Tag Archives: Toby O’Brien

Toby O’Brien and Doing the Impossible

Originally posted May 23, 2014:

There were three times when I was an electrician at a coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma when, according to others, I had done something that they labelled “impossible”.  One of those times began when a Plant Engineer Toby O’Brien came to me and asked me if I could find a way to connect to the Prime Computer down at Corporate Headquarters so that he could edit some Engineering drawings he had worked on when he was working at Oklahoma City.  That in itself wasn’t what was impossible.  That came later, but it pertained to a similar subject.

Somewhere in Corporate Headquarters stashed away in a room somewhere was a Prime Computer just waiting for Toby.

Prime Computer

Prime Computer

Toby knew that I had an account on the Honeywell Mainframe computer downtown, since I was always getting myself in trouble playing around on it.  Since I could connect to that, he wondered if it would be possible to connect to the Prime Computer where his Medusa CAD drawings were kept.  He gave me some information about how he used to log into it when he was working downtown…. before  he was banished to the Power Plant Palace 70 miles north out in the middle of the country.

Toby had a CAD tablet and a disk to install the driver on a computer.  This would allow him to work on his CAD drawings.  For those of you who don’t remember, or have never seen such a thing.  It is like a very fancy mouse…. or should I say, Mouse Pad.  Since you used a stylus to draw and point and click on a large pad called a tablet.  Not anything like the little tablets we have today.

CAD Drawing Tablet

CAD Drawing Tablet

At the time, the only connection we had to the Honeywell Mainframe from the power plant was through a router called a Memotec.  The bandwidth was a whopping 28,000 baud.  A Baud is like bytes per second, only it is measured over an audio line as an audio signal.  Like the sound that a Fax machine makes when it first connects.  Toby had talked to some guys down at IT and they had a copy of the same Honeywell emulator called “GLink” we were using at the plant, only it would connect at a super whopping 56,000 baud.  Twice as fast!  They wanted someone to “Beta Test” it.  They knew I liked doing that sort of stuff, so they were willing to give us a copy to try out.

 

This is GLink today. Back then it was for Windows 3.1

This is GLink today. Back then it was for Windows 3.1

Toby and I decided that the best place to try out our “Beta Testing” was in the Chemistry Lab.  The main reason was that it had one of the newer 386 desktop computers and it was in a room right next to the data closet where the Memotec was talking to the mainframe downtown.  So, if I had to run in there real quick and spit in the back and “whomp it a good ‘un”, I wouldn’t have too go far.  That was a trick I learned from watching “No Time for Sergeants” with Andy Griffith.  Here is the lesson:

If you have trouble viewing the video from the picture above, this this link:  “No Time For Sergeants Radio Operator“.

To make the rest of this part of the story a little shorter, I’ll just summarize it to say that by logging into the Honeywell Mainframe using my account, I was then able to connect to the Prime Computer using Toby’s account and he was able to edit his CAD drawings from the Chemistry Lab at the Power Plant 70 miles away from Corporate Headquarters.  I know that doesn’t sound like much, but in those days, this was “new technology” for us Power Plant guys anyway.

Before I continue with the “impossible” task, I need to explain a little about how electricians kept the Electrical Blueprints up-to-date at a Power Plant.  This was a task that I was given when Tom Gibson was the Electrical Supervisor.  I was supposed to take all the blueprints that had been revised because of some change that had happened at the plant, and make sure they were properly updated.  Then I had to go through a process to make sure they were permanently updated, not only on the three copies that we had at our plant, but also with the “System of Record” set of blueprints at Corporate Headquarters.

So, let me tell you the process, and I’m sure you will be able to relate this task to something you encounter in your job today.  Even if it is preparing the Salads at a Sirloin Stockade before opening time.

The first step happens when someone in the electric shop has to rewire some piece of equipment or something because the equipment was moved, removed, upgraded to something else, or someone thought it would work better if we did it a different way.  Then whoever made the change to the electric wiring would go to the prints that were kept in the electric shop and update them so that the new wiring job was reflected in the Blueprints.

This is important because if someone a week later had to go work on this equipment, they would need to be able to see how the equipment is now wired.  If they were working off of an old print, then they might blow something up, or injure or even kill someone…. most likely themselves, if it ever came down to it.

The other two copies of prints also needed to be updated.  One was in the Instrument and Controls shop, and the most important copy was in the “Print Room” right next to Tom Gibson’s office.

The second step was to send off a request to Corporate Headquarters in Oklahoma City for a copy of all the blueprints that were changed so that the change could be made on the copy and sent back to Oklahoma City.

The third step is when a fresh copy of the blueprints arrived at the plant from Oklahoma City a few weeks later.  These were updated with the changes and sent back to Oklahoma City.

The fourth step is when the blueprints are reviewed by an engineer downtown and the changes are made permanently by a drafter downtown.

Step five:  Then three copies of the permanently changed prints were sent back to plant where they replaced the three marked up copies.

This process generally took two to three months given that the drafter downtown had to take the Original drawing, scan it in the computer, make changes to it, and then save it, and send it to the printer to be printed.

Toby and I had “petitioned” our plant management to buy us a copy of AutoCAD so that we could make our own revisions right at the plant, and send the changes directly to Oklahoma City, all complete and ready to go.  The only problem with this was that AutoCAD software did not come cheap.  It was several thousand dollars for just one copy.

Even though this was before the World Wide Web, I knew where I could get a pirated copy of AutoCAD, but since neither Toby or I considered ourselves criminals, we never really considered that a viable alternative.  Tom Gibson was pitching for us to have a copy, but it was figured that if we had a copy, the company would have to buy a copy for all six main power plants, and they weren’t willing to dish out that much money.

Somewhere along the line, after Tom Gibson had kept pushing for the importance of having up-to-date Plant Electric Blueprints in a timely fashion, a task force was formed to address a faster way to make print revisions.  Because Toby and I (and Terry Blevins) had been pushing this at our plant, Tom asked Toby and I (actually, that should be “Toby and me”, but “Toby and I” makes me sound smarter than I am) to be on the Task Force with him.

So, one morning after arriving at the plant, we climbed into a company car and made the drive to Oklahoma City to the Corporate Headquarters.  When we arrived, we sat in a big conference room with members from the different power plants, and a number of engineers from downtown.  I was pretty excited that something was finally going to be done.

I don’t remember the name of the engineer that was the leader of the task force, I only remember that I had worked with him once or twice through the years on some small projects.  When the meeting began, I expected that we would have some kind of brainstorming activity.  I was all ready for it, since I had all sorts of ideas about how we could just edit the prints directly from the plant on the Prime Computer where the prints were stored, just like Toby had done.

When the meeting began there was no brainstorming session.  There wasn’t even a “What do you guys think about how this can be done?”  No.  The engineer instead went on to explain his solution to the problem.  I was a little disappointed.  Mainly because I was all fired up about being asked to be on a task force in Oklahoma City to work on…. well…. anything…. to tell you the truth.  And here we were listening to a conclusion.  — Sound familiar?  I knew it would.

This engineer had it all figured out.  Here was his solution:

Step 1:  A request was sent by company mail to downtown (same at the old second step) for some blueprints that need to be updated.

Step 2:  The prints are downloaded onto a floppy disk (3.5 inch High Density – which meant, 1.44 Megabyte disks).

Step 3:  The disks were mailed through company mail back to the Power Plant.

Step 4:  The Power Plant receives the disks and loads them onto their computer at the plant and they edit the blueprint using a pared down CAD program called “RedLine”.

Step 5:  The print revision is saved to the disk and the disk is mailed back to Corporate Headquarters using the Company Mail.

Step 6:  The print is reviewed by the engineers for accuracy and is loaded into the computer as the system of record.

Ok…. this sounded just like the previous method only we were using a “RedLine” program to edit the changes instead of using Red, Green and Gray pencils.

It was evident that the engineer in charge of the meeting was expecting us to all accept this solution and that the task force no longer had to meet anymore, and we could all go home and not ever return to consider this problem again.  — Well, this was when I said the “Impossible”.

I raised my hand as if I was in a classroom.  The guy knowing me to be a regular troublemaker asked me what I wanted.  I said, “Why mail the files?  Why not just put them in a folder and have the person at the plant go there and pick them up?”  — In today’s world the idea of a drop-box is about as easy to understand as “Google it”.  Back then… I guess not.  Especially for some engineers who had already decided on a solution.

So, the engineer responded, “Because that can’t be done.”  I said, “Why not?”  He said, “It’s impossible.  Someone in a power plant can’t just go into a computer at Corporate Headquarters and access a file.”

Well, that did it….. I told him that we were able to edit CAD drawings on the Prime computer from the power plant.  He said, “No you didn’t.  That’s impossible!”  I looked over at Toby who was sitting next to me with a big grin on his face.  So I said,  “Who is the IT guy in the room?  He can tell you that you can  get a file from the mainframe from the power plant.”

The engineer replied that he didn’t invite any IT people, because there wasn’t any reason.  Everyone knows that you can’t copy files on a Corporate computer from a power plant.  So, I said, “Invite someone from the IT department to the next meeting.  I’m sure he will agree with me that this can be done.  — Shortly after that, the  meeting was adjourned (but at least I had managed to convince the team we needed a second meeting).

You should have heard me rant and rave all the way back to the power plant that afternoon.  How could he possibly be so naive to make definite statements about something and basically call me a liar when I said that we had already done it.  I’m sure Tom Gibson was glad when we arrived back at the plant and he was able to get out of the company car and into the silence of his own car for his drive back to Stillwater.  Toby on the other hand carpooled with me, so he had to hear me rant and rave to Scott Hubbard all the way back to Stillwater that day.

Needless to say, we had another Print Revision Task Force meeting a few weeks later.  Tom, Toby and I drove back to Oklahoma City.  I couldn’t wait to see what was going to happen.

The meeting began with the engineer in charge of the task force saying, “The first thing we are going to address is Kevin Breazile’s statement about sending files to the power plant.  We have invited someone from IT to answer this question.”  Then he turned to a guy sitting at the table.  I don’t remember his name either, only that I had worked with him also through the years (oh yes I do.  It was Mike Russell).

The engineer turned to the IT guy and said (using a tone that indicated that I belonged in a mental institution or maybe kindergarten), “Kevin seems to think that he can somehow get on his computer at the power plant and access a folder on a server here at Corporate Headquarters and download a file.”  He stopped and with a big smirk on his face looked at the IT guy.  Mike just sat there for a moment looking at him.

The engineer just stood there with an evil grin on his face waiting…  Mike said, “So?  What do you want to know?”  The engineer said, “Well.  Is that even possible?”  Mike replied, “Of course!  It’s actually easier for him to do that than it is for someone on the 3rd floor of this building to access the mainframe on the fourth floor.”

The engineer’s jaw dropped and he eked out a meager little  “what?”  Mike asked if that was all.  When he was assured that this was the only question, he stood up and walked out the door.  As he was leaving he turned a side glance toward me and winked at me.  I was grinning ear-to-ear.  I could tell, I wasn’t the only one that had a beef with this particular engineer.

So, you would have thought that it would have been a quieter ride back to the plant that day, but leave it to me….  I kept on going on about how that guy was so sure of himself that he didn’t even bother to ask the IT guy before the meeting began just to check his own erroneous facts.  Geez!  That was the most surprising part of the day.  If he had only asked him before the meeting, he wouldn’t have made a fool out of himself with his snide comments just before he was put in his place.

So, Toby and I proved that doing the impossible isn’t all that impossible when what someone thinks is impossible really isn’t so.  This stemmed from a lesson my dad taught me growing up when he told me, “Don’t ever say “can’t”.  There is always a way.”

Comments from the original post:

  1. Dan Antion May 24, 2014

    Ah, the good old days when the best computer was the new 386. Things weren’t impossible but you had to think about it and plan quite a bit. Great stories!

  2. Ruth May 24, 2014

    Always enjoy reading and thinking about a world I wouldn’t even know about if it weren’t for your unique blog!

    Ruth in Pittsburgh

  3. Ron May 24, 2014

    Great story! I heard a pastor once say “What you “know” can keep you from learning the truth.” I saw this principle in operation many times in my career.

    I had been at the WFEC Hugo Power Plant for a short time when the Plant Manager directed me (Maint. Supt.) to have the Mechanics “block the condenser” for a “hydro”. (Prior to a condenser hydro, several mechanics would work for about 4 hours dragging heavy timbers into the 3 foot tall space between the bottom of the hotwell and the concrete floor. They would space these timbers evenly across the entire condenser floor and use wedges to remove all clearance at each support beam. All this work was “required” to support the additional water weight (several feet higher than normal operating level)). I knew this “blocking” was never done at any OG&E plant but I didn’t want to make the Plant Manager look like an idiot. So I did what he asked. We “blocked” the condenser for a hydro. Then I got with just the Plant Engineer and asked him to get the Mechanical Prints for the condenser. I asked him if it was necessary to block the condenser for hydro. He said they had always done it because of the extra weight of the water. When we looked at the condenser drawings there was a note indicating it was designed to support a full hydro water level. He showed the print to the Plant Manager (one on one). Nobody was made to look foolish and for the next condenser hydro we didn’t “block” it – and the Mechanics were really happy!

    1. Plant Electrician May 24, 2014

      We used to have a saying that I picked up from Bob Kennedy. “We’ve been doing it this way for 35 years. “

  4. Dave Tarver May 24, 2014

    Well over the years there were a lot of engineers that way.  Not all.  We have had outstanding ones as well and the stinkers too.  Just hate the politics of people so evil and cruel.  Man is beyond ugly so often.

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What’s That Strange Power Plant Smell?

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.

 

This isn't me, this is just some other fortunate soul I found on Google Images

This isn’t me, this is just some other fortunate soul I found on Google Images

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.

The plant has a similar electrostatic precipitator, only ours is twice as long

The plant has a similar electrostatic precipitator, only ours is twice as long

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:

Aunt Esther from Sanford and Son

Aunt Esther from Sanford and Son

Bud handed me a box of filters labeled: Organic Vapor Filter:

 

Like This filter, only without the purple plastic guard. It had a cotton looking filter on the top

Like This filter, only without the purple plastic guard. It had a cotton looking filter on the top

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.

Power Plant Engineer and Good Friend - Toby O'Brien

Power Plant Engineer and Good Friend – Toby O’Brien

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.

Earplugs on a cord that can be draped over your shoulders when not in use.

Earplugs on a cord that can be draped over your shoulders when not in use.

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”.

ABC’s of Power Plant Safety

Originally posted August 2, 2014

Scott, Toby and I were all sitting in the front seat of Scott’s pickup truck on our way home from the coal-fired power plant in North Cental Oklahoma, because this particular pickup didn’t have a back seat. I guess that’s true for most pickup now that I think about it. It was in the fall of 1993 and I was on one of my rants about Power Plant Safety (again).

Scott Hubbard was focusing on the road and he was smiling. I think it was because the person that was talking on NPR (National Public Radio) had a pleasant voice.

Scott Hubbard

Scott Hubbard

Come to think of it… Scott was usually smiling.

I was going on and on about how the plant needed to take a completely didn’t approach to safety. I thought that we just looked at each accident as an isolated case and because of that we were missing the point. The point was that no one really goes to work with the idea that they want to do something that will hurt them. Power Plant Men in general don’t like having accidents. Not only does it hurt, but it is also embarrassing as well. Who doesn’t want that 20 year safety sticker?

I worked 20 years without an accident

I worked 20 years without an accident

I was in the middle of my safety rant all prepared to continue all the way from the plant to Stillwater, about 20 miles away when Toby quickly interrupted me. He said that he had received a safety pamphlet in the mail the other day that was saying the same things I had just said. It had talked about a way to change the culture of the plant to be more safe. Not using the same old techniques we were used to like Safety Slogan Programs (I was thinking…. but what about the Safety Slogan Pizza award at the end of the year? Would that go away? See the Post: “When Power Plant Competition Turns Terribly Safe“). Toby said that he read it and then set it aside as just another one of the many safety sales pitches a Plant Engineer might receive in a week.

Power Plant Engineer and Good Friend - Toby O'Brien

Power Plant Engineer – Toby O’Brien

He said he only remembered the pamphlet because I had just made a statement that was word-for-word right out of the safety pamphlet. I had said that the only way to change the Power Plant Safety Culture was to change the behavior first. Don’t try to change the culture in order to change the behavior. When I had earned my degree in Psychology years earlier, I had been told by one of my professors that the area of Psychology that works the best is Behavioral Psychology.

To some, this might sound like treating the symptoms instead of the actual cause of a problem. If your not careful that may be what you end up doing and then you ignore the root of the problem, which brings you back to where you were before you tried to change anything in the first place. Toby said he would give the pamphlet to me the next day.

So, the rest of the ride home was much more pleasant. Instead of finishing my rant about Safety, we just listened to the pleasant voices on National Public Radio. I was excited about the idea that someone might have a solution that I believed offered the best chance to change the direction of Safety at the plant away from blaming the employee, to doing something to prevent the next accident.

The next day, after we arrived at the plant, I made my way up to the front offices to Toby’s desk so that he could give me the safety pamphlet he had mentioned on the ride home. When he gave it to me, the title caught my eye right away. It was a pamphlet for a book called: “The Behavior-Based Safety Process, Managing Involvement for an Injury-Free Culture”. Now I was really excited. This sounded like it was exactly what I had been talking about with Toby and Scott. I sent off for the book right away.

When the book arrived I wanted to climb on the roof of my house and yell “Hallelujah!” I was suddenly one with the world! As I read through the book my chin became chapped because my head was nodding up and down in agreement so much that the windy draft caused by the bobbing motion chafed my chin.

I finished the book over the weekend. When I returned to work on Monday, I wrote another quick letter to the Plant Manager, Ron Kilman and the Assistant Plant Manager, Ben Brandt telling them that I would like to discuss an idea for a new safety program…. um…. process. Process is better than Program… as we learned in Quality Training. A process is the way you do something. A program is something you do, and when it’s over, you stop doing it.

Later that week, I met with Ron Kilman, Ben Brandt and Jasper Christensen in Ben’s office.

Ron Kilman

Ron Kilman

I had just read the book for the second time, I had already had 5 dreams about it, and I had been talking about it non-stop to Charles Foster and Scott Hubbard in the electric shop for days. So, I felt confident that I was prepared for the meeting. I still remember it well.

Ron asked me to explain how this new process would work and so I started right in….

In order for this process to work, you have to understand that when an accident occurs, it is the system that is broken. It isn’t the employee’s “fault”. That is, the employee didn’t wake up in the morning thinking they were going to work today to have an accident. Something went wrong along the way, and that is what you have to focus on in order to improve safety. Not so much the employee, but the entire system.

If people are unsafe, it is because “The System” has trained them to work unsafe (for the most part…. — there will always be someone like Curtis Love…. accidents sometimes traveled 45 miles just to attack Curtis Love).

The trick is to identify the problems with the system, and then take steps to improve them. Ben was nodding as if he didn’t quite buy what I was saying. Ron had looked over at Ben and I could tell that he was skeptical as well (as I knew they would, and should be…. I had already demonstrated that I was a major pain in the neck on many occasions, and this could have been just another attempt to wreak havoc on our plant management). So Ron explained a scenario to me and asked me how we would go about changing the system to prevent these accidents in the future….

Ron said, Bill Gibson went down to work on the Number 1 Conveyor Belt (at the bottom of the dumper where the coal is dumped from the trains).

Bill Gibson

Bill Gibson

While he was down there, he noticed that some bolts needed to be tightened. The only tool he had with him that could possibly tighten the bolts was a pair of Channel Locks.

 

Channel Locks

Channel Locks

All of us had a pair of Channel Locks. One of the most Handy-dandiest Tools around.

Ron continued…. So, instead of going back to the shop and getting the correct size wrench to tighten the bolts, Bill used the channel locks to tighten them. He ended up spraining his wrist. Now how are you going to prevent that?

I replied…. One of the most common causes for accidents is using the wrong tool. There are usually just a few reasons why the wrong tool is used. If you fix those reasons, then you can prevent this from happening. The main and obvious reason why this accident occurred was because the right tool wasn’t there with him. This could be fixed a number of ways. Bill and his team could have a small bag that they carry around that had the most likely tools they might need for inspecting the conveyors. They might have another bag of tools that they use when they need to go inspect some pumps… etc.

Another solution may be to mount a box on the wall at the bottom of the dumper and put a set of wrenches and other important tools in it. If that box had been there and Bill had found the loose bolts, he only would have to walk a few feet to get the right tool instead of trudging all the way back up to the shop and then all the way back down.

It wasn’t that Bill didn’t want to use the right tool. He didn’t want to bruise his wrist. He just wanted to tighten the bolts.

— This had their attention… I was able to quickly give them a real action that could be taken to prevent a similar accident in the future if they would take the effort to change the “System”. Even Ben Brandt leaned back in his chair and started to let his guard down a little.

This was when I explained that when someone does something, the reason they do it the way they do is comes down to the perceived consequences of their actions…

We were always being drilled about the ABC’s of First Aid from Randy Dailey during our yearly safety training. That is when you come across someone lying unconscious, you do the ABC’s by checking their Airway, the Breathing and their Circulation. I introduced Ron, Ben and Jasper to the ABC’s of Safety. Something completely different. The ABC’s of Safety are: Antecedents, Behavior and Consequences.

An Antecedent is something that triggers a particular behavior. In Bill’s case, it was finding the loose bolts on Conveyor 1. It triggered the behavior to tighten the bolts. Bill chose to use the wrong tool because the correct tool was not immediately available, so he weighed the consequences. The possible behavior choices were:

  • I could use the pair of channel locks here in my pocket.
  • I could spend the next 20 minutes climbing the 100 feet up out of the dumper and go over to the shop and grab a wrench and walk all the way back down here.
  • I could leave the bolts loose and come back later when I have the right tool.

The consequences of these behaviors are:

  • I could be hurt using the channel locks, but I haven’t ever hurt myself using them before, and the chances are small.
  • I could be late for lunch and I would be all worn out after climbing back up to the shop. The chances of me being all worn out by the time I was done was very high.
  • The loose bolts could fail if I waited to tighten them, and that could cause more damage to the equipment that would cause a lot more work in the future. The chance of this is low.

The behavior that a person will choose is the one that has an immediate positive consequence. If the odds of being hurt is small, it will not stop someone from doing something unsafe. Also, if the negative consequence is delayed, it will not weigh in the decision very highly. Positive consequences outweigh negative consequences.

So, in this case, the obvious choice for Bill was to use the channel locks instead of going back to get the right tool.

When I finished explaining this to Ron and Ben, (Jasper was nodding off to sleep at this point)… Ben asked where I came up with all of this. That was when I reached down and picked up the book that was sitting in my lap. I put it on the table. I said, I read about it in here:

Book about the Behavior-Based Safety Process

Book about the Behavior-Based Safety Process by Thomas Krause

Ben grabbed the book and quickly opened up the front cover and saw that I had written my name inside the cover. He said, “It’s a good thing you put your name in here or you would have just lost this book.” I told him he could read it if he wanted.

Ron said that he would consider what I had said, and a few day later he responded that since I had been requesting that we start up a Safety Task Force to address the plant safety concerns that he would go ahead and let us start it up, and that he wanted us to consider starting a Behavior-Based Safety Process in the future. — That will be another story…

Let me finish this post with a warning about the Behavior-Based Safety Process…

In order for this to work, it has to be endorsed from the top down, and it has to be implemented with the understanding that the employee is not the problem. Punishing employees for working unsafe will destroy any attempt to implement this process properly. Training everyone is essential. Especially management. I can’t emphasize this enough. In order to produce an accident-free culture, everyone has to keep it positive. Any changes in the system that helps prevent accidents is a good thing. Any unsafe behavior by an employee is a symptom that there is something wrong with the system that needs to be addressed. — Reprimanding an employee is destructive… unless of course, they intentionally meant to cause someone harm. — But then, they wouldn’t really be Power Plant Men, would they?

The phrase was: 'Cause I Love You Man!

The phrase was: ‘Cause I Love You Man!

 

Comments from the original post:

    1. Dan Antion August 2, 2014

      My father always made a box or a rack do that every tool needed to adjust something like a table saw was always attached to that saw. I do the same thing.

    1. Anna Waldherr August 3, 2014

      I really enjoyed your post. I’ve never worked in a power plant (no hand eye coordination, for one thing), but the challenge of convincing management to focus on safety and change an existing procedure is universal. Best wishes!

    1. Dennis Wagoner August 4, 2014

      Great post. I worked at a Ford UAW plant for 28 years. We finished out with four years without a lost time injury – this plant was heavy machining manufacturing automotive steering gears so we had a lot of heavy equipment everywhere. Walking out the door the same way and with the same body parts you came in with will be our greatest legacy!

  1. Monty Hansen October 19, 2014

    I’m the power plant night shift foreman with 31 accident free years, yet my hardhat sticker says 26 years, so I went to our safety guy to find out why the “sticker” program had been dropped. He did some research & found out that about a half dozen years ago, corporate accountants did a cost/benefit analysis of our hardhat safety stickers & could see no “profit” in it

Power Plant Music To My Ears

I’m sure just about everyone does this. When they look at someone, they occasionally hear music. Some sort of song that is inspired by the person. For instance when I look at my mom, I suddenly begin to hear Beethoven’s 5th Symphony (sorry about the advertisements. Nothing I can do about that).

For those with older browsers that are not able to view video links, I will include the link below the video: Beethoven’s 5th Symphony.

A few years ago when I was working for Dell, after I had given a thumb drive loaded with the songs I liked to listen to, to a friend of mine, Nina Richburg, when she left our team, she came up to me later and said she had never heard such an eclectic selection of music before. I told her I knew what she meant. I had included classical, rock and roll, electronic, movie soundtracks, country, easy listening, and just about every other genre in the book.

I didn’t explain to her how I can come to the point where I listened to so many different types of music. The answer of course is that I had worked at a Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma for 20 years and I had learned to listen to the music that played in my head while working alongside some of the most diverse set of humans that comprised the Power Plant Men and Women at the plant.

I think it began while I was a janitor working with Pat Braden. When I would work with him, I hear a certain song in my head. So, I began to associate that song with Pat. I’m sure many at the plant heard the same song playing in their heads while interacting with Pat. He was such a nice guy:

The direct link is: Sesame Street Theme Song.

I guess you can call it Power Plant Theme Songs, since the songs that usually played in my head represented the type of person. This wasn’t always the case. For instance, when I looked at the electric Foreman and my close friend, Charles Foster, I would usually hear this song:

The direct link is: GhostBusters.

I would hear this song, because when the movie came out, and the song would be playing on the radio, Charles’ son Tim Foster thought the song was saying, “Who ya gonna call? Charles Foster!” So, I can’t hear this song without thinking of Charles Foster.

Charles Foster

Charles Foster

I have told stories about Gene Day (formally known as Victor Eugene Day — I didn’t misspell “formally), and how it was always fun to play jokes on him. The main reason is because Gene Day was always so easy going. When you look at Gene, the obvious song that pops in my mind is this:

The direct link is: Feelin’ Groovy.

Aren’t they cute? If you took Garfunkel (the tall singer) and shrank him down to the size of Simon, then you would have Gene Day. It was worth the trip to the control room just to encounter Gene Day, so that the rest of your day, you could go around the Power Plant, performing your feats of magic while you were “Feelin’ Groovy!” just for looking at Gene Day. That’s the effect he would have on passerby’s.

Gene Day is the one standing on the right with the Orange shirt.

Gene Day is the one standing on the right with the Orange shirt.

My bucket buddy Diana Brien had her own theme song. This song would come to mind not because the song itself reminded me of her, but because she remarked one day when the song was playing on the radio that she really liked it. So, from that point, this was Dee’s song:

The direct link is: Desperado.

My Bucket Buddy Diana Brien

My Bucket Buddy Diana Brien

I had some songs in my head when I looked at other Power Plant men because it actually sounded like they were singing the song themselves. This was the case with Bill Bennett, our A Foreman. He had a gruff Cigarette voice so I could easily hear Bill Bennett singing this song. Actually, ZZ Top was probably inspired to write this song by Bill Bennett:

Direct link to: La Grange.

Bill Cosby trying to look like Bill Bennett

Bill Cosby trying to look like Bill Bennett

The Extreme Power Plant character of some Power Plant Men that I was inclined to “Hero Worship” because of their tremendous talent led me to hear music of a more epic nature. This was true for both Earl Frazier and Andy Tubbs. Earl Frazier was a welder of such talent and when combined with his loyal country nature, even though his occupation was different than this song… This is what usually came to mind when I would look at Earl Frazier:

Direct link: Wichita Lineman.

Earl Frazier

Earl Frazier

Andy Tubbs had the same sort of “epic-ness” that Earl had. He was “Country” like Earl also. At the same time, Andy was one of the most intelligent Power Plant Man that graced the Tripper Gallery by his presence. That is probably why this song would come to mind when I would look at Andy:

Direct Link: Good Bad and the Ugly.

Andy Tubbs - True Power Plant Electrician

Andy Tubbs – True Power Plant Electrician

Notice the resemblance to Andy’s picture and the song. You could hear the Good Bad and the Ugly Song start up every time Andy would leave the foreman’s office and step out into the shop.

I have covered the “Power Plant Genius of Larry Riley” in a previous post. He was another “Epic Hero” of mine. There was not a lot that Larry couldn’t do. His epic-ness was more like a knight from the time of King Arthur. I think that’s why I would hear the song that I heard when I would look at Larry. The movie Excalibur included the perfect song for a knight riding out to meet the enemy just as Larry would step out of the Labor Crew building each morning when I worked for him as a laborer. I would hear the following epic song go through my mind (try singing along with this song):

Direct link: O Fortuna.

Flashbacks of Latin Class!

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

Larry Riley in all of his epic-ness!

If you look at Larry’s picture while listening to O Fortuna, you can actually picture him dressed in armor riding on a backhoe just as if it was a War Horse, heading off into battle!

There were other epic characters at the plant that would inspire similar songs. Toby O’Brien, as a Power Plant Engineer, though, not “epic” in the Power Plant Man sort of way, still inspired music when in his presence. I think it was his calm demeanor even when faced with those who may disagree with him (to put it mildly), and it was his deliberate resolve to focus on tasks at hand that left me with this music running through my mind when in his presence:

Direct Link: Moonlight Sonata.

Power Plant Engineer and Good Friend - Toby O'Brien

Power Plant Engineer and Good Friend – Toby O’Brien

The music fits, doesn’t it?

Scott Hubbard, my partner in crime (not literally…. it felt like a crime sometimes having so much fun and getting paid for it at the same time), was always such a hard worker. Like most industrious Power Plant Men, Scott was always running around (not literally again…) with a smile on his face working away on one project or other. That’s probably why this song was always going through my head when we were working together. It always seemed like everything was going like clockwork:

Direct link: Miss Marple Theme Song.

Scott Hubbard

Scott Hubbard

When I would go to the tool room to get parts, if Bud Schoonover was working there, I could usually hear his song even before I arrived. I don’t know if it was some kind of psychic ability I had, or it was because I would observe the faces of others as they were leaving the tool room, that would queue me in that Bud was on Tool Room duty. Either way, when this song would start up in my head, I knew that Bud Schoonover was near:

Direct Link: Baby Elephant Walk.

It wasn’t because Bud reminded me of an elephant that this song would come to mind. I think it had more to do with Bud’s carefree attitude about things. This song just seemed to come to mind while I would wait at the tool room gate while Bud would search for the parts I had requested. He was big like Paul Bunyan, but he had the expression of Aunt Esther from Sanford and Son, as I have often mentioned. It was the squint and the jutting jaw when he spoke…

Aunt Esther from Sanford and Son

Aunt Esther from Sanford and Son

Here is Bud:

Bud-Schoonover

Bud Schoonover

Johnny Keys was another True Power Plant Man that had his own theme song. This one came to mind just about the first time I met Johnny. I could tell right away where he would rather be. This song actually came up with a lot of different Power Plant Men, including Ben Davis and Don Burnett. Don and Johnny were working together as machinists when I first met them the summer of 1979. Ben Davis was good friends with both Don and Johnny, so this song would come to mind whenever I encountered any of these three Power Plant Men:

Direct link: Daniel Boone.

Johnny Keys

Johnny Keys

There are some Power Plant Men that sort of reminded me of a bear. Ronnie Banks was that way, and so was Dave McClure. Ronnie reminded me of a bear because he walked like one. Dave reminded me of a bear because he was a big scruffy Power Plant Man. He was gentle like Gentle Ben in the TV show Gentle Ben. I didn’t hear the theme song for Gentle Ben when I worked around these two. Instead I heard this song because this song captured their personality much better:

Direct Link: Bare Necessities.

Dave McClure

Dave McClure

Ron Kilman, the Plant manager (yeah. I have a song for him too). But I wanted to say that Ron Kilman had his own clerk (secretary) that sort of acted like a receptionist when you entered his office. Her name is Jean Kohler. She was the same age as my mother. Unlike hearing Beethoven’s 5th Symphony as I do with my mom, when I would have the opportunity to talk with Jean Kohler, she was such a lady that the following song would immediately come to my mind:

Direct Link: Lady.

I don’t have a picture of Jean Kohler, so you will just have to picture a very nice prim and proper lady with a perfectly sweet smile.

Ron Kilman’s theme song was The William’ Tell Overture. I guess because of the pace that he usually had to work. I listen to this song often because it helps me work. The song is longer than most people are used to hearing, so, I’ll just send you a link to the part that most people are familiar:

Direct Link: Lone Ranger.

Ron Kilman

Ron Kilman

In the Power Plant there were a few “sour apples”. In my posts I generally like to focus on the True Power Plant Men and their accomplishments. Occasionally when the topic is right, I may mention those of a less savory character…. Without saying much more than that, whenever I would encounter Jim Arnold, who was the Supervisor over the engineers, and later the head of Operations and later, the head of Maintenance, several songs would come to mind. The theme of the songs were songs like this one:

Direct Link: You’re So Vain.

I searched everywhere for a picture of Jim Arnold and this was the only one I could find:

Jim Arnold in all of his awesomeness

Jim Arnold in all of his awesomeness

What more can I say? I will leave it at that. Now you can see why someone would think that I listen to an eclectic selection of music. Because I worked with such a diverse bunch of Power Plant Men and Women!

Final Battle for the Illusive Power Plant Safety Pizza

The Electric Shop had tried for three years to win the Safety Slogan of the Year award.  Not because we thought we were safer than any of the other teams at the coal-fired power plant in North Central Oklahoma, but because we really liked pizza (see the post: “When Power Plant Competition Turns Terribly Safe“) .  When the plant was downsized in 1994, the electric shop no longer existed as it had before.  We had become cross-functional teams (See the post: “Crossfunctional Power Plant Dysfunction“).  It looked as if our dream of winning the Power Plant Safety Pizza was no longer in our grasp.

My carpooling buddy, Toby O’Brien had moved from our plant as a Plant Engineer to the Safety Department in Oklahoma City.  He was working with Julia Bevers and Chris McAlister.  Chris had also moved from our plant as a labor crew hand to the Safety Department (This was a great opportunity for Chris!).

Power Plant Engineer and Good Friend - Toby O'Brien

Power Plant Engineer and Good Friend – Toby O’Brien

Bill Green our new plant manager introduced a jar of beads during his first safety meeting.  We each picked a bead randomly from the jar through a small hole in the top.  Then Bill Green pointed out that the color of bead represented the result of doing something unsafe.

The green color meant that nothing happened.  The other colors reach represented a different type of accident that occurred.  The ratio of beads in the jar represented the likelihood of each type of accident happening.  There was one black bead in the jar.  That meant that you died when you did something unsafe.  I used to keep the number of each color of marble in my wallet, but that piece of paper disintegrated over the years.

The types of accidents were something like:  First Aid Case, Reportable Accident, Lost Work Day Accident, Hospitalized, and Death.

Bill Green

Bill Green

A couple of months after the downsizing, the Safety department announced that they were going to have a Safety contest.  The contest would be held at each plant and it involved each of the supervisor’s computers.  The prize for the contest was that the winning team would be able to eat a free lunch with complements from the safety team.

Great!  Shortly after the electric shop is busted up and we were scattered to the wind, we finally had one last chance to win the ever illusive Power Plant Safety Pizza!  Only, how were we going to do it?  I was working on Alan Kramer’s team.  My old foreman Andy Tubbs (not old in the sense that he was an old man… old in that he was my former foreman) was now one of the other supervisors with only my old bucket buddy (you know what I mean…  not “old” old) Diana Brien as the electrician on his team.

My Bucket Buddy Diana Brien

My Bucket Buddy Diana Brien

Before I go further to explain my conflict during this contest, let me explain how the contest worked.

The supervisors had new computers that ran using Windows 3.1.  Back then, the screensaver on the computer didn’t just shut down the monitor like most of them do today.  Instead, they showed some kind of message, or picture or something animated that kept moving around so that your monitor didn’t get burned in with an image that was constantly on your screen, such as your wallpaper and your icons.

The Safety Department said that each team should come up with some way to display the idea of “Safety” using a screensaver.  They suggested using the screensaver that let you type in a message that would scroll across the screen when the screensaver was turned on.  That was a simple built-in screensaver that came with Windows 3.1.

Then the Safety Department would come to the plant on a particular day and judge each of the computer’s screensaver and announce the winner.  Sounds simple enough.

We first heard about the Safety Slogan Screensaver contest in our Monday Morning Meeting with our team.  Alan Kramer said we should come up with a good slogan that we could put on our scrolling message screensaver.  I kept my mouth shut at the time, because I didn’t know exactly how to proceed.  I was having a feeling of mixed loyalty since my old Electric Shop Team with Andy Tubbs as our foreman had written over 300 safety slogans and had purposely been blocked from winning the Prized Pizza each year.

Andy Tubbs - True Power Plant Electrician

Andy Tubbs – True Power Plant Electrician

Not long after the morning meeting, Andy Tubbs came up to me in the Electric Shop and said, “We have to win this contest!  That Pizza should be ours!  I need you to come up with the best screensaver you can that will blow the others away.”  I gave him my usual answer when Andy asked me to do something (even when he was no longer my foreman).  I said, “Ok, I’ll see what I can do.”

I went down our list of safety slogans looking for the best slogan I could find.  Here are a few of them:

“Having an accident is never convenient, So always make Safety a key ingredient.”

“Take the time to do it right, Use your goggles, save your sight.”

“To take the lead in the ‘Safety Race’, You must pay attention to your work place.”

“Unsafe conditions can be resolved, If we all work together and get involved.”

After thumbing through the entire list, I knew we really needed something else.  So, I began to think of alternate screen savers.  One caught my attention.  It was called “Spotlight”. It came with the  “After Dark 2.0 Screensavers” (best known for the “Flying Toaster” screensaver). I had found a freeware version that did the same thing.  You can see how the spotlight works at 7:15 on the video below (just slide the time bar over to 7:15):

For those who can’t view YouTube videos directly through the above picture, here is the direct link:  “After Dark Screensavers“.

The spotlight screensaver basically turns your screen dark, then has a circle (or spotlight) where you can see the background screen behind it.  It roams around on your desktop showing only that portion of your wallpaper at a time.  You can adjust the size of the circle and the speed that it moves around the screen.

Taking our safety slogans, I began creating a wallpaper for the computer screen by filling it with little one liner safety slogans.  I also added yellow flags to the wallpaper because that was a symbol for safety at our plant (for more information why see the post: “Power Plant Imps and Accident Apes“).

See the Yellow Flag Before the Accident Happens

See the Yellow Flag Before the Accident Happens

With the help of Charles Foster and Scott Hubbard (both Power Plant electricians), when I was finished the wallpaper looked like this:

Safety Slogan Wallpaper

Safety Slogan Wallpaper

I printed this out in black and white, but the slogans were written in different colors.

I arranged Andy’s icons on his desktop so they were around the edge of the screen.  That way they didn’t cover up the safety slogans.  I set the speed of the spotlight to very slow and and the size of the spotlight so that it was just big enough to see each safety slogan.  The effect worked out real well.  Imagine a dark screen with a spotlight moving randomly around the screen exposing each safety slogan (and yellow flag… don’t forget about those) as it went.

Besides the electricians, no one else knew that I was working on this for Andy. As far as Alan Kramer knew, I was on his side in this contest.  I even kept Toby O’Brien in the dark about it, because I knew that he was going to be one of the judges and even though he knew how much winning the Safety Pizza meant to me.  I didn’t want to influence his decision.  Besides, this Safety Screensaver was going to win.  It was the coolest screensaver around.  The trick was to keep it hidden from the other teams until it was time for the Safety Department to judge it.

I had the impression from Toby that he had purposely talked the Safety Department into this contest to give me a chance to win the Safety Pizza at our plant.  Scott Hubbard and I had carpooled with Toby throughout the years we were trying to win that pizza, and I think he just felt our pain enough that when he was in the position, he was trying to pay us back for our effort.

The screensaver judging was done during the morning, and was going to be announced that afternoon during the monthly safety meeting.  A short time before the Safety Meeting began, Toby O’Brien came up to me and in an apologetic manner told me that the safety slogan winner probably wasn’t going to be who I thought it was.  I figured that was because he thought I was hoping Alan Kramer’s team was going to win since that was my team.  I just smiled back and told him that it was all right.

It was announced during the safety meeting that Andy Tubbs’ team won the contest, and all the electricians were happy.  I think it was at that point that Alan Kramer realized that I had helped Andy with his screensaver.  He looked at me as if I had betrayed him.  I said something like, “Andy Tubbs has been trying to win a safety contest for years.  It’s about time.”

Alan Kramer

Alan Kramer

The following week, when Andy’s team was given their prize for winning the safety screensaver contest, he brought two pizzas to the electric shop and we all sat around the table relishing in the pepperonis.  We had finally received our Power Plant Safety Pizza!  Even though I really like pizza anytime, the pizza that day tasted especially good.

Power Plant Pepperoni Pizza

Power Plant Pepperoni Pizza

I don’t know if we ever told Toby that when Andy Tubbs team won, we all won.  Maybe some day he will read this story and know…. “The Rest of the Story”.

In case you can’t read all the little safety slogans on the wallpaper, here is a list of them:

Safety First.  Be Safe.  Safety begins here.  Watch your step.  Check your boundaries.  Have Good Posture.  Haste makes waste.  Bend your knees.  Avoid Shortcuts.  Be Safe or Be Gone.  Know your chemicals.  Check O2 before Entry.  Use Safety Guards.  Know your limit.  Report Spills.  Safety is job #1.  Beware of Pinch Points.  Buckle up.  Safety is no accident.  Impatience kills.  Strive to Survive.  Protect your hearing.  Use the right tool.  Keep your back straight.  Drive friendly.  Keep Aisles clear.  Don’t take chances.  Prevention is the cure.  Safety is your job.  Communicate with others.  Always tie off.  Don’t cut corners.  Wear your glasses.  Act safe.  Barricade Hazards.  Use your respirator.  Be responsible.  Lock it out.  Plug your ears.  Stay fit.  Safety never hurts.  Don’t block exits.  Be aware of your surroundings.  Safety is top priority.    Don’t be careless.  Pick up your trash.  Think Ahead.  Slippery When Wet.  Think Safety.  Don’t hurry.  Report Hazards.  Wear your gloves.  Save your eyes.  No Running.  Wear your Safety Belt.  Plan Ahead.  Avoid Backing.  Use your Safety Sense.  Good Housekeeping.  Get Help.  Keep Cylinders Chained.  Protect your hands.  Don’t improvise.  Beware of hazards.  Get the Safety Habit.  Be Prepared.  Gear up for Safety.  Use your PPE.  Do not litter.  Zero Accidents.  Don’t be a Bead (a reference to Bill Green’s jar of beads).  Eat Right.  Keep Floors clean.  Watch out.  Safety Pays.  Drive Safely.  Take Safety Home.  Know Safety, use Safety.  Read the MSDS.  Cotton Clothes Prevents Burns.  Follow the rules.  Wear your hard hat.  Watch out for your buddy.  Test your Confined space.  Remember the Yellow Flag.  Safe Mind, Sound Body.  Clean up your spills.  Don’t take risks.  Beware of Ice.  Watch out for the other guy.  Obey the rules.  Don’t tailgate.  Circle for safety.  Safety Me, Safety You.  Protect your Toes.  Knowing is not enough.  When in doubt, Check it out.  Falls can kill.  Be Alert!  Avoid slick spots.  Safety is a team event.  Almost is not enough.  Avoid the Noise.  Give Safety your all.  And finally…  This Space for Rent.

Power Plant Trouble With Angels

Okay, so, no one ever called me an Angel unless it was one of the fallen type.  I suppose the closest was when Bill Bennett, our A Foreman at the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma would call me a scamp.  I don’t know why, but I always seemed to be in trouble over one thing or another.  Well… maybe I do know why.

Not long after Bill Bennett left during the downsizing in 1994, when our Supervisor over Maintenance was Jasper Christensen, we had received newer computers all around the plant.  That is, except for the Electric Shop, because we had acquired one a year or so before so that we could program Eeprom Chips.

An Eeprom Chip used in the preicpiitator controls

An Eeprom Chip used in the preicpiitator controls

I helped install the computers all around the plant.  I had run the Ethernet cables and installed the jacks so they could be connected to the plant computer network.  I had become the computer person for the plant by default, since I had learned how everything worked on my own.

When we received all the new computers, we were told that we had to keep an inventory of all the computer programs that we were using on each computer to make sure that we weren’t using pirated software.  So, when we installed any program on a computer we were supposed to notify our Supervisor, who in this case was Jasper Christensen.

Jasper Christensen

Jasper Christensen

I sort of felt sorry for Jasper at times, because, it’s sort of like when you don’t get to choose your parents…. Jasper didn’t get to choose who was working for him exactly.  So, he was stuck with me.

I’m not saying that I was a bad person, or that I wasn’t good at being an electrician.  I was just annoying.  I was always up to some sort of something that no one really told me to do.

One example of this was that I had a CompuServe account, and I would use it to access stock quotes at the end of the day.  I would save them to a file, and then each week, I would pin up charts of our 401k stocks on the bulletin board in the electric shop.  Power Plant Men would come into the shop to see how their stocks were doing.  At this time, the “Internet” hadn’t been introduced to the plant and people didn’t really know much about it.  I would connect to CompuServe through a dial up modem.

 

A screenshot of the CompuServe Program I was using.

A screenshot of the CompuServe Program I was using.

I had a 14,400 baud modem with compression that made it more like 104,000 baud which was really fast for that time.   However, when the World Wide Web became available to CompuServe users, I found that even at that speed, it took a long time just to load one web page if it had a picture on it.  The Internet was just around the corner.  I’ll write a post about how it was introduced at the plant next week.

I diligently kept a log of all the software we had on our company computer.  Whenever I would upgrade CompuServe to the latest version, I would send a form to Jasper letting him know that I now had that version of software on the electric shop computer.  We also had installed other software, such as Reflex, which was sort of a hybrid between Excel and Access.  This was still a DOS based computer.  Windows 3.1 was on it, but a lot of our programs were still run in the DOS mode.

About 6 months after all the new computers arrived, we requested that the computer in the electric shop be replaced, because it was older, and we were using it for more and more things.  The computer arrived about a month after it was approved.

This time, an IT guy from Oklahoma City brought the computer to the plant.  This computer was better than all the other computers in the plant, mainly because it was newer.  At that time, computers were quickly improving.  If you waited six months more it would have even been a better computer.  While the IT guy was in the neighborhood, he installed some software on all the computers.

I was working on the Unit 2 Precipitator with Charles Foster the day that the Electric Shop received the new computer.  Alan Kramer, our Foreman, called me on the radio (walkie talkie)…  He did this because we were using radios a lot more, and were talking about shutting down the Gray Phone PA system all together.

A Motorola Walkie Talkie like this

A Motorola Walkie Talkie like this

Alan said that Jasper wanted to use the new Electric Shop computer at the Conoco Cogen (which stands for Cogeneration) plant in Ponca City.  We needed to take it to Ponca City and use the computer that was there for the electric shop. — Before I tell you my response…. let me tell you about the computer at the Cogen plant.

First, let me explain what a Cogeneration plant is…. This is a small power plant that uses waste gases from the Conoco (Continental Oil) Oil Refinery to create steam to turn the generator to produce electricity.  In exchange for using the waste gases from the refinery, the Power Plant gave any left over steam back to the refinery so they could use it in their refinery.  Plus, we would give the refinery the electricity that we produced.  Any electricity left over, we sold to our customers.

So, there was a desktop computer sitting on a desk in a small control room that allowed the control room at our power plant to dial into it and monitor the plant to see how it was working.  The connection was rather slow even though it had a dedicated phone line to connect to the plant.

The computer itself, even though it was somewhat older than the new computer we received for the electric shop, was sitting idle most of the time.  Even when it was working, it was never processing much.  The problem with the computer being slow wasn’t the computer itself, it was the Network connection back to the plant.

So, when Jasper had said that he was going to replace that computer with our much faster one that we had ordered, I was a little perturbed.  This meant that the nice new fast computer that we had specially ordered so that we could do our job was going to be sitting idle in Ponca City collecting dust doing next to nothing and it wasn’t going to make anything faster as far as the control room was concerned and we would be stuck with a computer that was somewhat older than the one that the computer person had just replaced.

So, in the most smarmy voice I could muster I replied over the radio, “Oh Great!  Another one of Jasper’s ‘Scathingly Brilliant Ideas’!”  I knew the phrase “Scathingly Brilliant Idea” from the movie “Trouble With Angels”.  It seemed like an appropriate remark at the time.

Trouble With Angels

Trouble With Angels

I knew that Jasper would be listening, because he had his walkie talkie set on scan so that he could hear everything we were saying.  Alan Kramer came right back after my remark and said, “Watch it Kevin.  You know who might be listening.”  I said, “Oh.  I know who’s listening.”

Approximately five minutes later, Jasper Christensen called me on the radio and asked me to meet him in his office.  “Okay.  Here it comes,” I thought.  On my way down from the roof of the precipitator I was formulating my argument as to why it was a terrible idea to take the best computer at the plant and send it to Ponca City to sit idle in a room by itself when I could easily put it to a lot of use.  I never really was able to present my arguments.

When I arrived at Jasper’s office, he told me that he wanted me to take CompuServe off of the computer in the electric shop.  I knew why.  I thought I knew why.  I figured it was because I had just insulted him on the radio.  I’m sure that was part of it, but it wasn’t the only reason.

I pressed Jasper on the issue and told him that I used CompuServe to download the stock prices for our 401k so that everyone can see how their stocks are doing and I post them on the bulletin board.  Jasper came back with “That has nothing to do with your job.”  I replied with, “I’m providing a service for our teams, just like the candy and coke machines.  I’m paying for the service myself.  I’m not charging anything.”  Jasper disagreed that I was providing a useful service.

Then Jasper said that the IT guy found a virus on one of the computers and since I was the only person at the plant that had connected to anything like CompuServe, the virus must have come from me.  When I asked him which computer had the virus, he didn’t know.  I told Jasper I better go find out, because if there was a virus on one of the computers, we need to clean it up right away.

This was at a time when McAfee’s Viruscan software was freeware.  I always had an updated copy of it that I would run on the computers.  I had checked all the computers at the plant recently, so I was surprised to hear that one of them had a virus.  Jasper told me that the IT guy was up in Bill Green’s office.  Bill Green was the plant manager.

Bill Green

Bill Green

As I was leaving Jasper’s office, I paused and turned around and asked Jasper one last question….. “Do you want me to only remove the CompuServe application, or do you want me to stop accessing CompuServe? Because I can access CompuServe without the application on the computer.  The application just makes it easier to navigate around.”  This question puzzled Jasper.  He said he would have to get back at me on that.  — So, at that point (I thought to myself), I’ll wait until Jasper gets back to me on that before I remove the software.

I knew that he knew nothing about computers, and I knew that this would confuse him.  That’s why I asked it.  I wanted him to know that if he made me remove CompuServe because he was mad at me for making my smartaleck remark about moving the computer to Ponca City it wasn’t going to make much difference to me anyway.

So, I walked back up to him as he was sitting at his desk, and I said, “Jasper.  I know that I’m the only person in this plant that has given you a list of all the programs on the computer I use.  I let you know every time I even upgrade to a new version.  I am the only person in the plant that follows the rules when it comes to what is on the computers.  I know that there has been personal software added to just about every computer at this plant.  I am the only person that has told you what software I am using.  So, just keep it in mind that you are trying to punish the only person that is following the rules.”  Then I left.

I went upstairs to Bill Green’s office where I found the IT guy running a scan on Bill’s computer.  I asked him about the virus he found.  He said that he was running a Microsoft virus scanner on the computers and on the one in the chemists lab, there was one file that was questionable.  The scan said it was a possible virus, but couldn’t tell what virus it was.

I asked the IT guy what the name of the file was.  He handed me a post it note with the file name on it.  I recognized it right away.  It was a GLink file.  GLink is the application that we used to access the mainframe computer in order to work on our Maintenance Orders, or to look up parts, and any other computer related activities.

This is GLink today. Back then it was for Windows 3.1

This is GLink today. Back then it was for Windows 3.1

I had been given a beta test version of GLink that I installed on the Chemists computer for Toby O’Brien about a year earlier when he asked me to help him find a way to connect to the Prime computer downtown so that he could work on CAD drawings from the plant.  IT had sent this Beta version of GLink to me because it could connect to the switch twice as fast as the current GLink and they were glad to let us try it out.

Power Plant Engineer and Good Friend - Toby O'Brien

Power Plant Engineer and Good Friend – Toby O’Brien

About that time, Bill Green came into the office and I told him that the “supposed” virus on the Chemist computer was given to us by IT and that it probably wasn’t a virus anyway, it just acted like one because it connected to a switch a certain way which was unusual.  The IT guy was still standing there and he agreed that it just indicated that it might be a virus and probably wasn’t really one.

Then I told Bill Green that Jasper had told me to remove CompuServe from the computer in our shop.  He said that he and Jasper had talked about it and were concerned that I might download a virus from CompuServe.  I assured him that I only downloaded stock prices and MSDS sheets (Material Safety Data Sheets) from OSHA.  Everything I downloaded was in text format and would not contain a virus.

The IT guy agreed that at that time, CompuServe was very careful about viruses as they had been hit with one about 6 months earlier.  Now they scanned everything they let you download.  Bill said, “Well, that’s between you and Jasper.”  —  That’s all I needed to hear.  I knew that Jasper would forget about it and never “get back with me” on it.

As you can tell, if you’ve been reading the posts this year, I am constantly becoming more involved in computers at this point in my career.  For good or bad, it was a concern for people like Jasper and Bill.  I knew a lot more than they did to the point that they would call me to help them learn how to use their computers.  They didn’t know if they could trust me.  Luckily for them, even though I was mischievous, I wouldn’t do anything to invade someone’s privacy, or hurt plant operations.

It did seem like I was always in trouble over one thing or another.  It was often brought on by someone’s misunderstanding about what the problem really was, and their feeble incorrect attempt to fix it…. and… well….(let’s face it) my big mouth.

Power Plant Invisible Diesel Oil Spill Drill

Many times in my life I have been in both the right place at the right time and avoided the wrong place at the wrong time.  I have attributed this to either a very persistent Guardian Angel, or the sheer luck of someone who usually walks around in a mist more as an observer than a commander. Either way, it has made for an interesting life.

One spring day in 1996 I had a job to perform at the Intake pumps (Condenser Water Pumps).  These are the pumps that pump lake water through the condensers just below the Turbine Generators at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma.  Each pump can pump 189,000 gallons per minute.  This particular day I had to work on the overhead crane at the intake because it wasn’t working correctly.

It was a perfectly cool sunny morning, so I decided instead of finding a truck or a four wheeler I was going to just walk the quarter of a mile to the intake.

Honda Four Wheeler

Power Plant Honda Four Wheeler

So, I grabbed my tool bucket and headed for the intake.

This is an actual picture of my tool bucket

This is an actual picture of my tool bucket

Just as I left the maintenance shop, I could glance to the right and see the sand filter building next to the water treatment plant directly across the road.  This was where I had worked with Ed Shiever 13 years earlier when I had rambled on for days testing his sanity.  See the post “Ed Shiever Trapped in a Confined Space with a Disciple of Ramblin’ Ann“.  This was also where I had my first brush with death at the hands of Curtis Love.  See the post “Power Plant Safety as Interpreted by Curtis Love“.

Just beyond the water treatment plant are the large fields of grass where 16 years earlier I had learned my lesson about listening from Ken Conrad.  See the post “When Power Plant Men Talk… It Pays to Listen“.  When I first came to work at the plant years earlier, this large field was nothing but dirt.  On this day, the fields were green from the spring rain.

The intake was just across the field.  It was a perfect day for a walk, and I did need the exercise.

The Intake is just to the right of this picture across the canal

The Intake pumps are just to the right of this picture across the canal

The picture of the plant above shows how the intake is across a field from the main plant.  On the very far left in the picture you can see the edge of a large tank.

A view of the coalyard from the top of the Smoke Stack

A view of the intake from the top of the Smoke Stack

In this picture you can see the four pumps at the bottom of the picture.  You can also see why people who live around the plant love their beautiful countryside.  In the distance you can see glimpses of the Arkansas River.  The lake was formed by pumping water from the river up hill.  The Intake overhead crane is just above the white truck parked at the intake.  That was my destination this particular morning.

As I walked down the road toward the intake a company truck drove by rather slow.  It was being driven by someone from Corporate Headquarters in Oklahoma City.  I recognized Julia Bevers sitting in the passenger seat.  She was in the Safety Department.  Toby O’Brien may have been in the truck as well.  They slowed down enough to have a good look at me.

I waved at them and they waved back.  They had curious grins on their faces.  With years of Power Plant Jokes under my belt, I recognized that grin as one indicating that something was up.  So, as I continued walking, I watched them closely.  They turned left at the road across from the large Number 2 Diesel Oil Tanks.  Each tank could hold up to one million gallons of oil, though, we never kept that much oil in them.

This is an overhead view of the plant

This is a Google Maps overhead view of the plant

In the picture above you can see two white round circles just right of the center of the picture.  These are the oil tanks.  The long line running from the coalyard to the plant is called 10 and 11 conveyors.  They carry the coal from the crusher to the plant.  The truck from Oklahoma City turned left on the road from the right side of the plant by the tanks.  I was about halfway up this road when they drove by.

After they turned the corner, they parked their truck under the conveyor.  You can see this area clearly in the first picture of the plant above taken from across the intake.  All three occupants climbed out of the truck and walked into the field.  They were all looking around as if they knew something was out there and were trying to find it.

My curiosity was definitely stirred by now, so as I walked by their truck, without saying anything, I gave Julia a funny look.  She looked at the other two as if she should say something.  Finally one of them said, “There has been an oil spill right here in this field.  A Diesel oil truck spilled a bunch of oil here and it’s going to be flowing into that drain over there and if it does, it’s going to end up in the lake.”

I could see that obviously there was no oil in the field.  Now that I think about it, the third person may have been Chris McAlister.  He had worked on the labor crew at our plant before the downsizing.  He was given a job in the safety department and had been assigned to track hazardous materials for the company.

Julia said that this is a drill for the Hazwoper team at the plant.  In a few minutes they are going to sound the alarm that an oil spill has taken place, and they are going to see how long it takes for the Hazwoper team to arrive and alleviate the problem.  Julia grinned again, because she knew that I was a member of the hazwoper team.

The word Hazwoper is an acronym that stands for “Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Rescue”.  Our team was the “ER” in HAZWOPER.  We were the Emergency Rescue team.  Julia told me to just go about doing what I’m doing.  In a few minutes they would sound the alarm.

I walked over to the Intake Switchgear.  This is the little building next to the road at the very bottom of the picture above taken from the smoke stack.  This was my first stop when checking out the overhead crane.  Since the crane wasn’t working, I wanted to make sure that the power to the crane was turned on before assuming that there was a more complicated problem.  You would be surprised sometimes.  Those are best problems to solve.  Just close the breaker and the problem is solved.

Instead of checking the breaker to the crane, I was more interested in the Gray Phone on the wall by the door.

Gaitronics Gray Phone

Gaitronics Gray Phone

This was our PA system.  You could page someone on it and wherever you were in the plant, you could usually find the nearest gray phone and immediately be in touch with the person you were trying to find.  At this point, we all carried radios, so we rarely needed to use the gray phones.

We kept the Gray Phones around for safety reasons.  There were some places where the radios didn’t work well.  At this moment, I didn’t want to talk on the radio where anyone could listen. — well, they could on the gray phone, but only if they went to one and picked it up and turned to the same channel.

I paged George Pepple, our head Chemist and the Doctor that did the Jig in the puddle of acid 17 years earlier in the Water Treatment plant.  See the Post “A Power Plant Doctor Does a Jig in a Puddle of Acid“.  Doctor George was also the leader of the Hazwoper team.

When George answered the phone, I told him about the oil spill drill that was about to happen.  Julia had told me to go about doing what I was doing, but she hadn’t told me not to tell anyone, so…  I did.  I explained to him that the Hazwoper team was about to be called to respond to an oil spill by the intake.  We will need some oil absorbing floats to put around the pipe where the drain in the field empties into the intake.  We also needed something to block the drain so that the oil won’t go down the drain in the first place.

George understood and I left him to it.  A few minutes later, a call came over the radio that the Hazwoper team was required at the intake to respond to a Diesel Oil Spill.  It’s interesting, but even though I was anticipating the call, when it came over the radio, a lump of excitement went up in my throat.  I become emotional over the silliest things some times.

I left my tool bucket in the switchgear, and took only my radio as I jogged back to the three people standing in the field.  About the same time that I arrived, Dr. George pulled up with a truckload of Hazwoper Heroes.  They piled out of the back of the truck and began spreading out oil booms to catch the oil before it went down the drain.  A couple headed for the intake, but the Safety team said that wouldn’t be necessary.  I can remember Ray Eberle, Randy Dailey and Brent Kautzman being there.  There were others.  They can leave a comment below to remind me.

Ray Eberle

Ray Eberle

The final result of the Hazwoper Oil Spill Drill was that our Plant Hazwoper team was able to respond to the oil spill in four minutes.  Much faster than any other plant.  Of course, this was partly because I happened to be in the right place at the right time.  The Safety Team said that was perfectly all right.  The drill was setup so it took place during the normal operation of the plant, and I just happened to be working nearby that day.

I know this isn’t what you were waiting to hear.  I know that you are sitting at the edge of your seat wondering if I’m ever going to tell you what was wrong with the overhead crane.  Well.  It wasn’t as simple as turning the power back on.  Actually, when it came down to it.  We didn’t even have a wiring diagram or a schematic of how the overhead crane worked.

an overhead crane. The gray panels on the far side is where the controls were found

an overhead crane. The gray panels on the far side is where the controls were found

So, I took a bunch of notes in my 3 x 5 handy dandy pocket-sized Sparco Notepad:

My Power Plant Sparco Wirebound Memo Book

My Power Plant Sparco Wirebound Memo Book

After I made my way back to the plant, I went pulled out a ruler, and a blueprint stencil

Electric Symbol Stencil

Electric Symbol Stencil

and I drew the following wiring diagram for the Crane Hoist Controls:

Intake Crane control Circuit

Intake Crane control Circuit

After troubleshooting the controls with Charles Foster, it turned out that the problem was in the push button controls.  A button was malfunctioning and needed to be fixed.

Push button controls for the Overhead crane

Push button controls for the Overhead crane

Anyway, not long after the Hazwoper Spill Test, our Confined Space Rescue team was also tested.  We received a call that someone was down in the Truck scales and had passed out.  The Confined Space Rescue team was called to rescue them.

This consisted of taking our equipment bags with us and arriving at the truck scales to rescue a person that had climbed down inside and had passed out.  When we arrived, we found that this was only a drill.  The Safety department from Oklahoma City was testing our Confined Space Rescue team to see how long it took us to respond.

I could point out in the overhead picture of the plant exactly where the truck scales are, but it would take a long time.  Let me just say that they are in the upper left part of the picture where that road looks like it widens at the corner where that smaller road branches off to the upper left.

Our response time?  Four minutes and 30 seconds.  And this time, we didn’t know this one was coming.

About being in the right place at the right time…. I was in the right place when I first became a summer help at the plant.  I was in the right place when Charles Foster asked me if I would think about becoming an electrician.  I was in the right place when I was on Labor Crew and the electricians had a opening in their shop.  But most of all, I was in the right place in history to be able to spend 20 years of my life with such a great bunch of Power Plant Men and Women at the best power plant in the country.

Toby Teaches Power Plant Time Management

Sometime in December, 2000 Dell flew a group of Oklahoma State University students to Austin along with students from all over the country to interview for jobs.  During one interview I had with a manager named Lisa Larson, she asked me how I would handle situations where I am asked to do too many things at the same time.  I replied that I don’t ever worry about that.  I have found that by managing my time properly, I never find myself in a situation where I don’t have enough time or I feel overwhelmed.

Of course, I could see the look of disbelief, since she worked for Dell, and had experienced an overload of work beyond what normal humans can endure.  I knew that the answer she was waiting to hear was that I would prioritize my tasks and do the more important ones or those tasks that had to be completed right away first.  Instead I choose to tell her about Toby O’Brien, a Power Plant Engineer.

Power Plant Engineer and Good Friend - Toby O'Brien

Power Plant Engineer and Good Friend – Toby O’Brien

You can see the confidence Toby demonstrates in the picture above.  He is so confident he doesn’t even use a Pocket Protector.  None of his pens ever leak.

I didn’t use Toby’s name during the interview.  Instead I opened up the large briefcase I was carrying with me and took out my Time Management Planner:

My Day Runner Time Management Planner

My Day Runner Time Management Planner

In August 1998 Toby mentioned to me that the staff at the plant had taken a course in how to manage their time.  The core object in the course was using a rather sophisticated planner.  You see, there aren’t just regular calendars in a planner, there are note pages you can use during meetings, weekly pages, and daily pages.  A place to keep your contacts.  Even a section to keep business cards.  I think my favorite section was a place to just write down ideas.  The header at the top of the page was “Ideas”.

I had just started a new semester at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater, Oklahoma and I was ramping up the number of courses I was taking simultaneously, while working full time.  I had told Toby that I was determined not reduce the time I spent with my children in the evenings, so I had to figure out how to complete all my course work on time, and not let it interfere with the rest of my day.

Toby explained that the first thing you do in the morning is that you write down in the daily planner section everything that you will be doing that day, and what time you will be doing it.  Then as much as possible, you stick to that plan.  When you are doing one task, you don’t have to worry about all the other things you have to accomplish during the day, because you know when you will be working on them, so it allows you to focus on your task at hand.

He even was going so far as not taking phone calls or would ask to call them back when he was available when he was working on a task and then would schedule some time to call the person back.

Toby spent a good hour or so showing me how he used his daily planner.  The company was even paying for the additional sheets they used in the planners.  So, that evening I went to Office Depot and purchased my Day Runner planner with extra sections that I thought would be helpful.

At the time, I was driving back and forth between Stillwater and the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma, usually twice each day, as I would leave at certain times to take a class, then drive back to work afterward, using an hour and a half of vacation as well as the half hour for lunch as I would eat on the way.

So, what would a typical Power Plant Planner look like for any particular day for someone working in the Maintenance Department?  Well, if the Power Plant Man was really proactive, and wrote everything down, then it may look something like this….

  1. Turn off the Alarm… scratch behind…. scratch bald spot on head… kiss wife on cheek…. climb out of bed….
  2. Gather clean clothes from dresser, and any supplement clothes needed from the hamper…. take shower…. brush teeth… shave.
  3. Eat a hearty breakfast – for tonight we dine in hell!… (oh… sorry… that’s not Power Plant Men.. That’s Spartans… close, but different).
  4. Make some sandwiches for lunch or use leftovers from last night’s dinner and put them in the lunch box.

    Power Plant Lunch Box

    Power Plant Lunch Box

  5.  Just before exiting the house, put on the steel-toed boots airing out just inside the garage.

    Steel Toed Boots

    Steel Toed Boots

  6. Drive the car to the carpooling location…. Pile into one car with everyone else…. Drive to plant while discussing the latest hunting and fishing adventures.
  7. After arriving at the plant 15 minutes early, sit around and drink a cup of coffee with the rest of the crew while waiting for the morning meeting to begin… Pass along any words of wisdom that suddenly popped up in the shower that morning to the rest of the crew…. Listen to some of their dumb ideas and act as if they are taken seriously while still trying to work out the terrific ideas of your own.  Chuckle at the minor “your fly is open” type jokes being played on each other.
  8. Attend the morning team meeting and receive the jobs that need to be completed that day.  Listen to the latest Power Plant Jokes played the previous day and share some that were entered in the planner that might be useful today.
  9. Leave the meeting with your bucket buddy and begin work.

    My Bucket Buddy Diana Brien

    My Bucket Buddy Diana Brien (not related to Toby O’Brien)

  10. Gather tools needed for job… Get any supplies needed from the tool room.  Talk to the tool room attendant.

    Darlene Mitchell another dear friend

    Darlene Mitchell another dear friend

  11. Go to the Control Room to obtain any clearances needed to perform tasks… talk to the control room operators about their day… Play a joke on Gene Day.

    Gene Day is the one standing on the right with the Orange shirt.

    Gene Day is the one standing on the right with the Orange shirt.

  12. Take the first break while waiting for the clearances to be put on the breakers in the switchgear.
  13. Play dominoes… Trump… or Uno during break as a team building activity. Accuse others of cheating.

    Dominoes

    Dominoes

  14. Check Breaker after break and sign clearance form…. Ask the operator how his day is going…. then perform the job safely…. dispose of any trash generated during the job.  Bandage any cuts and rub any bruises that may have been created during the job.
  15. Return clearance…. talk to the control room operators some more.  Give Gene Day suspicious glances.
  16. Strut through maintenance shop with confidence while going to the office to ask which job to do next since the first job was completed flawlessly and sooner than expected.
  17. Continue steps 10, 11 and 12 until it is time for lunch.
  18. Go to the regular lunch spot and talk to friends and learn the latest gossip and play more Dominoes, Trump or Uno (or backgammon).

    Uno Card Game

    Uno Card Game

  19. Repeat the same activities during the afternoon with the exception that a closer watch is kept on the nearest watch or clock.
  20. Take afternoon break at the same table as morning break playing the same game as before with the same people as before…

    Power Plant Playing Cards

    Power Plant Playing Cards

  21. Return to work magically fixing equipment paying even more attention to the time.
  22. Migrate to the Foreman’s office 30 minutes before “Quittin’ Time” to fill out time card.  Call each other any new names that were thought up during the day (what I would call, “Terms of Endearment”).  Play small minor jokes on teammates while completing the time card.
  23. Wait until the exact time before leaving the shop and returning to the car in the parking lot.
  24. Ride back to town with the rest of the dirty smelly Power Plant Carpoolers…. talk about any frustrating encounters from the day’s work…. Discuss any news from Corporate Headquarters designed to confuse Power Plant Men…. Fall asleep… snore….dream about the day…. wake up just as the car arrives at the carpooling spot.
  25. Climb into your own car and go home.
  26. Leave dirty smelly boots in the garage…. take off dirty shirt and pants and put them directly in the washing machine…

    Yeah. Just like this

    Yeah. these

  27. Take a shower….kiss wife… hug kids….(kick annoying cat when no one’s looking)… tell the wife about the day…. listen to wife talk about her day….eat supper.

That just about does it.  I found it a little difficult to put all that in the daily planner, especially since it was the same every day, except for when we had emergencies, and I couldn’t plan for those, unless they were part of a planned Power Plant Joke made to look like an emergency.

Anyway, back to Toby…If it hadn’t been for Toby teaching me Time Management, I would have had a much tougher time going to school while working at the same time.  I was able to keep my three worlds apart without them interfering with each other (except for all the driving back and forth).

I almost never did my school work while I was at work, and I didn’t do them at home either unless I had to write a paper on the computer.  So, I spent my evenings with my family… then I woke up at 4:00 each morning and went to the University and found a quiet place to do my homework before going to class and driving out to work.

After 4 years I graduated with a 4.0 grade point in the Business College with an MIS degree (Management Information Systems).  That was when I was hired by Dell.  I will go into the details about that in another post.

For now I just want to thank Toby for introducing me to the idea that managing your time properly can make a world of a difference.  If you noticed in the picture of the planner above, I haven’t used it since 2002.  That’s because new technologies came around that changed the way we manage our time.

Today at work I use Outlook to capture all my scheduled activities.  Microsoft Project can be used to assign tasks with a duration that tells you how long the task should take.  Another Microsoft tool OneNote is a big help for just taking notes and organizing your work.

So, even though I no longer have to buy pages for the Day Runner Planner each year, I still have the concept in my mind that while I am working on one task, I shouldn’t need to worry about another one because I have scheduled time during my day to work on those.  So I can concentrate on the task at hand.  By doing that, you never had the feeling of being overwhelmed.

Lisa Larson, who was interviewing me from Dell didn’t look too convinced when I showed her my Day Runner Planner, but I was offered the job anyway.  I don’t think it was because I had good time management skills… I think it had more to do with the fact that I had worked so many years with “True Power Plant Men and Women” that it was hopeful that some of their genuine concern for others and their attitude of dedication had rubbed off on me.

Toby O’Brien and Doing the Impossible

Originally posted May 23, 2014:

There were three times when I was an electrician at a coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma when, according to others, I had done something that they labelled “impossible”.  One of those times began when a Plant Engineer Toby O’Brien came to me and asked me if I could find a way to connect to the Prime Computer down at Corporate Headquarters so that he could edit some Engineering drawings he had worked on when he was working at Oklahoma City.  That in itself wasn’t what was impossible.  That came later, but it pertained to a similar subject.

Somewhere in Corporate Headquarters stashed away in a room somewhere was a Prime Computer just waiting for Toby.

Prime Computer

Prime Computer

Toby knew that I had an account on the Honeywell Mainframe computer downtown, since I was always getting myself in trouble playing around on it.  Since I could connect to that, he wondered if it would be possible to connect to the Prime Computer where his Medusa CAD drawings were kept.  He gave me some information about how he used to log into it when he was working downtown…. before  he was banished to the Power Plant Palace 70 miles north out in the middle of the country.

Toby had a CAD tablet and a disk to install the driver on a computer.  This would allow him to work on his CAD drawings.  For those of you who don’t remember, or have never seen such a thing.  It is like a very fancy mouse…. or should I say, Mouse Pad.  Since you used a stylus to draw and point and click on a large pad called a tablet.  Not anything like the little tablets we have today.

CAD Drawing Tablet

CAD Drawing Tablet

At the time, the only connection we had to the Honeywell Mainframe from the power plant was through a router called a Memotec.  The bandwidth was a whopping 28,000 baud.  A Baud is like bytes per second, only it is measured over an audio line as an audio signal.  Like the sound that a Fax machine makes when it first connects.  Toby had talked to some guys down at IT and they had a copy of the same Honeywell emulator called “GLink” we were using at the plant, only it would connect at a super whopping 56,000 baud.  Twice as fast!  They wanted someone to “Beta Test” it.  They knew I liked doing that sort of stuff, so they were willing to give us a copy to try out.

 

This is GLink today.  Back then it was for Windows 3.1

This is GLink today. Back then it was for Windows 3.1

Toby and I decided that the best place to try out our “Beta Testing” was in the Chemistry Lab.  The main reason was that it had one of the newer 386 desktop computers and it was in a room right next to the data closet where the Memotec was talking to the mainframe downtown.  So, if I had to run in there real quick and spit in the back and “whomp it a good ‘un”, I wouldn’t have too go far.  That was a trick I learned from watching “No Time for Sergeants” with Andy Griffith.  Here is the lesson:

If you have trouble viewing the video from the picture above, this this link:  “No Time For Sergeants Radio Operator“.

To make the rest of this part of the story a little shorter, I’ll just summarize it to say that by logging into the Honeywell Mainframe using my account, I was then able to connect to the Prime Computer using Toby’s account and he was able to edit his CAD drawings from the Chemistry Lab at the Power Plant 70 miles away from Corporate Headquarters.  I know that doesn’t sound like much, but in those days, this was “new technology” for us Power Plant guys anyway.

Before I continue with the “impossible” task, I need to explain a little about how electricians kept the Electrical Blueprints up-to-date at a Power Plant.  This was a task that I was given when Tom Gibson was the Electrical Supervisor.  I was supposed to take all the blueprints that had been revised because of some change that had happened at the plant, and make sure they were properly updated.  Then I had to go through a process to make sure they were permanently updated, not only on the three copies that we had at our plant, but also with the “System of Record” set of blueprints at Corporate Headquarters.

So, let me tell you the process, and I’m sure you will be able to relate this task to something you encounter in your job today.  Even if it is preparing the Salads at a Sirloin Stockade before opening time.

The first step happens when someone in the electric shop has to rewire some piece of equipment or something because the equipment was moved, removed, upgraded to something else, or someone thought it would work better if we did it a different way.  Then whoever made the change to the electric wiring would go to the prints that were kept in the electric shop and update them so that the new wiring job was reflected in the Blueprints.

This is important because if someone a week later had to go work on this equipment, they would need to be able to see how the equipment is now wired.  If they were working off of an old print, then they might blow something up, or injure or even kill someone…. most likely themselves, if it ever came down to it.

The other two copies of prints also needed to be updated.  One was in the Instrument and Controls shop, and the most important copy was in the “Print Room” right next to Tom Gibson’s office.

The second step was to send off a request to Corporate Headquarters in Oklahoma City for a copy of all the blueprints that were changed so that the change could be made on the copy and sent back to Oklahoma City.

The third step is when a fresh copy of the blueprints arrived at the plant from Oklahoma City a few weeks later.  These were updated with the changes and sent back to Oklahoma City.

The fourth step is when the blueprints are reviewed by an engineer downtown and the changes are made permanently by a drafter downtown.

Step five:  Then three copies of the permanently changed prints were sent back to plant where they replaced the three marked up copies.

This process generally took two to three months given that the drafter downtown had to take the Original drawing, scan it in the computer, make changes to it, and then save it, and send it to the printer to be printed.

Toby and I had “petitioned” our plant management to buy us a copy of AutoCAD so that we could make our own revisions right at the plant, and send the changes directly to Oklahoma City, all complete and ready to go.  The only problem with this was that AutoCAD software did not come cheap.  It was several thousand dollars for just one copy.

Even though this was before the World Wide Web, I knew where I could get a pirated copy of AutoCAD, but since neither Toby or I considered ourselves criminals, we never really considered that a viable alternative.  Tom Gibson was pitching for us to have a copy, but it was figured that if we had a copy, the company would have to buy a copy for all six main power plants, and they weren’t willing to dish out that much money.

Somewhere along the line, after Tom Gibson had kept pushing for the importance of having up-to-date Plant Electric Blueprints in a timely fashion, a task force was formed to address a faster way to make print revisions.  Because Toby and I (and Terry Blevins) had been pushing this at our plant, Tom asked Toby and I (actually, that should be “Toby and me”, but “Toby and I” makes me sound smarter than I am) to be on the Task Force with him.

So, one morning after arriving at the plant, we climbed into a company car and made the drive to Oklahoma City to the Corporate Headquarters.  When we arrived, we sat in a big conference room with members from the different power plants, and a number of engineers from downtown.  I was pretty excited that something was finally going to be done.

I don’t remember the name of the engineer that was the leader of the task force, I only remember that I had worked with him once or twice through the years on some small projects.  When the meeting began, I expected that we would have some kind of brainstorming activity.  I was all ready for it, since I had all sorts of ideas about how we could just edit the prints directly from the plant on the Prime Computer where the prints were stored, just like Toby had done.

When the meeting began there was no brainstorming session.  There wasn’t even a “What do you guys think about how this can be done?”  No.  The engineer instead went on to explain his solution to the problem.  I was a little disappointed.  Mainly because I was all fired up about being asked to be on a task force in Oklahoma City to work on…. well…. anything…. to tell you the truth.  And here we were listening to a conclusion.  — Sound familiar?  I knew it would.

This engineer had it all figured out.  Here was his solution:

Step 1:  A request was sent by company mail to downtown (same at the old second step) for some blueprints that need to be updated.

Step 2:  The prints are downloaded onto a floppy disk (3.5 inch High Density – which meant, 1.44 Megabyte disks).

Step 3:  The disks were mailed through company mail back to the Power Plant.

Step 4:  The Power Plant receives the disks and loads them onto their computer at the plant and they edit the blueprint using a pared down CAD program called “RedLine”.

Step 5:  The print revision is saved to the disk and the disk is mailed back to Corporate Headquarters using the Company Mail.

Step 6:  The print is reviewed by the engineers for accuracy and is loaded into the computer as the system of record.

Ok…. this sounded just like the previous method only we were using a “RedLine” program to edit the changes instead of using Red, Green and Gray pencils.

It was evident that the engineer in charge of the meeting was expecting us to all accept this solution and that the task force no longer had to meet anymore, and we could all go home and not ever return to consider this problem again.  — Well, this was when I said the “Impossible”.

I raised my hand as if I was in a classroom.  The guy knowing me to be a regular troublemaker asked me what I wanted.  I said, “Why mail the files?  Why not just put them in a folder and have the person at the plant go there and pick them up?”  — In today’s world the idea of a drop-box is about as easy to understand as “Google it”.  Back then… I guess not.  Especially for some engineers who had already decided on a solution.

So, the engineer responded, “Because that can’t be done.”  I said, “Why not?”  He said, “It’s impossible.  Someone in a power plant can’t just go into a computer at Corporate Headquarters and access a file.”

Well, that did it….. I told him that we were able to edit CAD drawings on the Prime computer from the power plant.  He said, “No you didn’t.  That’s impossible!”  I looked over at Toby who was sitting next to me with a big grin on his face.  So I said,  “Who is the IT guy in the room?  He can tell you that you can  get a file from the mainframe from the power plant.”

The engineer replied that he didn’t invite any IT people, because there wasn’t any reason.  Everyone knows that you can’t copy files on a Corporate computer from a power plant.  So, I said, “Invite someone from the IT department to the next meeting.  I’m sure he will agree with me that this can be done.  — Shortly after that, the  meeting was adjourned (but at least I had managed to convince the team we needed a second meeting).

You should have heard me rant and rave all the way back to the power plant that afternoon.  How could he possibly be so naive to make definite statements about something and basically call me a liar when I said that we had already done it.  I’m sure Tom Gibson was glad when we arrived back at the plant and he was able to get out of the company car and into the silence of his own car for his drive back to Stillwater.  Toby on the other hand carpooled with me, so he had to hear me rant and rave to Scott Hubbard all the way back to Stillwater that day.

Needless to say, we had another Print Revision Task Force meeting a few weeks later.  Tom, Toby and I drove back to Oklahoma City.  I couldn’t wait to see what was going to happen.

The meeting began with the engineer in charge of the task force saying, “The first thing we are going to address is Kevin Breazile’s statement about sending files to the power plant.  We have invited someone from IT to answer this question.”  Then he turned to a guy sitting at the table.  I don’t remember his name either, only that I had worked with him also through the years (oh yes I do.  It was Mike Russell).

The engineer turned to the IT guy and said (using a tone that indicated that I belonged in a mental institution or maybe kindergarten), “Kevin seems to think that he can somehow get on his computer at the power plant and access a folder on a server here at Corporate Headquarters and download a file.”  He stopped and with a big smirk on his face looked at the IT guy.  Mike just sat there for a moment looking at him.

The engineer just stood there with an evil grin on his face waiting…  Mike said, “So?  What do you want to know?”  The engineer said, “Well.  Is that even possible?”  Mike replied, “Of course!  It’s actually easier for him to do that than it is for someone on the 3rd floor of this building to access the mainframe on the fourth floor.”

The engineer’s jaw dropped and he eked out a meager little  “what?”  Mike asked if that was all.  When he was assured that this was the only question, he stood up and walked out the door.  As he was leaving he turned a side glance toward me and winked at me.  I was grinning ear-to-ear.  I could tell, I wasn’t the only one that had a beef with this particular engineer.

So, you would have thought that it would have been a quieter ride back to the plant that day, but leave it to me….  I kept on going on about how that guy was so sure of himself that he didn’t even bother to ask the IT guy before the meeting began just to check his own erroneous facts.  Geez!  That was the most surprising part of the day.  If he had only asked him before the meeting, he wouldn’t have made a fool out of himself with his snide comments just before he was put in his place.

So, Toby and I proved that doing the impossible isn’t all that impossible when what someone thinks is impossible really isn’t so.  This stemmed from a lesson my dad taught me growing up when he told me, “Don’t ever say “can’t”.  There is always a way.”

Comments from the original post:

  1. Dan Antion May 24, 2014

    Ah, the good old days when the best computer was the new 386. Things weren’t impossible but you had to think about it and plan quite a bit. Great stories!

  2. Ruth May 24, 2014

    Always enjoy reading and thinking about a world I wouldn’t even know about if it weren’t for your unique blog!

    Ruth in Pittsburgh

  3. Ron May 24, 2014

    Great story! I heard a pastor once say “What you “know” can keep you from learning the truth.” I saw this principle in operation many times in my career.

    I had been at the WFEC Hugo Power Plant for a short time when the Plant Manager directed me (Maint. Supt.) to have the Mechanics “block the condenser” for a “hydro”. (Prior to a condenser hydro, several mechanics would work for about 4 hours dragging heavy timbers into the 3 foot tall space between the bottom of the hotwell and the concrete floor. They would space these timbers evenly across the entire condenser floor and use wedges to remove all clearance at each support beam. All this work was “required” to support the additional water weight (several feet higher than normal operating level)). I knew this “blocking” was never done at any OG&E plant but I didn’t want to make the Plant Manager look like an idiot. So I did what he asked. We “blocked” the condenser for a hydro. Then I got with just the Plant Engineer and asked him to get the Mechanical Prints for the condenser. I asked him if it was necessary to block the condenser for hydro. He said they had always done it because of the extra weight of the water. When we looked at the condenser drawings there was a note indicating it was designed to support a full hydro water level. He showed the print to the Plant Manager (one on one). Nobody was made to look foolish and for the next condenser hydro we didn’t “block” it – and the Mechanics were really happy!

    1. Plant Electrician May 24, 2014

      We used to have a saying that I picked up from Bob Kennedy. “We’ve been doing it this way for 35 years. “

  4. Dave Tarver May 24, 2014

    Well over the years there were a lot of engineers that way.  Not all.  We have had outstanding ones as well and the stinkers too.  Just hate the politics of people so evil and cruel.  Man is beyond ugly so often.

What’s That Strange Power Plant Smell?

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.

 

This isn't me, this is just some other fortunate soul I found on Google Images

This isn’t me, this is just some other fortunate soul I found on Google Images

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: “Moonwalk 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 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.

The plant has a similar electrostatic precipitator, only ours is twice as long

The plant has a similar electrostatic precipitator, only ours is twice as long

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:

Aunt Esther from Sanford and Son

Aunt Esther from Sanford and Son

Bud handed me a box of filters labeled: Organic Vapor Filter:

 

Like This filter, only without the purple plastic guard.  It had a cotton looking filter on the top

Like This filter, only without the purple plastic guard. It had a cotton looking filter on the top

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.

Power Plant Engineer and Good Friend - Toby O'Brien

Power Plant Engineer and Good Friend – Toby O’Brien

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.

Earplugs on a cord that can be draped over your shoulders when not in use.

Earplugs on a cord that can be draped over your shoulders when not in use.

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”.