“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.

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

  1. Ramiro D. Diaz

    “It’s not a f****in’ ice cream parlor”—–That is priceless. However, truer words were never spoken. I have been in the electrical industry for almost 17 years, 14 of them in field service for large OEMs and I could write a book about some of the dumb things I have seen. Most of them come from not paying attention or cutting corners. Out of the many positive things I have gotten out of my time in the military, the one I am most grateful for is learning how to pay attention to detail. That trait has saved me more than once. Like I tell my co-workers and now my son who is also in the industry “This s*** will kill you!”


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