Category Archives: Safety

The things that don’t work don’t get used

Why are Safety programs tolerated not embraced. Shouldn’t it be the other way around shouldn’t our employees be so happy to participate in safety training and programs because they know that it will keep the well, whole and intact in a very dangerous occupation. Why does any facility have to enforce a safety policy?

How many deep sea divers don’t check the tanks before they go in the water, or skydivers who don’t check their parachute before going up in the plane? I’m sure there are but I’m just as sure they don’t last long

Would any of us use a car that didn’t work to commute to work? I think not

The things that don’t work don’t get used

What does this mean for us? Simple if you have to enforce any part of your safety policy then that part doesn’t work. It’s not rocket science it’s common sense, to be specific it’s Common Sense Safety™

THE POINT: Safety programs at their best cost money time and effort at their worst lives. Beyond this what about a safety program the increase’s your plants profits and safety performance at the same time. I can hear you now “Oh yeah and while you’re at it throw in a few Unicorns, an Abominable Snowman, three pixies and just to wrap it up a dozen genies in the bottle, have Santa drop it off”  but I assure you it can be done, I’ve done it.  

THE STORY: I was working for a company that had a very extensive safety program. We had meetings and meetings and meetings, we forms to fill out, books to audit, surprise compliance inspections, OSHA VVP status, safety; committees, work orders and incentives. We had near miss forms, tail gate talks, Job hazard forms and root cause analysis. It was all very impressive and we (well not me, I was always so confused) spent all sorts of time, effort and I’m sure a whole bunch of other stuff I didn’t even know about on safety.

We had to have management safety meetings with all the managers. Then the managers where supposed to have meetings with their supervisors and then the supervisors were to meet with their direct reports. We were supposed to do this every month…eeeegads.

One managers meeting someone had left a blow up beach ball in the boardroom. I immediately started playing with it bouncing it on the table, wall, chairs and other people in the room. The guy running the meeting, let’s call him Mr. Uptight was getting more and more frustrated with me and my ball. He asked me to stop it, deflate the ball and pay attention, being the mature manager that I was I said “NO!” and continued to play.

While playing with my ball, I wasn’t falling asleep, doodling or trying to mentally transport myself to anywhere else, really anywhere … I was actively listening. As I started playing a game of conference table volleyball with the manager on the other side of the table, I actually started to comment about what we were talking about (Strange I never commented).I actually starting to get engaged, as I started to talk again (still batting the ball around) Mr. Uptight turned and saw that I was passing the ball around and got so pissed he stabbed the ball with his pen….meeting over.

The next month we all shuffled into the boardroom ready to endure yet another dull, tiresome, tedious safety meeting, I missed my beach ball, silently I shouted WILSON!!! Front and center stood Mr. Uptight, with a strange gleam in his eye. I sat, girded my loins (at least I like to think I did) and started to identify with Jack Nicholson in One Flew over the Cuckoo’s nest and Mr. Uptight was my own personnel Nurse Ratched.

When we were all seated Mr. Uptight, with a flourish, pulled from behind him a large shopping bag and began to walk around the room. Our instructions were to close our eyes and reach it the bag grab something. The first of us reached into the bag, a hush fell over the room, would he have his hand? It was very tense in the room. His hand came out of the bag clutching a can of……Playdough. We were all stunned, what kind of new torture was this? Surely Mr. Uptight was just retaliating from last month, there must be a piranha or something equally harmful in the bag the first guy must have just gotten lucky. The next hand came out of the bag with a fist full of balloons.

Mr. Uptight had lost it, time to call the Happy Farm and tell them they would be receiving another gleeful participant. He didn’t say a word until he got back to the front of the room. We all sat dumbfounded and confused. A room full of managers all with a toy in our hands, a Yo-Yo, Silly Putty, Playdough, A Pinky,  a Paper Airplane, etc. etc. 

Mr. Uptight laughed at all of our expressions, he then explained and apologized. He went on to explain that he couldn’t stand the way the meetings were either and the most productive he had ever felt during one of these meetings was when we were playing with the beach ball. He researched the phenomenon and decided to give it a try.

The theory was that, if you were at play then you were more creative.

It worked; we wound up playing with toys during our safety meetings and at the same time designing a safety program called “Common Sense Safety™”. This program did the following

  • Was OSHA’s VVP program, benchmark for employee accountability for years
  • Helped a waste to energy facility go for 14 months without a recordable injury, best in company history
  • Through VVP we trained other plants and facilities on this program
  • The year we developed the “Common Sense Program™” the plant also broke all the production records of the plant, there are no accidents
  • Was one of the building blocks of the plants “worst to first” run in just one year

Safety…It’s not a form you fill out

 “It’s not a F**king Ice cream parlor” had such a great response that I am departing from just speaking about outages for these next two weeks to speak directly about safety.

 Safety is after all the most important component of our industry; I have been “around” 20 industrial deaths. Every single one a tragedy. When I say “around” I mean they happened on Job sites that I was on at the time or Job sites where I was part of the recovery efforts after this most horrible of all events, Thank God, knock on wood, none were my direct reports or under my command at the time of each incident.

 I’m trying not to sensationalize this point, but I have endured nothing more soul scaring than each one of these events. When something happens in real life I’m cool calm and collected…even been described as icy (just for those who haven’t realized yet, that’s because I’m in charge and losing it is not an option). However, I can’t see blood or gore in make believe, I cover my eyes in movies and while watching TV and if it doesn’t end quickly I have to get up and leave the room or theater.

 Throughout all of these events, I have found a remarkable similarity. None of the Individuals were “The new Guy” who just didn’t know any better. They were all people with years of experience and considered well seasoned veterans who had a significant event happen in their personal life outside of work. Their heads were not in the game for that day, for if they were, they would still be here

 If a direct report tells you “I keep my personal life at the door when I come to work” they are absolutely full of it.

 If a Supervisor tells you “keep your personal life out of the work place” run because that individual has no idea how to help you stay safe and they are supposedly in charge.

 If a manager doesn’t understand that people have bad days (and when they do they should be sat on the bench and given a box of crayons for that day) then apply somewhere else it’s not good and won’t be.

 What am I really saying with these examples is this. The thought that any individual can separate work and home is BULLS**T!!!!!!!!!!!. I cannot stress this enough, I cannot stress this enough, I cannot stress this enough etc. etc.

 I hesitate in saying the following for two reasons, first and foremost I do not want to curse the gods with my hubris and secondly at the heart of things I’m just a guy who tries not to do stupid stuff and if I do, I try not to do it again. So I do not think that I am an expert on safety, however my experience would prove me to be. I’ve had thousands, probability tens of thousands, of direct and indirect reports throughout my career and the worst accident was a few stitches and one broken bone (both happened at remote sites where there was no supervision), bear in mind I’ve done over 250 outages and have been in this industry as a supervisor, manager, executive for 20 plus years

The above is simply to establish my bona fides so that the following can be taken as seriously as possible it is my formula for safety on the job. It’s not right, it is simply what I do, It works and if this helps one person it’s worth it

 Points to consider

Most safety policies and procedures are written to isolate the company from liability and they are often written by people who do not actually perform the tasks that the procedure is controlling. The company must be isolated from stupid employees because lord knows they are out there. In my experience you can achieve both company liability isolation and a procedure that actually keeps someone safer than they would be without one. To do this the various safety and compliance experts need to watch the individual performing the task at hand and make that job easier not more complex. When you do this you will be amazed at how well your people adhere to the safety policy

 Most Hourly personnel (for lack of a better way of saying it and the desire to be clear the people who actually do the work) in our industry are what are known as Kinesthetic Learners which is about 15% of the population. Most of the population is either are Visual or Auditory learners and most standardized education is based on this. That’s why most of your technicians are very intelligent but did not do well in school. Kinesthetic people learn by doing, not by talking or looking. All the safety programs I have ever seen sit a kinesthetic person down and try to teach them orally or with visual presentations. If you want to maximize your training efforts test your audience and tailor the delivery of information to fit the crowd

 The eyes are the window to the soul; sounds trite but truer words have never been spoken. Recently I was in a plant assisting them with their outage and the midnight shift’s Forman went on vacation and the leadman quit. This left the shift with no established leader, a dangerous situation normally, even more so during and outage. Someone in the crew stepped up, which always happens, and we started to have a quick talk with the entire crew before they started each shift. I have found that I can look people in the eyes and tell if they are “In the Game or not”, I don’t think I have any superpowers I know everyone can see it they just have to look. The crew would come to where I was camped out we would go over my expectations for the evening, during that time I would look each one in the eye and see where their head was at. About three nights into this routine the new leadman looked horrible, vastly different than he had looked the previous evenings. I told him to go home, he refused, he didn’t want to let the team down, I settled for him not to do anything that night my direct order was “sit on a bucket and point all night”. He didn’t listen, He’s a power plant guy and I’m talking to him about what I feel, what a sissy. He got taken out in an ambulance later that night with an internal sickness that if he had waited just a few hours more he would not have survived. He, at last I checked, is feeling better and on the road to recovery. The point of this is that the eyes have it, I live that and know it deep down and because of it I have a much better than average safety record than anyone I know. Teach your supervisors to look into their direct reports eyes before every shift and it will significantly improve your safety performance.

OSHA is online read it!

. Like I said in “It’s not a F**king Ice Parlor” I have a big problem with what I call the “OSHA Thumpers”. I find that they are generally more concerned with asserting their authority (usually the lack there of) then protecting their fellow worker. Don’t get me wrong we are in the business of getting things done, things most people outside our industry can’t even imagine, and it isn’t easy. In general Power Plants have to adhere to the following CFR’s 1910 and 1926, the more you know the less power the “Thumpers” have


In 1910 these are the top ten areas, right off the OSHA website:

 Bloodborne Pathogens – 1910.1030

 Hazard Communication – 1910.1200

 Respiratory Protection – 1910.134

 Occupational Noise Exposure – 1910.95

 Powered Industrial Trucks – 1910.178

 Permit-required Confined Spaces – 1910.146

 Lockout/Tagout – 1910.147

 Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Response – 1910.120

 Guarding Floor and Wall Openings and Holes – 1910.23

Personal Protective Equipment – 1910.132


 Next week I’ll tell you about “The Common Sense Safety Program™” and how it came into being. “The Common Sense Safety Program™” was held as a benchmark for employee accountability by OSHA’s VPP program for many years

Your Not Dorothy and This Ain’t OZ

So why are you clicking your shoes together, saying “There no place like home, There no place like home”?

Although you are not in Kansas anymore once the outage starts that doesn’t mean you’re somewhere over the rainbow either.

Dorothy, kills two witches ,tames an unreasonable wizard, deals with flying monkeys and gets her friends a brain, heart and courage and after all that she misses the balloon ride home. Sounds like an outage to me.

Like Dorothy we all have the ability to get what we want, in this case better Outages, we just have to believe it before we click our heals together.

Outages are to power plants like OZ is to Kansas (and you thought the SAT’s were over). They are similar, but one has witches and flying monkeys trying to kill you, the other is trying to take away your dog. Like I said, similar but definitely different.

THE POINT: Outages cost money and they operate differently than day to day operations. In the above example Dorothy needs the help of Glenda The Good Witch. Glenda laughs at the Wicked Witch of the West and floats into Dorothy’s life just when she needs her.

I’m your Glenda The Good Witch (to get the full humor of this please see the most recent description of myself in Outages 101). I have been up and down the yellow brick road a whole bunch of times and have dealt with more than my share of witches, flying monkeys and disagreeable wizards. I have also handed out many Diplomas’, Testimonials and Medals to more than my fair share of Scarecrows, Tin men and Cowardly Lions.

Although I’d like to think of myself as the “The Great and Powerful Oz”, I’m really just a man behind a curtain who knows what levers to pull and wheels to turn and when to do either or both.

Outages can come in on time and budget, but just like Dorothy, to make that happen you first have to believe.

THE STORY: Once in a land far, far away, perhaps somewhere over the rainbow, a Tim Burton rainbow, I was an Engineering Manager. My Company was with was just completing an acquisition of a plant from Westinghouse and I was the Engineering Due Diligence Manager.

Westinghouse’s Plant Manager, let’s call him the Wicked Witch of the East, and I got into it more than a few times. One of the last tiffs we got into was when he wouldn’t let me in his office, so I told him when we took over his office was going to be mine…..and it was. Not really dropping a house on him, but close enough.

Buying a plant (I’ve been through several) is difficult even when everything goes just right and it never goes just right.  He was just doing his job protecting his company and I was doing mine protecting my company.

After we took over Operations I, like Dorothy, wanted nothing more than to go home. We had a victory dinner with everyone involved and at that dinner the President of the company, let’s call him, The Great and Powerful Oz, told me that my new assignment was to increase the plants availability from the 8 year average of 80% to 92%, I had a budget of 15 million and 18 months to do it in, talk about getting a broom from a witch, yeesh!

So off I went through the Haunted Forest, the plant, on my way to the witch’s castle, the outage.

As a power plant engineer I had a basic logic tree, in my head, when fixing something in a plant that is broken. It worked once; we either, wore something out, changed its use or fixed it wrong. This simple thought process worked for me.  I had fixed a great deal of broken things in many a plant with this little gem.  However I was not in Kansas anymore. To put a point on it, almost every component I looked at was not designed to work in this application. The boiler flue gas velocity was too high because the tubes spacing was too tight, the conveyors were never going to work at the angles they were built to, each ash conveyor shook the control room every time they cycled. Like I said I was not in Kansas anymore.

From April till about August we modeled a whole bunch of changes on every piece of equipment that we could safely test our ideas on.  By the end of August we had a list of modification we would accomplish during the outage in October.

The outage in October (the witch’s castle) would take each of the plants six boilers down with staggered starts so we would never have more than two boilers down at one time.  The entire outage window would be 4 weeks and we would burn up more than 117,000 man-hours in a month.  To say this would be difficult would be an understatement of gigantic proportions.

“The Tin Man”, “The Scarecrow” and I planned an entire outage: contractors, design equipment, order products pieces and parts. We planned an 117,000 man-hour outage in just 4 weeks. My boss at the time “Mr. Red Pencil” from your outages iPod, would definitely be The Cowardly Lion although shaky at the start he would eventually become “KING OF THE FOREST”.

Two week before the outage, the plant was picketed for and virtually shut down for two days, more flying monkeys.

Until the night before the outage I didn’t know if the Union contractors we had selected were going to show more flying monkeys.

The night before the first boiler was coming down the unions let us know that they would be showing up to the outage….phew that’s good now the scaffolds can get built and even some of the boiler work can go on, as well…peachy.

Saturday the first boiler came down, it was a little rocky but it was down and we were started, nothing to do now but make the girls feel pretty or shoot-em.

We planned for the bulk of the manpower to start on Monday morning so that we would minimize overtime.  Monday morning we had better than 150 contractors starting, a big day and this would really be the start of the outage, setting the tone for the rest of the work….I didn’t see the sign “WATCH OUT FOR FLYING MONKEYS….THEY ARE BAD!!!”

Monday morning from about 6 to 10, I welcomed all the different contractors to the site, walked each through their jobs, just to confirm we were all on the same page.  Just before lunch, I went by the first contractor to start to make sure they were set up and going.  Their stuff was there and their guys were just standing there.  OH NO! HELL NO!  This is not going to be the way we start.  My eyes bugged out my safeties started to lift when they said they are still waiting on a permit.

“OH YEAH!!! WELL I’LL FIX THAT RIGHT NOW!!!!” off I went with their Forman to the permit room.  I was thinking all the way to the permit room this is the last time I’m using these guys, I was so pissed that these guys were starting these shenanigans on the first day.  Steam was coming out of my ears and I’m sure I was denting the grating as I walked.

When the permit room came into view, I saw about 10 contractor Forman standing in front of the doors of the permit room. I was confused was everybody slacking off was it some organized thing…no, we had union and non union guys working the same job…maybe they are pissed at each other..hmm maybe. When I got up to them I asked the first one “What’s going on” he replied with the same thing the other Forman had told me. “They’re not giving us any permits”. “Did you ask?” “Why are you out here?” The questions just flew out of my mouth as I walked through them into the permit room.

When I got into the permit room I was greeted by the supervisor in charge of writing permits, he was to be the head flying monkey.  I said “the contractors say that we are not issuing permits” he said “they are right”.  I then asked “why?” He then said “the contractors are not going to be issued permits until their areas were deemed safe”.  I said “how are their areas not safe?” The head flying monkey then started to spout, chapter and verse about safety this, safety that, about mid diatribe I left and went right to the plant manager. I burst in his office and started screaming, in retrospect not the right move, I must have looked like a flying monkey myself. When I had let out all my steam, his response, when he could get a word in was “Safety First”. I had nowhere to turn can’t shoot-em, time to make the girl feel pretty.

I went up and addressed the head flying monkey, “what’s it going to take to get these permits issued?” He said “you simply have to comply with our standards and policies”.  I said “what are we not complying with right now that precludes us from getting a permit?”  He turned around and pointed to the SOPs that were behind him and said “maybe you should read these and then you would know”. I implored, cajoled, persuaded him to the best of my abilities.

That Monday we managed to get one contractor a permit.  The following day, after the right atmosphere was set and the proper coffee and doughnuts were applied, it took us four hours to get all the contractors permits. Eventually, like all flying monkeys, he went away.

This outage in particular has many MANY stories to tell.  The story that’s germane to this conversation is when all was said and done we spent a little north of 13 million dollars on all of our modifications and outages.  And after 18 months the plant had an availability of 91.67%, not 92% I grant you, the President never let me forget it was not 92% either. Finally like Dorothy I was able to go home.

“It’s not a F**k’in Ice Cream Parlor”….

What he meant to say was… “Safety First”

These where the words of one of my earliest mentors in the power plant outage realm; His nickname was “Whacky Mac” and he was the premier boiler expert in an elite division of a prominent utility. He had a grip that would bring a large man to their knees, a finger stained yellow from cigarettes, a brogue that was barely understandable and a management style, not meant for the faint of heart.

It was January 1991 and there were no:

  • Scaffold green tags
  • Five point safety harness
  • Guards on grinders
  • Permit required confined spaces
  • Rigging inspection program
  • Women in the workplace (well, there were 4 out of 1100)
  • Forklift operator training

There was:

  • Smoking in the building, trailers and on the job
  • Drinking at lunch just don’t be drunk
  • Use of the most unbelievable strings of explicative’s to simply to start a conversation and then they would be interwoven throughout the dialog as if to equally glue and grease the words in between.

                Note: When my first son was born I decided I would not swear anymore, for the next three weeks I had the worst performance in the field, finally one day I snapped, I screamed at three mechanics ”pick up the F**king wrench, put it on the F**king bolt, and turn the Mother F**ker”. All three in unison said, “Why didn’t you just say that, you’ve been so weird lately”, so much for my not swearing.

 The Point:  Safety is more than following a procedure or complying with OSHA.  It is a way of conducting yourself and those put in your care. In my experience, safety is about paying attention and keeping your head in the game. The CFRs (Code of Federal Regulations) in OSHA are the result of people losing their lives in common circumstances.  OSHA’s regulations heighten the awareness when personnel find themselves in similar circumstances. They are not impedances to getting work done nor are they road blocks thrown up by someone asserting their authority.

My favorite question to ask any of the many “OSHA Thumpers” that I have had the pleasure of dealing with is “Show me where it says that” amazingly about 75% of the “Thumpers” become immediately indignant and usually expound on a version of “Safety First”.  This often confuses me, do they really expect me to run away once they wheel that talk out?  Most of these confrontations do not end well. If you use the cry of “OSHA says so” without doing the homework then you are doing a disservice to the people you are trying to protect.

The other 25% generally lead to a mutual understanding and discussion of how to perform the task at hand as safe as possible. It creates a heightened awareness around a set of circumstances that has resulted in death in the past; you know the way it should.

Our industry is dangerous, deadly and should not be taken lightly; even the simplest things can seriously change one’s life.

I don’t know where he got this but I was always told by Socrates (see The magic finger) the following is a list of the most dangerous days of the year to work, If you have to work on these days make sure you have a heightened awareness:

  • Day after Thanksgiving
  • New Years Eve day
  • Super Bowl Sunday
  • Mothers Day
  • 4th of July

The Story:  It was New Year Eve Day 1990 and because I was the newest and youngest Forman in the gang I was working.  It was a small crew we were behind on schedule so we were working and there was one other major outage in the system also with a small crew.

Both job sites were performing a major boiler outage. Our site was removing and replacing the side walls of a CE tangentially fired unit both, superheat and reheat furnaces, which powered a GE 465 Mega Watt steam turbine. The other job site was performing a similar project.

Both jobs had scaffolded the entire furnace (for those of you who are unfamiliar with a main production boiler imagine an upside milk carton about 140’ high, 40’ deep and 60’ wide).  Just before lunch the scaffold at the other job site collapsed.

There were people trapped underneath the tangled mass of scaffold tubes and planks, hanging from tubes and chains in the boiler. The fire department was mobilized to the site and fistfights broke out between our crew and the firemen all in an effort to get to those trapped inside. No one died, thankfully, a few people sustained serious injuries; it was terribly traumatic for all involved.

Immediately afterward, while the other jobsite dealt with all of the issues arising from the incident, we stopped all work off of our furnace scaffolds and essentially rebuilt them. You cannot imagine the amount of scrutiny that was exercised on every detail of our scaffolds for a solid week we did nothing but add steel to the base of the scaffold.  Each different “suit” had a different idea of what should be done and we, like monkeys in a cage, just kept putting stuff in and taking stuff out.  Finally after about a week, tempers nerves and patience all met, in one fell swoop.  With a booming “It’s not a F**king Ice Cream Parlor” the fixes where apparently over. We demobilized out from underneath the dance floor and continued the outage without incident

In the aftermath, OSHA investigated for months, there was, and still is I’m sure, much litigation.  None of the finger pointing or fault finding can erase what happened.  OSHA in 1996 revised its scaffolding standards and although I do not have any direct confirmation, I’m sure that this incident played a major part in that revision.

I have participated in more than my fair share of OSHA investigations. I would describe none of them as fun and would not wish them on anyone because that means you are already too late and something has already happened.

The only way to be safe, in my book, is to pay attention, keep your head in the game and challenge each other. By discussing everything in detail prior to the job keeps the work moving and everyone safe.