Memoirs of an Operator
Note: All photos are stock photos obtained from the Internet. None were obtained from the Dow Chemical location described in this story . A Google Earth image, annotated with areas mentioned in the article is here. (click)
I worked in the Dow Chemical Plant in Fort Saskatchewan, Alberta for 11 years, as a plant operator. What is a plant operator? Well, he's the guy who commonly works rotating shifts in an industry that produces product on a continuous basis. These industries include gas plants, oil refineries, pulp and paper mills, water and sewage treatment facilities, and of course, chemical.
I started working at Dow Chemical when I was 18 and desperately in need of a job. I was lucky, I got in with just grade 12 education; they have since raised their entrance standards to a 2-year college diploma. I had no idea what I was in for, because though I was tinkering with cars and electronics at the time, it was quite another thing to tinker with high-pressure steam, huge pumps twice as tall as I was, and chemicals that would kill me in a second if not properly handled.
I began as a junior operator, working and training with an operator for two weeks, then I was on my own. I was then an OPERATOR. The king, the boss of the plant. I started in one of the safest locations at Dow, the Water Treatment Plant, safe only because chemicals were not produced there, only consumed there: no matter, the chemicals would still kill you. A few years later, management took the operators out of this plant and ran it with operators from another area, forcing me to work in the Chlorine Plant, which produced, obviously, chlorine. It also produced by-products like caustic soda and hydrochloric acid. In the course of doing my job, I had to work with these chemicals, as well as powdered asbestos, brine, sulphur dioxide and carbon tetrachloride. That was only in the chlorine plant! I later worked in the Ethylene Oxide plant, making anti-freeze and then at the Styrofoam plant. In the latter I was a Supervising Technician, sort of like a shift-supervisor responsible for a crew of operators and equipment of my plant.
A clarification is in order with reference to use of the word "plant". Dow was (and still is) a world-scale chemical plant complex. The site was about 1 mile square and consisted of numerous and separate production facilities for making different chemicals. Each of these facilities were called "plants" and the term "plant" was also used to describe the entire complex. To avoid confusion, I'll use the term "complex" to describe the company and the entire site, and use the term "plant" to describe an individual production area such as the Styrofoam Plant, Chlorine Plant, etc.
Since Dow was a large international company it was very organized and regimented. They had a "process" for everything, from how the garbage was picked up to how the coffee was made. It was a very structured organization, everyone knew what piece of the puzzle or tooth on the big gear they were. We all knew where are jobs would lead, and we all knew the path to moving up the ladder, and Dow encouraged this movement.
When I was in school, I was bored. I didn't want to learn anything. Some say it was because I was "smart" and didn't need to be there, but really I just hated it because I wanted to work on cars and chase girls. (Still do as a matter of fact!). When I joined Dow, it was clear that those that moved up to better plants or better paying positions were the ones who were educated with trade-like courses. Knowing this, many operators, myself included, took correspondence courses in Steam Engineering. We would start on the first level course which would give us a 4th class certificate, then work our way through to the other classes, "up" to 1st Class. On our site, that is, the "complex", there was only one 1st Class ticket holder; he was the Chief Engineer. So you don't think that getting one of these certificates was easy, consider that for the 4th Class, I had to work with many types of equipment to get "boiler time", complete about 24 correspondence lessons within a year, and then write two, eight-hour government tests! It got much worse as one went to the higher (numerically lower) classes, requiring more specific familiarity with equipment such as huge boilers, and more detailed knowledge of process control, steam generation, electricity, and chemicals. It was a tough grind. Over the next 11 years there wasn't one week when I wasn't taking a correspondence or extension course, something that even still amazes me, the guy bored with school. I only started my education after I started at Dow.
Dow was an extremely safety-conscious company and I really can't stress that enough. We would be constantly bombarded with safety messages, slogans, safety notices and accident reports. We had weekly and monthly safety meetings, with minutes taken to make sure we did have the meetings. Any one caught breaking a safety rule was severely reprimanded. In spite of the obviously dangerous environment, I felt safe at Dow because I knew they were doing all they could to make it so. In 11 years, I never lost any time due to work-related injury except when I twisted my ankle running down the stairs to see how fast I could do so! (I was always testing myself, trying to do things faster or more efficient). As an operator I had to be on the fire crew; Dow was big enough to own their own fire-truck and ambulance, and have a fire-chief on staff.
The company also paid well. In fact, they paid their operators more than any other comparable industry in the area, and there were lots. This is why, even now, 25 years later, there is still no union at this complex: pay the people well, and they won't have a reason to bitch and form a union. When we had a complaint, management would listen and if the complaint was valid, they would act on it. Talk about a partnering relationship! They paid better overtime than any other employer I've ever known. I put in lots of double-time days, and made enough to buy a new truck, new car, snowmobile, 2 motorcycles, all cash. I was never in debt working for Dow.
Dow was also fair. I say that because I was kind of a "shit-disturber" and was always pushing the envelope to see how far I could go. I was immature too. Despite my thinking that management was a bunch of ass-holes at the time, I realize now that I could have been justifiably fired for some of the stunts I pulled. In fact, if management had known about the things I did and describe in this book, I would have been drawn-and-quartered and left to die in one of the sewage pits!
Enjoy the stories. I hope you laugh.
To all the guys I worked with at Dow Chemical. Hope you're making lots of money and still playing soccer on night shift.
Click to Select