing a seemingly impossible task, a Power Plant Man would come up with an extremely creative solution to the problem. One such example was during the “We’ve Got The Power” program. I talked about this program in an early post called “Power Plant We’ve Got the Power Program” so I won’t go into detail here about the program itself. I will just say that we broke out into teams to find creative ways to operate more efficiently, and to cut costs.
I was a team leader of our team, and looking back I must have had two criteria in mind when I picked the team members that would be on my team. The first would have been that they were True Power Plant Men (and woman) with a higher than average intelligence. The second criteria would have been that they were friends of mine. I say this, because everyone on my team fit the bill.
During out team meetings, Terry Blevins would often say some bombastic statement that the average person may be inclined to dismiss immediately as being absurd. I say that because I remember more than once thinking that what Terry had just said wouldn’t amount to much. As it turned out, our biggest money saving ideas were those truly bombastic statements that Terry was making. One such idea had to do with the heaters on the precipitators that kept the hoppers and the insulators on the roof too hot to collect moisture.
The Precipitator is a very large box that takes the ash out of the exhaust before it goes out of the smoke stack (how many times have I made that statement in the last two years?). Anyway, the exhaust from the boiler after the coal has been turned to ash in the fireball in the boiler contains a large amount of moisture. The last thing you want to happen is for the temperature of the flue gas to fall below the dew point. When that happens, moisture collects on the structure in a form of… well… of Acid Rain. Basically eating away the precipitator and the duct work from the inside.
Somewhere along the line, it had been determined that the dewpoint of the flue gas was not higher than 250 degrees. So, as long as the structure was at least 250 degrees, no moisture would be collected. Four heaters were mounted on each of the 84 hoppers (on each of the two precipitators) and heaters were mounted on the roof around each of the insulators that held up the wire racks on both ends.
When Terry walked into the office to attend one of our first “We’ve Got The Power” team meetings, he said, I think we could save a lot of money if we did something about the heaters on the precipitator. — He may remember being greeted with blank stares (at least from me). Um. Ok. Heaters on the precipitator. I knew they were everywhere, but I never gave them much thought.
I think Terry could tell right away that I hadn’t taken his idea seriously. I don’t know. Maybe he was bothered by the sound of my eyeballs rolling around in circles as if someone has conked me on the head. So, he explained his idea further. He pointed out that the roof heaters on just one of the precipitators used about 211 kilowatt-hours and the hopper heaters used about 345 kilowatt-hours. Together it is more than half a Megawatt of power. — This definitely caught our attention. That meant that between both of the Precipitators (since we had two boilers at our plant), we could possibly save over a Megawatt of electricity every hour we could shut down the heaters.
After discussing all the aspects of the idea, we decided that in order for the idea to have any merit, we had to know if the dew point really was around 250 degrees, or was it possibly a lot lower. 250 degrees seemed high to begin with since the boiling point of water is 212 degrees. If lower, then we could have a workable idea. Originally, I wanted to tackle the task of finding the dew point. So, I went about it in a Science Experiment sort of way.
I figured that if we were able to lower the temperature of the flue gas to a known temperature below the dewpoint, and by knowing the volume of the gas, and the amount of liquid we could condense out of it, we could determine (possibly) the dew point. So, I brought my Graham Condenser to work, and Scott Hubbard and I went up to the 250 foot landing on the smoke stack with the intent of sucking a known amount of exhaust from the smoke stack while the unit was at full load.
We would run it through the condenser while running cool water through it to lower the temperature.
I could measure the output of the vacuum pump by filling up an inverted Erlemeyer flask with water and then letting the flue gas displace the water. — I always loved doing experiments like this in the 9th grade science glass with Mr. Godfrey our Physical Science Teacher (Donna Westhoff, who may sometimes read this blog was in my class and sat right behind me).
Ok. Side Story, since I mentioned Donna Westhoff from the 9th grade 1974-75 school year.
I knew that Donna’s father was a fire fighter, because one day during a special outing when we were with a group of bicycling Junior High School students and a teacher, we stopped at Donna Westhoff’s house to get a drink of water. On the walls in her house were different types of fire fighting treasures. Donna explained that her father was a fire fighter… That was the Spring of 1975 in Columbia, Missouri
Fast forward 16 years later (1991) at the Power Plant in the middle of nowhere in North Central Oklahoma. Just about a year after the story I’m telling now…. I left the logic room and went to catch the elevator to the Control room. When the doors opened, Tony Mena was in there with a bunch of college age students giving them a tour of the plant. I entered the elevator and turned around to face the door as it closed.
As I was standing there, I suddenly became aware that the person standing next to me was staring right at me. So, I turned to see who it was. Standing next to me was someone that looked very familiar wearing a big grin as if she knew who I was. I recognized her, and while my mind was going through filing cabinets of memories trying to index this particular person, I asked her, “Don’t I know you?” She shook her head and said, “I’m Donna Westhoff!”
As the elevator door opened and we stepped out, Donna and I began talking about what we were both doing there. She was surprised to find that I had become an electrician at a power plant instead of some kind of scientist in a lab somewhere. Donna was going to school in Stillwater where one of the best Fire Fighting Schools in the country is found. Following in her father’s footsteps, I thought. After a while I could tell that Tony was getting a little perturbed that the wisdom he was imparting about the fire protection system on the Turbine Generator wasn’t being absorbed by Donna, so I cut our conversation short. It turned out that a very good friend of hers lived just two houses from where we lived, and her friend’s mother was my landlord. Peggy Pickens.
Ok. End of the side story, and another example of how I occasionally run into friends from my childhood in the most unexpected places (see the post: “Relay Tests and Radio Quizzes with Ben Davis“).
So. Scott Hubbard and I tried using the Graham Condenser and the Erlenmeyer Flask, but we quickly found out that this wasn’t big enough, to capture a large enough quantity. So, we increased the size of the condenser by winding a garden hose around inside of a water bucket and filling it with ice. Then we captured all the water that condensed in the hose.
When it finally came down to it. Even though it was fun trying to do this experiment halfway up the 500 foot smoke stack, I never was able to figure out how to calculate the dew point given the data I had collected.
That’s when we decided to look at dew point sensors in the parts catalogs. If we could stick a probe down into the precipitator and measure the dew point directly in the flue gas, that would be best. After looking at a few in the catalog, Terry Blevins said he thought he could make one. So, he went to work.
The next day he came in with an inch and a half conduit with hoses hanging out the back and a homemade sensor on the other end. I won’t go into detail how the sensor was built because some day Terry may want to patent this thing because, as it turned out, it was so sensitive that it could detect my breathe from about a foot away. If I breathed out of my mouth toward the sensor, it would detect the moisture in my breath. This was perfect!
We went to work on the roof of the precipitator sticking the probe down into different sections of the precipitator. It not only measured the moisture, it also had thermocouples on it that we used to accurately measure the temperature of the sensor as we varied the temperature by blowing cold air through the conduit using the same ice bucket and hose from before.
I could go into a lot of detail about how we performed our experiments, but it would only excite me and bore you. So, let me just say that we came up with two very important results. First of all, at full load when the humidity outside was at 100% the dew point was around 150 degrees! A full 100 degrees below what the plant had originally assumed. This was very important, because a lot of energy was spent trying to keep the flue gas above 250 degrees, and just by lowering it down to 210 degrees, still a safe amount above the dew point, that extra energy could be used to create electricity.
The second thing that we discovered was that the middle sections of the precipitator was a lot cooler inside than the outer fields. We realized that this was caused by the air preheater coils that rotated between the flue gas and the Primary Air intake duct. This took the last amount of heat possible from the exhaust and transferred it to the air going into the boiler so that it was already hot when it was used to burn the coal. Because of the way the air preheater coils rotated, the part of the duct toward the middle of the precipitator was a lot cooler than the air on the outside.
Lower temperatures in the precipitator increased the performance, so we decided that if we could mix the air around as it was going into the precipitator so that the outer edges were cooler, then it would increase the overall performance. One suggestion was to put a mobile home in the duct work because in Oklahoma it was a known fact that mobile homes attracted tornadoes and it would probably cause a tornadic reaction that would mix up the flue gases. — We just couldn’t figure out how to convince management to put a mobile home in the duct between the economizer and the precipitator.
Thanks to Terry’s handy dandy Dew Point Sensor, we were able to prove that the hopper and roof heaters could be lowered to where we set the thermostat at 180 degrees. At that setting the heaters that used to always run at 250 degrees would remain off anytime the ambient temperature was above 45 degrees. In Oklahoma, that is most of the year. This turned out to save over $350,000 per year in energy savings at a cost of about 1.5 cents per kilowatt-hour. Not to mention the unknown savings from being able to lower the flue gas temperature by 40 degrees.
Originally posted June 6, 2014;
I’m sure the plant manager at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma thought that a little competition might just do our Safety Program a little good. The maintenance crews always knew what they were going to be doing first thing on Monday morning. They were going to attend a Safety Meeting with their team. All of the maintenance crews attended a team safety meeting every Monday morning to remind them to be safe during the week. This had been going on for at least 9 years at the power plant. Every Monday morning we all looked forward to the 30 minutes we would spend reminding ourselves to be safe that week.
It didn’t seem to matter if I was on the Summer Help yard crew, or a janitor, on the labor crew or an electrician. The Monday Morning safety meetings were all pretty much the same. Someone would read from a Safety pamphlet that each of the foreman would receive once each month. We would try to read one of the articles each week in order to stretch it out so that it lasted the entire month of Monday Morning Safety Meetings. This often meant that we would be listening to a completely irrelevant safety article that really didn’t apply to us.
Some of the articles were things that reminded us to be safe in the work place. Other articles reminded us to clean up the kitchen counter after you have finished cutting up the chicken in order to cook fried chicken for dinner. The chicken juices could lead to food poisoning if they sat there for a while and then some other food was placed on the same counter if it was still soaked in juices from the chicken. We justified to ourselves that it didn’t hurt to remind ourselves about things like this because if we went home and had food poisoning by not washing our chicken juices, then it could be as serious as a lost workday accident on the job.
When I joined the electric shop, I used to keep a stack of all the Safety Pamphlets. Who knew if they would ever come in handy. Years later when I left the Power Plant to pursue another career I left the stack behind in case some other safety zealot needed some motivating safety material. I tried to find a picture of the safety pamphlets that we used to read on Google, but I could only find Safety Pamphlets that were more colorful and had more eye-catching covers. The only aesthetic difference between our safety pamphlets from one month to the other consisted of using a different color font. So, one month, the pamphlet would be written in blue. The next month, green. Then red. Maybe purple some times. The December one would have a little drawing of holly at the top. That was about as exciting as they were.
Occasionally the foreman would get a different kind of safety pamphlet on a certain topic. Instead of changing the font color, this pamphlet would change the background color to one bright solid color. I could find a picture of one of these:
In the first paragraph I mentioned that the maintenance crews generally knew what they would be doing right off the bat on Monday morning when their work day began. Yep. They would spend 15 to 30 minutes staring off into space while their foreman, or the designated hypnotist would read a safety pamphlet in a monotone voice. I think it was permitted to fall asleep as long as you didn’t snore. Once you snored it was too hard to claim that your eyes were closed only so that you could better picture how to lift with your legs and not your back.
In order to add something dynamic to the Monday Morning Safety Meeting, it was decided that some friendly competition might help. So, here is what happened:
A Safety Committee was formed and their task was to collect safety slogans from the teams and once each month they would decide which slogan was the best and then it would become the “Safety Slogan of the Month”. Then for the next month this particular safety slogan would be posted on all the bulletin boards throughout the plant. At the end of the year, a winner was selected from the 12 winning Monthly Safety Slogans. Whichever team won the safety slogan of the year award would be honored with a free Pizza (or two) for lunch.
A noble attempt at trying to add a little spice (and tomato sauce) into the safety program.
At first our team didn’t give this much thought. I was one of the first people from the electric shop on the committee and since I was on the committee, I didn’t think it would be fair to submit a safety slogan myself, because I would have to be one of the people voting on it. One person from each area was on the Safety Committee. One person from each of the three A foremen’s teams in the Maintenance shop. One person from the Instrument and Controls team and one electrician. One person from the office area. One from the warehouse. There might have been one person from the Chemistry Lab, but since there were only three chemists, I’m not sure how long that lasted.
Anyway, sometime in March, 1992, when we were sitting in a Monday Morning Safety Meeting staring blankly at the only thing moving in the room besides the lips of the Safety Article Hypnotist, a black beetle scurrying across the floor, Andy Tubbs finally broke through our hypnotic state by making a suggestion. He said, “How about we start entering safety slogans for the Safety Slogan Contest and try to win the free pizza at the end of the year? Instead of just sitting here on Monday Mornings doing the same thing over and over, let’s spend our time brainstorming Safety Slogans!”
This of course was a brilliant idea. It meant that we would actually be blurting out all kinds of goofy safety slogans until we hit on a really good one to turn in for the month. We began immediately. I was the scribe capturing all the creativity that suddenly came popping up from no where. Andy was real quick to come up with some. Others took their time, but when they spoke they usually had a pretty clever safety slogan.
By the end of the first day we had about 10 new safety slogans to choose from. We picked the best one of the bunch and turned it in at the front office. I don’t remember the specific safety slogan we started out with, but I do remember some of them that the team invented. Here are a couple unique slogans that I have always remembered – not written by me….
“Lift with your legs, not with your back, or you may hear a Lumbar crack.”
“Wear skin protection in Oklahoma or you may get Melanoma.”
I invite anyone at the plant that remembers more slogans to add them to the Comments below….
You can see that we tried to take a standard safety slogan like “Lift with Your Legs and Not your Back” and added a clever twist to it. I had taken out the stack of safety pamphlets from the cabinet and we reviewed them. Each of them had a safety slogan on the back. We weren’t going to use any that were already written, but it gave us ideas for new slogans.
We won the Monthly Safety Slogan that month. So, we figured we were on a roll. The next month we picked our next best one. By that time we must have come up with over 25 pretty good safety slogans, and we figured we would enter our best one each month. We were in for a little surprise.
After submitting a real humdinger of a Safety Slogan the second month (something like, “Wear your Eye Protection at work so you can See Your Family at Home” — well. I just made that up. I don’t remember the exact slogan 22 years later), the slogan that won that month was a much more bland slogan than our clever one. We felt slighted. So, we talked to Jimmy Moore (I believe) who was the electrician on the other team of Electricians in our shop that was on the Safety Committee selecting the safety slogans this year. He said that there were some people on the committee that thought it wasn’t good for the same team to win two times in a row. Others thought that any one team should only be able to win once a year.
As it turned out, we were able to win the monthly safety slogan only a few more times that year only because we were the only team that turned in a safety slogan during those months.
When it came time for picking the winning safety slogan for the year, Sue Schritter’s slogan from the warehouse won even though it was fairly lame compared to the clever ones we had been turning in. (Note the warehouse and the front office were all under the same manager…. so, when one of them won, they both really did). So, the front office (slash) warehouse were able to enjoy the free pizza.
After complaining about the process at the beginning of the next year, we were determined that we were going to do what it took to win every single month and that way they would have to give us the pizza at the end of the year. So, in 1993 that was our goal.
It was determined at the beginning of the year that all safety slogans would be judged without knowing who had turned them in. It was also determined that a team could turn in as many safety slogans as they wanted each month (probably because we had complained that our team was unfairly being singled out).
So, we made a concerted effort to turn in at least 15 safety slogans each month. That way, the odds of one of ours being picked would be very high, especially since our team was the only team that was really serious about wanting to win the free pizza at the end of the year.
Gary Wehunt from our team was on the committee selecting the slogans in 1993, so he would tell us about the conversations the committee was having each month when they would get together to select the slogan, and we knew it wasn’t going to be easy to win every single month.
During the year, it became a game of cat and mouse to try to win the safety slogan of the month every single month. We knew that a couple of people on the Safety Committee were doing everything they could to not pick one our our slogans. So, here is what we did… along with the best safety slogans we had, we threw in some really lame ones. I think we had some that were so bad they were nothing more than…. “Think Safety”. Our better safety slogans were more like: “Watch for Overhead Hazards! Avoid becoming Food for Buzzards” or “Wear you Safety Harness when working up high. One wrong step and you may die.” — I mean…. How could any other safety slogan compete with the likes of those?
The funny thing was that we thought that just in case the Safety Committee was trying to look for a safety slogan that our team didn’t write, they would intentionally pick a really bad one. Like “Think Safety”.
And it actually worked. Two months during 1993, the team actually chose a Safety Slogan that was really lame, just to try and pick the one that our team didn’t enter only to be surprised to find that it was from our team.
Through October our team had managed to win every Safety Slogan of the Month, and it looked like we were going to finally win the Safety Slogan of the Year and receive the free Pizza. I had written down every safety slogan our team had invented. We had over 425 safety slogans by that time. I had a folder in the filing cabinet with the entire list.
Then in November, the people who were on the Safety Committee who were intent on us not winning the yearly safety slogan was able to slip one by. They had submitted a safety slogan from their own team and had told a couple other people to vote for it. It didn’t take too many votes to win for the month since when we turned in 15 to 20 slogans the votes were spread out.
Most of the slogans that did receive a vote would only get one vote. So, any slogan that had two or more votes would usually win. So, all they had to do was throw together a safety slogan and tell someone else on the committee that was not happy about our team winning every month during the year, and they would win that month.
Louise Kalicki turned in a safety slogan in November. It was a simple safety slogan like “Be Safe for your family’s sake”. We had turned in a number of slogans that had said pretty much the same thing in the 400 or more slogans we had submitted, but that was the slogan that won during that month.
Well. That was all it took. When the winner of the Safety Slogan for the year was chosen, there was no way that everyone didn’t already know whose team the safety slogan was from because they had been posted on the bulletin boards throughout the year. So, you can guess what happened. After the electric shop had won 11 of the 12 safety slogans in 1993, The girls in the front office won the free pizza… again (just like they did every year).
So, what happened in 1994? Well…. That’s another story… isn’t it?
Comments from the original post:
Originally posted July 18, 2014
Given that a large Coal-fired Power Plant is like a small city complete with a water treatment system to supply drinking water to thirsty Power Plant Men, and it’s own complete sewage system to handle the volumes of human waste and toxic run-off, when I ask, “What is that strange smell?” You may expect the answer to be something like “Honeysuckle?” If you thought, rotten fish, diesel oil, ozone or sweaty arm pits, you would, of course, be wrong. Those are all the usual smells found in a Power Plant. Every so often, a smell would come by that would make you stop in your tracks and wonder…. “What’s that strange smell?”
Over the course of the 20 years I worked in the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma, there were times when a new smell would just come out of no where. There were other times when they would sneak up on me gradually, so that I wouldn’t even notice them until they were gone…. Then I would wonder why it was that I didn’t notice them when they were there.
One such smell that stung me like a bee would happen when I was on overhaul and I was walking out to the precipitator all covered in a fly ash suit from head-to-toe wearing a full face respirator with duct tape around all of the seams.
I was walking in the breezeway between the two boilers when I suddenly smelled a sharp sort of smell. It was a strange chemical I hadn’t ever noticed before. I looked around to see where it was coming from. There wasn’t anyone around, and I didn’t see anything chemical spill in the area that would account for it.
As I walked toward the precipitator, I looked up as I walked under the surge bin tower in time to see an operator coming down the stairs. He was smoking a cigarette. Besides that, everything else looked normal, except that the smell was almost overwhelming me at that point.
I went and climbed in the precipitator where I worked until break. When I came out, I blew the dust off of myself with a tiny instrument air hose that we kept on either side of the precipitator for just such an occasion. After the fly ash had been blown off of my suit, I leaned forward and pulled my respirator off of my face and breathed the fresh air.
Later that week, when I was heading back out to the precipitator and had just left the electric shop all dressed up in my suit, I had a whiff of that same smell. I couldn’t mistake it. It was a unique chemical smell. looking around, there wasn’t anyone or anything near me that would have been emitting such a toxic smell.
As I walked around the condenser to head toward the boiler, I saw that a couple of mechanics were carrying some planks of wood and laying them by the condenser in order to build a scaffold once they opened the condenser. One of the guys was smoking a cigarette. I wondered… Could it be a cigarette that smells so rancid? It didn’t seem likely, since I began detecting the smell when I was more than 40 yards away from the operator when he was descending from the Surge bin tower. I shouldn’t be able to smell a cigarette from that distance.
After a few more instances, I realized that it was cigarettes that I was smelling. I was amazed by how far away I could detect a cigarette when I was wearing my respirator. I figured that after it had filtered out all the particles bigger than 2 microns, the only particles and odors that were entering my respirator were easily detectable by my nose. And they didn’t smell anything like a cigarette.
I became so astute at detecting smokers, that one time I was walking through the breezeway with an unfortunate contract worker that had been commandeered to work with me, I was dressed in my fly ash suit and respirator. My helper wasn’t because he was going to be my hole watch while I was inside. I suddenly smelled that, now familiar, scent. I spun around once and then turned to the guy walking with me, who hardly knew who I was, and said, “Someone is smoking a cigarette!”
He looked around and no one was in sight. He said, “There isn’t anyone here.” I said, “Oh, there’s someone with a cigarette all right.” About that time a truck pulled around the end of the precipitator about 50 yards away with a couple of welders pulling a welding machine behind. Their windows were open, and hanging out of the driver side window was an arm, with a hand on the end holding a cigarette. As it drove by us, I pointed to the cigarette and said, “See. Cigarette.” He kept insisting I couldn’t have smelled that cigarette that far away… But with my respirator on, I could easily smell it.
One of the other strange Power Plant smell that I encountered during my tenure at the Power Plant was also while I was wearing my respirator and working in the precipitator. Only, I didn’t pay much attention to it until it was gone. Then I did everything I could to find the source of that smell, because to me, it was a sweet smell of success, even though it smelled more like a sweaty arm pit, or maybe even something worse.
I mentioned this smell in the post: “Moon Walk in a Power Plant Precipitator“. The precipitator is what takes the smoke out of the exhaust from the boiler, and collects it in hoppers and then blows it a half mile through a pipe to a silo on a hill by the coal pile, where it is trucked away to be made into concrete.
It was my job during an outage to repair the inside of the precipitator, and I was always looking for ways to improve the efficiency of the ash gathering abilities of this large piece of equipment.
I knew at certain times during an outage that the ash that had built up on the plates would all of the sudden decide to cake up and fall off in chunks leaving a perfectly clean plate. When that happened, then the odds of the precipitator running real well when we came back online was a lot better.
I also knew that after working long hours in the precipitator for a couple of weeks, I would feel all worn out like I had a flu. I would have to drag myself out of bed in the morning and I would even catch myself falling asleep on my feet inside the precipitator while I was inspecting it. I always figured it was just because we were working 10 or 12 hour days and I was getting older. Yeah…. 30 years old, and I was feeling every bit of it.
Then one day when I went to the tool room to get a couple of boxes of respirator filters Bud Schoonover told me that he couldn’t give me the regular hepa filter that I was used to using. I already knew that the regular filters weren’t good enough, so I asked him what else he had. He said, “Well…… I have some of these here…” I have mentioned that if Bud had been African American and a little bit skinnier and shorter, he would have been the spittin’ image of Aunt Esther from Sanford and Son’s. He would make this same expression:
Bud handed me a box of filters labeled: Organic Vapor Filter:
It wasn’t exactly what I was looking for, but I didn’t have much choice. I could see that it had a carbon filter on it as well as the regular filter, so I thought it would be all right.
The first thing I noticed when I stepped into the precipitator wearing the Organic Vapor filter was that the air inside the precipitator didn’t smell any different than the air outside. I wasn’t used to that. I was used to smelling a “boiler” sort of smell. After a couple of weeks that smell would turn more rancid. Sort of a sour smell. When I noticed that I wasn’t smelling the sour smell I quickly broke the seal on my filter and sniffed the air to verify that the filter was really blocking the stench that built up in the precipitator the past few weeks. Sure enough.
Then I noticed that I was no longer feeling tired in the morning. I was able to work all day without feeling fatigued. I came to the conclusion that whatever that smell was that was being blocked by this respirator had been causing me to feel ill. Now that it was gone I was beginning to believe that 30 years old wasn’t that old after all.
I was already curious about the smell in the precipitator because I had noticed that after a day or so after it showed up, the ash would just flake off of the plates in the precipitator. If we could find out what it was, maybe we could inject something in the inlet of the precipitator when it was online and needed to be cleaned after a bad start-up or after it had been running a while to make it run more efficiently.
So, I went to our resident Doctor of Chemistry, George Pepple. I wrote a post about him, see “Power Plant Doctor Does a Jig in a Puddle of Acid“. I explained to him about the smell and about how this particular filter filtered it out when a Hepa filter didn’t. And the effect it had on the ash on the plates. He listened intensely and I could tell that I had made him excited. There are only so many chemicals a plant chemist deals with on a normal basis, so when Dr. Pepple had an opportunity to explore something new, he jumped at the opportunity.
When I took him to the precipitator, he could smell the odor even before we began climbing the stairs up to the open hatchways. He described it as a sewage type of odor. Which I hadn’t really thought of before, but come to think of it, that would explain why an organic vapor filter would work on it. I suggested that the sulfur in the ash might be giving it that.
I had analyzed the chemicals that made up the coal that we received at our plant from Wyoming and I had tried to figure out how it might combine with moisture to create a new chemical. George explained that when the coal burns under such a high temperature, a lot of the chemicals are sort of encapsulated in ways that are not easily predictable.
George suggested that we approach this as a Safety issue and contact the Safety Department in Oklahoma City and have them see if they can put an analyzer in the precipitator to detect the chemical. When I contacted them, I talked with a lady called Julia Bevers (thanks Fred for reminding me of her last name). She told me to call her when the odor was strong during the next outage and she would bring some chemical detectors to the plant and I could place them in there and let them run overnight to collect samples.
Julia had said that she had heard that I was known as “Mr. Safety” at the plant. I don’t know why. Maybe it was because I was in the habit of complaining. And a number of the things I would complain about were safety issues.
Anyway, during the next outage as soon as I smelled the smell emanating from the precipitator I gave her a call and the next morning I received a call from Toby O’Brien, the Plant Engineer Extraordinaire. He called me and told me that Julia the Safety Lady was there in his office looking for me.
So, I went to Toby’s office and met “The Safety Lady.” I know I didn’t look at all like she expected. I was in a worn tee-shirt, not tucked in (on purpose) and worn out steal-toed boots. When I took her out to the Precipitator, I decided to take her across the Turbine Generator room and out the Third floor to the boiler where we walked through the boiler and over to the precipitator up and down ladders.
When we walked across the Turbine Floor, I didn’t have my usual pair of ear plugs hanging around my neck (they were in my pocket). As it was rather loud, Julia turned and said, “Shouldn’t we be wearing earplugs?” I replied, “Huh?” As if I couldn’t hear her. — I just love playing Power Plant Jokes on people that don’t even know what you’re up to… I’m sure when we were done, she went straight back to Toby and told him how shocked she was to find out how unsafe I was. — Me trying to keep a straight face the entire time.
To shorten a longer story, Julia gave me some indicators that would detect two different types of chemicals that she thought may be the culprit. I left the detectors in the precipitator overnight and then sent them back to Oklahoma City for analysis. They both came back negative leaving us with a mystery chemical.
Anyway, I never did find out what was causing that strange smell….
There was another strange smell that used to pop up in the Electric Shop when I had first become an electrician, but that just turned out to be one of our fellow electricians that liked to walk up to a group of electricians standing around talking, and then let loose a “silent but deadly” and then walk away and stand from a distance to see our reaction.
I won’t mention who that was, unless someone would like to leave a comment about that below….. Anyway. we all knew who it was when that happened as the electricians would yell out his name as the crowd quickly dispersed.
I decided to take a different approach. I would stand there thinking, trying to analyze the odor to see if I could tell what exactly this person had for supper the night before. I could tell one day when I said “Beef Stroganoff” and his face turned red that I had guessed pretty close to the mark….. That was the last time this noble Power Plant Man did that to a crowd of electricians….. at least when I was standing there… I can’t attest to any other time…. as I wasn’t there.
But I suppose that is proof that even early in my career I was interested in finding the source of that “strange smell”.
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….
Originally posted August 16, 2014.
I knew that we had our work cut out for us when Unit 1 was taken offline for a major overhaul on February 19, 1994 at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma. I had learned to expect the unexpected. I just never suspected this to happen. As acting foreman, I had a crew that consisted of a few of our own electricians, as well as a number of contract workers. I was also coordinating efforts between Brown & Root contractors that were going to be doing some major work inside the Precipitator (that takes the smoke out of the exhaust from the boiler) during the 12 weeks we were going to be offline and a Vacuum Truck Company that was going to vacuum ash out of the hoppers where the ash is collected and blown through pipes to the coal yard to be trucked away to make concrete.
When I inspected the precipitator during the first week, I had found numerous hoppers that had filled up with ash. One in particular hopper was so full that the ash had built up between the plates over 5 feet above the top of the hopper. Because of this, I had to coordinate with hoppers that were available for the Brown and Root contractors to begin building scaffolding, and those hoppers the vacuum truck needed to vacuum out first.
I had learned to deal with full hoppers the first time I entered the precipitator back when I was on the Labor Crew in 1983. Since that day, I had understood the potential dangers lying in wait. Especially with hoppers full of ash. See the Post “Angel of Death Passes By the Precipitator Door“.
The crew I was directly managing was on the Precipitator roof working on vibrators, insulators, transformers and rappers. I worked inside the precipitator aligning plates, and removing broken wires and cleaning insulators. The vacuum truck company vacuumed out the full hoppers by attaching a vacuum hose from a large vacuum truck to clean out pipes at the bottom of the hoppers. The Brown and Root crew climbed into the hoppers through an access door near the bottom of the hopper and constructed scaffolding in order to work at the top of the hoppers immediately below the plates.
This operation had been going on for 3 days and had seemed to be going smoothly. The Brown and Root crews and the vacuum truck crews were working shifts 24 hours a day. I would come in the morning and see the progress that had been made during the night. We kept a sheet taped to a beam in the hopper area that the vacuum truck would update when they had finished a hopper, and the Brown and Root crew indicated where they had finished building their scaffold.
On Thursday March 3, 1994, just after lunch, instead of making my way out to the precipitator to continue my work, I went up to the office area to meet in the conference room with the Safety Task Force. I was the leader of the task force, and we were meeting with upper management to work out some issues that I outlined in last week’s post. See “Taking Power Plant Safety To Task“. As you may have noticed, the last two weekly posts are a continuation of a long story.
Our meeting began shortly after 12:30 and we were discussing ways in which the Safety Task Force could work in a more cooperative way with the Maintenance Supervisor, Ken Scott. I felt that we were making good progress. We seemed to have come up with a few solutions, and we were just working out the details.
At 1:10 pm, the Electric A Foreman knocked on the door and opened it. He explained that there had been an accident at the precipitator in one of the hoppers and he thought that I might have been in the hopper at the time. He was checking to see if I was in the meeting. Once he was assured that I was all right, he left (presumably to tell the rest of my crew that I was not involved in the accident).
At this point, my head started to spin. What could have happened? None of my crew would have been in the hoppers. Maybe someone fell off of a scaffold and hurt themselves. I know I had locked out all of the electricity to the precipitator and grounded the circuits that have up to 45,000 volts of electricity when charged up, so, I’m pretty sure no one would have been electrocuted. Bill’s voice seemed real shaky when he entered the room, and when he saw me he was very relieved.
When working in a Power Plant, the Power Plant Men and Women become like a real family. Everyone cares about each other. Bill Bennett in some ways was like a father to me. In other ways, he was like an older brother. The nearest picture I have of Bill is a picture of Bill Cosby, as they looked similar:
I don’t know how long I was staring off into space counting my crew and thinking about what each of them would be doing. I was sure they were all on the roof. I knew that if a Brown & Root hand had been hurt that their own Safety Coordinator would be taking care of their injury. The thought of someone being hurt in a hopper sent flashbacks of the day I nearly dived off into the hopper full of ash ten and a half years earlier.
After about 5 minutes, Bill Bennett came back to the conference room, where we were still trying to focus on the task at hand. I don’t remember if we were doing any more good or not since I wasn’t paying any attention. Bill said that he needed for me to leave the meeting because they needed me out at the precipitator. Someone had been engulfed in fly ash!
Then I realized that the first time Bill had come to the room to check on me, he had mentioned that. I think I had blocked that from my mind. He had said that someone had been engulfed in ash, and they couldn’t tell if it was me or someone else. That was why he was so shaken up. Bill had thought that I may have died, or at least been seriously injured. The pain he was feeling before he saw me sitting in the room, alive and well, flooded my thoughts.
I quickly stood up and left the room. Bill and I quickly made our way to the precipitator. He said that Life Flight was on the way. One of the vacuum truck workers had climbed into the hopper to get the last bits of ash out of the hopper when a large amount of ash had broken loose above him and immediately engulfed him in the hopper.
When that happened there was a large boom and a cloud of ash came pouring out from the side of the precipitator. Scott Hubbard, who would have been my twin brother if I had been able to pick my own twin brother (though I never had a real twin brother)… heard the boom on the roof and when he looked down and saw the cloud of ash, immediately thought that I may have been hurt. I suppose he had called Bill Bennett on the radio and told him.
As we arrived at the precipitator, a young man was being carried out on a stretcher. A Life Flight from Oklahoma City was on it’s way, and landed just a few minutes later. I looked at the man all covered with ash. I could see how someone may have mistaken him for me. He was dressed like I was. A white t-shirt and jeans. He was unconscious.
Without going into detail as to the cause of the accident, as that will be in a later post, let me tell you about the heroic Power Plant Men and their actions before I had arrived on the scene…
James Vickers, a 26 year old vacuum truck worker, had climbed in the hopper carrying a shovel. He had a hole watch standing out the door keeping an eye on him. They had sucked out the hopper from the outside pipes and had banged on the walls in order to knock down any ash build up on the sides until they figured they had cleaned out the hopper.
James had opened the door to the hopper, and maybe because he saw some buildup on the hopper walls, he decided to climb in the hopper in order to knock it down with the shovel. While he was doing this, a large amount of ash that had bridged up in the plates above was knocked free all at once and immediately filled up the hopper probably more than half full.
James was crammed down into the throat of the hopper, which at the bottom is only about 8 inches in diameter with a plate across the middle about 2 feet above the throat of the hopper. He was immediately knocked unconscious by the impact.
The person assigned to be the hole watch was standing at the door to the hopper and when the ash fell down, he was knocked back about 6 or 7 feet when the ash came pouring out of the door. Panicking, He ran to the edge of the walkway yelling for help. Luckily, he was not also knocked unconscious, or this would pretty much have been the end of the story.
Men came running. Especially a couple of Power Plant Men working in the area. I wish I could remember who they were. When I try to think of the most heroic Power Plant Men I knew at the plant at the time, the list is about a long as my arm, so it is hard to narrow it down.
The Power Plant Men began to frantically dig the ash out of the hopper to uncover James Vickers. When they reached his head, they immediately cleared his face to where they could perform Mouth-to-Mouth resuscitation. They began breathing for James as soon as they could, and continued mouth-to-mouth as they dug out more of the ash.
As they dug the ash out, they were using their hardhats for shovels. When they tried to move James, they found that he had been crammed down into the bottom of the hopper to where he was trapped in the throat of the hopper. Heroically they continued without hesitation to breath for James, while simultaneously working to free him from the hopper. The shovel had been wedged into the bottom of the hopper with him.
Almost immediately after the accident happened, the control room became aware that someone had been engulfed in a hopper, they called Life Flight in Oklahoma City. A helicopter was immediately dispatched. By the time James was safely removed from the hopper, placed on a stretcher and carried out to the adjacent field, the Life Flight Helicopter was landing to take him to the Baptist Medical Center. I would say the helicopter was on the ground a total of about 3 or so minutes before it was took off again.
Bill and I inspected the hopper where the accident had taken place. On the ground below under the grating was a pile of ash, just like I had experienced years before when I almost bailed off into the hopper to look for my flashlight. I was suddenly filled with a tremendous amount of sorrow.
I was sorry for James Vickers, though I didn’t know who he was at the time. I was sorry for Bill Bennett who thought for a while that I had died in that hopper. I remembered hanging by one finger in a hopper only two rows down from this one, ten years ago with my life hanging by a thread, and I just wanted to cry.
So, I gave Bill a big hug as if I was hugging my own father and just started to cry. The whole thing was just so sad.
Meanwhile, in Oklahoma City….
On the roof of the Baptist Medical Center, a Triage unit had been setup waiting for the helicopter to arrive with James. Hazardous Waste protective suits were being worn by the people that were going to begin treating James. They had heard that he had been engulfed in hazardous chemicals which consisted of: Silica, Aluminum Oxide, Hexavalent Chromium, arsenic and other unsavory and hard to pronounce chemicals. The Life Flight People on the helicopter had to be scrubbed down by the Hazmat team as soon as they exited the helicopter to clean off the hazardous Fly Ash. The news reporters were all standing by reporting the incident.
Yes. The same fly ash that I went swimming in every day during the overhaul. The same fly ash that I tracked through the Utility Room floor when I came home at night. The same fly ash used to create highways all across the country. It’s true it has some carcinogenic material in it. I’m sure I have my share of Silica in my lungs today, since it doesn’t ever really clear out of there.
Besides the psychological trauma of a near-death experience, Jame Vickers was fairly unharmed considering what he went through. He came out of the ordeal with an eye infection. Randy Dailey pointed out that this was because the Safety Coordinator from Brown & Root had opened his eyes to check if he was alive when he was laying on the stretcher, and had let ash get in his eyes. Otherwise, he most likely wouldn’t have developed an eye infection.
When I arrived at home that evening I explained to my wife what had happened. She had heard something on the news about it, but hadn’t realized they were talking about our plant since the person was in Oklahoma City when the reporters were talking about it.
All I can say is… Some Safety Meetings in the past have been pretty boring, but nothing made me want to improve my Safety Attitude like the Safety Meeting we had that afternoon. I’m glad that I had to experience that only once in my career as a Plant Electrician.
Comments from the original post
I suppose when you are a Plant Manager, the last person you want to see at your Power Plant doorstep is the OSHA Man! That’s exactly what happened on Thursday, March 10, 1994 at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma. He was not paying a social call. He was there to conduct an investigation. One in which I was heavily involved.
In my post from last week, “Tragedy Occurs During Power Plant Safety Meeting” I described a near death accident where a contract worker was engulfed in fly ash in a precipitator hopper. The accident was all over the 5 o’clock news in Oklahoma City. The press was there when the Life Flight helicopter arrived at the hospital where they interviewed the flight crew. The OSHA office in the Federal building a few blocks from the Electric Company’s Corporate Headquarters had quickly assigned someone to the case. Armed with all the authority he needed, he began a full investigation of the accident.
The day before Gerald Young, (the OSHA Man) arrived, I had done some investigation myself into the accident. I was trying to figure out exactly what had happened. Why had someone who thought that he had emptied out a hopper so much so that he climbed inside, had suddenly become instantly engulfed in ash? Where did this large volume of ash come from, and why did it decide to suddenly break loose and fill the hopper at the particular moment when James Vickers had decided to climb into the hopper?
Larry Kuennan, the lead engineer had asked me to show him the hopper from the inside of the Precipitator, so he could have an idea of what took place. I told him he needed to put on a fly ash suit and a full face respirator in order to go into the precipitator. After we were all suited up, I took him on a tour of the inside. A sight few people have had the chance to experience. I could write an entire post just about the experience…. Oh…. maybe I already have. See “Moon Walk in a Power Plant Precipitator”
The hopper we needed to investigate was not at the edge, so, we had to squeeze our way around a few beams in order to see the hopper where the accident took place. When we arrived, I explained that when I had first inspected the precipitator, I had found that the ash had piled up five foot above the bottom of the plates because the feeder wasn’t feeding properly. So, I had figured that when they were vacuuming out the hopper, the ash that was lodged between the plates (that were 9 inches apart) must have still been there when James climbed into the hopper. Something had caused the ash to give way all at once.
Larry and I climbed down between the hoppers where we could see the bottle racks underneath the plates. The bottles are 30 pound anchors in the shape of the old style milk bottles. They are used to keep the tension on the wires, which are the electrodes that are normally charged with up to 45,000 volts of electricity when the precipitator is online.
When we sat down to look at the four bottle racks, I noticed right away that one row of bottles was about a foot and a half lower than the rest of the bottle racks. This didn’t make sense to me at first. I couldn’t think of any way that 176 wires and bottles would be lower than the rest of the wires in the hopper. It was a paradox that took a while to soak in.
When we left, Larry Kuennen made a statement I will never forget. He said, “Until now, I thought that Plant Electricians did nothing but twist wires together. I never thought they worked on things like this.” I replied, “We work on anything that has a wire connected to it. That includes almost everything in the plant.” He replied, “Well, I have a new appreciation for Plant Electricians.”
It wasn’t until I returned to the electric shop and heard Scott Hubbard’s recount of the accident (again). Scott and his crew was working on the roof of the precipitator when the accident happened. He said that when the accident happened he heard a loud bang. Sort of like an explosion. I told him what I had found inside the precipitator. This could only mean one thing…. An electric insulator on the roof of the precipitator that held up the wires on that bottle rack had broken. When that happened, it fell the foot and half causing all the ash that had been lodged between the plates to be jolted loose, engulfing James Vickers who had just climbed in the hopper below.
After lunch, Scott went up on the roof and opened the portal on the tension house that housed the insulator that held up that row of wires. Sure enough. The three foot by 3 inch diameter ceramic insulator had broken. Something that had never happened at the plant up to that point. A tremendous load must have been put on this insulator, or it must have been defective in order to just break. These insulators are designed to hold up to 10,000 pounds of weight. the weight of the bottles and wires altogether weighed about 6,000 pounds. This meant that about 4,000 pounds of ash was pressing down from the ash above in order for it to just pull apart.
There was only one person that the OSHA man Jerry wanted to speak to when he arrived at the plant (other than to arrange things). That was me. I was the acting foreman in charge of the operations in, on and below the precipitator when the accident happened. I was also just a regular hourly employee, not so “beholden” to the company that I would participate in any kind of “cover-up”.
The first thing OSHA Jerry wanted to see was the inside of the precipitator. So, I procured a respirator for him, and we climbed up to the landing where one enters the precipitator through side doors. The first thing he did when he arrived at the door was take out a measuring tape to measure the height of the door.
I hadn’t thought about it until that moment, but a new set of OSHA regulations had a new set of Confined Space regulations 1910.146 that dealt specifically with confined spaces. It had gone into effect on April 15, 1993. Here we were almost a year later. I had always treated the precipitator as a confined space, so I had always checked the air quality before I entered it.
So, I asked OSHA Jerry why he measured the size of the door. He said, he was checking if the entrance was “restricted” or “limited”. This was the requirement of a Confined space as stated in OSHA regulation 1910.146. I asked him how small does an entrance have to be to be restricted? He said, “Well. That’s not clearly defined. We could enter the precipitator by bending over and stepping in.
That was the first time I thought that maybe the precipitator itself may not really fit into the strict definition of a confined space. The hoppers do for sure, but does the precipitator? Hmm…. I wondered…. I still do come to think of it. The hoppers were definitely confined spaces by definition… “any space with converging walls, such as a hopper…..”
Oh. I forgot to describe OSHA Jerry. He reminded me a little of the guy who was a sidekick in Cheers named Paul Willson:
Actually, he looked so much like him that I thought of him right away.
When we were done inspecting the precipitator, we returned to the front office where we went to Tom Gibson’s (our Electric Supervisor) office. He closed the door and locked it. And he began to interview me by explaining that anything that was said in this room would be held in confidence. He explained that I could speak freely and that the Electric Company could do nothing to me for telling him the truth.
I thought… Ok…. um…. I have always been known for speaking my mind, so he wasn’t going to hear anything that I wouldn’t personally tell the Plant Manager, Ron Kilman to his face. Just ask Ron. I’m sure he would agree that I was pretty open about anything that popped into my mind.
He asked me if I had been trained how in the OSHA Confined Space regulations. I responded by saying that we had a class on it one day where we went over our new confined space requirements. That consisted of reading the company policy. I knew that I needed to have a hole watch, and I needed to check the air before I went into a confined space.
We checked to make sure there was 20.9% oxygen, that there was less than 10 parts per million Carbon Monoxide, less than 5 parts per million H2S (Hydrogen Sulfide) and that there was less than 5% explosive vapors. OSHA Jack wrote everything down.
Actually, while I was talking, Jerry asked me to pause often because he was writing everything I said word-for-word on a yellow notepad what I was saying.
While we were talking, I asked him a few questions also. I asked Jack how he decided to work for OSHA. Where he had come from (Kansas. Wichita, I think). How long he had been working for OSHA. Did he enjoy his job….. At times, I could get him to digress and tell me a story about his life.
As we continued with our interview over this grave accident that almost resulted in the loss of someone’s life, I was busy making a new friend. By the time he had asked me everything he needed to know, I knew all about how he had grown up in Kansas, and how he had gone from job-to-job until he had ended up in front of me… interviewing me.
When we had finished the interview, he explained to me that this was an official document that contained all the answers to the questions he had asked me. He said that this would be private and that the Electric Company would not be able to ever see what I said unless I wanted them to see it. I asked him if I could show it to them. He said he would give me a copy of it, and I could do whatever I wanted with it. He asked me to sign it. I did.
I took Jerry to the copy machine in the front office where he made copies for me. When he handed them to me, I shook his hand. I told him I enjoyed talking to him. I also told him that I wished him well. I showed him to the elevator, and he left the plant. I made a copy of the papers that I had signed and went directly to the plant manager Ron Kilman’s office and gave him a copy of the document I had signed.
Ron asked me how it went. I told him that it went fine. Here is everything we talked about. I had nothing to hide. It did amaze me that OSHA Jack thought I might want to “spill the beans” about something as if we were treated like peons where the King had total rule. — I guess he didn’t know that Eldon Waugh had retired in 1987.
From there, I went to Bill Bennett’s office. Bill Bennett was our A Foreman. His office was across the hall from Tom Gibson’s office where I had been interviewed for the previous 3 hours. — Yeah. 3 hours. OSHA Jerry didn’t know Shorthand.
Bill asked me how the interview went. I said it went fine. He said that Ron and Ben Brandt had been worried about me because the interview had lasted so long. Bill said he told them, “Don’t worry about Kevin. He probably has this guy wrapped around his little finger. He’s probably using his ‘psychology’ on him” I always loved Bill with all my heart. He knew me too well. I told Bill that I knew OSHA Jerry’s life story by the time we were done. Bill smiled…. just like this:
I smiled back at Bill. I returned to the Electric Shop to continue with Unit 1 Overhaul. After all. That was my “real” job. I put on my fly ash suit, my full face respirator, and my rubber boots and returned to the innards of the precipitator to continue where I had left off. I had a lot to think about as I scanned the Precipitator plates and wires in the dark with my flashlight safely strapped around my neck.