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 a chemical plant 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.
Dow 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.
I worked in 4 different plants, or "units", as they were also called: Water Treatment (Water Treat), Chlorine (Chlor-Alkali), Ethylene Oxide (EO), and Styrofoam (Styro). In terms of safety, the most "unsafe" was Chlorine. The easiest to work in was a tie between Water Treat and EO, and the most physically demanding was Styro
At Water Treatment, we produced treated water from raw water from the North Saskatchewan River. We had no river water pumps, so we bought the water from nearby Sherritt-Gordon Mines who sent it by pipeline to our raw water pond. Inside the plant was a vertically-mounted 100 horsepower pump that was in a "deep well", connected by pipe to the pond. The water was pumped to clarifiers outside the plant where settling of dirt and other suspended matter would settle out. Powdered alum (aluminum sulfate) was added by automatic feeders located inside the plant. The alum created "floc" that hung onto the dirt, making it heavy enough to drop to the bottom.
The clarifiers had to be "blown down" regularly to get rid of the mud at the bottom. This could be done automatically or manually. I used to do it manually so I could watch it better, and run experiments. In one experiment I blocked off the drain, something I could do from the main floor, the drain itself situated in a cement enclosure 10 feet below grade. Blocking off the drain caused the room to fill up with mud and other crap. I would then open the drain and watch it get sucked down. Of course, I created work for myself because I had to get rid of evidence of "fooling around", so I had to wash down the walls with a hose.
One day when I went to blow down the clarifiers, I saw a big hairy animal at the bottom of the ladder. It wasn't moving and I was sure it was dead, but I had to know for sure. I threw things at it and it didn't move, but I figured it was just playing dead, waiting for me to go down there, then it would attack. With a piece of pipe in my hand I stepped down the ladder, pausing on the second last rung, in case this thing jumped up at me suddenly. Feeling really brave, I stepped down to the last rung, and then kicked this animal with my steel-toed boot. Whew! It was dead. I grabbed it by the tail, and brought it to the plant floor for inspection. Then I dumped it around the building, putting a comment in the shift log book about it. I also indicated the dangers of working at this plant. My supervisor looked at the animal the next day an said it was a muskrat. We suspected that the rat was in the clarifier and came out through the 8" blow-down lines when I opened them up on a previous occasion. How it got into the clarifiers was a mystery because it would have had to pass through the deep-well pump.
The water from the clarifiers entered the Clear Well. This water was treated with sulfuric acid, to control the pH level and flowed into the cooling tower basin. This thing was an underground concrete reservoir that the cooling towers and huge cooling tower pumps sat on top of. Cooling water was a very important product that we produced because it was necessary in all other processes: if this failed, the other plants would have to shut down. Eight large pressurized sand filters filtered the cooling water on a continuous basis, taking the water from the pressurized headers and returning it to the cooling water sump.
The cooling tower pumps, 5 in all, were vertical, multi-stage high pressure, high volume pumps, operating on 2300 volts. Together they pumped out 40,000 gallons per minute into a 36" pipe, at about 85 pounds per square inch (psig). A natural gas-driven "fire engine" also pumped out of the reservoir into the same header, pressurizing the header to about 100 psig when the other pumps were on. It was used in case of power failure, when it would automatically start.
We also produced boiler feedwater. Boilers are more finicky than humans when it comes to treated water so their demands are greater. We had to soften the water using Zeolite softeners, filter it, making sure it passed all laboratory tests before we sent it to the steam plant. The softeners had to be monitored closely, and when boiler feed water was being used, we had to regenerate them quite often on a shift. This was done by backwashing the softener, then slowly adding a concentrated brine solution, allowing it to permeate the Zeolite so its hardness removal capabilities would become restored. A regeneration took about 1-1/2 hours.
Drinking water was also produced at our plant. The water from the clear well entered a sand and charcoal filter and chlorine gas was added for purification. Many times the chlorinators stopped working, or the tanks went empty, so frequently people were drinking unchlorinated water. (You know, the sewage from the City of Edmonton immediately upstream!). Sorry guys.
Chlorine is a real gas
The chlorine came in huge 2 ton cylinders that we put on a scale so we could monitor when the chlorine started to run out. It was kind of strange and ironic, that with all the chlorine the Chlorine Plant produced, these 2 ton cylinders full of the liquid (it became a gas at atmospheric pressure), came from another source who bought the chlorine from us!
One day I had to switch tanks and I just could not open the valves of the new tank I had just hooked up. I tried a "snipe", a piece of pipe added to increase leverage. I was getting a little scared, because this was the only tank I had, and it had to produce. I called my friend and former trainer, Crest over to help me. We both wore our respirators, in case the valve broke with all our screwing around. (Scott Air Pacs would have been too unwieldy in this situation). This would be disastrous: 2000 pounds of liquid chlorine, expanding into a gas. It would have been a major spill, not to mention the potential loss of life (ours!) if the valve would have blown off. Crest really "reefed" on the valves and managed to get one of the two open, without incident. He pushed the envelope (well, actually the valve) more than I would have.
It was an accident
I had two accidents at Water Treat, and they were both my fault because of my own ignorance. The first was a twisted ankle that occurred after I ran down a dozen flights of stairs (60 vertical feet), from the top of the cooling towers down to the bottom. I wanted to find out just how fast I could make down to the bottom. At the bottom, I jumped off the last step, hit the sidewalk sideways with my foot and wrenched the ankle. I was wearing safety shoes, but they had no ankle support, thus causing the injury. I reported to the safety supervisor, then spent a couple days at home watching my ankle turn blue and yellow.
The other accident, which I did not report was when I was helping a pipefitter repair the steam turbine that Zero (page 12) had knocked over with the forklift. I removed a piece of pipe for the fitter after he had unbolted it from the flanges, and when I tilted it to get it out of the way, hot steam condensate flowed out the one end, down my arm. The pipefitter saw immediately what happened (I was whining�), so he just grabbed me roughly and pulled me over to the bathroom. I was scared! Not because of the burn: because of HIM dragging me to the bathroom! He turned on the cold water and forced my arm under the tap and told me to keep it there, which I did until it became excruciantingly cold. He saved my arm from serious scarring.
Screwed up ponds
I screwed up once at Water Treat. I had to check the raw water pond just outside the control room at least once per shift as part of our routine. This included night shift of course, and had to be done rain or shine. One late evening (afternoon shift from 4 PM to midnight), on a cold snowy day, I trudged through the 2 foot snow banks to get to the closer edge of the pond to our building. I started walking around the pond, which was about 100 feet long per side, and held maybe 1 million gallons when full to the top. Since the feed from Sherritt-Gordon was at the far end of the pond, we were expected to walk all the way around to manually inspect the hole in the ice and discern where the level was. Very unscientific. What made it worse on this evening, was I was too lazy to go all the way around, so I stopped halfway. Shining my crappy flashlight towards the ice, I saw the hole and assumed there was water in that hole, so made a rough guess of what that level was. When the level would drop significantly from a previous reading it was our duty as operators to phone Sherritt and ask them to bump up the flow. Yeah, very unscientific. The following midnight shift, although he insisted he DID walk all the way around, made the same determination. On day shift, we ran out of water.
Boy was this a serious faux-pas. The day-operator couldn't be blamed because he was the one who spotted the hole in the ice, without any water underneath. Of course his "seeing" ( an astronomy term) was pretty good in broad daylight! Mind you, he had the discomfort of watching mud get pumped into the plant, to the clarifiers. After making the pond check and finding it empty, he got on the phone real quick to Sherritt and got them to pump like hell.
The clearwell inside the plant was pumped dry and the boiler feedwater make-up pumps lost suction. I know there were no shutdowns in the other 3 plants that used cooling and boiler feedwater, because I was still employed the next day, but there were serious repercussions nonetheless. I was taken out on the carpet with the midnight shift operator and we were given a good tongue-lashing. In my usual argumentative state, I tried to defend myself but it was to no avail, although my supervisor did concede that it would be hard to determine the level under the conditions mentioned. The supervisor pointed out the meaning of the word "assume" by spelling it out ASS-U-ME. I was in a little more trouble because I assumed from a "further distance". The plants cut back on production to ease the cooling water demands, and the boiler house dropped back as well in steam production, reducing the need for make-up water. About a week after this incident, we had a bubbler level indicator installed. That should have been the end, but the bubbler would fail, giving us an incorrect indication, which was as bad as assuming a level. I don't know how they ever got around this problem. A walkway out to the center of the pond would have done the trick.
Update: I used Google Earth to get a satellite view of the plant (there's a link on this website) and see that they now have a walkway all the way to the center of a new, larger pond.
My first boss was an operator, when I was a junior operator starting out at Water Treatment. His name was Crest. I remember it (unlike some of the later ones) because he was truly a mentor, and later a friend who I socialized with. He was about my age, married with no kids, whereas I had two.
Crest taught me a lot about machinery, because until I worked there, I barely knew how to change the oil in my car. (I've learned how to do that now. In fact I drag-race an 800 horsepower Mustang pumped out of a 351 cubic inch engine.) Crest came from a farming background, and it's somewhat legendary how farm kids knew a lot about machinery from working with their fathers on the farm. I didn't last long as a junior operator because there was an opening for an operator in another plant, and Crest was going to fill it. So, the faster I learned, the faster he could move out.
The Czech is in the Plant
I started work at Dow on the same day as a Czechoslovakian expatriate who left his country when the Russians moved in with tanks in 1968. So Crest was actually training two of us. Frank had been an engineer at a huge chemical complex in Czechoslovakia, and had been in a supervisory role. Now, here he was trying to work as a junior operator. I admired his spunk. He had a family to feed so he was quite determined to work hard to keep the position, and move up as opportunities became available. What was really incredible was that he had been in Canada for only about 8 weeks and when he first arrived didn't know one word of English! We could just barely have a conversation with him, sort of like baby-talk, and we had to use our hands a lot. He wanted to learn so much, so fast, he would grab something off the table (I remember a gasket) and say "Vat is dis?". I'd say "gasket", which he would repeat a few times, looking up to me for acknowledgment. Then he'd write the word in his little book, with his definition, in Czech of the same word. I'd barely have time to breathe when he would point to something else, and "Vat's dat?" When Crest would take us out into the plant to explain some facet of Water Treatment, Frank would nod approvingly at most everything that was pointed out to us, because he really knew more about it than Crest did! Sadly, when I owned a pool hall many years later, his two kids would frequent the establishment and hang around with a druggie crowd. Not like their hard-working father at all.
I moved up to operator in about a week; Frank about two weeks later. It was only because of the language thing that I went first, because the readings we took at the brine wells had to be communicated to the Chlorine Plant. Frank really knew a lot about process equipment. I was petrified!
The first day on my own was actually a night shift. I went nuts. I was scared as hell of those tall 500 horse-power cooling-well pumps, the chlorine gas we had to inject into the water stream, the high voltage (2300 volt) switchgear, and the responsibility of keeping the plant running. My first night, I was running back and forth between the control room and production floor every five minutes! I was so worried that the water levels would drop and I wouldn't be able to compensate or that a motor would suddenly burn up and I wouldn't know what to do. It's much like public speaking for the first time: nerves. After a week of this foolishness, I learned how to sleep on night shift, and still get the work done!
I didn't sleep much though simply because I wanted to use the time learning. I would bring all kinds of books, read anything that was left there, like old log books, or manuals. I would run experiments with the chemicals, run experiments on the pumps, like shut them down, start them up. I would play with the fire engine, a natural gas driven engine used to increase the water pressure in the fire water lines through-out the plant. I was also always looking for ways to improve operations, and got a few nice letters from the Works Manager for my ideas. (Dow had a "suggestion" policy, whereby you could submit a suggestion on paper, and the supervisor would act on it, or forward it to the right people).
I was at Water Treatment for 3-1/2 years and was quite comfortable there, having learned my job extremely well. Frank meanwhile decided to go to the Chlorine Plant where he began taking Steam Engineering Courses. Every year I talked to him, he was at a new level. He was a smart guy, and once he got better at English was really able to grow by leaps and bounds with correspondence courses. He eventually obtained a 1st Class Steam Engineering Certificate, a tremendous achievement for anybody let alone someone who had only been in Canada for 4-5 years. I took my 4th Class and that was hard!
It was a good thing that they took the operators out of Water Treat. It was done for austerity measures, but it had the effect of forcing me to learn more! I realized that after I moved to the next plant, Chlor-Alkali. Though I was quite hesitant to go there, and was a little afraid of the stuff I had to work with, after awhile I got to know the ropes and began to settle in.
One other operator that requires mention is the one we called Zero. I don't remember his real name, but I know he was an older Dutch fellow, and he had no brains. I heard stories from not only other operators, who followed or preceded his shift, but also from my supervisor! The latter told me how he once came in early in the morning and looked through the control room window to see Zero disconnecting the bolts on a 3 inch pipe flange. Nothing unusual there except that he was doing it on a pressurized line! His reason for removing the bolts? He said the valve was stuck and thought it should be replaced. This was a 3" valve, and it was just stiff. Once a pipe wrench was put on it for leverage, the valve worked fine. Not only was he doing the job for nothing, he was doing it unsafely.
Another time, Zero jumped off a forklift without securing the brake. Come to think of it, he didn't even shut the unit off. The forklift kept moving and ran into our emergency steam turbine damaging it, and the pipes that were connected to it. This is the bad turbine that burned my arm.
We used to get milk from the main building for our coffee, but we had no fridge. In winter this wasn't a problem because we could use the air outside, or other areas where temperatures were in between the inside and the outside temperatures (e.g. in between the walls). In summer, it only took a day before the milk turned sour and started to curdle. This is when Zero would drink it. One operator told me he was going to throw out a quart of curd because he couldn't stand the smell, when Zero grabbed it from him with a "no, no", put it to his mouth and gulped it down! The operator had to hold his lips, because he almost lost his stomach contents. Zero did other stupid things, like blowing the trans-axle in the Scout four-wheel drive. This guy would come to work in a top-coat like he was some kind of spy for Nazi Germany during the war. He was weird. He was fired.
I made a lot of friends at Water Treat, mostly millwrights and electricians, because on day shift, I would always have fresh coffee on, and they would escape the hustle and bustle of work in the other plants by hiding out at my plant. They would come by bicycle, or by truck, sometimes two or three in a truck. I had four or five guys there on a daily basis, just like clock-work. Some of the electricians were Dow employees, but many were working for Dow's maintenance contractor, Catalytic Construction. Dow employees got coffee free, Catalytic did not. That's why they came. In winter it was particularly gratifying to come in from the cold for a free cup of hot, fresh coffee.
I made friends with other people too, like the dump-truck driver. He wasn't well educated and was even a little slow, but he was a nice guy and we became friends, because I didn't treat him like he was anything less than anyone else. I didn't get out much to the other plants to socialize with the other operators because I was too shy. Some of them came over to see me.
A Good Ticket to Have
My supervisor at Water Treat had a first-class steam ticket, as was required for being the supervisor of Water Treatment and the boiler house. The 3 boilers were pretty big units, generating 600 pound steam (i.e. pounds/square inch), and the requirement by the Alberta Boilers Branch dictated that this much "horsepower" had to have a 1st Class Engineer on day shift and a 2nd Class Engineer on the off-shifts. The latter was the Supervising Technician of the Chlorine Plant, and under him was the person actually taking care of the boilers, the 3rd Class Engineer, also known as the Senior Operator. Anyone who wanted to progress from 4th Class, the second lowest class according to the Boilers Branch (the "Fireman's Certificate" was lower), to 1st Class, had to get boiler time (or "hours"), working in the boiler house as a senior operator. He could use the same boilers, but had to spend more time actually operating them and learning more about them to become a second class. All this took years of correspondence school study as well. It was no cake-walk. This was the reason Frank went to the chlorine plant: so he could get boiler time in the boiler house, because this area was part of the process. ( The production of chlorine created as a side-product caustic soda, which required a tremendous amount of steam be used, so the steam plant was close to the caustic production).
When I worked at the Water Treatment Plant, one of my duties was to go down to the river flats twice on my shift to take readings and samples at the brine wells. I also had to switch effluent ponds, a process that involved opening and closing valves to another series of settling ponds. This was pretty spooky for a guy with an imagination like mine, because you see, the area I went to was basically in the bush. Almost monthly there were break-outs from the Fort Saskatchewan Gaol (the old English spelling, as it appeared on the signs), and the convicts would escape along the river, which is basically where I had to be. I had to take samples from within these little heated shacks in the winter, a perfect place for convicts to congregate. Not to mention the Sasquatch that lived in the bush beside the river.
So it was that I decided to bring my German Shepherd dog, Queenie, with me to work. Since I've always believed in the adage "Better to ask for forgiveness than to ask for permission", I didn't check to see if this was an allowable thing. I just did it.
Queenie would sit in the front seat of the car on my 40 minute drive from Morinville to Fort Saskatchewan. As we approached the Dow Chemical complex, I would tell Queenie to "lay down" and "stay". She was well trained, because this is exactly what she would do as I slowed, and sometimes stopped for the security guard at the gate. She would stay that way until I got to the Water Treatment Plant, where I would meet the current operator on shift. When he left, I would let Queenie out of the car.
She was quite nervous and afraid of the noises inside the plant, but was okay inside the control room, where I would give her fresh water and share my lunch with her. When it was time to get the readings, she was quite excited at being able to ride in the truck. Sometimes I put her in the box, other times, I made her run, and other times she came in the back. I preferred the latter because then I had "someone" to talk to. The downside was that if she got wet, she left the smell of wet-dog behind her in the truck, for the next shift!
One winter day we went out on the reading-run when she spotted a rabbit. People who knew the dog understood how she probably only wanted to play with the rabbit, as she set off to chase it through the open areas between the road-grid that was covered with about 2 feet of snow. On hard-pack a dog may have a chance to catch a rabbit, but in snow there is just no way. So here's my dog leap-frogging in the deep snow, sinking so deep it looked like she had no legs at all, trying to catch a rabbit sitting on top of the snow. The bunny would stop, wait for Queenie to get within 20 feet, then blast off 50 feet ahead, stop and wait. All three of us were having fun: the rabbit watching this poor snow-shoe competitor; Queenie, determined to get that rabbit, like a farmer-boy at his first Klondike Days shooting gallery; and me, watching the whole affair. I finally had to call the dog off, because she would have chased that animal back to Edmonton.
Another day I was driving slowly back to the plant from the river, letting Queenie run behind the truck , when she started barking profusely. I shone the large flashlight I had at the subject of her interest and saw a large round object in the ditch. It was a large stone, that must have looked like something threatening to the dog. In spite of my pleas to stop barking, telling her "it's only a rock, Queenie", she persisted. Finally I had to get out of the truck, walk up to the rock and "pet it" to show the dog it was "safe". She reluctantly moved forward and sniffed it, letting out a couple barks as I was walking away, as if to say "Well, I wasn't really barking at the rock, I just wanted to bark!".
But I Was Hungry, Master?
I never brought Queenie to work on day-shift, unless it was the week-end. Then, it was just for company, and to "bond" with my dog, not to have her for security. One weekend I left her tied up using her choke-chain to a metal post in the control room, while I went into the plant, where she did not like to go. Just as I returned through a side-door to the control room, the electrician-supervisor for the complex walked in through the front door. Well, the dog snarled and barked and pulled on her choke-chain as if a grizzly bear had just popped up out of nowhere. The electrician almost peed his pants! His face turned crimson-red! I got Queenie to stop barking, and explained that her bark was worse than her bite, although he didn't really want to test my synopsis. A few days later, my supervisor informed me that "animals" were not really allowed on the plant site. He said that he had to tell me that, it was his job, but he understood why the dog came with me. He told me to not bring her on any day shift, just in case.
Wanna Go For A Ride, Queenie?
I was late for work one winter morning and was really moving down the highway, in my 1968 fast-back Mustang, with Queenie in the passenger seat. The wind was blowing and it was snowing. Up ahead on the highway was a large snowdrift covering the two lanes of the road. Now a normal person would probably slow up as they approached such a barrier, but I figured I could just blast through, so I put the pedal-to-the- metal, hitting the snowdrift at about 80 miles per hour. I felt the car go up in the air, turn around one and one half times, and land, sliding backwards into the ditch on the other side of the highway. When I stopped I asked Queenie if she was okay, because by then she was laying hap-hazardly on the floor of the car. I was REALLY late for work then, getting out of the ditch by paying a farmer $20 to pull me out with his tractor.
Three years after I started there the company pulled the operators out of Water Treat, giving management and control to the Ethylene Oxide Plant . As a result, I was transferred to the Chlorine Plant. I could no longer take Queenie with me (nor would I have wanted to expose her to the chemicals there), and since I didn't have to do the river run, I had no good reason to.
A few years ago I took my "significant other", Barbara, with me to the Bearspaw Water Treatment Plant in Calgary. I left her in the control room to chat with the operators as I repaired some part of their control system. When we left the Plant, she asked "Just what is it operators do anyway? These guys were reading, one was sleeping, and the TV set was on!". I explained that an operator isn't paid to work every minute of the day: he's there to keep the plant running, and if its running well, with no routine work to be done, then the operators can "relax".
So it was at Dow. I had routine work to perform, usually at certain hours of the day, but when that was done, I could do other things. Like work on my car. Or drive the hell out of one of the company trucks. Anything to keep one amused.
One of the Water Treat operators was an amateur astronomer/photographer, so he just loved night shift. He didn't have to go far from the plant to get darkness and good seeing conditions. I'd wash my car on the off-shifts, that is, the shifts that weren't the normal 8 AM to 5 PM, Monday to Friday day-shifts. I didn't work on cars too much then, and wouldn't want to take the chance that my car wouldn't start the next morning. For the most part, I read a lot. I had bought this 3000 page Science Encyclopedia, a book that was almost 4 inches thick. I read it. Not only that, but I took notes. It took me over a year to go through it. I still have the book. I should read it again.
I entertained myself in other ways too. One of my favourite past-times was picking up the rubber stoppers on the cooling tower decks and throwing them into the outlet of the huge horizontal-mounted 22-foot fan blades. Those massive blades would kick that stopper 100 feet into the air. Quite amusing to watch. Not so amusing would have been me slipping on the algae-infested water-flooded deck,where I was retrieving the stoppers from. It was 60 feet in the air, with no guard-rail to stop my fall.
I used to experiment with some of the chemicals, just for fun, and scientific curiosity. We had to add sulfuric acid to one of our water streams in the Water Treatment Plant, so I would mix this with other chemicals or burn insects. All in the name of science.
The Mud Bath
When I was at Water Treatment and having to go down to the river to take readings, I used to "experiment" with the company trucks. It was especially fun when we were given the only 4-wheel drive vehicle (an International Scout) at the complex. Four-wheel drive vehicles were very rare in the early 70's, so this truck was quite expensive and special. Well, one fine spring day I wanted to test the 4 wheel drive capabilities of the truck, so I decided to forget the roads and get to my destination "cross-country". I headed across this area that looked like a dried up lake bed, well at least the surface was all cracked and dry. I hit the area at about 40 mph and sunk the truck right up to the doors! When I managed to push the door open against the mud, I got out and sunk to my knees. No way I was going to get out of this mess with only 4 wheels. Since it was Saturday, I radioed to the security guard (a person I had befriended) to come and get me. He did so, but said he couldn't help me out because he had some other important activity to do. (He just didn't want to get involved with a trouble-maker like me). I was driven to the shop area where I managed to procure a large truck known as the "cherry-picker". It supposedly got it's name from its original purpose: to pick cherries! However, rather than having a bucket at the end of it�s extendible boom, it had a hook for lifting, or winching objects. I had never driven such a big vehicle, let alone operated all the controls for the boom and winch, but what the hell, a person has to learn sometime.
I understood just how much trouble I would be in if I got this big unit stuck, so I didn't take any more chances, and parked the truck on the road. I put out its extendible support legs, and then started the winch unrolling. Grabbing the huge hook, I dragged it back to the Scout, about 200 feet away, then ran back to shut the winch off before it started looping back on itself, possibly breaking the cable.
I didn't care how dirty I got at this point, because I was in danger of being severely disciplined, (or at the very least get my peepee whacked), so I laid down in the mud to get the hook attached to the truck. Then I ran back, winched the Scout out of the bog, disconnected, brought the truck back, walked back to get the Scout. Then I washed it off to destroy the evidence of my folly. Luckily, the plant that I was responsible for was running okay and there were no upsets. No one ever discussed this matter with me, despite there being a witness from another plant who was laughing too much to come and help me with my plight. He was sitting in his truck on another road, watching me winch the Scout out of the muck.
A few months later, "Zero" got the truck stuck near the cooling towers. It was always wet and boggy around there, so it was easy to visualize a vehicle sinking in the water-saturated earth. Zero didn�t know when to stop when it came to trying to free himself, and he destroyed the trans-axle that cost about $5000 to repair. When this was mentioned to me by my supervisor, all I could do was exclaim what a fool Zero was. "What was he doing off the road anyway?" I asked. "Some people; always fooling around!"
I used to throw a very strong dye, used for colouring anti-freeze, into the sewer at various locations, then rush down to the effluent ponds or the river outlet and measure the time it took to get there. This was only for fun and scientific curiosity: figuring out the speed of the effluent flow.
I'd spend a lot of time in the Complex's "bone yard". This is where any old, unused parts, like pipe, valves, wire, etc. were stored because they were surplus. I used to check out stuff, take some of the obviously "junk" materials to my plant, or home to use them for my own projects. Some of the more potentially "worthy" goods I would ask for, and was almost always granted permission. I once picked up a gas chromatograph for nothing because it was just old junk. I still, to this day, have a bunch of the precision calibrated potentiometers that I use in my electronic projects. Dow was really the beginning of my second career: that of junk-collector!
One day at Water Treat a flowmeter that metered the raw water from the outside settling pond into the plant stopped working. Because I was curious how the meter worked, rather than phone for an instrument man, I decided to check it out myself. I shut down the deep well pump, blocked everything in, and pulled this very large, and heavy, turbine flow-meter out of the 12 inch pipe line. I don't remember what I fixed (it could have been weeds jamming the mechanism), but I did fix it. When I reported it in the log book, my supervisor was quite pleased that I had take on a job like that. I told him I was "having fun. With more experience under my belt as an Instrumentation Technologist, I look back and think this was a pretty trivial job. But at THAT time, it wasn't. I had no idea what I was doing, and I had to shut down the deep well pump, allowing the clearwell to get dangerously low. I could have lost the boiler feedwater pumps, which would have been REAL bad! Fortunately the meter went back together okay, and I got the gasket on correctly so it didn't leak. (If the gasket would have broken or leaked, I could have lost it all then as well).
That incident reminded me of a situation I had when I was about 13 years old. We had boarders at our house who worked the pipeline as it passed through town. One of boarders, Ralph, stayed around and began dating my mother. He bought a new lawnmower for me to cut the grass, and one day, in my curiosity of how things worked, I took the thing apart! I had the head of the engine off and any other easy part I could remove. I put it all together and the damn thing didn't work! Now I started to sweat. I would be killed for doing this, even though Ralph was such an easy-going guy. My cousin, a mechanic was asked for his opinion of what the problem could be (I didn't tell him what I did) and he thought it was the head gasket. So the next time someone went to Edmonton and I went along, I got a gasket from some small engine repair shop. I took the engine apart again. Now that I was an expert, it came apart much faster. Sure enough, the gasket was shot and the replacement fixed the problem. No one ever knew I had done this, but I did tell Ralph about it 30 years later.
Whenever drilling rigs were on site to drill new brine wells, I would check out the equipment when the workers weren’t around. One well that had been drilled and cased was about 6000 feet deep, the average depth of the salt field. Of course the light of a flashlight only went down about 5 feet before it diverged enough that one couldn’t see down to the bottom. Ahh, to have the lasers I have now to play with! I dropped one end of a very long extension cord down the pipe, and the entire string dropped out of site. I then entertained myself by dropping stones down the well, trying as best I could to get it to drop straight down and not bounce off the insides of the pipe. The sound reverberated for what seemed like minutes on the rock’s journey to the bottom. Did I calculate the depth using the time and Newton’s equations for acceleration due to gravity? No. The sound gradually petered out without an ending "thud" signifying it got to the end. In spite of the rock making lots of noise all the way down the tube, it was so deep that vibrations in the pipe just petered out to nothing.
The security guard called me one evening to tell me the workers on the rig were complaining about a strong chemical smell that was burning their eyes. I met the guard down by one of the huge Commonwealth Drilling rigs that was drilling another brine well. He had a gas sniffer with him to detect minute vapours of chlorine gas, which he had been using at ground level, detecting nothing. The rig hand said it was worse up in the crowsnest, about 60 feet above the drilling deck and would the guard or I go up there? He said "here, I’ll show you how we get up there", as he proceeded to step on this little 18 inch square plate and grab a cable coming down from the crowsnest. When he gave the signal, he was accelerated upwards like a friggin’ catapult! Up until then it sounded like fun, but now it was like that sling-shot ride at the Calgary Stampede. I didn’t need any organs repositioned so I said no, and instructed him on how to do the sniff test.
Fun with the Wife
I had fun one night at Water Treatment with my wife. Yes, my wife. I was 20, she was 19, and she was 8 months pregnant. Lynn didn’t want to stay alone in our apartment in Edmonton one night, so I asked her if she wanted to come to work with me. "Is that allowed?", she asked. "What’s that got to do with it?", was my reply. So I came upon a plan to get her in without asking for permission, which I most certainly would not have obtained.
About a mile from the plant, under the cover of darkness, she got out of the seat of my car, and into the trunk. Now this car was a fastback 1968 Mustang, and those that know the kind of car it was know the trunk was very small. I had put some blankets in there so she would be comfortable and hopefully not pop the kid on my way through the gate. How would I explain THAT!
We went through the gate, then to Water Treat where I hurriedly shoo’ed the operator away so I could see if my wife survived. She did, and lasted about 2 hours before she couldn’t stay awake anymore and had to go to sleep in the back seat. That was more uncomfortable than the trunk.
In the morning, I had to wake her up to put her back in the trunk so I could sneak her out. The baby, our first, was born a month later. In a hospital.
Homer And The Coke Machine
I used to go to the warehouse/shop after hours not only to snoop around and play with the equipment but also to get pop or candy from the machines in the lunch room. One night, convinced that I could probably get a free pop if I could figure out how the drop mechanism worked, I stuck my arm up the outlet channel, and felt around. I could feel the cans, and the big wheel that they were stored in. I kept feeling around, thinking if I could find a micro-switch or something that would open the trap door, I could trip it and get my free pop. Well, I touched the wrong side of a switch and got the shock of my life, with my arm halfway up the machine! Man, did I get a lesson fast.. I was reminded of how "art" imitates life recently when, on a episode of "The Simpsons", Homer had to walk around with a pop machine on his arm because he got it stuck doing the same thing I did!
When I was 17 or 18 I saw a show on TV that scared the daylights out of me. Of course, when I was about 12, I used to scare the daylights out of myself by using my own hand, fingers outstretched coming towards my face! The show I saw was about a human arm that fell out of a space capsule after the craft blew up in space. Despite the corny, unbelievable concept, it got scarier as this arm crawled around the country killing anyone who somehow had something to do with the space mission. It would pull itself around by it’s fingers, crawling into open windows, up fences and the like. Then it would find a victim and strangle it with the one attached hand. Quite a versatile arm, considering there was no brain around to tell it what to do. "The Hand" came back to haunt me one night when I went down to the brine wells to get samples.
First I had to switch settling ponds. Effluent from the plant flowed into one of two small ponds, which was filled to allow the heavy chemicals to settle out, and then allowed to drain into the bigger settling pond. Since there were two smaller ponds, one pond was always filling while the other was draining. My job, and I accepted to do it Mr Phelps, was to crank open the large 10" valve that diverted the outlets of pond 1 or pond 2 to the main pond. So it was at 2 AM that I’m down in the river flats doing this. It was dark and it was damn spooky. From what I had seen on television, this was the perfect setting for the Sasquatch. Where was Queenie when I needed her?
Anyway, I positioned the truck so the lights shine inside the door of the building I have to enter to switch the ponds. I had a flashlight in my hand, and shone it out into the trees to make sure no Sasquatch is on his way over to say hello. Wish I had a machine gun.
Satisfied that nothing hairy was in the area, I entered the building, and shone the flashlight inside. No one there either. I shone the light down to the "basement" of the building. Nothing coming up. So far so good, I breathed easier. Picking up the valve wheel and using my flashlight to light up the socket the wheel has to fit into I see this goddamn ARM! Lying there with its fingers pointing up, waiting to grab my neck! Arrrgghggh!!! The hair on my neck is sticking out so much no one could have gotten their hands around it. My hard-hat is being lifted off my head for the same reason. I bolt out of there like a bat out of hell, jump into the truck and drive a million miles an hour back to the plant!
The next day, I was asked where the valve handle was because the next operator couldn’t find it. Apparently it fell in the basement and broke, because it was made of brittle cast iron. When I escaped from THE HAND, I let the handle fall wherever it wanted to; I wasn’t hanging around for a piece of metal when a horrible death was staring me in the face. And the ponds? Well they never were switched, so the one pond filled up and overflowed into the main pond. Since the material in the main pond was flowing into the river, there’s a chance that some real crappy stuff got into the ecosystem. The people living downstream of the river ought to thank me for there being no Sasquatch attacks, because of the extinction of the beasts from drinking the water straight.
The Hand? It was an industrial rubber glove, the kind I wore when I took samples from ponds. I went back on dayshift and got rid of it. That took guts.
(Addendum April 2006: I submitted this story to CBC Radio as a scary story for Halloween and won first prize. I'm still waiting for the movie deal)
The Friendly Giant
There was a funny story (funny because it wasn’t me), concerning this same area on a night shift, and a former Water Treat operator who, like me, had been taking samples. It also involved a giant named Bob. I met Bob one midnight shift when I was alone in the control room of Water Treat. I was "resting my eyes" by resting my head on the desk, which faced the door. I didn’t want to be stabbed by an escaped convict, or grabbed by Sasquatches, so I always sat with my back to a wall, facing the door. All of a sudden, the door flies open, and this incredibly huge "thing" ducks under the door sill (an 80 inch door!) and walks in. He looks like a mountain man: long blonde hair to the middle of his back, full blonde beard, at least 2 inches long, dressed in the most ragged clothes I’ve ever seen. Were it not for the Dow hard-hat he was wearing, I would have pissed my pants then and there. (Maybe I did, but I ain’t admitting nuthin’!) Bob was an operator at the Herbicides Plant where chemicals like 2-4-D and 2,4,5-T were manufactured. Because of the chemical splashes encountered, everyone was issued with khaki uniforms, and these invariably became tattered, especially around the boots. Bob was 6’8" in socks, the boots gave him another inch or inch and a half, and the helmet about another 3-4 inches. What a nice guy! He had just come over to see me, the new operator, to introduce himself.
Now that you know who/what Bob was, I’ll relate the story that was told to me by Reg, the same Reg who worked with me at Styro later, and had worked at Herbicides with Bob. One night the Herbicides guys wanted to pull a prank on the new operator at the Water Treatment Plant. One of them drives Bob down to the ponds, where he hides behind a small hill. Normally, when an operator would drive into the yard to park, he would take a wide turn so that he wouldn’t have to back up the truck, and could conveniently exit the truck on the driver’s side. Well, the operator enters the yard, and just as he’s into the wide turn, the hairy giant Bob, in his tattered clothes jumps out from behind the hill with his arms in the air! Yeeeeehhaaawwww! The operator put the pedal-to-the-metal, almost losing control of the truck as it over-steered and headed towards the big settling pond. He managed to control it and drive at least as fast as I did back to the Water Treatment Plant! The Herbicides guys in on the trick had a real good laugh over that one. I’m not sure what happened to the operator, if he even finished his shift.
When Bob worked at Herbicides he had problems walking under high-lines which were supports for piping and electrical conduit: he hit his head on the cross braces. So he brought the matter up at a plant-wide safety meeting. Of course we all snickered when he told his story, because after all, he WAS 6’8" tall! He made his point that his height, though above average, was NOT that unusual. (In fact a guy at Chlor-Alkali named Tiny, was 6’8" as well.) Within a couple days, all the braces in the entire plant were cut out and moved up a foot.
No one would take on Bob in an argument. After all, he could kill a person just by standing up! So when a safety rule came down that long hair was not allowed, he once again took the matter to task. When he heard the reason behind the long-hair rule was that it was unsafe because it could catch in moving equipment, he suggested tying his hair back. Would that be acceptable? After drilling his arguments into the heads of management, and getting some support from other operators, the safety supervisor conceded that tying one’s hair back in a pony-tail would meet the requirements.
When I went to Toronto with Bob and two other operators, we would always follow Bob into the bar. It was quite neat being associated with this big guy, kinda like tagging along with Dirty Harry. More than once Bob’s head would hit something hanging down from the ceiling in those bars and restaurants. People would always stare and point at us (well Bob) when we walked in.
Going, going, Gong!
I heard another story of some fun the Herbicides guys had with another operator. It was routine for operators to go out and inspect tanks and other vessels in their area at regular intervals. If any strange noises were heard, (possible signs of an impending chemical or steam leak) it was important to investigate. Many operators become nervous wrecks, never knowing what could happen to them on a shift.
One night the operator is making his rounds taking tank readings when he stops to listen to what he thinks is a leak. Unknown to him, a second operator is approaching from another direction. This guy sees the first operator slowly walking around this large tank, moving his head to and fro as he tries to pin-point the source of the sound. The second operator approaches quietly, just around the bend of the tank so he can’t be seen. Knowing full well that the tank is empty, he takes the 30 inch-long pipe wrench he has with him and swings it at the tank. Well that tank responded with a sound you could hear all over the plant, followed by laughter of the perpetrator as he watches the first guy jump out of his skin!
We had a shift supervisor at the complex who was responsible for all the plants on the off-shifts. He had the authority to call out any help or equipment needed in an emergency. He related the story of how some Herbicides commandos went over to the Chlorine Plant and hit the operators there in an early morning raid. Three guys, 15 gallons of water. It was a slaughter. Not to be outdone, a few nights later 3 guys from Chlorine went over to Herbicides to do the same thing. It was well choreographed: they would sneak into the main control room and strike whoever was in there. Past the first door, they looked inside and saw someone at the desk, back to the door, reading the log book. One commando slowly opened the door, two commandos with 10 gallons of water, creep in, splitting apart on each side of the guy at the desk. He had no chance. Five gallons of cold water first from the left, then from the right deluged him, soaking the desk and all the materials on it. The Israelis would have been proud. Perfect execution. Too bad they got the wrong guy! The guy they got was the supervisor of the plant who was there because of a plant upset! Heh heh. There were no operators in the control room, only one supervisor.
The Chlorine Commandos were too busy dumping their water on the poor sloth to consider that he was dressed in civvies, not the traditional khaki of the plant. He obviously had a sense of humor (or an inferiority complex), because he never reported it or had any disciplinary action taken..
The reason for Dow Chemical being in Fort Saskatchewan in the first place was dictated firstly by the huge salt beds 6000 feet under ground. Second was access to lots of water, in this case the North Saskatchewan River. And thirdly, local markets for the chlorine and caustic soda produced. Since Alberta and British Columbia have large pulp and paper mills that use both chemicals, Fort Saskatchewan was a no-brainer for a plant site.
Chlor-Alkali gets it’s name from the products it produces. Real estate-wise we are really talking about 2 different plants, very interrelated. The crystallized and very dense salt (it looks like quartz) is reached by drilling wells deep underground, then injecting hot water to dissolve the compound. Using 2000 horsepower feed pumps, the brine is pushed up the dual-walled pipe, up the hill, to the Chlorine Plant into a raw brine tank. It leaves the tank where hydrochloric acid is added to it to make it more conductive to electricity, necessary for electrolysis to occur. The brine enters the chlorine cells where huge DC currents split the sodium chloride molecules into constituent sodium and chlorine atoms. The sodium reacts with the water in the brine to produce sodium hydroxide (also called caustic soda), and the chlorine and hydrogen gas bubbles off the top of the cells.
The cells are not some puny little things the size of a desk. No, these behemoths are 12 feet by 12 feet square, by 2 feet wide, and that’s just ONE cell! Forty of these together make up a skid. The tops and bottoms are 12 inch thick concrete and the sides something like 8 inches thick. Inside each cell is a metal screen, coated with paste asbestos, and inside the screen was a large 1" thick graphite block (fluffy asbestos that looks like the loose, gray coloured, cellulose insulation in house attics, is like papier-mâché when it gets wet. It makes a nice thick paste.) These are the anodes of what can best be described as a big battery in reverse. Forty of these cells are pushed together, sealed with big gobs of sticky black "mastic", a cross between rubber and home caulking. To keep this skid together, 4 of the longest bolts you could ever imagine squeeze the 4 corners together. It’s like handling a very large Dagwood sandwich, with your fingers representing the 4 clamps. It’s all put together "Mechano-style". Think of one of those Betty Crocker square freezer cakes cut up into 1" slices and you basically have the layout and proportions of a skid. The small plant, where I worked, had 5 of these skids in operation, with one always down for maintenance or rebuild..
At both ends of the skid were the copper cathodes, connected by a large collection of about 50 cables, 2" in diameter. These power cables transmitted the power from the rectifier room where AC was converted to DC. No small battery here: I remember 80,000 Amperes at 550 volts showing on the control panel. This was for the cells only, not the entire plant or plant site! At the time I was there, in the 1970’s, Dow Chemical was the 3rd largest power consumer in the province, only Edmonton and Calgary used more. When more chlorine production was required, it was a simple matter of turning the big black dial on the control panel that changed the current flow. More current caused more electrolysis which created more product.
Two ¼" plastic hoses coming off a large 6" header pipe fed brine into each side of the cell. At the bottom of each cell, was a 2" plastic outlet pipe from where the caustic solution flowed, into a large 2 foot wide concrete collecting trough. Each trough fed into an underground storage tank from where the liquid was pumped to the caustic plant (the "alkali" in Chlor-Alkali). Chlorine and hydrogen both came off the top of the center of the skid and could be kept separate by virtue of their different molecular weights, chlorine being much heavier than hydrogen.
Chlorine of course is a dangerous gas. In strong concentrations it attacks the tissues of the lungs making breathing difficult, or impossible. In the latter case, you die of asphyxiation. When I would walk in the cell area, there was always a smell of chlorine and a slight haze was obvious. When the haze became green, it was prudent to use the respirator (hanging from my neck at all times). When it was thick enough to really burn your eyes I had to don a Scott Air Pac.
Gate? What Gate?
I heard a story about a chlorine spill that drifted across the complex towards the Herbicides Plant. Although the guys had Scott Air Pacs there to protect themselves from their own products, they didn’t plan on sticking around with this green cloud hanging over their plant. Some guys jumped into a pickup and headed for the gate. Whether the gas cloud was too thick, or they just didn’t care, they didn’t stop to open the steel gate. Crash!! Knocked that sucker flat to the ground. Gate? What gate?
While working at Chlor-Alkali I got a sore throat (go figure!) so I went to my local doctor in St.Albert. I didn’t talk to the Company nurse or doctor because I didn’t see anyone else from the Chlorine Plant complaining, so assumed this was a "local" thing. The doctor asked where I worked and with what chemicals. As soon as I mentioned the word "chlorine" he said "Well that’s why you have a sore throat!". (Doctors go to school for 10 years to make this quick determination.) He then made me fill in a form for the Workmen’s Compensation Board. A week later, the Safety Supervisor who oversaw these kinds of things called me in and asked me why I went to the WCB. Obviously I was naïve about such matters and responded as such. I was sent away with a warning that all medical problems be reported to the Safety Department first so they could investigate, then send me to the Company doctor. Shades of Silverwood. (See the movie with Cher. Cover-up. Cover-up.)
Speaking of the Medical Facility….
As the complex grew, the necessity for better medicals and closer control became more important. So Dow built a small medical center in the administration building and staffed it with first one nurse, then two. They then began routine medical tests, mandatory for all employees. They did hearing tests, vision, usual blood pressure, cardiogram, etc. They also took blood, for analysis at the clinic in town. A very dangerous and unfortunate incident developed from some blood samples taken by the nurse one day. She got the names mixed up on the blood samples. Now just this fact alone would not have caused a problem had the blood work not turned up any difference between the two involved. But what happened was one of the men had a serious liver ailment that the other (healthy) man suddenly inherited! So the guy who had been "okay" suddenly got a serious disease, and the sick guy (who knew before this test he had a problem), was suddenly cured! Boy, did the fur fly over this one. All into the same fan as the other stuff.
I was the cell operator at Chlor-Alkali. It was my job to take care of the brine well pumps and the cells. After I produced the raw products, it was up to the other operators (acid and caustic) to treat it and convert it to useful high grade product.
I had some pretty terrible jobs to do as cell operator. I hesitate to say it was the worst job at Chlor-alkali, because I would hang out with the other operators once in a while, and observe their jobs. I was satisfied that we all ALL had crappy jobs.
One of my rotten jobs was taking samples. Every two hours, I had to carry a large container, that held forty 100 ml sample bottles, to the top of a chosen skid and sample each one of the forty lines going into each cell. The minimum required safety gear (now fashionably known as "Personal Protective Equipment") was hard hat, monogoggles, acid-proof high top rubber boots with 1" rubber soles, thick high temperature rubber gloves, and a respirator. The monogoggles completely protected the eyes by forming a seal around the user’s face, much like gas-welding goggles, or ski goggles. The lens was unbreakable polycarbonate, which also resisted scratches. The rubber boots weighed a couple pounds because they were steel shank and toe, in addition to covering half of the shin. These things were good for any abuse. Walk in mud, caustic, concentrated acids, with impunity. We were supposed to check for continuity of the boots before starting the shift, or any time we felt our toes tingle when walking on top a skid. We never forgot that there was only porous concrete separating our soles from 550 volts DC and 80,000 amperes. We would be reminded when we felt a "buzz" in the boot. The respirator was a mouth type, that is, a person stuck it in his mouth and put his lips over the rubber piece to get a good seal. Quite similar to the mouthpiece of underwater diving gear. At the end was a carbon canister, good for small concentrations of chlorine. It was no substitute for a Scott Air Pac, but would allow a person to work, and save himself in case of a bad leak. (Save himself for 10 seconds. We could hold our breath THAT long!)
The process of sampling sounds fairly simple, and it was: pull the plastic tube out of the cell (watch the green gas come up the little hole), and let the brine/acid solution fill the little bottle. Well by the time I’d get half-way through the 40 cells, my hands would start to tingle because my hands were sweating inside my insulated rubber gloves. Sometimes I would continue (after all it was just a little buzz) because I was too lazy to go get a fresh pair. When I got the "buzz in da’ boot", I couldn’t just change my boots because we only were issued one pair. I could change my socks, but that was too trouble-some. I could endure more in my feet than I could in my hands so I usually ignored it. It wasn’t painful, just irritating because you always wondered what would happen if you stepped on an area that was maybe a little thinner or more conductive than others.
They Called them "Feeders", but They Were Really Pee’ers
One of the most irritating occurrences was when a feeder broke at the header. The brine would piss out 20 feet, getting the operator all wet in the process. Remember the brine is conductive at this point, and this solution is connected to that high voltage just below the operator. I was hit in the face more than once with this stuff, once when I had my monogoggles on my forehead! It was early in my career as a cell operator and I got careless, removing my goggles so I could "see" better. They got fogged up due to the extreme 35 degree heat and humidity on top of the skids. I got some of the solution in my eye, left the damn feeder to piss way up in the air, and ran down to the eyewash fountain. I was okay, and again didn’t report the incident for fear of being called an idiot. I wanted to go blind instead. (The brine contained about 10% by volume of Hydrochloric Acid). I was an idiot, who needed to be called one?
Getting back to this errant feeder, I had to get a similar piece of plastic tubing , remove the broken piece with it’s bushing and lock nut, and install these pieces on the new tube. Then, with 30 or 40 pounds of pressure resisting my efforts to slip this nut back onto the header, I would get all wet again. Have you ever been sprayed with a hose by your little brother and tried NOT to get wet by putting your hand in front of the nozzle that was pointed at you? That’s the effect. Then I was really wet and salty, like sushi. Pickled sushi. I would finish my sampling round before changing in case it happened again. Man, I just hated it when that happened.
Another crappy job, related to the above was "rodding" a feeder. If the flow wasn’t up to par with the other ones, due to lines plugging up with salt, I had to take a metal welding rod and shove it into the feeder spewing out the acidized brine. Once again, shock city. And almost invariably, the brittle (from the heat and chemical mistreatment) plastic tube would snap and I had to replace it anyway. Arrrgghhhh!
It was important that the pH be maintained at somewhere between 1.35 and 1.5. The sampling procedure was a backup for the installed pH analyzers that failed at least once per shift. The analysis I did was quite quick, though not automated as much as it could have been, even back then in the ‘70s. Each of the 40 was analyzed, the date logged, and the SuperTech would look at them to see if he had to make a process, or pH meter calibration change. The pH meters actually were part of a feedback control loop, so if the pH dropped, less acid would be mixed in with the brine, and if the pH rose, more acid would be added. If the meter itself was giving a false reading, as determined by my analysis, then the ‘super’ could "re-zero" the analyzer to put things back in sync.
Rodding Caustic Outlets
Another hated job, which only had to be done once per shift, was rodding the caustic outlets. The outlets were made of 2" plastic and were continually dumping out a hot 10% solution of sodium hydroxide into the large collecting trough all along the side of the skid. Since the skids were put together like some kind of Lego, for easy tear-down and re-build, the concrete collectors had to be temporary as well. As a result the trough was made up of 10 or 20 foot sections of concrete that were pushed together and held in place with the same mastic that made the cells leak proof. When the flow would diminish from any outlet, it was necessary to insert a large rod, similar to re-bar, into this outlet to restore flow. Once again, shock city, only much more prevalent. Here I would change gloves often, and make sure my boots weren’t conductive. We had a tester where we put our boot in water and held on to a metal lead; if the indicator light went on, we "theoretically" couldn’t proceed to the cell area.
Rodding could cause another problem. If the rod hit the asbestos diaphragm it could knock a piece off and expose the metal cage underneath, and the graphite anode under that. Then the caustic flow would turn black forcing the operator into a quick action before the anode became consumed by the caustic. This membrane was all that separated the caustic from the brine, a kind of osmosis curtain. Next rotten job was mixing up a solution of powdered asbestos with water, in a 5 gallon pail. We did this on top of the skid because when water was added to asbestos it was heavy like cement. The first time I saw this done and then had to do it myself, the operator training me said "You should put your respirator on, because asbestos isn’t the best stuff to inhale". He also compared it to Fiberglas insulation, saying it was as "irritating". People wonder why I laugh when I see a room cleared if a little chunk of asbestos (actually cellulose) insulation falls from the ceiling.
I have since read a report that showed that cigarette smokers are 8 times more likely to develop lung cancer if exposed to asbestos, because the asbestos acts as a "promoter". I smoked. I asbestosed. Damn.
Anyway, this thick soup of asbestos was then poured down the center of the cell through a 2 inch hole in the top of the cell. Boy the chlorine sure spewed out of there! By virtue of the natural brine flow through the damaged membrane the asbestos would just fill and plug the hole. Goodbye and have a nice day.
I had never worn a respirator before coming to Chlor-Alkali and it required some practice. The part that was put in the mouth fit in there like a hot-dog with edges: once it was in, you had to wrap your lips around the edge of the tube. Rookies like me had to use the nose clamp to make sure we never breathed through the nose when in a gassy area, but I just couldn’t get used to it. Eventually, after forgetting the plug so many times, and then finding myself in a green atmosphere (chlorine is green, and heavier than air) breathing through my nose, I learned. Pavlov’s dog all over again.
One problem that developed with the respirators was the mouthpiece would get salty/acidy from laying on the front of my chest which was usually wet with brine. Put that in your mouth and suck it for awhile. Not pleasant.
I was a cigarette smoker when I worked there, but I might have had only 1 cigarette the entire shift. Even a small whiff of chlorine that would not need a respirator to work with would get into the body’s breathing parts and linger there, making a cigarette taste like the worst chemical taste you could ever have. It was nauseating. Almost made me quit. Should have when I had such a good reason to.
Dow provided free milk to all the plants like they provided coffee. In Chlor-Alkali it was a health thing, the other plants only got the milk because the chlorine guys did. Apparently the milk was good for those that were continually breathing in chlorine. I’m not sure if we had to inhale the milk or what. In any case, I drank the stuff.
Turn, Turn, Turn
I only had to work one turn-around on day-shift. A turn-around was a big shut-down which we had about once every year. All through the year anything that needed repair that couldn’t be repaired while the plant was running was scheduled for the turn-around. Since the cell area was mine to take care of, I was the one responsible for making equipment safe for the workers to work on. This involved closing valves, draining pipes, purging with water or nitrogen, locking out electrical equipment so it wouldn’t start up. After turn-around was the startup, which was equally as harrowing because of all the work involved. Brine levels had to be brought up properly, in sync with power increases. As the caustic started to flow, there was lots of rodding to do. Sometimes 20 of the 40 cells, on ONE skid would have to be rodded. And during startup there were always chlorine releases into the building, which is why only the cell operator was allowed in the area at this critical time. (When I left Dow, I forgot to thank them for their consideration…)
At about the time I left Chlorine for EO, a new Chlor-Alkali plant was being constructed. This was a 600 ton-per-day chlorine producer, whereas the old plant where I worked was max’ed out at 300 tons per day. I do believe there is an even bigger plant than this, Chlor-Alkali III, that was built 10 years ago. Hey, I’m not writing a technical book here, I don’t feel I have to do research to get the facts!
At the chlorine plant, after my Cell Operator training , my immediate supervisor was the Supervising Technician, or as they were known at the time, the "Control Operator". This guy, who’s name I’ll never remember, and that’s unfortunate, was a really good guy to work with and for. He was always giving me helpful hints, asking me how my part of the plant was going, how my job was, etc. He would even come out and help me every once in a while. What I remember most about him was that he was always cheerful and never really pushed his weight around in the control room. He left Dow a few years later to work up in a new pulp and paper mill in Grande Prairie, because there was possibility of management type jobs up there if you got in early enough. (Addendum April 2006:Actually I do remember. His last name was Samoil)
The guy who trained me for his position of cell operator, Monty, moved one supposed "step up", to become the Acid Operator. I say "supposed" because Monty had to take care of the process whereby hydrogen gas was lit in a burner and allowed to burn in an atmosphere of chlorine gas. This was done in a tower with little "waterfalls" designed to absorb the combination of the gases, creating hydrochloric acid (HCL). He was kind of like a bull in a china shop: everything he did, he did it with total abandon. (As the driver of the "trackmobile", a small railroad engine for moving tank cars around, he derailed it and a string of cars more than once. He actually ran over the derailer.) When he taught me my job, it was like learning how to sweep floors: "do this, do that, simple, don’t worry, blah, blah, blah". He was talking about dealing with chlorine gas, hydrogen gas, caustic soda, hydrochloric acid, like he was talking about roasting marshmallows! He knew his job and he wasn’t afraid of anything. I was afraid at first, but got used to the idea of what I was dealing with. I attribute my good safety record to just that: being afraid. I always respected things that I knew would kill me, and not feel remorse in the morning!
Getting Initiated CA1 shower
Since I was the only operator at Water Treat on my shift, I never had any opportunities to pull tricks on others. In fact, because I was so new to industrial work, I never knew that horse-play even took place. That changed when I moved to the Chlor-Alkali (also known as Chlorine) Plant where there were 4 operators on shift. On my very first day in my new job there, I was taking a hot shower after a miserably long 12 hour night shift, when another operator comes bursting into the shower stall with a 5 gallon pail of cold water. This had the effect of waking me up, and was my initiation into the group. I heard from others that I was lucky I was wet when I got hit. Others had been doused just as they got their work clothes on at the beginning of the shift, and still others, with a bucket over the toilet stall!
Another pastime at the Chlorine Plant that others took part in was filling paper bags with hydrogen gas, a product we produced there in abundance. The bags were filled and allowed to float up in the air. Well, one time one of these bags ventured close to a stack that was burning excess hydrogen and the bag started on fire. This was definitely a dangerous situation, but luckily the bag burned itself out before something else caught fire. The practice ended that night.
The Big Sausage
Another time, one of the senior operators was having fun with "surgical hose", the kind of soft and pliable rubber hose used to hook chemical apparatus together. He had wired one end of a 2 foot section, closed and attached the other end to the lab water tap, the type with a pointed nozzle. As he slowly turned the tap on, the hose began to expand, both radially and along it’s length: it was almost 3 inches in diameter and over 5 feet long and still expanding! By then no one wanted to be around it in case it "blew" when one got close. So we all moved to the other side of the control room to watch. Just then, the weight of the "sausage" pulled the end out of the tap and all the water shot out of the open end, mostly into the sink. What a let-down! Just before we left our shift, the operator hooked it up again, but tied it off at the tap so it wouldn’t slip off. I never did find out if the next shift found it in time, or if they were "surprised". Heh heh heh.
Field of Dreams
The process of making chlorine involved the hydrolysis of brine which, using immense amounts of power. This created an immense magnetic field, so intense that we were told never to wear a watch, because it wouldn’t work the next day. One experiment that I performed to measure the power of this field was hanging tools from my tool belt on the side of the chlorine cell. I could take my 12" crescent wrench and have it hang horizontally from the vertical surface of the cell! That’s right, at right angles, and it would stay there! I also tried nails and made a long chain with them, the same way.
Mama Was Poppin’
My wife was in labour with my son one midnight shift that I was working. Unlike the kind of jobs most people work where they can just leave and no one will miss them, I could not just leave. My job was very important and we just couldn’t phone someone at 2 AM to ask him to come in and work. When my shift ended, I drove right to the hospital, spent all day with my wife who was still in labour. Finally, after 13 hours the boy was born, and after another hour with the wife, I left. I slept for about 2 hours at my mother’s, got some hand-outs for my lunch that night, then went back to work for another 8-hour midnight shift. Nowadays, wimpy fathers take "paternity" leave for two weeks.
Ethylene Oxide Plant
I wasn’t at Chlorine long, when the opportunity came up for a job at EO. This plant was considered the "retirement" home, because the process was so clean with few noxious chemicals that it ran forever without problems. My supervisor there was a guy named Wes, and he was the SuperTech It was at this time that operations voted on the proposal to move from 7 day, 8 hour shifts, to 3 day, 12 hour shifts. I voted against it, the other 49 operators voted for it, so it was carried. (To this day I don’t understand why I voted against it, because after my first week of 12 hour shifts, I just loved the new pattern. We were basically working 3 days, then get 3 days off, then 3 night-shifts, and another 3 days off. I had a long weekend every 3 days!)
Wes was a great guy. He was quite brilliant and had a good sense of humor. He never talked down to me, and would often help me with some of my jobs, like loading trucks, changing out the ethanolamine absorber, the worst job I had to do at EO. He was a good conversationalist but spoke only when he had something interesting to say; never hogging a conversation. I learned a whole lot from this guy because he was capable of doing so many things. He was the best teacher I ever had at the complex. We saw each other socially a few times for non-Dow functions, and usually sat together for Dow functions. He liked a good practical joke and was fully capable of pulling one. He taught me that kind of stuff too.
Joe Cool and the Collapsing Tank
To give you an idea how "Joe Cool" Wes was, I’ll relate a story of an event at EO that could have been much more serious than it was.
We had this huge tank that held what we called "base-blend" for antifreeze. Basically it was antifreeze without things like dye, anti-foam and detergents in it. The name of the tank was "hundred-by-fifty", which was a reference to it’s dimensions in feet, that is, 100 feet in diameter and 50 feet high. (When I once referred to it by it’s number, D301, I was laughed at, like we all laughed at the Lieutenant in Good Morning Vietnam when he asked if any one wanted a "beverage"). It held 2 million gallons of antifreeze, about what we sold in a year to about 20 big customers like GM, Ford, Turbo, and Imperial Oil. One warm day (the fact it was warm figures prominently in this story) , during the off-season, the decision was made to repaint the tank. Because this would involve sand-blasting the tank, the supervisor of the plant took it upon himself to walk up to the top of the tank and put a plastic bag over the 10 inch vent spout coming off the roof. This was a tank, not a pressure vessel, so a vent was there to keep the tank at atmospheric pressure while we pumped liquid into and out of it. Because of it’s size, it was located away from our own tank farm of about 40 tanks, and was close to a neighboring plant, Herbicides. It was actually right at the back door of their production floor, close to the control room.
The plastic bag that the supervisor had used was a very tough, thick plastic, used to bag one of the Herbicides chemicals. He put the bag over the vent, securing it with black tape to keep it from falling off. That night it rained. A cool, cool rain.
Evacuate ! Evacuate!
We got an emergency radio call from the SuperTech at Herbicides saying he was shutting down his plant and evacuating the employees, because 100 by 50 was collapsing! Wes listened to the message, trying to calm the guy down. As he was doing so, he walked, not ran, to the area and saw that the tank wasn’t collapsing, but rather buckling inward. He understood the problem right away: the hot air in the tank was cooled by the rain, reducing the pressure within the tank. Because the vent was "plugged", the pressure couldn’t equalize, and this small pressure differential inside and out was enough to buckle the tank. Just like the high school experiment where the teacher heats a metal turpentine can with the top off, puts the top on, then runs the tank under cold water. The can buckles immediately.
Wes walked up, briskly, to the top of the tank, saw the bag half sucked in, like some hard-formed plastic salad bowl. He took his knife and stabbed at it, and was greeted with this loud "whoosh" as the air was let back into the tank. When this happened, the tank bounced back out a couple of feet!
When daylight appeared and we went back for a better look, the tank was the funniest thing you ever saw. It was buckled up just like that turpentine can, only better. Among all the perfectly formed tanks and pipes was this huge accordion! I was curious about the metal thickness, and noticed that where the plates overlapped and were welded (they were not butt-welded), the bottom layer of plates was 1" thick. You would not be able to lift a piece of one foot square 1" metal plate, that’s how heavy this was! As I walked up the stairs on the side of the tank, the plate thickness diminished to about ¼" at the top. The photo below shows a tank that suffered a similar fate. The Dow tank was much bigger than this one.
Fortunately, no antifreeze leaked out of the vessel, that is no cracks developed. The Herbicides operators were worried because they had no idea how full this tank was, and indeed, if it had been full, and the tank blew out at the bottom, they probably would have drowned in antifreeze. The tank was that close to them, and the pit around the tank would not have contained the entire contents. When the tank was filled with antifreeze, over the course of the next few months, the tank bounced out a bit more, with only small bumps to indicate it’s traumatic past.
The supervisor, though he hadn’t really done anything wrong, was fired. He was approaching retirement age and was really just a figurehead, with not very much actual management duties, so he was "marked" anyway for dismissal. The tank implosion only accelerated his demise.
Sweetening the North Saskatchewan
Wes also showed his cool after a major chemical spill. He was so cool, that no one ever found out about it.
Part of my job was to fill tank cars with antifreeze. It took typically a couple of hours to fill a tank car with the loading pumps that we used, so we didn’t stand around and watch. What we did was divide the capacity of the tank car (shown on the side of the car) by the capacity of the pump. I was actually new to the plant and didn’t really know too much about how this worked or the values to use, so I depended on Wes to tell me how long it would take. He came up with an answer of so many minutes, to which we added a safety factor of about 20% where we would have to go visually inspect the tank car to see how full it was. Then we would stay around to top it up. Since this was a tank car operating at atmospheric (unlike liquefied gases like chlorine that were loaded into pressurized vessels), the man-hole in the center top of the car was open, and the loading nozzle just pushed in. The loading pipe was 3" in diameter and when spewing out product did so under good high pressure, so there was a lot of flow. I can’t remember the exact values, but I know it was something like 200 gallons per minute.
So, we started the pump, then went back to the control room for coffee. Close to the allotted time Wes went out to check the tank car, with it’s 20% safety factor built in, and saw that it was overflowing! At 200 gallons per minute! It only took seconds to get to the pump and shut it down, so there was very little loss once Wes saw the overflow. His calculation was wrong because the pump capacity was much more than he thought, so consequently the tank filled up faster than he thought it would. Wes took the tank level readings before and after the "spill" to find out how much went into the car, and how much down the sewer and came up with a loss of 8000 gallons! That’s a lot of radiators! Except for the dye, which we would have added at the "20% to go" mark, the antifreeze was fully blended and exactly what you would buy in a store, in 1 gallon bottles. (Let’s see, at $8.00 a gallon, that’s $64,000!)
So here was the dilemma: admit there was a spill and either get fired or ridiculed, or admit nothing and try and "bury it". Since being ridiculed was a fate worse than firing or even death, we decided to bury it. Again I had to depend on the wise man to figure out how to do this. I would have just blamed someone else from another plant... What we did was do a bunch of tank transfers from the buckled "100 by 50" into the tank we took the blend out of. Then we transferred that into other tanks. After a few of these transfers, we were convinced that the 8000 gallons was lost somewhere in the "gauging". The reason this worked was because when we took 40,000 gallons out of the 100 foot diameter tank, the tank gauge only dropped 10". Or was it 9-1/2" or 10-1/2"? It was so subjective that it was easy to say the number that would be beneficial to our cause. (This would have been a good scam for anyone wanting to steal antifreeze.) The other tanks were 40,000 gallons capacity and though the error was less pronounced, we could make ¼" disappear, which amounted to a couple hundred gallons.
The only evidence that "something" happened was an elevated value of "organics" in the effluent, a test done daily on the material flowing to the river. All the antifreeze would have gone to the settling ponds before going to the river, so it most likely reacted with other chemicals and converted into something safer for the environment. Glycol is related, chemically to glucose (sugar) and has a sweet taste to it. (It’s extremely poisonous - Do not do this at home! )
I always wondered why the ponds never froze over. We were never discovered, and the episode taught us how to calculate better.
Rocket fuel. That’s what ethylene oxide ( "oxide") has been used for, and possibly still is, for liquid-fueled rockets. We certainly handled it like it demanded respect. I was told when I first worked there that if either of the two large horizontal tanks "blew", that the plant would be relocated at Sherritt-Gordon, about 5 miles away. I had read of an EO plant in Louisiana that did blow up and destroy the plant. The force of the explosion was so great that it created this immense negative pressure (a vacuum) and when a strong "wind" moved in to replace the missing air, it moved large distillation towers off their huge bolted-down mounts. I saw the pictures, and the towers had been moved towards the explosion. In other words, there was an explosion, followed by an implosion. Both destroyed the plant. Pretty incredible. Convinced me to use the grounding strap whenever I off-loaded the tank cars into the field tanks. We had to use brass tools whenever we worked on any pipe or component that contained "oxide" because brass didn’t cause sparks. More than once I dropped the wrench on top of the tank car, and was glad I was following the rules. We used a brass hammer to make the connections of hoses from tank car to off-loading ramp because the style of connect was called a hammer-union. It was a screw-type fitting, about 2" in diameter, made of stainless steel, and around the periphery of the fitting head were 3 large, very strong looking steel "horns" . This is what we struck with the hammer to insure a leak-free, high-pressure fitting.
I heard a story of someone who got some oxide in his boot. On the way to swelling up to double size, his boot had to be cut off because he couldn’t slip it off normally. This too scared me enough to respect the stuff.
To get the ethylene oxide into the plant we used a special pump to prevent heating of the product which could be a bad thing. Only once when I was operating there did we have anything we could call a "problem". For some reason oxide in the pump wasn’t allowed to recycle back to the tank, and pressure built up in the lines. The heat of the pumping polymerized the oxide in the pump. We had to put the plant on "total recycle" while we took the pump apart and pulled this stringy, gooey substance out of the pump.
Getting a Reaction
The oxide was pumped to a reactor which was just a mixing chamber followed by lots of cooling exchangers. Once the oxide was injected into a water stream, it reacted exothermally, creating lots of heat, and we had to cool it real quick and controlled or the reaction would go out of control. (A loss of cooling water would cause the oxide flow to shut off automatically before this could happen). This simple reaction produced ethylene glycol which we flowed through a triple-effect evaporation system to remove the excess water. The output from the 3rd evaporator would go to the big 100 by 50 tank as "base blend", and some was fed to the first distillation column. The glycol was circulated in big heaters called reboilers and the vapours allowed to permeate upwards within the column. This column contained about 80 "bubble-cap" trays that had good product called reflux flowing from one tray to another, side to side, then top to bottom, over the caps. As the vapors moved up the tower, they would push on the bubble caps, causing the vapor to mix with the reflux. By the time the vapour got to the top, it was pure mono-ethylene glycol. The vapour was condensed into a liquid and sent to the mono tank.
The product at the base of the mono tower was sent to the next tower just beside it, the di-ethylene glycol tower. Here the heavier molecules of glycol were removed, exactly in the same fashion as the mono was produced. The only difference was the tower was smaller because less capacity was needed, and the temperatures needed to do the separation were much higher.
The last product in the chain was tri-ethylene glycol. The "bottoms" from this tower was something we called tars. It was a black, stinky substance from which no useful product could be obtained. We dumped it into a "tar-pot" just below the tower, and emptied the carcinogenic crud into the river and children’s playgrounds. (We had a special area where we dumped this stuff. I think we even sold some of it for use by some company in their process, like paving materials, or rubber manufacturing.)
Thank You Mr. Bernoulli
One thing I always thought was real neat was how we managed to save steam, reduce boiling temperatures of the products, and move product, all with a simple device with no moving parts. I could make one of these in my shop, it is so simple. It was the venturi.
We used high-pressure steam flowing through various injectors (as they were also called) to created a low-pressure zone, that is, a vacuum. This was connected to the 3rd evaporator and the 3 glycol towers. By pulling a vacuum on all the towers, we could reduce the temperature at which the product boiled. The result of this, was less heat needed to boil the product, the vacuum would "suck" product out of the tower (through the condenser), all the while reducing the requirement for steam. Man were they noisy! Extremely maintenance free, for the 3 years I was at EO , we never even looked at these things. They just ran and ran, no need for the Maytag man.
(Daniel Bernouli discovered this effect that led to the venturi invention a century or so ago. It’s the same principle that explains why airplanes fly and toast always falls on the floor jam-first.)
Is Antifreeze All the Same?
We added corrosion inhibitors, anti-foam agents, and dye to base blend, of course, to make antifreeze. The dye had other uses as well: sprinkling it around the toilet seat for some hapless victim was always good for a laugh, especially the red stuff: the guy thought he was dying (well he was dyeing…) This stuff was soooooo potent! Maybe a cupful is all that was required for a 4500 gallon tanker truck. And yes, the antifreeze was 99% the same, there was very little difference in GM, Shell, Canadian Tire, or Imperial Oil brands. Only the color was different. This isn’t to say there was no difference, but the differences were so minuscule to not care about. For example, the only difference between GM’s brand and any other might have been an extra cup of anti-foam, or a different pH level, indicating how much corrosion inhibitor was in the product. This was somewhat disconcerting to my Chevy-loving brother who always bought GM-brand anti-freeze as dictated by his owner’s manual. He paid about 3 times the price too!
The equipment at EO ran for years without maintenance. Unlike a place like Syncrude that has to pump sand-slurries most of the time, we pumped antifreeze which is slippery like oil. Pumps that had been working non-stop for 20 years were still going. So it was indeed a pleasure to work at EO, where pretty well nothing broke.
The process I mentioned was one half of the plant. On the other half was the amine process. The plant was really laid out that way: when I went out the control room door and entered the process area, on the left was glycols, on the right was amines. As I moved through one building to the next, the same pattern was followed. On the left were all the glycol pumps, on the right the amine pumps. This extended all the way to the loading ramps where I offloaded raw materials from tank cars, or loaded our products into tank trucks and tank cars. Never any confusion as to what pump or what tank belonged to what part of the plant.
AAmine production was almost identical to glycol production, except instead of reacting ethylene oxide with water, we used anhydrous ammonia. We didn’t have the triple-effect evaporators, but we did have one column that did the same thing. All the towers on the amine side were smaller, because the production was smaller. In fact we ran glycols pretty well all year, but when the amine tanks were full, we would shut down the amine side for a couple weeks at a time.
Anhydrous ammonia was wicked stuff. When I offloaded this stuff from tank cars I had to wear a full rubber suit, goggles, rubber gloves and face shield. The ammonia was in pressurized tank cars, so hammer unions and large steel flex hoses were used. When I would drain the hoses after unloading the product, I would let the hoses dump out onto the concrete pad underneath the loading dock. The ammonia was so reactive, it would bubble and steam every time it contacted dirt, wood, rocks, water. Quite entertaining to see this stuff work: as good and strong as any acid I’ve worked with. Using a Scott Air Pac was too unwieldy and a waste of good air ( not to mention it was only good for 20 minutes), so I used a respirator, the same type used for chlorine.
We made mono-, di-, and tri-ethanolamines, products used in natural gas plants for scrubbing the hydrogen sulfide out of gas. The worst job at EO was changing out the tri-ethanolamine absorber. This was a vertical tank about the size of a hot water tank with a large opening in the side, covered with a big steel plate. This plate and it’s 20 or so big nuts to hold it on was removed to give us access to the activated carbon inside. After filtering TEA ( pronounced "TEE-EE-AY") for a number of days or weeks, this stuff just reeked with a pungent odor that was barely bearable. We (I say "we" but after being told how to do it by the SuperTech, it was forever-after the job of the lowly operator) would scoop the gooey, smelly carbon out with a small shovel and dump it into a wheelbarrow. It was a real dirty job, and you couldn’t help but get some of that crap on your clothes. After cleaning it out, we washed the filter out, took the top off, added clean carbon and put some "angel-hair" on the top. Angel hair was very soft fiberglass material, and was identical to the stuff you used to be able to buy for decorating Christmas trees. In fact I took some of the stuff home for just that purpose. The angel hair, not the smelly carbon. The absorber was used for maintaining the color spec on the TEA: when it started getting too yellow, we had to change the filter media.
There was a large liquid nitrogen tank near the oxide tanks. We used this material for nitrogen-padding pumps and for purging. A nitrogen pad was a technique for a piston-type pump to smooth out it’s pulsations. A "head" of nitrogen was placed inside a pressure vessel mounted just above the pump output. On the "compression" stroke of the pump, the nitrogen would absorb some of the shock because it was a gas and was compressible, whereas the liquid was not. Then, when the pump was in it’s "suction" stroke, the nitrogen was allowed to expand, pushing out the liquid.
A doctor from the local medical clinic would come out about once a month with a thermos bottle (he called it a Dewar flask, but it really WAS a thermos) asking for a refill. They used it for freezing warts off people. Filling the thermos was difficult because the liquid would vaporize as soon as it hit the warm thermos so that you couldn’t see what was going on. A small thermos of liquid nitrogen didn’t weigh much, so about the only way you could tell if anything was inside was by shaking it. There were times where I’m sure I sent the doctor on his way with a thermos with only nitrogen gas in it!
As in all the other plants I worked, part of my regular duties was to do chemical analysis of our products. A regular routine was just at the beginning of the shift, getting samples of all the amines and all the glycols. One of the tests I did was boiling points, a procedure that involved putting 100 milli-liters of product in a boiling flask which was put on an electric heater. I had to watch for the first condensed drop of liquid from the boiling liquid and read the inserted thermometer to get the first "boiling point". If this wasn’t on spec, say too low boiling point, we would send the product to recycle or to base blend, depending on what the product was. Too low a boiling point meant we didn’t boil the product enough in the reboilers, or there wasn’t enough reflux. We made changes, then did the analysis again, continuing until it was on spec. If the boiling point was too high, that meant we were boiling it too much and we were giving away heavy molecules. It wasn’t off-spec, just too good a product! So we had to cut back on the steam to the reboiler or increase reflux.
I had to watch for the first drip, a drip half-way through to determine the "50% point", then the final point. The last one we always missed because we would try and have coffee or a smoke between drips, and just never got back in time. The first drip was the important one anyway…
One day a flask cracked on the heater, causing some of the liquid to drip through to the element. This started a fire which I quickly put out.
We had a fire in the TEA tar pot once too. Some product had come in contact with a hot steam trace around the pot and started the top of it on fire. I noticed it first and calmly said to Wes, "is that a flame I see on top of the pot?" He looked out and said yes indeed, it was. So he ran up there and put it out. No big deal. The supervisors thought it was pretty big deal because they didn’t see how "subdued" the fire really was. It was about as violent as those little methanol heaters they give you in a restaurant to keep the butter melted for your lobster. Considering how all the glycols are flammable, I guess the supervisors had some reason for concern.
The track crew were the guys that actually blended the antifreeze. These guys were the ones that normally shunted all the tank cars around for filling or dumping. They worked with the railway when the big diesel engines came in to pull the real big strings of cars, but they had a Trackmobile that could move maybe 10 cars around at a time, empty ones that is. There were a few reasons why the track crew blended the batches of antifreeze. One was the fact that they weren’t always shunting cars around, so they had extra time. The other was that track was considered a more demeaning job than operations, and blending antifreeze didn’t tax the neurons that much. Wes and I often blended batches when the track crew wasn’t available. The blend was not a complete batch of antifreeze, it was just a blend of the additives mixed with a little bit of antifreeze. When this small batch of chemicals was warmed up and mixed, it was sent to one of the big storage tanks to mix with the much larger amount (usually a few tank cars worth). Then it was analyzed in the lab, some by me, some by the chemical technicians to make sure it met the customer’s specifications.
I would help out on track whenever tanks were coming in my area. I’ve had to hook up brake lines, apply brakes to a moving train, jump on moving cars as they passed by, and couple and uncouple cars. It was a dangerous job so one had to be careful, especially jumping on a string to apply the brakes. The little Trackmobile just didn’t have enough mass or power to stop a bunch of loaded tank cars, so once it got them moving, they were very hard to stop with the Trackmobile alone. The "Li’ll Engine That Could", couldn’t.
Most of the antifreeze tanks were 40,000, with a couple at 60,000 gallons. To pump from one tank to another or from blend tanks to any tank, or from any tank to the loading platform required some well-thought out piping and valving. Most of the pumps, had large manifolds with 4 to 10 valves mounted on them whose piping lead to the various tanks. I remember once having to get some material from one location to another, and was told by the SuperTech that it wasn’t possible, that I would have to pump to one tank, and hook up some temporary hoses to perform the transfer. I knew where every pipe went, so after a little survey, came up with my plan. I had to manipulate 22 valves and put flow backwards through a pump, but I did it. I pointed it out to an incredulous SuperTech who agreed then that it was possible. Ahhh…give me a challenge. Actually I was lazy, I just didn’t want to go through the effort of getting those big hoses hooked up.
What a Relief
After two years as an operator, I was made SuperTech Relief. I was paid more, and had an operator working for me. It was pretty neat. During a shutdown I was Relief, and because I wanted to impress my superiors, I made sure that we did as much of the task list that was given to us as possible. My operator was bitching and complaining that we weren’t supposed to work so hard on night shift, but I persisted. I had to kick his ass to do some work. I still had to do most of it because he was too damn lazy.
Hard Head, Tough Crotch
I had two accidents at EO, but was not injured. I reported both of these because I could have been killed on either. These types of accidents were called near-misses. The first accident was when I was at the top of the all-steel loading ramp and about to come down by the stairs. Because we always ran a steam purge on the loading lines to prevent freeze-up (this was the amine loading ramp: di-ethanolamine froze at 80 deg F.) the blowing steam had made the stairs a virtual skating rink on a slope. I had my hands on the handrail and took my first step, knowing that it was slippery. Despite my trepidation, I slid down that ramp with an acceleration of 1 G: "there weren’t no friction here!" At the very bottom, my right leg stuck out and wrapped around the bottom hand rail support. Luckily I didn’t get that steel bar up my crotch or I’d be writing with a small font like this.
The second "accident" was when I was inspecting a tank car for loading with antifreeze. As I bent over to look inside, the 3" metal loading nozzle, swung down and hit me on the back of my hard hat, knocking it off and into the tank. Had I not been wearing the hard hat it would have hit me right in the back of the head and probably knocked me unconscious. I would have fallen into the tank and been part of some guys car engine somewhere in North America! I retrieved my hat with some wire and then reported this incident. I fully expected to win the "Golden Hat" Award but they didn’t even consider it. Jerks. It was probably just a regular hard hat spray painted gold in the shop anyway.
The Golden Hat was an industry-standard award given out by various industries to employees who were saved from serious injury because they were wearing a hard hat. (In Quebec, they call it the Golden Toque, in South America the Golden Fedora…). I once saw one at Dow and it was actually a very nice shiny gold plated hat, it wasn’t spray painted. I wanted a hat and was willing to get a bump on the head to get one. I should have got the Golden Crotch award too.
MEG Ryan, er… Tower
I climbed the mono-ethylene glycol (MEG) tower for the hell of it. It was 113 feet high. I remember that because when we had our Family Day at Dow, we ran a contest to guess the height of the tower and I had to look it up on the drawings to get the exact height. This was an easy climb, because for every 20 vertical feet climbed there was a landing half way around the tower. So I could stop and look around on my way up. Never took any pictures. What a fool.
I also went IN this tower, just for the experience. The plant had it’s annual "turnaround" and the tower had been opened for inspection and moving of some of the trays inside. The tower was about 4 feet in diameter with an open 18" man-way. Since it was after hours, I asked the Super Tech if I could go inside to check things out. He said, "Sure, why not. The tray you’ll be stepping on supported a 220 pound millwright, so you should be okay". So I crawled in, looked around, pushed up on the bubble-caps in the tray above, pulled on the caps on the tray I was sitting in. How many people do you know can add that to their resume? (Addendum April 2006: I write about a 220 pound millwright like they are a special breed of person that weighs that much. Today, I weigh that much! Obviously I was skinny in my youth, to cast that disparaging comment).
Where Were You In ’72?
When Henderson scored the winning goal for Team Canada in the first Russia-Canada hockey series I was standing at the window in the lunch room with Wes, having a coffee and a smoke, listening to the game on the radio. I remember Wes saying "It’s all over, they’ll have to settle for a tie, they can’t win". Ahhhh. Famous last words. We all know that with only a few minutes left in the game, Henderson scored to win the game and the series. Wes and I were hootin’ and hollerin’ like we had won the lottery. The war was over, and Canada won by beating the Russians. Man, the pride we felt. That 1972 team did more for Canadian unity than any government ever did. My little hockey-player-son was born in 1972, so obviously I was elsewhere in ’72…
Pneumatics Were a Pain
When I worked at EO as an operator, it was also my duty to go to the Water Treatment Plant to check it out because there was no longer operators there. One time on a day shift, I had to fill the brine tank with salt for regenerating the Zeolite softeners. Simultaneously a number of 4500 gallon tank trucks were lining up for loading, so the SuperTech had to do that job while I worked at Water Treat. He didn’t like this at all. Not so much that it was an operator’s job, but because he couldn’t watch the plant. In those days all the control instruments were pneumatic, not electronic, and the alarm panel was not too sophisticated. The latter was relay-operated and the unit failed continuously. Nowadays with distributed control systems that are all computer-controlled, and with solid state electronics for alarms, there is much flexibility in how a plant is run and controlled. Alarms are easier to prioritize so that only the important ones sound in the plant, and they can have different tones for different emergencies. Now, too, if such a situation arose, the operator can walk up to a computer terminal in a remote area and see just what the problem is.
Car 54, Where Are You?
I carried a radio so that I could be contacted in emergencies. One day, Tricky Dicky, the plant manager, called me on the radio in a most asinine and confusing way. We used to follow a certain protocol to call someone so there would be no confusion as to who wanted who. Sort of like the military using the phonetic alphabet to eliminate any ambiguity in the transmission. Instead of saying "Bob Found, are you by?" which was standard, he said something like "Dick Wilson for EO operator". What the hell was that about? I didn’t answer because I didn’t know if it was for me, because there was another operator on shift at the time. He called again and again until I finally answered. He gave me hell for not answering, I defended myself by telling him he didn’t use the radio correctly. When I got back to the plant, all the guys in the control room were snickering when I entered, so obviously they heard both sides of the conversation.
Shortly after this fiasco of me operating Water Treat while my SuperTech did the operator job at EO, management decided to put one person in Water Treat, on day-shift only to take care of the menial tasks. Then we only had to check WT once or twice a shift to make sure the alum feeders weren’t plugging up, or the chlorine ran out.
Wes and I were having lunch one day, when this fly started buzzing around us, and flying erratically like it was drunk. I said "Geez fly, you having an epileptic fit?"
To which Wes replied, "My son has epilepsy".
Man did I feel stupid or what. I felt about 1" tall. It sure taught me a lesson.
Our boss at EO was a fairly smart engineer, older than both Wes and I. Dick was a small fellow with gray/black hair and thick eye brows of the same color. He looked creepy and had a temper, so we all stayed away from him. I was always sheltered by Wes because he was the guy I reported to for day-to-day activities, and didn’t have to talk to Dick about process or production problems. That was Wes’s job.
Every year we had Family Day, where our families were allowed to come in and tour the plant. For the event we had to clean up all the areas to be visited like control rooms, production areas and so forth. We had special displays to illustrate process control in general, or a particular process that we duplicated somewhere in the plant, though on a bigger scale. Areas were roped off to guide the visitors around sensitive or dangerous areas.
We had contests. One of my ideas for a contest was to guess the height of our largest distillation column, which was 113 feet high. The prize, as dictated by Dick, was 1 gallon of antifreeze. I thought this was pretty silly to give a prize of only 1 gallon of antifreeze when we had 2 million gallons of the stuff in the crinkle tank. (Some operators filled 45 gallon barrels of the stuff and took it home.) One gallon was barely enough to replace the antifreeze in an engine with a 50-50 mix. I won. We gave the winner 5 gallons.
"Not Functioning Good"
At one of the displays we set up, (a small control loop mounted on a sheet of plywood) Dick was proudly showing how the loop worked to a fresh group of families that included children. When he was finished with the demonstration he asked for questions. One small boy who looked past the demonstration to a control panel device that had a tag on it asked "What does NFG mean?" All the plant people that were there knew what the letters meant, N for no, G for good, and the F-word in the middle, so we were quite amused when Tricky Dicky replied "Not Functioning Good". He got a good laugh from those who knew the acronym, and a polite thank-you from the little boy.
I got a hernia while working at EO, an aggravated injury I first got a few years before when I worked for the City of St.Albert hauling garbage cans. When I told Dick about this and that I would be in hospital for 11 days (that’s right, 11 days. Now they just cut, hand out band-aids and send you on your way), he was quite concerned. Then I mentioned recuperation time. All this time off was a concern for Dick because he’d have to pay someone overtime while I was gone. I stayed home for about a week after the operation when Dick phones and asks when I can come back. Fool that I was, I said I was "pretty good" and could come back in a day or two. Dick was quite happy with that. When I returned I only took stairs one at a time instead of my usual three, and managed to not pull any stitches out.
At EO one of my first tricks was getting onto the high-line, a structure that supports all the pipes that go from building to building , with a big box of snow. Then, using my radio, I called the SuperTech out to one of the buildings. As soon as I saw the door open, I dumped the snow. Unfortunately, snow doesn’t fall as swiftly as water, and the guy saw the snow coming and jumped out of the way. Damn.
Another favourite was waiting for the SuperTech to go to the washroom, then run to the control panel and pull one of the alarms out, then push it back in. This kept the alarm sounding it’s horn and flashing it’s light, something the SuperTech couldn’t ignore. Once he ran from the washroom, usually belting up his pants or zipping his fly, he would cancel the alarm. When the light went out, he knew it wasn’t a valid alarm condition, and listening to the giggling coming from the back of the panel, knew he had been had.
We never did water-tricks at EO; I’m not sure why not. Wes told the story about some guys having water fights with the high-pressure water-monitors at the Herbicides Plant. They hit the windows on the production floor and blew them all to hell!
Reggie And His Toy Fire Engine
As operators we all had to take part in safety training, which included fire drills with a real fire engine. One day, with a rookie driver (Reg) at the wheel, we pretended we were responding to a fire at Water Treatment. This guy was crazy. I’m on the back hanging on to the bar, just like in the movies, and Reg is driving the fire engine like it’s a go-kart! We went flying around these 20 MPH corners, on gravel, at about 50MPH. One corner he took so fast I’m convinced to this day that the tires on one side of the big machine came off the ground! It scared the living hell out of me. More than THE HAND incident!
Because we didn’t want to have the usual boring practice, we invented games using safety equipment. For example, we practiced putting on a Scott Air Pac. Without help, we could take one out of a case, put it on and start breathing air from the tank within 10 seconds. This was typically a 60 second job if you had to think about it.
Putting on a full rubber suit with a Scott Air Pac on was just as fun. It was almost a tradition for some clown outside the suit to flip open the bypass valve of the Pac inside the suit. This had the effect of pressurizing the rubber suit until it ballooned up like the Michelin tire man.
The Big Disaster Was A Disaster
On a full-scale plant-wide disaster drill one day I was the unfortunate soul who was on shift at the EO Plant, right across from the fire hall. When the alarm went off I wanted to just crawl into a hole, but realizing I couldn’t "not show up", I responded. I opened the door to the fire hall just as the operator from Herbicides showed up and jumped in the cab of the fire engine. Our first "event" was a fire. Talk about realistic: they had a smoke bomb in the middle of an open field that we were somehow supposed to put out. Don’t those things work underwater?
One operator jumped off the back of the truck and made the connection to the hydrant, as the fire engine kept moving forward to unravel the 1-1/2 inch hose. I grabbed the nozzle and ran out to the "fire". As I opened the hose the pressure was so great it started to push me around so I yelled for backup, which should have been automatic. I get 2 guys behind me as I open the nozzle full bore, trying to put out that damn smoke bomb! Just then we get a call on the radio that there’s some kind of pseudo-explosion at the Chlorine Plant. The fire chief who should have been directing us at the scene was the one barking out the orders from some vantage point he had where he could see everything. Well the two operators figured the "explosion" was more important than the fire, so they just walked away! So here I am, hanging on to this violent snake that’s pushing me all over the ground. It was like a silent movie, as this hose tossed me around like a dish-rag, to and fro, to and fro. I was trying to stay on the ground because the hose was pushing me up in the air, and as a result was pushing me away from the nozzle. I couldn’t reach it to shut it off. I screamed at those idiots who left me to come back. Fortunately someone with some common sense closed off the valve at the source end. Man what a ride that was!
Next, I got the call that some guy was trapped at the top of the HCL tower and had to be rescued. Because of the "gas release" I had to wear breathing apparatus. I donned my Scott Pac and ran up the 3 flights of stairs only to find this huge millwright laying there, pretending he had succumbed to the gas. It would be necessary for me to lift this 250 pound dead-weight and carry him down the stairs. I radioed that I needed help and whether there was noise over the radio and I couldn’t get through, or I was told there was no one available, I didn’t get help. Now if this guy had really been overcome by chlorine gas I probably could have assumed he was dead and left him there. Or pushed him off the tower. Alas, this was all for fun, and he wanted very much to enjoy a coffee break after this silly exercise. So I asked him if he could walk, because if I tried to carry him, we’d both be rolling down the stairs. Miraculously he was revived, and he helped me down the stairs.
That had to be the most grueling and harrowing work I’ve ever done, in so short a space of time. Lucky I was young and in shape or I might have been one of the real victims.
Besides my regular duties, previously mentioned, I had to check steam traps throughout the plant in winter. These things used thermodynamics of steam to operate. In order to obtain the maximum heating value in the steam, we couldn’t just let the steam flash through a pipe or heat trace, we had to hold it there until it condensed into water. At this point, the steam couldn’t give up any more heat. This was the job of the steam trap, to hold the steam in, but let the condensate out. The condensate, since it was pure distilled water was reclaimed and used in other parts of the process, like blending antifreeze.
We had about 200 steam traps in the plant but the job of checking them was made easier by having them grouped together in big wood cabinets. There could be as many as 20 traps in one cabinet, or as few as 4 or 5. In many cases, there was no cabinet and the trap was just sitting on a pipe, at the end of a steam tracing. I checked the traps with a water bottle by squirting the trap. If it vaporized quickly, it signified the trap was hot, and therefore working because there was hot condensate going through it. A non-working trap would not evaporate the water and one could put his hand on it This was a bad thing.
A cold trap could be the result of a faulty trap, something that could be checked and fixed quite easily. It did mean we had to find the steam source and shut it off. Doing so and forgetting to turn it back on could be disastrous, as product lines could freeze. All our vessels and outside pipes had to be insulated and heat traced. This "trace" was a copper pipe that had steam flowing inside of it and was wrapped around a tank or other vessel, or simply ran parallel to the pipe. If the trap failed, or if the steam was somehow cutoff to the trace, it would freeze, causing the product inside the pipe to freeze. Of course glycols weren’t too much of a problem, because after all, they were antifreeze, but the amines had real high freeze points. (EG. DEA froze at about 75-80 deg F). If this happened, our process could fail, or at least prevent us from pumping the product into tank cars or trucks.
Finding a frozen steam trap meant getting a probe that fit on the end of a high pressure steam hose, and shoving this probe into the insulation around the frozen pipe at various spots along it’s length. We would start at the trap end, and if the trap was actually functioning, the steam probe would thaw the ice in the copper line, and start dumping the condensate. Half an hour later we would move the lance (as the probe was called), further away from the trap to thaw another section of pipe. Almost without failure, it would require some high-line work because almost all the pipes that had to be traced went between buildings on this structure.
One day, in summer, I was helping a newly hired draftsman update the drawings of the plant, and this necessitated crawling around on the pipes high above the plant floor. After crawling along for awhile, the draftsman decided to sit down so he could make a note in his notebook. Well, he sat on one of these heat traces that was not covered by any insulation. Boy, did he ever scream. The trace he sat on was fed by 150 pound (pressure) steam, which gave a line temperature of about 200 degrees Celsius. He really got a good buttock burn. Not that I saw it or anything…
The longest time I spent in an operating unit at Dow, I spent in the Styrofoam Plant, where I was for the final 5 years of my Dow life.
Getting The Job
I remember when the call came out for operators for the plant and in particular, the notice for 2 Supervising Technicians. Two SuperTechs, Big Bob and Reg had already been moved into that area from Herbicides Plant. They were allowed some say in who was hired for the other 2 spots. One of them went to Randy, formerly from the Chlor-Alkali Plant. When I didn’t apply for the job, I got a phone call telling me that I was selected, and would I please apply if I wanted the job. Basically the job was mine. I was apprehensive because I had just completed my SuperTech relief at EO, pretty well guaranteeing me the job of SuperTech if one came up. The complex was growing, people were moving around, so I knew I wouldn’t have to wait too long.
I took the job. I think it was the fact that it was a new plant, with good potential for remaining, whereas EO was old and possibly too small a producer for the markets that were opening up. I figured that since Herbicides was closing down, EO could be next. Also, new plant meant new knowledge and at this point I was really interested in learning. (In high school, I was so bored, that I would skip classes in the afternoon so I could go home and watch People’s Court with Judge Wapner...).
The first Styro plant was a portable unit, a complete Styrofoam Plant built on trailers capable of being pulled around from place-to-place by tractor units. The idea was to see if a Styrofoam plant was feasible: something that could be moved around to where the markets were, instead of making the product here and shipping it half way across the world. Then, if a market proved fruitful, a full- scale static plant would be built.
Since none of the trailers had been delivered yet, all the operators and Supervising Technicians sat in some temporary offices that served as a classroom and took training offered by a couple of guys from our Weston, Ontario, Styro Plant. Getting training this way was not too effective: it was like teaching someone how to drive a car, when they’ve never seen a car in their life. But we lived through it.
The trailers didn’t all come in one bunch, in fact I think it was the recycle trailer that came first. It was a trailer with a vertical extruder on it and equipment to cool a hot string of plastic then chop it up into little pieces. It also had a large storage bin that held chopped up Styrofoam. When this trailer arrived, it was obvious that it needed work. The trailer had all the equipment on it, but there were electrical connections to be made, water for the water bath, a drain for the water bath, guard rails and such. We had something like 7 trailers total and they came in every other week. I think they were still building the things back in Michigan while we were modifying them for our own needs.
We ran this plant for a year, made new markets where there were none before, then started building a new static plant. The portable plant was dismantled to the "trailer-level", (still keeping most of our enhancements) and sent to Abbu Dhabi in Saudi Arabia.
As the startup date for the static plant crept closer and closer (we HAD to start up before the end of the year, for tax purposes) we had about 10 people on each of two 12 hour shifts working without days off for about 1-1/2 months. If someone wanted a day off he could take it, but if he wanted to work, as I did, he worked straight through. Dow paid us overtime for anything past 40 hours in a week, so we essentially were all being paid time and half or double time. I made a whole bunch of money. They also supplied us with catered meals on shift, and breaks when we wanted them. We worked our butts off, but we did it for an appreciative employer who recognized our efforts. After a successful startup, the company took us all out for a dinner at one of the best restaurants in Edmonton.
I used to venture over to the new plant (under construction while we were running the portable plant) every time I was on shift, to see what was going on. I remember huge holes, 3 feet in diameter and 60 feet deep being drilled for piles for the cement floor to be poured. When it rained heavily for one week, these holes, and there were lots of them, were full to the brim with water. It was kind of scary stepping on wet plywood sheets placed around these holes as a temporary floor.
The installers of the metal cladding on the building had slippery fingers, because all around the perimeter of the walls I found hundreds of plastic-coated self-tapping screws. Of course I picked them up and took them home. Even now, 20 years later, I reminisce every time I see the glass jar in my garage with these screws inside.
The warehouses were built first so that we could continue production with the old plant and have storage space readily available. A fatality occurred in one of these warehouses during construction. A metal worker was working on a girder for the roof of the building which was about 35 feet from the concrete floor. He was wearing a safety line as dictated by the rules, but as he moved, he had to move his line. He reached over and disconnected it on one side of a perpendicular support, then reached again to get the hook on the other side of the same support. In so doing, he over-stretched and fell to his death. This happened on the day shift. I worked night shift that night and got all the details from a very upset SuperTech who had been the first to respond to the incident. When I went to investigate the area, there was a large red stain on the concrete. The man who died was only in his 20’s.
When the new plant was built, the old plant area was turned into a training center. When I see pictures of the old plant next to the new plant with it’s big warehouses, the area where the portable unit was looks so tiny! It was no wonder then why we had to store the foam outside. We just didn’t have the warehouse space in the portable plant. Styrofoam, like most plastics, deteriorates under sunlight (try telling that to the environmental bleeding hearts), turning from a light blue to a pastel yellow. The colour change also indicates structural change: the yellow parts crumble into dust like termite-infested wood. We had the Styrofoam covered with plastic, for protection from rain but it didn’t offer protection from the sun. Styrofoam is water-proof so I wasn’t sure why it was covered in the first place. The trailers were not anchored to the floor; in fact the wheels were left on to help support the back end of the trailer, with big jacks handling the bulk of the weight. The wiring and the piping had to be flexible so that vibration of the equipment wouldn’t dislodge or break the connections. One night I was sitting at the desk on the production floor near the extruder trailer when a 4 inch rubber hose connecting cooling water to the trailer broke off. At 85 psig, there was more flow than the sewers could handle and the floors rapidly became flooded. When I saw the first wave coming at me from under the trailer, I ran around to see what the problem was, then shut the plant down quickly. Without cooling water we could not produce Styrofoam.
The Mole People
Because we were almost flooded out in this situation, it was obvious we needed more drainage. There was a drain by the extruder trailer, the one mentioned in the previous paragraph. This one was in the middle of a long sump, basically just a trough cut out in the cement, with a metal grating on top. There was another drain, just a floor drain, about 20 feet away from the trailer. These two drains were not connected together and someone came up with the idea to connect them, thereby giving us more draining capacity.
The most obvious solution to connect them was to cut a channel from A to B and put a trough or piece of pipe between them. Well, "they" didn’t want to wreck the cement floor so they came up with a plan to send a "bullet" from one hole to another, creating a channel for the pipe to follow. This bullet looked like a torpedo, was about 3" in diameter and 3 feet long and was driven by compressed air. First they had to dig a hole big enough so they could place the torpedo level within it. Since the desk sat where the hole would be dug, this was deemed appropriate sacrifice of the concrete at this spot. So they jack-hammered a 3 foot square hole, not a very nice one, and dug down in the sand and clay about 2 feet. They were ready for the bullet.
First try, the bullet went far enough but it took a left turn and missed the target by 6 feet. They had much difficulty pulling the bullet back, because it was pointy at the front, not the back. This was not the normal direction of flow. How easy does a boat travel backwards?
Second try, the bullet went far enough but it took a right turn and missed the target by 6 feet. Once again it was difficult to retrieve the bullet. One attempt per day is all they could do.
Third try, they were too short, but retrieved the bullet. The problem this time was too little air pressure, which they increased for the next try.
Fourth try, they went too far by 20 feet.
Fifth try, they went short again but were right on target. This time they could not retrieve the bullet, no matter what they did. So....they had to jack-hammer a 3 foot hole in the middle of the floor, 10 feet away from both drains, to rescue the torpedo.
I was off shift for 3 days. When I returned there were 3 patches where 3 holes were dug, and a long narrow patch 6 inches wide that connected all of them together. They had given up with the torpedo idea and just dug the channel out of the cement. It took them about 8 days to do a job that a concrete cutting machine could have done (nicely) in about an hour. Heh heh heh.
Learning From Old Plant
We learned quite a bit from running the old plant, like safety considerations, operating procedures, what equipment worked and what didn’t. For example for two streams of blowing agent (gases that "puffed up" the styrene into Styrofoam) we had electric control valves instead of the traditional pneumatic valves common in the process industry. These valves had large stepper motors with linear actuators on them that moved up and down, opening or closing the valve. These never worked properly, especially when they were closed. In this position, they would sit in that one spot and slowly shake or vibrate because the motor was still getting a small signal to keep the valve closed. This wore out the valve plug and seats quite rapidly, so that when the valve was supposedly closed it would pass gas into the mixer where the hot styrene was. When the plant was started up, this gas came out in one big blast, blowing up the board, destroying the Teflons, creating havoc. Then too, with worn valve parts we never really knew how much blowing agent we were really adding. When Dow started design of the new plant we insisted that these valves be pneumatic so that the continuous "hunting" for a position wouldn’t happen. With a pneumatic valve, when the valve was closed, the valve WAS closed.
This is how Styrofoam is made. The techniques are quite well known, but the actual operating parameters are not, so to protect Dow’s patents I won’t divulge any trade secrets. I can’t remember all the exact details anyway.
Styrofoam is basically puffed up styrene and styrene is just a type of plastic. It is somewhat distinct from "bead-board" which many people call Styrofoam. Those white peanuts used for packing? That’s bead board. Coffee cups? Beadboard. Insulation for houses and commercial buildings (roofs and walls), and blue? That’s Styrofoam. (When I was making Styrofoam, it was always blue, but I have seen Styrofoam with the Dow trademark on it, that was PINK!)
Bead-board or that white pseudo-styro-stuff is made by blasting beads of styrene with hot steam or air, puffing them up like a popcorn popper does to popcorn, or puffing up rice to make rice cakes. The hot molten plastic is then put into forms like cups, flat board, or packing for your new computer equipment. The stuff you buy in a can and spray into crevices or to make your own packing is a chemical process and is actually urethane foam.
Styrofoam uses two chemicals, called blowing agents, that are mixed in with hot styrene. When the foam comes out of the die, the sudden depressurization causes the gasses to come out of the solid "gel" and in so doing, "foam" the material. Some of the gases stay in the Styrofoam, supposedly for up to 25 years, and this is what gives Styrofoam it’s strength.
Both types of foam have a cellular structure. Bead board is considered an "open cell" and Styrofoam is "closed cell". The closed cell holds in the gases and under a microscope looks similar to a honeybee’s honeycomb.
Feed The Stock
Styrene beads were imported from the Dow plant in Sarnia, Ontario, and shipped to us in hopper cars. We off-loaded the material using a suction wand connected to a device called a cyclone. This cyclone was a large hopper that had a continuous diameter on top, but an increasingly smaller diameter on the bottom; in other words, cylindrical on top, conical on the bottom. When air containing solids in suspension entered into the top of this thing, the beads would swirl around the inside until they slowed sufficiently to drop out at the bottom. The air, being lighter would exit through the top. So the styrene would be transported right up to the top of the tall styrene storage silo by this method. Really it was a big vacuum cleaner with a hole in the bag for the dust to fall out.
Similarly, we had a reclaim silo that held previously melted and pelletized Styrofoam that used the same method. Reclaim was about 30% of the total feed stock, styrene about 60% and 10% was additives. The styrene was little clear pellets, while the reclaim, which was concentrated, melted, Styrofoam was a dark blue color..
Moving the reclaim into the plant to the feeders was done with a slightly different method than using cyclones. A "star" valve was a 4 vane gate that turned slowly, admitting a certain amount of material on each turn. This was like those candy vending machines where you turn a crank to open up a port just enough to let a measured amount of candy drop out. In our case though, this was not necessary for measurement, just solids dispensing. A blast of air would push the material out of the star gate and into the feed hoppers on the second floor of the building. This was a continuous process. At times we could be off-loading styrene, and moving the silo contents into the plant hoppers at the same time.
Feeding the Masses
All feed-stock had a hopper that dropped material onto the drive belt of a "mass-feeder". These high tech devices had a scale under the rotating belt so that it weighed the material and adjusted the speed of the belt accordingly. Full feedback control. If a big clump of matter fell on the belt, the belt would slow down, and conversely, if the hopper outlet became plugged, the feed belt would jump to top speed, to try and match our setpoint for feed required.
Vibrators, Ooohhh I’m Tingling Already
The powdery additives had electric vibrators mounted to the side of the hopper to keep the material from bunching up inside the vessel, instead of flowing freely. Styrene and reclaim which were hard plastic granules flowed quite well unless there was moisture present. The styrene hopper cars all had vibrators mounted on their outlets for just this reason: moisture in the car made the styrene particles stick to each other. Many times, for all feeds, for cars or in-plant hoppers, we would have to beat the hell out of the cars or in-plant hoppers with a sledge hammer to get the feed going again. The vibrators sometimes had the opposite effect: making the powders more dense in the bottom of the hopper. I have since read about a scientific study done about this effect and indeed, vibration packs down solids rather than "loosening" them up.
One of the additives we mixed in with the styrene and reclaim was a product called FR-651 which was a fire-retardant made by Dow at another plant in the USA. This made the Styrofoam fire-retardant, not fire-proof, but when I put an acetylene torch to a piece, it never caught fire, so I would call it fire-proof. The latter term I think is in reference to an item not being destroyed in a fire, which of course Styrofoam did, by melting. Fire-retardant meant it did not support combustion. This FR-651 was terrible stuff to work with, causing all kinds of skin rashes, was terrible to breathe in, made one’s eyes water. This is when we were wearing the proper safety equipment! It was a very fine dust, smaller particles than flour, and was slippery such that one could actually slip on this material when it was on the floor. It was very difficult to sweep up because of it’s cohesive properties. You would be correct in saying that this material would be one of the most difficult to handle in the hoppers and feeders.
One day management was evaluating vacuum cleaners and floor sweepers and they asked me to go through the trials since I was the SuperTech on shift. The salesman had brought a couple different types and was extolling their virtues when I decided to challenge him. Or his machines. Sure, the machines picked up the usual dirt and dust, and did a good job of reclaim chunks on the floor, but how would it work on FR-651? I poured some on the floor and ran the sweeper over it. Failure! Failure! The machine didn’t pick up on the first pass or the second pass, much to the chagrin and embarrassment of the salesman. My supervisors were happy that I put the machine through it’s paces and found a failure. We eventually got a sweeper that was self-propelled and had a fine enough brush that it would pick up the retarded dust. Self-propelled meant one just had to walk behind it because it had motive power to the wheels. Sometimes a person could sit on the unit and hit the control to get a free ride and sweep the floor at the same time. More than once I sat in my wheeled swivel-chair behind the sweeper and let the machine pull me around.
Another additive was indigo. This was the coloring agent that made the Styrofoam blue, and was itself, purple-colored. This is the same material that is used to make blue-jeans blue. Indigo also affected the cell size of the foam so we had to take into account it’s effect when we added it to the mix, because cell size affected density and R-value. Reclaim already had indigo in it, so if we upped the reclaim, we decreased the indigo. Then, to keep the cell size correct, we modified the flow of another additive that was there just to control cell size.
This dusty concoction was dumped into a small hopper that fed a tube connected to the inlet of the extruder. The extruder was a massive machine and was the heart of the entire process. Basically a big, heavy duty, screw auger, it compressed the chemicals, melting them together in the process. To control the production rate, we varied the speed of the 500 HP DC motor that drove the extruder screw, which in turn varied the feed-rates of the feeders. The extruder barrel was heated with electric heaters so that we could heat the unit up before a startup and melt any material still in the barrel. The outlet of the extruder was double-wall pipe heated with hot oil. This was special pipe that required careful welding, because the oil was at 230 degrees C, and the pressure at the extruder outlet was over 2000 psig.
Puzzle of the Pipe
When the new plant was built, all the engineering and pipe fabricating was done off site and the parts were shipped to the plant site for us to put them together. The extruder and spline mixer were put in place, and two sections of the special double-walled pipe were attached on each machine. The pieces were supposed to meet in the middle where they would be attached to each other. They didn’t. In fact, they didn’t, they didn’t, they didn’t: the pipes were out of alignment in all 3 planes! Because of time constraints, it was decided to rebuild the pipe right there, using our own engineers and welders, rather than send the pipe back for re-work. Our guys did a formidable job because they built it right the first time, and that pipe stayed in there for the 5 years I ran the plant.
Dealing with hot oil could have been a dangerous task, but there were enough controls and safeguards that it never became a problem. It was pretty well all self-enclosed and because of the necessary preparations made to keep it leak-proof, we never experienced leaks, spills, or accidents. Occasionally the oil temperature would be set too high, like around 235 deg C. and the oil would begin to smoke but that was as bad as it ever got.
Oil also circulated around the spline mixer which took the molten plastic, called gel, and mixed it with blowing agent, injected at high pressure of about 2500 psig. The mixer looked like a big section of 24" pipe, but at either end one could see pieces that were rotating in the center of the vessel. This was the splined mixer shaft. (The mixer was always called the spline mixer, never just "mixer"). To keep the hot gel from pushing out between the moving parts and the stationary parts, we employed special seals that were water-cooled. This froze the gel into hard plastic.
Because I’m Blind, I Broke the Spline
One day in the old plant, I screwed up royally with these seals. After a plant shutdown when the spline mixer was not running, the cooling water to the seals would be shut-off so that the heat from the hot oil would heat the seal, allowing for startup of the mixer. If the seal was too cold and brittle, the mixer would not start because of the friction created by this solid plug. On this day, I had shutdown all the equipment, but since startup was now imminent, I turned the water off the seal. Since this was more or less standard operating procedure, I never mentioned it to the on-coming shift. Well, the SuperTech coming on shift didn’t start up until a couple of hours after I thought he would, and he started up thinking the water was still on the seal. When he put the full 2000 psig pressure on the end of the mixer, the gel came squirting out, making one hell of a mess. He turned the water onto the seal but it was to no avail: the seal just kept leaking. He had to shut the plant down so the millwrights could pull the seal out and replace it. This was a major job and took a couple man-days to complete. I was taken on the rug, but defended my actions as I have done here. However, my lack of communication still put me behind the eight ball. I screwed up.
The gel, with blowing agent mixed in with it was then sent to special plate coolers. This was the essence of Dow’s patents, these coolers, and the reason other competitors couldn’t duplicate our methods. We were told basically how they worked but were never shown any diagrams of how they were really built. (Although one night shift I snuck into the foreman’s office and found the plans.) They were special because they cooled the gel very evenly so that there were no hot-spots which would have created density zones in the board. The last "flat-plate cooler", the 3rd in the series was the most important. Here we had to control the gel temperature within 1 degree C or better just before it exited the die.
A Board To Die For
The die was about 16" wide, for making 24" board. It could be smaller in width because of the expected expansion on exit. (I did that on purpose so I could have 3 words in a row with X in them..). The die was hard chrome and had to be perfectly flat, not only to create flat board, but also to keep the gel pressure up if we closed the die completely off. There was a top and bottom piece of the die, the top being the moveable section. On either side were the "shoes", big aluminum (for weight considerations) wedges covered with Teflon to guide the Styrofoam out of the gate. These were fixed and not adjustable, and could not be pulled out when there was material coming out of the die. There were also upper and lower plates that were adjustable. To open the die we had a large wheel, not as big as that on a ship, but similar in looks. Mounted somewhere on the moveable die was a dial indicator that read in thousandths of an inch. A typical die opening for making a 2-inch thick board was about 0.125" (an eighth of an inch).
The gel coming out of the die immediately foamed up, making a low frequency buzzing sound. Of the two blowing agent gases, one came out of the board immediately and was sucked away by a large overhead fan hooked up to a hood. This was the methyl chloride. The freon stayed in the board to form the cell structure. As the foam progressed out of the plates, it encountered another much larger, not adjustable flat plate, followed by a 6-foot long piece of metal conveyor rollers that prevented the foam from looping at that point. The rollers rolled on top of the foam, and in an emergency like a foam loop between the plates and this section, could be lifted in ½ second by tripping an air valve. This would allow us immediate access to the area to clear the mess. The SuperTechs had to measure the board numerous times in a shift right at that point, between the flat plate and the upper conveyor. A few times I got the measuring tape stuck and it went under the conveyor for it’s full length of 6 feet getting crushed into the hot foam. The emergency trip to lift the conveyor could have been used, but this could have caused a "loop" and it wasn’t worth the hassle. Now if that would have been my arm under there, that would have been a different story!
Loop de Loop
AAhh. Looping. I remember it well. This was an effect where the soft board would suddenly have tension removed at one end, causing it to loop up in the air. Sometimes putting the upper conveyor down, or raising it would cause this to happen. Changing the angle of the flat plates near the die could have the same effect. Hell, more than once, just spreading an arm across the moving board so I could measure it’s width would cause a loop! This board traveled down a conveyor about 100 feet to the sawline. At this point it was one long board of Styrofoam. The foam was pulled into the sawline by 4 air-craft tires riding on the top of the board. These were adjustable as well, so we could apply different pressure for different boards. The speed of the draw, that is, of the motor pulling the foam, was adjustable at the die end by the SuperTech. By pulling it faster, we stretched the board, making it slightly thinner and narrower. By slowing it down, the board got wider. This is how we roughly controlled the width of the board. I say "roughly" because the sawline would do the final trim to exactly the right size. If we slowed the draw-rollers down too much, the foam would bunch up near the flat plates and the board would loop. It wasn’t unusual for the board to loop 30 feet into the air before someone noticed it, or it fell over sideways onto the floor like Charlie Chaplin in those silent movies.
Occasionally, if the pull by the tires was steady enough I would jump up on the conveyor and sit on the warm board for a ride to the other end. Only a few times did this cause a loop and to much disdain and disgust from my operators who had to handle the loop.
When a loop occurred, whoever noticed it first would sound an alarm, and a bunch of doors would suddenly open, like some game show or slapstick comedy, and a forklift would come racing in from the warehouse. All these guys running with a sharp knife in their hand like they are going to attack Frankenstein, converging before and after the loop to cut out the non-flat part. Quite humorous at times. When this was done, the piece still coming out of the die was guided back into the rollers. The long cut out piece was cut into manageable chunks of say 20 feet long, and dragged to the Styrofoam shredder for recycle. I had upsets that were so bad that we couldn’t clean the floor off fast enough and had to shut down the plant to do so! We’re talking about 3000 or 4000 square feet of concrete floor totally obliterated with bent, twisted, off-spec Styrofoam. Even if it was on-spec, we would recycle it; there was no provision for running it through the saw-line, nor was it worth the effort. If the foam was straight enough we could chop it up and put it on pallets, store it in the warehouse, then retrieve it when we needed more reclaim.
We had a number of alarms, five I think, for different areas, so that by sound alone we could determine where the problem was. Each would be triggered automatically by jam-ups or time-outs, and they could also be manually triggered. One such alarm was the one by the control room that I would use to signal operators for various tasks. It was quite noisy in the plant so phones were not that effective on the plant floor. I would give one big blast to signal a loop or jam-up. Two short blasts meant attention, e.g. start-up is imminent, or I need a sample. My job was to keep the Styrofoam on spec, and if it ever went off spec, or if I had changed a particular feed rate, analysis was necessary about every 15 minutes. Once I gave the attention signal the operator would look my way and I would then resort to hand signals. We became quite good at communication this way. We had hand signals for "check density", "check cell size", "there’s a piece of crap in the board that has to be carved out". For the last example I think I pointed at the board, then pretended to throw up. I had other signals for "board too wide" or "board too narrow". A board that was too wide would jam up at the entrance to the sawline, causing a loop, so the operator had to trim the edge with his knife before that happened. Too narrow a board meant the board would miss the cutters and therefore was scrap. Better to see it now and take the boards off now, than after they were strapped and palletized.
The foam that went to the shredder had to be clean. If there was any wood from a pallet stuck in a piece of foam, it ended up in the reclaim. Then it went through the process and could get stuck in the die. Same could be said of dirt and rocks. So we had to keep the floors fairly clean. Night shift typically swept and washed the floors, broken pallets were set aside, not to be used until repaired.
The shredder was a monstrous machine, the equivalent of a Great White Shark or Grizzly in the mechanical world. The unit was a solid steel drum with large, very sharp claws mounted on it called appropriately enough, "bear claws". As the drum rotated rapidly from the force of a 100 horsepower electric motor, the claws would dig into the foam and force it through a tough metal screen. Small pellets about ½" in diameter would fall out of the screen and get sucked up by a cyclone into the recycle bin. This bin had a large paddle inside to keep the foam chips from settling or forming bridges that would hold the foam up.
The shredder was a machine that could chew up a human body as well as it did the foam. Because of that, many safeguards were in place to prevent such a situation. As a standard there were emergency stop buttons on the outside of the conveyor feeding the shredder. The shredder itself, because it generated so much noise during operation, was set inside a sound-proof room, with thick plastic flaps allowing the boards to enter from the conveyor. To get into the room required a key, and once this key was turned, it would shut off AC power and turn on the DC brakes for the shredder motor. This would stop the motor quickly. A time-out feature would then be employed to make sure the brakes had enough time to stop the motor, after which the door was able to be opened. When the cover was opened to the bear claw drum, another switch was activated that removed power once again, so that even if a person were locked in the enclosure, with the cover up, the machine would not start.
Have you ever taken your kids to McDonalds and let them play in the caged area with all those colored balls? At Styro, we would have situations that were quite similar! One day the 10 foot by 10 foot room that the shredder was in became filled halfway up the walls with shredded foam when the cyclone became plugged. We had a hose inside the enclosure, so once the cyclone was running again, we could just suck up the room contents like we were using a big vacuum cleaner.
From the recycle bin, the foam dropped into the top of the reclaim extruder. Here the foam was compressed, heated and melted and allowed to exit the die as a strand of 8 separate strings of melted plastic. Allowed to fall on the floor just under the die would create a hot plastic pile called a "pattie" because of it’s similarity to cow patties out in the field! However this wasn’t normal operating practice; the strand was normally strung through an eight foot water bath where it was cooled and made very brittle. The end of the strand was then fed into the pelletizer which ground the strand up into small pellets like the styrene pellets. Just before it entered this grinder, a hot, very strong blast of air would strip the water off the strand so that the pellets would be dry, and transportable. Once again, a cyclone sucked up the pellets and dropped them off in the reclaim silo. By adjusting the extruder and bath temperatures, one could get just the perfect strand that was soft at the beginning and just brittle enough at the other end to get ground properly.
Don’t Step On The Cow Patties
If dirt got caught in the die, and since this was recycled foam this was always a certainty, one or more strings would fall out and make little patties. If left too long, or if the entire strand collapsed because of strings falling and pulling on them, then it could make a BIG pattie. I saw some that were the size of a desk, and about 6" thick, so big that we almost couldn’t extract it from under the extruder because it flowed around the legs of the water bath, like some kind of lava. These would take many days to cool. Patties were allowed to cool for several hours so that they would harden into dense, brittle plastic. If they were big patties, they would be broken up into manageable chunks with a sledge hammer, then stored in barrels. Small ones were simply thrown in. These were then taken over to the pattie grinder where they were ground up into chips about the same size as the chocolate ones in Mr. Christie cookies. This reclaim was sucked up by the same cyclone as the pelletizer output. The pattie grinder shared the room with the Styrofoam shredder. We didn’t waste anything. This was such a neat process, almost nothing went to landfill, except for broken pallets or pieces of them.
Playing the Strand
Getting the hot strand going again took a little practice initially to develop a technique. Since it was hot (200 deg C) and sticky, one could not use gloves, but had to use bare hands. The trick was to wet your hands first, grab the strand and plunge it underwater immediately, all the while pulling it gently and consistently through the trough. The trough had two barriers in it, like the barrier in a wall-paper water box, to keep the strand below the surface of the water, so stringing it out took a little bit of two-hand dexterity. A few times even a pro like myself had to do it more than once. If the bath temperature or extruder temperature were not right, the strand just would not flow, or it would be so brittle that as it tried to make the last bend just before entering the grinder, it would break right at that point. The graphic at right shows the process. Our extruder was vertical and rather than wind the strand, we chopped it up into little bits.
Now That You’re Mine, I Saw The Line
The sawline took the long continuous board that was coming out of the die and chopped it up into 8 or 4 foot lengths, whose sides were then trimmed. We could do a straight flush cut so the Styrofoam, when installed, would simply be butted together or a "ship-lap" cut where the foam had an off-set edge on both sides that would overlap each other when installed. The saws used for the edges were large massive cylinders with many tiny teeth on the surface that cut the board smoothly without tearing. The cut-off saw that cut the boards to rough length was like a big bread knife: it was reciprocating and moved to and fro at the same speed that the foam line was moving so that it could cut the board without binding.
What a Cool Tower
The boards then went to a cooling tower, a huge piece of machinery that accepted about 50 boards, one board at a time. It was built like a Ferris wheel, with each "car" taking one board. The Styrofoam at this point was still hot in the middle, making it difficult to trim properly, or even stack properly because the boards would stick together. The tower was designed to give the boards enough time to cool. If the board was real thin, this tower appeared to rotate almost continuous, but then the board was thin, not requiring much cooling. If the board was thick, say 3-1/2", the thickest we made, it would rotate much slower because it required lots of cooling. One night shift a large bearing that supported the bottom shaft of the tower broke and the whole tower stopped. It wasn’t possible to keep the plant running because all the boards would have had to be removed just after cutting to rough length, and we couldn’t stack them on a pallet without them sticking together. So I shut down the plant at about 3 AM and called out a millwright. It took him and the other millwright who came in at 8 AM all day to fix it. This was unfortunate because that meant I would start up the plant that evening. (I hated startups, not because of the work involved, but because it was tough not to make scrap for many hours, and I hated making scrap. The longer the plant was down, the better the chance that good board would not be made for hours.) There was a fairly long process lag, or latency, i.e. from the time a process change was made to the time it affected the output was about 10-15 minutes, depending on production rate.
My Grade 7 Teacher Was A Strapper Too
After the pile was cut, it dropped down to a waiting conveyor that could be operated continuously or single step. The pile changed direction and was sent to the strapper that put tough plastic straps on the ends of the bundles. We only called the grouping a "bundle" after it was tied together, before that it was just loose pieces of Styrofoam. This strapper was always breaking down. It was a complicated piece of machinery that basically had to wrap a strap completely around the foam pieces, then cut-off and seal the ends of the strap. The biggest problem was plastic dust or small pieces of strapping that would jam up the mechanism that did the cutting and sealing. The conveyor that was just before this machine could be put on single-step to allow us some latency so we could fix the strapper. If we couldn’t and the outlet conveyor filled up, then operators would have to take the loose pieces off and stack them on a pallet for strapping later on. This was a pain. After a number of years operating like this, the plant purchased another strapper, and put both of them on wheels so we could just do a swap, and work on the broken one at a later time. The problems weren’t always easy to fix, requiring the services of a millwright, but this method allowed us to keep running and not have to call out a millwright in the middle of the night.
After strapping, the bundles moved down a 20 foot piece of roller conveyor (that is, a non-powered conveyor) and were allowed into the palletizer. In the old plant we didn’t have a palletizer and operators had to take the bundles off the conveyor and manually place them on a pallet that was 8 feet long by 10 feet wide. He had to pile them 8 feet high, then used the forklift to take the pallet to the warehouse. When he returned, he had a conveyor full of bundles to be palletized. If he was real late, the bundles could be backed up through the strapper back to the outlet conveyor.
The palletizer which we obtained for the new plant was a huge piece of equipment, operated by a PLC (programmable logic controller), that interfaced to a hydraulic system. When an 8 foot bundle, or pair of 4 foot bundles entered the palletizer, they were elevated to the top of the palletizer where large forks pushed them from the conveyor to a flat, metal bed the size of a pallet. The fork would return to repeat this event for the next bundle. When the table was full, three 8-foot-bundles-worth, the table would drop by the height of a bundle, ready for another stack. When the table was full, it moved laterally over the stack of empty pallets where the load was deposited by a gate coming down to stop the foam as the table returned to it’s position. The loaded pallet was supported by large hydraulically operated forks that entered on both sides, and these in turn were connected to large cylinders that moved the entire system up and down. When the pallet was fully loaded with foam the cylinders would drop to the bottom, allowing the pallet to sit on an angled roller conveyor. The forks would come out and the pallet would roll down the conveyor ready to be picked up by the operator sitting on the forklift, reading a book. Yes, the palletizer sure saved a lot of manual labor. Being interested in machinery, I used to watch all this automated equipment in amazement. It was so well designed.
All of the equipment was interlocked with others so that jam-ups could not occur. Many photocells determined the position of the board or bundle at all times, shutting off conveyors or motors until any back-log was cleared. However there was a limit to how long we could spend in any one area before we had to resort to manual control, like stacking boards by hand. But the conveyors were long enough that it gave us some capacity for fixing minor problems without having to do that. If a problem was serious enough (like the cooling tower was ) we would have to shut down.
Besides running the saw-line on manual using all the photocells the interlocks and PLC control, we could switch any section for full manual control. For example, every step of the complex palletizer was capable of being accomplished by pressing individual buttons. On the palletizer, this was quite necessary to have because of the pallets we used. They weren’t always the same thickness of boards. They weren’t always in good shape, with pieces broken off and hanging by a bent nail. The photocells sometimes went out of alignment. All these things usually meant some kind of jam-up, making it necessary for us to clear the jam by "jogging" the various systems. After fixing the problem we would switch it over to automatic, ready to switch back to manual if we saw an impending problem. If it worked on auto for a couple passes, we knew it would be okay.
We had a small, non-chemical lab where we did product testing. In the new plant we had a radio-active densitometer that measured the density of the board as the board passed above it on the long cooling conveyor. When the board wasn't passing over the densitometer, a little shutter was triggered that covered the radioactive source to keep it away from personnel. Well, ever the experimenter and VERY curious of WHY we needed the shutter, I defeated the trigger mechanism to keep the shutter open. Then I looked inside. Nothing to see. No green rays or anything. I think I was hoping the radiation would give me super powers like The Green Hornet, or Spiderman. (My last eye examination pointed out the need for -8.5 diopter correction, which means lenses the size of Coke bottle bases.)
We had a thickness monitor there as well. Of all the specs we had to watch, density was the most important, so in the old plant that did not have a densitometer, we would do an analysis minimum every hour. During startup, an upset, or a production rate change, we could do these continuously, until we reached spec. With the densitometer, we could read the value continuously, but still, for a record, do the analysis every hour. This was an easy test: cut a block of Styrofoam from a board off the line, measure the exact dimensions, then weigh it on a very sensitive scale. Doing some simple math gave us the density in pounds per cubic foot. I think our spec was 1.5 lb./cu.ft. There was nothing wrong with the value higher than that (denser), but it meant we were giving extra product away. If it was less, then the compression strength wouldn't be there, so we tried to keep it over 1.5. A sample of 1.45 was just passable if we made immediate corrections, i.e. we were not allowed to make a bunch at that value. All pallets that went into the warehouse had information on it that included the density value.
Another test that we performed "once in awhile" was the R-value test. We would cut a 4" square piece of foam and put it in an oven with a temperature sensor on one side. Measuring how fast the heat moved from one side to the next was a indication of R-value, or the insulation value of the foam. Styrofoam was superior to all other insulations in this regard; it had an R-value of 5 per inch. Nothing else comes close. Well, maybe the insulating tiles on the Space Shuttle would, but who wants to pay $1000 per tile? Besides, they'd probably fall off your roof.
We did a compression test, once in awhile. (I think the "once-in-awhiles" were really every day-shift, that is once a day, day-shift only). Here we subjected a piece of foam to a manual press and measured the deflection using a dial indicator.
Another very important test was for cell size. This test was fraught with error and required much skill to perform. A small block of foam was cut out of a board and a section was shaved off using a commercial meat-slicer. The thinner we made the slice, the more accurate the cell count would be, but trying to get it thin with the WRONG piece of equipment was very difficult. I say "wrong" because I know that medical labs can slice human tissue by cell thickness using the right equipment, e.g. a microtome. (In fact, having just undergone a laser eye operation, I know the equipment exists to slice small sections of the cornea, as was done to me). After we sliced the sample in this crude fashion we put it under a microscope and counted the number of cells to determine cell size. I think the units in tenths of a millimeter as in "the cell size is .31 mm." (C'mon man, it's been 20 years, I can't remember everything!)
The startup of the both plants (the small portable and then the larger fixed plant) each produced a big ball of crud that we named Big Bertha, and I do believe Reg took both of them home for souvenirs. (He lived on an acreage). Because all the piping was new and could contain all kinds of foreign material like grease, oil, pieces of metal, or Jimmy Hoffa, we purged the system with polyethylene plastic first followed by styrene. I think there may have been some kind of lubricant mixed in with the whole she-bang. Like giving castor oil to your cat with the hairball. In any case, when this gross conflagration exited through the wide open die, operators stood by and stuck all the stuff together forming it into a big ball like they were making bread dough. This ball was about 4 or 5 feet in diameter. Reggie probably uses the Berthas for a tourist attraction. Phone him up and see.
Ear Muffs in Summer?
It was noisy in the plant, with all the fans, cyclones and saws running. In the old plant there wasn’t as much noise control because the plant was meant to be portable. In fact, the "control room" wasn’t even a room. The SuperTech desk sat by the extruder and related control panel equipment and it was right out in the open. When I sat there to eat my lunch during an upset or a startup, I did so with hearing protection (ear muffs) on. I’d return to my lunch to find it dusty with some kind of dust. No wonder I’m sick! In the new plant we had a control room that was sound proof. Much better.
All the saws were enclosed in sound-proof enclosures, not for the safety considerations (although they did provide this function), but in order to cut down the noise. These were metal boxes with the inside panels full of little holes, the outside very solid. In between the 4 inch walls was Fiberglass insulation. Yes, competitor product. Of course the board had to enter and exit these enclosures, and despite the heavy plastic sheeting acting as "doors", there was still sufficient noise to warrant wearing hearing protection. All the operators, including myself had head phones attached to our hard hats.
People that know me know I’m a collector. I think I started collecting things with this job. First of all there were the empty spool center-sections from the strapping material. These were cylindrical, about 6 inches long, 5 inches outside diameter and 4 inches inside diameter. They were made of very dense, compressed cardboard material and were as strong and heavy as an equivalent wood piece would be. We generated 1 or 2 of these things every day and they were just thrown in the garbage. Seeing that I could get a "lot" of these things over the years, I decided to collect them for some use later on, like maybe a Great Wall of Founda. I had no idea what to do with them until I had a whole bunch. The other shifts collected them for me as well, so I was bringing home maybe 10 a week so that I had hundreds of them by the time I quit. By then I was at my new home on an acreage that had an unfinished basement, so I decided to use them there, to make a wall by glueing the spools together end to end into a column about 8 feet long. I then glued the columns together and stained the light-brown cardboard surface with a dark walnut stain. The wall was about 6 feet wide, so I used quite a few rolls there. Looked like hell when I was finished, but I put too much work into it to take it down. It was unique, so hopefully that factor off-set the awful looks of it.
I also used the rolls to make a light sculpture. I mounted different-length cylinders on a ½ sheet of plywood, then hung it upside down from the ceiling. I then put different color lights in each column which I could control by switches or computer, turning on different colors at any one time. It was really neat and looked quite nice. I left it there when I moved.
Occasionally we received styrene and reclaim in huge 1000 pound boxes that we would place on the production floor near the control room and use a suction wand to suck it up into the feed hoppers. The boxes were usually thrown out or used to store junk. I brought ½ dozen of these home and carved holes into them to make a large interconnecting "village" for my kids. Each box could hold a standard size kitchen table, so the boxes were quite large, so that the village took up lots of space in the rumpus room. I recently saw a Larson cartoon where two Army scientists are arguing over who should get the box from the latest ICBM missile shipment for their kids. Obviously my idea was not unique.
This is Art
I also began collecting scrap Styrofoam and reclaim waste. Well, "one man’s garbage is another man’s treasure", I always say. And "beauty is in the eye of the beholder". When the reclaim extruder dropped it’s strands it would generally make a pattie. Nothing exciting there. But sometimes when the gel just oozed out of the die after a shutdown, the object it created was sculpture, art so to speak. I would check these out every once in awhile, and even check the pattie barrels to see what others threw out, and if the gel resembled something in real life, that is I could put a name to it, I kept it. I have about 100 such sculptures, all named and catalogued. Most people who have seen them are in awe because they look like something that was created by man, or I guess to be really correct, totally by machine! I cherish my collection, because I’m not an artist, but consider myself an art collector. Wanna see this art? I still have it, 40 years later. Go here: www.raiderracing.com/art.htm
The same can be said about the Styrofoam. Whenever there was crud in the die that split or otherwise mutilated the board I would save it, again with the criteria that it had to "look like something". I have about 50 of these pieces, most smaller than a bread-box. These are as beautiful as the gel. I have pictures of all of them in a book I call "Styro-Art", and someday will try to get an art studio to display them. The pieces are not for sale so don’t ask. Buy another one of my books instead.
Why Do You Have A Phallus In Your Luggage?
I once went to St. Louis, on Dow’s behalf, to a large Styrofoam Plant to investigate it’s operation. While there I was taken through a lab where they tested styrene, the main constituent of Styrofoam. They made samples ("coupons") with a small extruder which were then analyzed for purity, strength and whatever. These little slabs of clear plastic were about the size of a credit card and twice the thickness. They gave me a couple dozen to use as ice-scrapers up in the frozen north. I still have some! I use them for little windows in my project boxes whenever I make some electronic device. I looked in their garbage too, because after all, where there’s an extruder, there is art! Sure enough, in the barrel beside the unit was this large clear plastic "thing" made up of hundreds of visible single strands of extruded styrene. (Since this was a research extruder, the die only let one strand out that looked like cooked spaghetti). It actually looked like a phallus, but I took it anyway because it was unique and different from my other art because of it’s clear, glassy, nature.
Getting the phallus past the border proved a challenge, as one could imagine... First of all Canada Customs insisted on searching my bags, probably because I looked guilty for something. It was my first trip outside Canada by air and I didn’t know all the right answers to their questions and was quite nervous about answering them. Sweating as I did didn’t help either. So I got to dump all the contents of my suitcases on their inspection tables: dirty socks and underwear, nudie magazines, and this phallus-thing. (If you don’t know what a phallus is, look it up in a dictionary. You don’t think I’m going to put THAT in the glossary do you?) It was so embarrassing! When the GIRL (to add to my humiliation) picked up the organ, she asked: "What’s this?"
I should have said "what does it look like, honey", but instead replied, "It’s a sample from a chemical plant". WRONG answer!
She looked at me as if I had answered, "It’s a kilo of cocaine that I’m smuggling back so I can become rich", and asked in an incredulous voice, "You’re bringing back samples from a foreign country?"
Now I was really nervous, like "what’s wrong with a gawd-damn sample!?" I didn’t really know what to say but managed to stutter out, "Well, it’s not a sample, it’s a piece of art!" WRONG answer!
She looked at me as if I had answered, "It’s a kilo of cocaine that I’m smuggling back so I can become rich", and asked in an incredulous voice, "You’re bringing back art from a foreign country?"
Whew! Now I was on the verge of peeing my pants! I was sure she would draw her gun next, or get out the rubber gloves. What answer did she want anyway? "Well, it’s not really art, (and it hurt me to say that) it’s garbage."
Well all this flip-flopping really had her concerned now! First it was a sample, then it was art, now as the passenger is getting more and more nervous, he’s calling it garbage! So I started at the beginning: what I was in St. Louis for, where I found the thing, and why I considered it "art". Finally my explanation seemed to work and she let me go. She sure handled the nudie magazines slowly though, as if to say, "You men are such pigs". Either that or she saw the "art" in the pictures, as I did.
Ever since, I’ve been afraid of customs. I wash my clothes before I get home, and hide the magazines in my computer bag or my pants…
Bunnies, Bunnies Everywhere
While in St. Louis with a 55 year old colleague, Bob Yerex, we went to the Playboy Club. (It was actually in our hotel, so it was hard, REALLY hard, to miss visiting the place). That was kinda neat, watching the good-looking girls in their bunny costumes serving drinks. Kinda timely too, because most of the Playboy Clubs were closed in the United States not too long after that. Being relatively naïve, but still wanting "some action", every time a Bunny would walk by the table, I would drop my hotel keys off the table onto the floor. I had heard that this is what one did if he was looking for a pickup. If the girl, any girl, picked the key up she was supposed to look at the room number and smile. Then you went to your room, awaiting the knock from Heaven. All I got was exercise picking up my own keys. Geez, and I was wearing my Buddy Holly-style glasses too.
While in St.Louis, we took a trip to see the Gateway Arch. I expected to see some little concrete structure maybe 50 feet high when I got there, but boy was I surprised. This thing was 600 feet high and about 30 feet square at each base. It was huge! It was also a very hi-tech sculpture, covered with stainless steel panels. Inside was a ride of sorts up to the top. Bob (the other Bob, not author Bob) didn’t want to go up there, so I went alone, but shared a little car with 3 other people. I think these cars only held 4 people and it was very cramped in there. There was no air conditioning, not even fresh air in the car that had just a little window on one side. All we could see out the window were stairs along the side of the ride, meant no doubt to rescue us if the car jammed. I almost got claustrophobic, and I’m not "that way" so to speak. I couldn’t wait until we reached the top because I was close to having a panic attack. Once at the peak, we could get out and look out much bigger windows to the Mississippi River below us, and the paddle wheelers in dock.
We crossed the Mississippi into Illinois, and I bought my first digital watch at the local mall. It was a Texas Instrument LED watch (the type with the bright red display). It was quite large and very heavy on the wrist and cost me about $50 in US dollars. It only lasted about a year.
The Movie I Made In St.Louis
Oh yeah, the Styrofoam Plant in St. Louis. Sorry for my digression. While there I shot about 20 or 30 rolls of Super 8 movie film. Yes film! Video hadn’t been invented yet. I brought the movies back, edited them into sequence and some kind of story, added titles and showed them to everyone in the plant when I got back. I was trying to narrate the film as I showed it, but Alex figured he knew more about the shot than I did and kept interrupting. I talked louder than him, to show his rudeness and stupidity.
Come in for an Interview Honey
When I first started work at Dow, I was interviewed by 3 people. I know one guy was an engineer of some sort, another interviewer was the Employee Relations manager. This trend of multi-interviewers continued to the time I was in the Styrofoam Plant, and I became one of those 3 people. The thought was that by getting a good cross-section of people to talk to potential employees, Dow would be able to get the best person for the job. So, whenever a potential operator was being hired, a SuperTech was asked to go over and do one of the 3 interviews. If the Styro Plant was running well, or in some cases, shut down for maintenance, then one of our SuperTechs would get the call.
This was a fun part of the job. I remember one interview I did where the other two guys (the "pros") decided the last interviewee was worthy of hiring. I said "What? This guy told me he only wanted to be around for a couple years so he could earn some money while working on his pilot’s license! So we spend all that money training him and then he leaves!" The other two saw the error of their ways, agreed with me, and we never hired the guy. It’s really strange that 20 years later in the company I work for now that they haven’t learned anything: they don’t ask the pertinent questions that determine what an applicant really wants to do. We train them, give them safety equipment, confidential price lists, etc,., then they quit. Plus ca change, plus ca change pas.
y job as the SuperTech was to supervise a crew of 3-5 people in the safe production of Styrofoam. That’s what I put on my resume. I was responsible for production, so that if any scrap was made, I took the heat. If someone was hurt because I let him do something unsafe, I took the heat for that as well.
Every starting shift we would have a "tail-gate" safety meeting. I don’t know why they called it that but it was basically a 15-minute meeting to discuss safety issues, or results from other safety meetings. It wasn't at the tail of the shift and there was no gate in sight. At Dow, every plant, every shift, had a tail-gate meeting. Once a month we had the plant-wide meeting, and about every 6 months we had a site-wide meeting with managers and SuperTechs only. We also had safety drills, the operators had to go to safety and fire training monthly, and I had to do safety inspections regularly. I was responsible for "sniffing" out areas before any "hot" work was done. Sniffing is the act of using a gas detector to detect flammable gases in areas where welding, burning, or open flames would be employed. I also had to make sure the detection equipment worked, by calibrating the unit using a known flammable gas. After sniffing, I would complete a Safe Work Permit, checking off other safety considerations, then give it to the tradesman. Both of us signed the document signifying that we understood the content of the permit.
Welder at CA
I heard a story about a welder at the chlorine plant working in the hydrogen room, without a permit. He never would have been allowed to do this type of work there without a complete nitrogen purge of the lines, sniff of the area, and continuous gas analyzers. No one knew he was there. When he struck an arc with his stinger, there was an explosion that blew 3 walls down. He was not injured. There was just enough gas in there to cause the explosion, but not enough to support combustion, or REALLY blow! He was lucky.
We had methyl chloride in the plant which was flammable, the freon was not. We also used natural gas. In either case, a small leak could get into the sewers or floor drains and accumulate there, creating a potential problem. On a shutdown, where much work had to be done, I could be expected to write 20 or 30 safe work permits, about ½ dozen of them hot permits.
What A Gas
One day a forklift was backing up in the parking lot and hit a 2" high-pressure natural gas line, severing a joint. The extreme noise of the gas escaping was enough for the operator to get the hell out of the area. When the day shift SuperTech (Steve) heard the news, he didn’t perform a "graceful" shutdown, by shutting things down sequentially. He went to the MCC (motor control center) and tripped as many main breakers as he could. The entire plant went down, lights and all. Sudden silence except for the howl of the escaping gas outside. That was a smart move. I don’t know if I would have been that quick-thinking. Not even sure if I would have put out my cigarette…
Speaking about gas, even if it is out of context, I had a young Englishman working on my crew who demonstrated (in the safety of the lunch room) how to light up body methane. That’s right: he’d place a match or lighter near his butt, fart appropriately and light up a blue flame! I saw it with my own eyes; I never would have believed it otherwise. He also brought in some 100% alcohol that he distilled himself at home, proceeded to fill his mouth with same, then spit it out in the present of a flame. Wow! Just like those circus performers that shoot flame out of their mouths. Now I know how it is done. Don't try this at home!
A potential accident that involved me happened in the old plant. I was jumping off the trailer bed, about 2 feet above the ground, after a jam-up. To steady myself, I put my hand on the fence that surrounded the saws, and when I jumped down the ring on my hand caught on one of the pointy parts of the chain-link fence, holding my hand back. Luckily it wasn’t as tall as my hand could extend, meaning my feet were on the floor and my hand was up in the air, caught on this fence. Had the distances been greater , I might have lost a finger, or pulled the tendon out all the way back to my elbow! Ouch. No more racquetball for me. None of the typing of this manuscript would have the letters s, w, and x in it.
We couldn’t wear gloves in the plant because of the moving equipment. Nor could we have loose clothing, long hair, beards, or loose women. We did have special gloves in the new plant, for use only when cutting board in case of a jam-up. This was mandated after an operator cut through a board and part of his hand because of the way he was holding the board for cutting. These gloves were thin, lightweight Kevlar fibre with metal fibers interspersed in them, used in the meat cutting industry. They were something like $20.00 a pair. We kept the gloves at various places under the conveyor, and were expected to put them on when a jam-up occurred. What really happened was that we cut out the big loop first, before it had time to affect the saw-line or the output from the die, then, having a little breathing time would put on the gloves for the remainder of the jam-up clearing. Of course I had to test the gloves so I took a sharp knife and vigorously sawed at the finger. No fleshy finger was in the glove at the time, but no matter: I could not cut through the glove with a reasonably sharp knife. I never tried the ax or band-saw tests.
wo years before I left Dow, I sent away to California for a correspondence Electronics course. You know, the kind that they always advertise in the trades magazines? I checked out all the schools that had bingo cards in my electronics mags and settled with National Technical Schools of Los Angeles. I chose them because they offered more equipment with their course, which cost $550 US. Dow always paid for any extra-curricular courses taken by its’ employees whether they were related to the work or not. In fact, Steve took a furniture upholstery course and Dow paid for it. So they paid for mine. What I got was about 100 little books each of which was a lesson in itself and I got a bunch of parts which I would use to make test equipment and electronic devices to use with the lessons. I made a vacuum tube voltmeter (it was called a VTVM but it was totally solid-state), a logic probe, and an oscilloscope. This was all supplied by Heath Electronics, the king of electronic kits before they folded about 15 years ago.
I read and studied the lessons at work, took notes. I built the kits and did the lab assignments at home. It was a 2 year course but took me only about 1-1/2 years. When I finished I wrote the exam they sent which I believe was "open-book". After all, how else could they do it? I received good marks, but I thought the course too easy, it was about high school level. So I met with the department head of the Electronics Technology program at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology in Edmonton and told him I wanted to compare his program with the one I took. How could I do that? The answer was in the old exams previously given to his students; I could try and do the exams to check my understanding.
I was given old exams from the first semester of the first year by the Department Head of Electronics, Ron Kachman. I looked at them and tried to answer just ONE question! Boy, was I surprised. I couldn’t answer any of them because mostly engineering-type mathematical solutions were required. This was WAY beyond Ohms’ Law. That’s when I decided to make a career change.
I talked to Ron to see what he could offer an "older student" like myself in his program. I was married, had two kids, and was 29 years old. The math I learned in school was different than the math of the 18 year-olds just out of high school. He suggested the "Pre-Tech" Program which was designed for mature students like me, but I didn’t like that because it meant an extra year of schooling. I had picked a technology school because I could get a trade in 2 years, instead of going to university for 4, so the option of going to Pre-Tech was not a good one. What Ron did allow me to do was to take a few courses over the next semester to see how I would handle them, and if I did okay, he would allow me into the program.
20 Hour Days
I didn’t want to quit my job then find out after a week that I couldn’t handle school. After all, I couldn’t handle high school, although the reasons were a little different. Before accepting his offer, I made an offer to Reg, one of the other SuperTechs. I asked if he would trade all his night shifts for my day shifts. Despite day shift being a little more work, usually, because of the bosses around, he jumped at the opportunity. After all, it was night shift that shortened your life span.
I worked my first night shift then drove to Edmonton from Fort Saskatchewan (about 20 miles) at 7:00 in the morning, getting to my first class at 8 AM. I was able to stay awake for my first class. Because I had taken my camper-truck to school, I slept in it while it was parked in the parking lot, before my next class. I would invariably fall asleep in this latter class, not having slept that well in the camper.
I continued this routine for about 4 months, going to class, sleeping in the camper between classes, falling asleep in class, then going home, eat dinner and go to work. I had an insulated and heated camper, insulated, not surprisingly, with 1" Styrofoam (which I knew had an R value of 5…). When it was -35°C I found out just how winterized my camper was. Before I went to class, I turned on the propane heater, and when I returned an hour later to sleep, it appeared nice and toasty. I slept on the bed that was over the cab, about 5 feet higher than where the heater was. Despite having a fan in the furnace to distribute the warm air, up on the top with only R5 between me and Mother (Nature) it was a little frigid. I even had 2" Styro cut to shape of the windows to retain some heat, but the roof itself was pretty thin. I had a couple big comforters on the bed and I knew I’d be warm under there, which I was, but my nose would freeze. So I’d put my head under the blankets to keep from getting frostbitten on the face, lasting about 20 minutes until I couldn’t breathe. Not a very restful sleep. I should have worn a snorkle.
Sleeping in Class
I fell asleep on the road a couple of times. Totally irresponsible I know. I awoke one time on the road just in front of NAIT, on the wrong side, with some guy coming towards me flashing his lights and sounding his horn. How rude I thought, this guy making such a ruckus so early in the morning. I woke up, swerved to the proper side of the road, then went to class, a little more awake than usual. I was still shaking.
I’d review my notes for an exam and couldn’t read what I had written. There were lots of vertical strokes in my notes, where I dozed off. I fell out of my desk many times. I’d drop my pencil half a dozen times in class. Worst of all was being asleep when the instructor asked a question. "Huh? You talkin’ to me?"
When I was awake, I heard praise from my instructor about my quality work. My mother always said, "If you’re going to do a job, you may as well do it well". When the end of the semester came, I was honored with two marks in the high 80’s. I was in the top 3 or 4 of the class. I could do it. Just think what I could have done had I been awake most of the time!
That was proof enough for me, and over the protest of my mother and brother who thought I was nuts, I submitted my resignation to Dow Chemical. When I left, I had made $48,000 up to August of that year, had 6 weeks holiday, and was a supervisor. In addition, management had been asking questions about whether I’d be interested in a foreman’s job. I said no, I was going back to school.
All Play and No Work…
Pail Of Water
For the first 6 months of construction, we had to get the Styro Plant up and running before the Company’s "year end". As a result, we were doubling up on 12 hour shifts, about 15 people on day-shift, and the same on night-shift. The shift included operators and maintenance staff, and we worked 12 hour shifts with very few breaks. I worked 18 night shifts in a row, and it was real hard, dirty work. Believe it or not, that big pail of water over the toilet or shower stall was quite refreshing! After awhile we had to stop because everyone was liking it.
Once the plant was going, the attitudes changed. We were working 12 hour shifts again, but this time, it was 3 days on, 3 days off, then 3 nights on and 3 nights off. Consequently there were two shifts that always worked back to back, except at shift change at the end of a 3 day jaunt. It was hard to pull tricks on the opposite shift, because they would know it was us, and get revenge. Same could be said about doing tricks to the maintenance people that worked only day shift. So…..When the shifts changed on the weekend, we knew we could pull tricks and have any of the 3 other shifts take the blame! We had to be funny, but we had to be smart too!
I Didn’t Do It
I had a thing going where one shift was blaming another shift for stealing their tools. Each shift had a locked tool box with color-coded tools, so that we would know who’s tools belonged to who. One day, I took the long rod that forms the center of the toolbox lid hinge apart. So, even though the front of the box was locked, the back was not. I did this to another tool-box and moved some tools from one to another. Naturally at shift change, the two shifts involved would discuss the shift events and the last thing to do would be to lock up your tool box before leaving the shift. This gave ample opportunity for the on-coming shift to see his tools in the other shift’s tool box! Yeehaw! There weren’t any fist fights, that I know of, but it got these shifts plotting revenge on each other. I never told anyone of this particular prank.
It was about 3 AM and I was resting my head on the control room desk after some hard studying. Just then both side doors swung open. I pushed myself back in my chair, but there was no escape: two guys with 5 gallon pails of water got me. It was like a "hit" from The God Father. I was soaked to the bone!
I had to make the control room off-limits for water pranks, because in that particular attack, the control panel got wet, and the desk papers and books were soaked. Besides I needed my sleep.
Another fun thing to do was ambush the guy on the forklift as it came out of the warehouse and onto the production floor. The driver was totally blind as he came racing back into production to pick up another pallet of Styrofoam. Easy pickins’. Because of conditioning, (like Pavlov’s Dog) the operator would come through the doors, very very slowly, looking both ways, a pressurized water extinguisher by his side like it was some kind of shotgun. It was more entertaining watching these spooked guys than it was to actually get them with a water bomb!
When I realized that the forklifts ran on 550 Volts DC (from a 24 volt DC inverter), I thought it best that we also make the forklift off-limits as well. It’s bad enough a fork-lift going through a wall, but electrocuting someone would be REAL bad.
Message on a Roll
Unlike the other plants at Dow, the Styrofoam Plant had a resident secretary whose job it was was to perform all the accounting and shipping of raw materials and finished product. Because of this Gail had her own washroom that was located in the main hallway. On the off-shifts I would use this washroom because it was safe, that is, because it had a door, there was no way one could get ambushed with a pail of water over the bathroom stall.
One day while in there, I got this idea for another prank to pull on Reg. I wrote a 4 or 5-sheet note to Gail, signed by Reg. Heh heh. It was something along the lines of "I can't keep this a secret anymore, I have to tell you how I feel about you..." Heh heh. Boy was I was a bad guy.
I spoke to Reg a day or 2 later when he had the audacity to blame me for doing this! It was pretty hard to deny since my handwriting was well known because of all the log entries I had to put in the log book. Gail later approached me about the prank: she thought it was hilarious.
Doug, my senior guy on shift thought it would be "cute" to fake a death, so he laid down on one of the busy forklift drive-ways and I painted an outline of him with white spray paint. The supervisors were not amused. Once again, they didn’t know who did it because we did it on the weekend when any of the 4 shifts could be implicated. So many people thought it was so neat that I had to admit that maybe I had something to do with it.
Management wasn’t too hard on us for a couple reasons. For the most part, management was new people, or rookie engineers. They just didn’t know how to handle things like that. Also, I think they recognized that little "innocent" jokes (like the body outline) were tolerable because of the stress and most-of-the-time extreme effort we put in to keep the plant running, producing good product. Besides, since they had no proof of who did it, they couldn’t discipline anyone. If they would have come down hard, we may have stopped. But then again, since I was always the rebel, I probably would not have. Heh heh.
Throwing In The Towel
One day, after trying desperately to make good product, I just ran out of ideas and admitted defeat. I went into Terry’s office where he was talking to Lionel, and threw a paper towel on the floor. Lionel got the joke right away and thought it rather entertaining, but Terry was not amused.
Running With the Pigs
So many times we had interrupted dinners that the lunchroom became quite untidy. It didn't matter if we were having dinner or not, frequently there was just no time or energy left to clean up after the shift. It became quite comical to be sitting amidst a table full of newspapers, left-over pizza, and cigarette butts while on the floor was mud brought in from outside, dirty dishes were in the sink, and spilled food on the stove. There would be notes in the log book from management about keeping the room clean, but, as mentioned it was very difficult, and I think management actually understood why it was in that condition.
A security-guard-turned-janitor was designated for our area and he once made the comment about how we were living as pigs. He couldn't believe the mess we were surrounded by. (My defense is that I always ate my lunch on the plant floor, with the dusts and chemicals in the air. In other words, it was the operators' mess.)
Another time, another janitor, non-English speaking, was seen washing the floor with his big mop, then using the SAME mop to wipe the tables that we ate on. I guess he thought we lived like pigs too, and treated us accordingly.
Occasionally we really cleaned up the place, and got accolades for doing so.
We used to have lots of water fights. The 5 gallon pail efforts were one-shots, like giving someone the finger in a gesture of contempt. But the water fights were outright war, using water fire extinguishers and industrial-strength hoses and water pressure. Hoses weren’t everywhere though, so, if you were smart, you would rush very quickly past the areas where the hoses were hanging. There were attempts to re-plumb hose connections and these actually worked a few times. Where water was not expected, it was there in huge amounts. I admired my operators for their creativity when they came up with ideas like that. The water extinguishers were the best, because they could be re-pressured with air and re-filled with water as necessary, and of course, they were portable.
Another favourite ambush was waiting for an operator to walk down the long tunnel formed by two 25-foot high rows of palleted Styrofoam. Usually he would do this to inspect the area where he was planning on starting another row of product, and would walk in front of the forklift to make sure the row was clean. That’s when two operators would follow him in with the extinguishers. The victim knew it was hopeless, he was trapped, there was no way out. He was dead. Another Mafia hit.
I went to visit friends at another plant on a night shift and came back to see my little compact car "missing". I found it, wedged into the maintenance shop, about 1 foot of space all around it. There’s no way they could have driven the car in there (for one thing, I had the keys); 4 of them actually picked it up and carried it inside. Cute. Revenge.
Fire Proof Styrofoam
We had to watch a movie on the fire hazards of Styrofoam, as part of our safety meeting requirements. It was sooooooo boring. That’s because some research group at Dow corporate tried to simulate a fire, starting with a very small flame on a small surface of Styrofoam. The product has a flame retardant called FR651 blended into it making it supposedly fire proof. This boring film proved it because it took a good 40 minutes before there was even enough smoke to call it a fire! It was like watching someone sleep for 40 minutes, knowing that sooner or later he’ll wake up. The film prompted me to conduct my own test. I took a 2 foot by 4 foot piece of Roofmate© and clamped it into a vise. Then I fired up the acetylene torch and really put a flame to it. No candles for me. Well, I was impressed, and so were my superiors when I reported that the Styrofoam just refused to burn. It melted into a puddle, but it did not combust. Good stuff, just like advertised.
Dave The Millwright
Dave, a millwright who was assigned to our plant was always getting on our case because of some tool in the shop that had been used was either damaged, not put away, or not cleaned. He was always trying to put the tools off-base for operations, but management would have none of it, because we operators would do lots of minor maintenance and repairs, and the tools had to be available. He treated the tools like they were his, not the "community’s", and this rubbed us all the wrong way. Dave actually had his own tool box that he stored his regular tools in, it was only the special tools like the big wrenches, or special drivers, welder, etc. that we would use. Even his regular tools were not his; they were purchased for him and owned by the company. The more he bitched the more we all resolved to "get him".
So it was, that one day, being quite bored, I put the end of a grease gun up to the lock of his tool box, and pumped out a cartridge. I didn’t know a lock required so much lubrication! Again, it was done on the weekend, and on Monday when Dave opened up the drawer of his toolbox to some well-greased tools, he went ballistic. And he blamed Reg, one of our best SuperTechs, a reputation Reg earned by being able to do so many mechanical repairs. So it was that his reputation as a Mr. Fix-It put him in the spotlight as the only one capable of "opening" (they had no idea the grease went in through the key-hole) the tool box. In fact Reg was suspected of having a key to the box, so it was changed! I was just the egg-head with the Buddy Holly glasses, I could never be labeled a prankster.
The Prank Of The Century
The best trick I ever pulled was on Dave. I’m sure this one will go down as the best ever anywhere and the best of all time. If there was a Nobel prize for pranks, I'm sure this one would be considered. It was done on the weekend and Reg got blamed for this one too.
It was Friday night shift and Doug and I were thinking of what we could do to Dave. We got the idea of somehow putting an alarm in his locker, but his locker was obviously locked and in the middle of a collection of lockers. We sized up the situation, and convinced ourselves we could pull it off. First thing was getting into the locker. We did this by taking the end plates and doors off 2 or 3 end lockers before getting to his. Then we pulled the hinge off his locker door and swung the door open using the lock as a pivot point (a technique I borrowed from the "shift tool box incident"). We could just get a hand inside to put "things" into the locker. What we put was a microswitch, the kind with a large wheel on it’s triggering arm, and a Klaxon horn. This is the type you hear in old submarine movies. This horn was a spare of the type used in the plant, usually mounted 20 feet up and well away from work areas because it was so loud. (It actually has a motor inside to make the sound). I wired the parts up in series, secured them with good old duct tape, then ran the power cable out the back of the locker by slightly bending the sheet metal back. We couldn’t test it, but figured it should work, so we put all the other lockers back together and finished our shift.
We expected to "hit" Dave on Monday morning, not that we’d be there or anything, but we expected to hear about it. Well, Saturday morning at about 3 AM, Dave was called out to do an emergency repair. Picture this: bleary-eyed Dave is barely awake, and he goes to his locker to change into work clothes. It’s real quiet, because the plant is down. Dave is thinking only of the tools he’ll require and of the job ahead. He’ll get 4 hours call-out even if he fixes the problem in 20 minutes. Life is good. He puts the key in the lock and removes the lock from the locker door. He swings the door open slowly because he’s still half asleep. WHAAAAAHHHHHHHH!
We don’t know if Dave pissed his pants or anything, because when he went ballistic, no one was getting in his way. As we heard it the next day when we came in on day shift, he was so mad that he phoned up the supervisor of the plant, at 3 AM, to tell him he was phoning the RCMP! He wanted fingerprints taken and the perpetrators arrested! Heh heh heh.
Last year I wrote a letter to my former supervisor Terry, and told him to tell Dave that it was Doug and I that pulled it off. (There is a statute of limitations on these things isn’t there???)
Despite Reg always getting blamed for these things, he went on to another production plant in the same capacity, and because of Dow’s people-movement policy, this was considered a promotion of sorts.
Big Bad Doug, who helped me with most of the pranks and was at least 50% responsible for thinking them up, quit Dow before I did and became a church minister. Reverend Doug.
Ian Didn’t Mount This Pig
We had a guy on our crew named Ian. Ian was talking to us one day in the lunch room telling us how, as a high school teacher, he once obtained a dead cat that he cleaned and treated the bones of so that he could remount just the skeleton. After this story, he indicated that he once "mounted a pig"! Well, the connotation of that statement was not what he intended and Doug and I roared with laughter. From then on, to the day he quit we would greet him with "Hi pig-f----er!:" Ian was a great guy and he took the ribbing in style . When he quit, Doug and I took up a collection and bought him a nice attaché case which he could use when he went back to teaching. We also thought of making him something a little more "thoughtful". That’s right, we made him a pig.
We decided to use a couple bundles of Roofmate® insulation. A bundle of 1-1/2" consisted of 8 two foot by four foot pieces, strapped together. Using water-based glue, we glued all the pieces of 2 bundles together, then drew out a rough 2-dimensional pig on the side of the block. We had started on a night shift but underestimated the work involved: this would definitely take us a few days. We hid what we had in the furnace room, where Reg found it. He didn’t say too much except ask us what the hell we were up to. We didn’t tell him until later.
On succeeding night shifts, we each brought electric knives from home. A number of days of work proved fruitful: we had a 4 foot long pig that stood 2 feet high, and was roughly 20 inches wide. For a tail we used a curled piece of spiral electrical conduit, a mop served as the hair, and we used 6 air mask filters for a brassiere. Hey, we were crude guys, but we knew the real Miss Piggy would never appear naked. We were gentlemen, after all. With suitable felt pen-work on the face and sides of our pig, she was looking kinda cute.
Doug, Reg, and I went out to Ian’s garage (he lived in a garage for about 8 years while he built a house on the same acreage property), and presented him first with the attaché case, then surprised him with the pig. He loved it. On future trips out to his place, we saw the pig standing guard out by the access road. A guard pig. Years later when I met Ian on the street I asked him about the pig. "Yes", he said, it was still out there, but because of the sunlight bleaching out the color, the pig was no longer Styrofoam blue, but a faded yellow. (Photo L-R: Bob, Reg, Doug, Ian)
Besides making the pig for Ian out of Styrofoam, I made a jig-saw puzzle for my wife out of a 2 foot by 2 foot piece of foam. I wrote some message on the board with a felt pen, then I cut the section into about 30 pieces to make an interlocking jig-saw. Gave it to her for Christmas. For Easter I made each of my children a large bunny, drawn and carved out of an 7 foot tall piece of styro. I had to smuggle this out in my camper, because it would have been too visible in my small car, or on my back when I took the motorcycle. I also made them some Tyrannosaurus Rex feet that they strapped onto their shoes and walked around in the snow making monster prints.
Silly Silo Sojourn
When the Styrofoam Plant was under construction, there were certain areas that were off-limits to all non-construction personnel. This included the tall, 100 foot or so styrene silo, because until it was officially "turned over" to operations, it could be a safety hazard. Well, I looked at it, and saw nothing unsafe about it, except for the missing cage around the ladder, and no guard rail around the top. I think it had a top, I had to climb up to find out! I didn’t forget my felt pen either, and, finding there was a nice painted metal roof, proceeded to indicate who the first guy on top was. Hey, the guys that climbed Everest left their mark. The next day I was brought into the supervisor’s office and asked to explain my actions. "Because it was there", was my reply. The supervisor shook his head and waved me out of his office. Later that same day, a notice came out indicating the areas that were off-limits, and why.
Sometimes the work at Styro was grueling. It was hot and humid in the plant, and when things went wrong we could work steady for the entire shift, and not even get to our lunch boxes. We had one water fountain in the plant until it was picked off the wall by a speeding forklift. The driver clipped it off like a car in a cornfield. The driver was the Site Manager’s son.
Steve the SuperTech walked into the lunch room one day at lunch time and saw a can of beans sitting on the hot stove element. The can was deformed into a roughly round shape, because you see, the can was not opened or even a little vent hole punched in the top. Just as Steve made a comment to the worker what an idiot he was to put a sealed can on the stove like that, the can exploded and covered the ceiling, bulletin board and stove with brown crud. It really looked like shit on the walls. Only one person was burned, the bean owner, and he was sent to the medical facility for treatment. When I arrived for the night shift, there was signs of bean residue still on the bulletin board and the ceiling. A few days later the board was replaced, as were the affected ceiling tiles. The bean guy was the work’s manager’s son, the same guy who clipped the water cooler with the forklift.
The Coke Machine Meets The Forklift
A used "Coke" vending machine was installed in the warehouse, but it wasn’t the most reliable, so when it refused to exchange a pop for the 75 cents put in, the thirsty and very angry operator would "put the boots to it". This usually shook a can or two down. I saw guys on day shift take a run at the machine, then jump in the air and smash the front of the machine with there steel-toed and steel-shanked safety boots . After awhile the box looked pretty beat up. The vendor repaired the machine, but it got beat up again, and again. The next time we saw the machine, it had a ¼ inch steel plate across the front. Try and beat on that for awhile! Well, not to be beaten, one of the crew (I’m not sure if he was on my crew at that time or not), a short-tempered Newfie took another run at it. With the forklift. He didn’t get the pop but he did put a dent in the plate, and wrecked the machine.
The vendor finally smartened up and put a good machine in the upstairs lunchroom, out of the path of any forklift.
Feynman was my Teacher
I read a few books on the legendary Richard Feynman (photo), an American Nobel-winning scientist who worked on the atomic bombs that ended the Second World War. While at Los Alamos, New Mexico, sequestered with 100 other scientists (so that they could concentrate on the bomb) he relaxed from the pressures of the job by doing "recreational break-ins". Using basic reasoning and his knowledge of probability theory, he found that breaking the code of a combination lock was rather easy. He tested his theories by opening file cabinets of highly-classified documents, leaving cryptic messages behind for security to find. He was making the point that despite all the security precautions (their mail was read by censors), there existed within some basic flaws. Sort of like a race car that is designed to go 200 mph, but the tires are only rated for 80 mph. He also did it for the challenge.
So it was with me at Styrofoam. Besides wanting to find juicy documents about me or others, I broke through the security measures of the managers, just for the challenge. Face it, great minds DO think alike! I was careful, unlike some donkeys that just went to desk drawers with big pry-bars, leaving evidence of a break-in behind. I never broke anything; this was part of the challenge. I would try to figure out how the security worked using basic reasoning and my ability to figure out mechanical structures, then I would think of ways to defeat it. Just like Feynman. No brute force was necessary. Using these methods I was able to get past the locked doors of all the offices, get into most of the desks ("most" because some where a little more secure than others), and the file cabinets.
Remember I was the guy who figured out how to get into Dave's toolbox, all the SuperTech toolboxes, and Dave's locker to plant the Klaxon horn. I was good.
I don't recall finding anything too important (except the letter about the using of different blowing agents) or disseminating any information that I found, nor did I really care that much about this part of the mission. Unlocking the puzzle was the fun.
Basketball, Canuck Style
One day someone was throwing balls of used packing tape into a pail, retrieving it, then throwing it back again. Basketball. Soon another operator joined in, taking bets as to who could make the most. I saw what was happening from the control room window, so jumped out and intercepted the ball, spun around and dropped it in the pail. This got one of the operators thinking and the next night shift he shows up with a soccer ball. Being the shift supervisor, I had to lay down the law: we would do all our routine work, and if the plant was running well, the basketball game would start at midnight!
We found an old peach basket somewhere, the kind Canadian James Naismith might have used the night he invented basketball in Boston. We cut the bottom of the basket out, and suspended it on the outside front of the control room wall. The floor area between the long cooling conveyor, the palletizer, about 3000 square feet, was our play area. We had 6 people on shift which gave us a perfect split of 3 per team. Two of my crew, a Tanzanian named Ed (I called him Fast Eddie), and a guy ( Eduardo?) who emigrated from Chile were given soccer balls before they were given shoes when they were kids, so these guys were the obvious captains of each team. The rest of us Canadians who couldn't play soccer had to resort to cheating if we ever wanted to get the ball. The soccer-masters could balance that ball completely with their feet, while we would be running around them trying to kick the ball away. Since that didn’t work, because these guys were just too good, we would tackle them into the fence around the palletizer, push them into the conveyor, or grab their arms and pull them away from the ball. Then we’d run with the ball, as close as we could to the basket without getting tripped by an opposing player, and shoot for it. It was basketball, football, rugby, soccer, all wrapped up in one game. We had injuries and we understood that if anyone had to be bandaged up or brought to the medical center that the reason would be related to plant work. It was rough. Everybody bled at one time or another. We’d push someone into the conveyor, upsetting the board so that it went for a loop, and while the guy with the ball went in for a goal (we allowed only 1 attempt in this case), the others had their knives out to clear the loop. We needed the break anyway. Man, what a tiring game! We were just wiped, especially on those hot summer nights. It was humid in the plant, which didn’t help in the heat department. We did this every night when the plant was running well. No one ever caught us, but a couple times we left the basket up, bringing curious looks and probing questions about what the purpose of it was, from Lionel, the plant engineer. He had a good idea what it was, but not having any accident reports from the day before, he let it pass. He was a good guy.
One night I set up my movie camera on a tripod and caught the action on film. I still have it, and converted it to video tape.
Another fun thing we did was pallet jack races. These things were heavy-built devices on wheels that we would use to pick up a pallet of "stuff" and wheel it around manually. The jack part was also the handle that we pulled the unit around with; normally this handle was in the upright position to keep it out of the way. By stepping on one of the pallet-jack forks, we could reach over and hang on to the handle, making this thing a big steerable skateboard! With the large rubber wheels and very good bearings, we could really make these things roll. To execute a turn we’d shift our weight on the one fork we were standing on. This worked fine for turning one way, to turn the other way, we had to jump on the other fork and put our weight there. Just like skateboarders. Hell, we probably invented the sport and didn’t even know it! There was also a trick to stopping. The wimps would stick out their foot and drag it on the floor, but the experts like Reg and I would step quickly to the very outside edge of the fork, pull the handle toward us and drop our butts back to shift as much weight as possible. This had the effect of lifting the other fork up in the air and the whole pallet-jack would swing around 180 degrees. Instant stop. You had to execute this right or you could end up flying of the jack and hurting yourself. Or have the jack run you over, and this thing weighed 200 pounds!
Covering your Buttocks
At all the plants I learned how to falsify records, usually, as they say "to cover your ass". Occasionally a chart would stick and not record all the events for the shift, something that was only discovered at the end of the shift when the chart had to be changed. It wasn’t a real serious problem, but because the operator was expected to "keep an eye on things", this should not have slipped by him. In this case, just before removing the chart, I would turn the mechanism by hand, while moving the pen up and down across the paper in a sqiggly-type fashion , to simulate squiggly flow rates and levels.
At Water Treatment there were a few times when I fell asleep on night shift and missed a set of readings. Early in the morning, at the end of the shift I had to take my final readings, so once I got these, I just interpolated between this set and the previous set. Unbeknownst to me at the time, because it had never been explained to me, was that the brine readings I was taking were extremely important to the Chlorine Plant, because the data would indicate if a well was "salting up". This was a condition where the concentration of actual sodium chloride in water was so high that the solids would crystallize and could plug off the pipe. This would kill the well, restricting production. Usually the only fix was getting a service rig in there to re-bore it.
I never falsified records at the Chlorine Plant, because there were two many people looking over my shoulder, and the SuperTech was making sure I was on the ball. At the E.O. plant, it was the same kinda thing. In either case, the SuperTech was responsible for production quality, not me. I had my duties in terms of analysis and some grunt work to keep products on spec, but mostly it was a control change by the SuperTech that kept the product on spec. Don’t kill me, I’m only the messenger.
At the Styro Plant, I was in charge, and I would never ask someone else to falsify a record. So I had to do my job and keep the product saleable. I may have rolled a chart forward a bit to show that a shut-down was later than I recorded in the log book, but this was usually only if we had a terrible, exhausting night. If I shut down at 5 AM for a Teflon change, it was possible to start up and have the plant lined out by next shift change at 7 AM. Not making good board, but close. If we had a crappy night and everyone was half dead, I’d indicate the shutdown was at 6 AM, that I changed the Teflons, but it was too late in the shift to start up.
(A totally irrelevant observation that has (almost) nothing to do with this book: every time I type the word "Teflon", my word processor underlines it as a spelling mistake. This is because Teflon is a trade mark/name of Dupont Chemical, and as such, should be capitalized. Does it do this for styrofoam? Styrofoam. Yes! It does! Dow went through great pains to make sure that even when we operators wrote the word in the log book that it was capitalized. Many of us even went so far as to put the little copyright symbol after the word. Thus: Styrofoam©. Okay. Ohkkkaaayyyy! Enough already. Styrofoam is a trade mark of Dow Chemical Corporation.
Guttenberg would be Unhappy
We marked all Styrofoam sheets with blue ink. Go figure: Styrofoam is blue and the ink was blue. This ink was water based, so if you got some on your hands or on the equipment, it was washable. After it dried, one would have to scrape it off like it was water-based glue. The "printer" was a large magnetic drum about 16" in diameter that sat about midway down the cooling conveyor, the 100 foot section between the die and the draw rollers. The drum was magnetic so it would hold two half-circle rubber-surfaced print plates. As the board moved underneath, the rubber face would roll on top of the board, laying down information about the product, and who the trademark owner was. In Eastern Canada, Dow owned a business called "Flexible Packaging" which as the name implies produced labels that were flexible, labels like cigarette carton covers that were metal-foil or plastic based. Hang on, I’ll make my point soon….I visited the building where this was set up and was extremely impressed with the quality of the product. There were huge, and I mean HUGE, rolls about 5 feet in diameter and 3 feet across that must have weighed close to a ton. Each must have contained close to a million separate "labels", all just perfect, and in multi-color. The printing presses used were the size of a small house and cost millions of dollars.
My point? Well, the printing we did on the Styrofoam with this piece-of-shit printer was so bad, it was hard to believe that Dow had ANY kind of printing expertise. I could never fathom the reason why we printed so bad, when the techniques to print perfectly were in another division of the Company!
A few years into the printing with this blue ink, we had to change, to another blue ink, that was "bio-degradable". In other words, vegetable based. Great, now I didn’t have to wash my hands before handling my sandwich.
Dow's Version of Grass
Speaking of the environment. Dow took great pains to preserve the environment. They were a very good corporate citizen. At about the time I was leaving they had just planted something like 100,000 trees around the site, plus other plants and upgrades to roads and what-not. When I drove by there in 1998, I was extremely taken by the beauty of the front entrance area to the plant. The little trees, like my children, were all "growed up", and there was a small pond and waterfall just off the highway. Beautiful.
Because grass didn’t grow very well around the site (there was a Herbicides Plant there after all), most of the grounds were washed gravel. It had to be because trucks and other equipment had to be able to drive virtually everywhere for pipeline or power, or ditching services. Grass was always getting trampled on and driven over, creating mud bogs all over the place, so gravel was a good thing. I remember gravel being dumped in front of Water Treat that was so deep, that a person could hardly walk on it. When I needed some gravel for my drive-way, I took about 20 "boxes" of the stuff home in my little British-made station-wagon.
We used blowing agents at the Styro Plant, one of which was Freon. Yes, the same Freon that releases a chlorine atom in the atmosphere that reacts with the good ozone that protects us from UV radiation. When I was at the Styrofoam Plant, a reliable source came upon a document from Corporate Headquarters that discussed Freon and the problems it was causing. It was sooo bad to read this, and the content was soooo bad, I really should have photo-copied it! The gist of the document was that Dow didn’t HAVE to use Freon, they could use carbon dioxide instead, but they would not do so, or discuss the ability to do so, until they were forced to by the government! See, I told you it was bad.
I don’t know what the technology is now, but I think it has changed to carbon dioxide. The Freon had many good properties for making Styrofoam and moving to CO2 created other problems. Freon was a solvent of the plastic gel inside the process, so Freon mixed well. CO2 doesn’t. Plus the pressures required to keep CO2 liquid until the foam exited the die were very, very high. So, it was no small feat to be able to use Freon one day and carbon dioxide the next.
Dow was extremely safe. They went to great lengths to protect the working man. Here are a few stories illustrating Murphy’s Law: "If anything can go wrong, it will". Some of these stories were reprinted in the Safety Newsletter of another company I worked for.
A millwright was working on a 30 horsepower pump (this is pretty big: a furnace motor is only about ¾ horsepower) that had been in 73% caustic service. A pipe-fitter had been employed to remove the suction and discharge piping. The local pump-start station AND breaker had been locked out by both tradesmen, following standard safety procedures. Additionally, an attempt was made to start the pump locally, and when it was not possible, deemed to be in a safe condition. Three hours after the pump was disassembled and with a tradesman standing beside it, the pump automatically started (still locked out!). Fortunately no one was injured.
An investigation revealed that the pump had been started by a REMOTE pump/start station, located at the loading dock. It had not been tagged or locked out, because the assumption was made that the breaker would prevent the pump from starting. The breaker was checked. It was the correct one for the pump, and still locked out. When the door to the breaker panel was opened however, it was discovered that the internal breaker switch (made of Bakelite) had broken off. So, despite the fact that the external switch had been toggled off, the breaker itself had not been switched at all!
So how did the pump pass the on/off test at the local station? The pump contained 73 % caustic with a freezing point much higher than the ambient temperature, so the pump was "frozen" solid! The shaft did not turn when the pump was switched on because of this, giving the false impression that there was no power. Because of the high ambient noise in the area (this was a huge boiler-house, hearing protection was mandatory), no buzzing sound was heard from the motor. Even though all the rules were followed, because of the "fluky" sequence of events, this safety incident occurred. If it would have occurred 2 hours earlier, 2 men would have been seriously hurt.
An operator in the Styrofoam Plant had his arm injured when he got it caught on a conveyor belt. The operator was grinding hard "patties" of solid brittle plastic and was placing them on the conveyor belt on their way to the grinder. Numerous safety devices were employed on this machine, but somehow the operator managed to get his arm caught between the conveyor and the enclosure. As the rubber belt kept moving forward, trying to draw him into the machine, he was screaming in agony as the belt burned through his coveralls to his arm. The emergency shut-off was fairly close to the machine, but not for someone who was getting sucked into it!
Fortunately the supervising operator was nearby. He shut down the machine and then used his knife to cut the belt, relieving the tension. The operator was treated in hospital for friction burns and then released.
This was not a case of operator error. The machine did not fail. What had failed was the assumption that if the machine had to be shut down immediately it could. No one thought what the circumstances would be if a person was actually caught by the belt. The problem was fixed by moving the shutdown switch from the wall, to directly on top of the conveyor feed.
In the Styrofoam Plant, the first half of the plant was continuous process control, with tanks, pipes, chemicals. The second half was like a sawmill; in fact it was called the "sawline". We used 50HP motors, spinning very massive cutter blades to trim or put a "ship-lap" edge to the Styrofoam. These cutters would spin at 5000 RPM, and looked like big 6" diameter cylinders with a bunch of tiny teeth on them. They would rip a person to shreds if the occasion arose. Because of this, all saws were behind protective fences, or in enclosures and all fences were locked with electric switches. When the lock was de-activated, the AC power to the motors was cut off and special DC power was applied with opposite polarity to stop the saw as quickly as possible. (This safety feature was called "DC Brakes".) There was also a time-out feature on the gate so no one could enter until the motors were stopped.
One day there was a power failure. All the equipment went down, the safety lights (battery backup) went on, and we got a big jam-up on the saw-line. One operator opened the gate to one of the saws and jumped in to clear the jam when he noticed the saw still spinning! He could have lost an arm or his life, had he not noticed this!
The DC brakes did not work because the DC current was actually converted AC, and therefore when the power was lost, so was the DC for the motors. The motors kept spinning, and access to the gate was immediate (no time-out).
The problem was fixed by changing a process. Basically it was indicated that in a power failure, everything is down anyway and there is no rush to clear any jam-up. So go have coffee.
Blowing the Blowing Agent Tanks
The "blowing agent" used to puff up the liquid gel into what is called Styrofoam is a mix of methyl chloride and Freon. Freon is inert, but the methyl chloride is not only very toxic, but also very flammable and explosive.
I was working the day shift and had go out to check pressures on the vessels every couple hours. Because of construction in the area I checked more often to make sure no one had run over any pipes or otherwise cause damage to my equipment.
I walked out the door, and not 5 feet from the highly-pressurized MeCl vessel were two guys smoking cigars! The fact that the very large white tank had a huge danger symbol on the side had no affect on the attitude of the workers! There was also a string of tank cars near the tanks potentially full of chlorine, caustic soda or ethylene oxide. The men were totally oblivious to any danger.
I immediately told them to extinguish the cigars. "No, no, DON’T throw them in the vicinity of the tank!" (I made them put them out in their truck which was about 25 feet away.) I asked them for their safe-work permit, which I knew they didn’t have because I was the one who issued safe work permits in the morning and I hadn’t seen these guys before.
I radioed the construction supervisor and told him what happened. I also informed my supervisor, and called the site safety supervisor. An investigation took place, the two guys were vindicated but their boss was run off. I was given a letter of commendation for "quick action in preventing a serious mishap".
Ponds Cold Cream
An operator working the night shift had to sample the effluent from a Chemical Plant to see if the settling ponds he was checking could be emptied to another pond and then to the river. Sampling involved putting a small glass bottle in a metal carrier attached to a 6 ft steel rod, then walking to the pond edge and dipping the bottle in the liquid. This liquid was really terrible stuff: it could be caustic soda, hydrochloric acid, and "tars" known to be extremely corrosive and carcinogenic. The material was quite hot as well, requiring insulated rubber gloves for handling.
At 2 AM that morning, the operator was attempting to get the sample but the level was very low, requiring that he walk down the bank closer to the liquid. He was wearing all the required safety gear: non-slip, tall rubber boots, goggles, rubber gloves. As he approached, he started to slip and slide on the slick "gumbo-like" material lining the pond, down toward the center where the effluent was bubbling out of the pipe! Because he couldn’t stop sliding and was VERY afraid of drowning in that muck, he flipped around from his back onto his front and dug (literally "clawed") his fingers into the ground to halt his descent. After a BIG sigh of relief he was able to move out of the pond... without his sample bottle. He was unhurt and did not require medical attention.
Using the safety suggestion process in place at this company, he was able to get proper piers built, with lights, to prevent a recurrence of the above NEAR MISS.
Yeah, I was that guy.
Sodium Hydroxide Burn
A colleague of mine, Randy, was working the night shift in the Caustic Plant. This fellow was a star performer: very conscientious, professional, and of course safe. On this night however he had other things on his mind that were distracting him.
After loading a tanker truck with caustic soda, it was part of the procedure to disconnect the large 4 inch hose from the bottom of the skimmer, then flush it out. Randy knew the procedure well, but this time he forgot to de-pressure the line before snapping the quick-disconnects. As a result, very hot 73% caustic soda, at 150 deg C came spewing out the end of the hose, covering Randy. He wasted no time rushing to the nearby safety shower, activating it and causing an alarm to sound in the control room. Three operators ran to his aid and while still under the high-flow shower, stripped him of all his clothing, and cut his boots off. By radio they contacted the ambulance crew, who took him to hospital.
Despite the quick action to get under the shower, and the quick response by all, the thermal and chemical burns were serious enough to give Randy only a 50/50 chance of survival. After a 6 month hospital stay, he was discharged and came back to work. 20 years after the accident happened people still notice his "raccoon-like" appearance due to the caustic burning every part of his face, except the part that was covered by mono-goggles.
The Town of Fort Saskatchewan could have been declared a Major Disaster Area had the following incident gotten out of hand.
The chlorine plant had just installed a new chlorine skid. This 80 foot long concrete structure is made of individual cells that are 12 feet square and about 6 inches thick. Each cell has a pair of "feeders" supplying brine to it, which is then electrolyzed by 550 volt @55,000 amps DC power. When the process is running, the brine is continuously fed in, caustic solution drains off the bottom of each cell, and chorine and hydrogen gas is removed from the top surface of each cell. Each cell contains a steel screen, covered with asbestos, surrounding a 1" thick carbon anode.
During startup, the only people allowed in the area are the cell operators and supervising operators, due to the inherent danger presented. (I was a cell operator and I guess I was expendable…) The startup procedure consists of slowly applying power, while maintaining the liquid levels over the anodes.
On this particular day, startup was proceeding as usual. Because of a faulty pH analyzer on the skid, an Instrument Tech ran up to the top of this structure to make a quick fix. Not only was he not supposed to be anywhere near this when it was starting up, he didn’t have proper safety boots on. (When I worked there, the immense electric field in the skid would make my sweaty feet tingle through my very thick rubber boots). The tech had cowboy boots on!
Shortly after the tech left the skid and the cell area, this brand new skid blew up, sending huge pieces of concrete 40-50 feet through the air. One chunk the size of a large microwave oven went through the wall to the DC conversion room, damaging some large diodes and control boards. Anyone in the area, especially standing on the skid would have been killed.
Let me stress the operators were well trained and knew the job well, having done this procedure many times over. (When the anodes would wear down, the entire skid would be changed out). Because of the flood of activity at the time, the liquid level was not maintained over the anodes: when the cells filled with hydrogen, and the level dropped, there was a spark from the (dry) anode that triggered the explosion. The cost just to replace the 50 copper cathodes (where the current is applied) was $1 million, in 1975 dollars.
Because of the safety procedures, no one was killed or injured, and no chlorine escaped to cause an evacuation, but if the Instrument Tech had broken procedures 5 minutes later, or taken 5 minutes longer, he would have been part of the rubble!
Miscellaneous Events, some funny, some serious
Explosion at Vinyl Chloride
I was working at the Styrofoam Plant when I heard about an explosion that occurred at the new Vinyl Chloride Plant. Vinyl chloride gas from inside the plant got into a sewer and fed back into the control room. The gas is highly volatile, and an open flame or spark caused the gas to explode. No one was hurt but all the computer equipment was soaked with vinyl chloride and had to be replaced. When the equipment was offered to employees I bought the whole she-bang for about $150! This was in the 70’s when the only computers were mini-computers worth about $150,000 and a simple, "dumb" video monitor was worth about $5000! I bought 4 of the monitors and a printer, about $25,000 worth of equipment for $150! Most of the stuff worked, and what didn’t, I fixed. I then turned around and sold the printer (a Daisywheel type) for about $500 and all of the monitors for about $150 each.
Operating With Females
Didn’t last more than a couple shifts! Women were hired as operators, and since this was a new thing, they were put in Herbicides Plant for a trial basis. After a couple weeks the experiment was over. Was it because the girls couldn’t handle the work? No. Was it because the guys were distracted by the girls? No. Was it because Dow didn’t want to put in another shower room? No. It was because Dow received a lot of phone calls from angry wives indicating their husbands will not work there anymore if the girls are allowed to stay! So much for equality.
Free Paint Jobs
The new Styrofoam Plant pushed the parking lot further south, closer to the Boiler House and Caustic Plant, which was just across the road. One day, one of the pressure safety valves popped on one of the caustic vessels and was vented horizontally out of the Caustic Plant. Unfortunately there were about 10 cars parked in our lot at the time and they were covered with the stuff. One car belonged to Dave the millwright and was a brand-spanking new car, only a couple weeks old. Dow apologized and agreed to paint the cars that were damaged, something that was above and beyond their responsibility because it indicated in our contracts that parking on site was a privilege and we were basically on our own if damage occurred. My car was a little Vauxhall Viva, a 4-banger that I used just for going back and forth to work with, because it was so cheap to run. It was gray-colored and had rust and dents and bad chrome all over the place. I had only paid about $100 for the car, so one can imagine what I got for my 100 bucks. Anyway, I wasn’t going to let a free paint job get away so I put in my claim and Dow agreed to paint my car as well. The paint shop I brought the car to didn’t want to paint on top of the rust and bumps, but I insisted they do so, pointing out the fact that someone was going to paint it for the $300 I was given, so it may as well be them. They did so on the condition I not mention who painted the car! I got it painted a nice metal-flake green, then I took it home and spray-painted big 8" daisies all over the new paint using a stencil I made and 3 or 4 different colors of spray paint. It was soooooo cute. Especially when I got the wife in the front, my two little kids in the back with the German Shepherd dog sitting between them. It was so cute I used to take this car out for rides or to go to town, just to show it off.
The four SuperTechs that were hired for the Styrofoam Plant were sent to the Styrofoam Plant in Ontario (Weston) to help the guys there transition from 8 hour shifts to 12 hour shifts. We had been on 12’s for a year or so and everyone just loved it. The Weston plant was a union plant and there was a lot of controversy and opposition to going to 12’s so we were asked to go and spread the good word, as well as learn the process better and help the operators. This was a period when we were still waiting for the portable plant to be built, so there was lots of slack time. Alex, who would later become our boss in the new Styro Plant in Alberta, was the boss of this plant at the time. We were there for two weeks, a pair of us working alternate shifts, just as we would back at home. Two of us shared a room and when one was working the other would sleep in the bed. On days off, two of us would go out and see the sites. I flew my wife up there and we took the rental car to Niagara Falls. The CN tower was just under construction at the time so we couldn’t see it, well from the top anyway. I took a bunch of movies from the bottom and shot some scenes of the tourist information signs around the base of the tower. I remember one of my pans of a painting of the tower looking so realistic, it was as if I had shot the actual tower.
Oh yeah, the strippers. When we went out for lunch or go for a beer after work, we would frequent a bar close by that had strippers. This was the 70’s remember, so stripping was quite a novelty, and because it was rather "new", the girls didn’t take much off. Certainly not as much as they do now. We were having lunch one time and not paying much attention to the girl up on the stage. She wasn’t the youngest or the prettiest ( in other words, she was a dog) so we were more interested in food and the music (which I remember was "I Shot the Sheriff" by Eric Clapton). Man, did she get upset! She insisted we watch her dance, and being the Alberta gentlemen we were, we obliged. I don’t think we went back after that because there was no sense getting harassed into watching some old broad taking off some of her clothes.
The Weston plant was old and decrepit. Some of the safety features we expected were non-existent. In one area, around the cooling tower, there was a big net to catch any boards that fell off the tower platforms. We were expected to wear a hard-hat only there, and only when there was a problem. Elsewhere in the plant, where I thought we should wear hard-hats, it was not necessary. I made this comment to Alex, not in a very diplomatic way, and he wrote up a report to my supervisor back home, indicating I was a trouble-maker. I admit I was pretty arrogant and ignorant then, but Alex could have discussed it with me before he ratted me out.` (This was the same Alex who fired me, so I guess he carried a grudge for all that time.)
Reg and I had a bad habit of chewing on plastic stir sticks back home. It seems like we always had one dangling in our mouths when we were at work. When we went to Weston, Reg discovered a big tank car full of polyethylene pellets about the size of a small pea. And they were chewy! He pocketed some, gave some to me and all the time we were there we chewed on these things. We even called them "chewies".
It’s Been a Blue Blue Day
I feel like runnin’ away….
That’s how the extruder motor felt like one day, on Steve’s shift. (It seems Steve had all the excitement on his shift: the worker who was killed, the gas-line break, the bean explosion…). The motor was 500 horsepower, about the size of a large fridge, and was powered by DC voltage. On the motor shaft end that wasn’t hooked to the extruder shaft, was a tachometer that fed back RPM (revolutions per minute) information back to the control system. This motor turned at a couple hundred RPM it’s speed was manually set by a rheostat on the control panel. The tach failed and the control system, having lost it’s signal, immediately put full voltage to the motor, causing it to spin at an incredibly and unsafe high rate. Fortunately Steve was right at the motor at the time and he immediately shut down. Even with his quick action, the motor had received too much power and turned blue from the heat generated. It was toast and had to be replaced. I asked for the control system and got it: a cabinet full of high current and high voltage electronic parts like SCR’s, transistors, resistors, and heat sinks. I still have all this stuff from the printed circuit boards I scrapped.
When I took my motorcycle to work I used to drive right into the plant onto the production floor and turn around and park near the shop. My bike was protected from the elements that way, and I could unload my cargo cases (analogous to the pouches on horse saddles) in the light and away from the mosquitoes outside. Lionel caught me a few times but didn’t say anything. It wasn’t like I was driving all over the production floor, which I really wanted to do at least once! I got caught in the rain a few times, and I never did have a rubber suit, something I could have got for nothing from one of the plants.
And my career comes to an end
At the Styrofoam Plant, I was a "boss" because I was a Supervising Technician. But I also had 3 immediate supervisors. First there was the Plant foreman, Tom, an electrician by trade. He was responsible mostly for the interface or liaison between operators (the SuperTechs) and management. Being a technical guy (and farmer) he supervised the shop guys and allocated their time and maintenance work. Lionel, a young engineer right out of the University of Saskatoon was responsible for production and coming up with new ways to increase production or fix problems. Finally, there was Terry the Plant Manager who had overall responsibility for the entire Styrofoam Plant. (This is different than the "Works" Manager who had responsibility for the entire complex and therefore Terry’s boss.) All 3 had a say in day-to-day operations so that I would have to treat each one as my superior, although we all treated the young engineer as an inferior. We did this mostly because he was too eager, too young, and too high up the food chain. We had to cut him down a notch or two. Terry was also young and very ambitious, but he had more power: the power to fire you, while Lionel and Tom could only recommend that you be fired. There was a difference.
All 3 of these gentlemen were very fine people, and very talented. At the time, since I was between them and the operators, my allegiance was with the little guy, not management. So we went head-to-head on a number of issues. Now that I’m more mature, something that took 30 years, I can understand better what they were trying to do. If I had my life to live over again one thing I would change would be my attitude towards management. Years after my work at this plant, I sent a letter to Terry to thank him for being a good boss and apologize for my being such a jerk!
The Grumpy Scotsman
Terry was replaced by the former manager of the Ontario Styrofoam operation, a Scotsman named Alex. Alex was a grumpy old man, not very well liked or respected because his decisions were based mostly on the need to have good production figures instead of considering all the factors. This came to a head, when many of our SuperTechs and some operators began moving out of Styrofoam. Some of the moves were because of the changing of the guard, some because the work at Styrofoam was extremely grueling at times (especially during an upset), but a lot were simply because new opportunities arose in other plants. The 3 SuperTechs I started in this plant with: Lanny, Bob, and Reg all moved out of Styro before me. Lanny and Reg went to the new Vinyl Chloride Plant, and Bob quit Dow to start his own business, cement coring. I was the last of the original bunch after 5 years and was only there because I had made the decision to quit and go to school soon.
Setting The Stage
We had had a bad month. For whatever reason we had not produced much good product when the plant was running and instead were producing a lot of scrap. This was costly because it took energy and man-power to produce scrap and then later to reclaim that scrap by recycling it in another process. On this one particular day-shift, the plant was shut-down when I arrived for work that morning due to some problem which had occurred an hour or so earlier. The maintenance crew repaired the problem and I started the plant up. For a number of hours I made scrap which was not unusual to do after a plant upset or shut-down. I then elected to shut the plant down again to do a routine procedure called "replacing the Teflons". These were Teflon strips we glued on to large pieces of angled aluminum (called "shoes") on each side of the die from which the hot Styrofoam gel would eject. These required frequent replacement because of the hot, rapidly foaming gel impinging on their surfaces, and also due to the action of these large metal plates on the top and bottom of the die that were used to form the foaming gel into a flat board we called Styrofoam insulation board. The plates would move vertically up and down, rubbing on the shoe Teflons. Normally the Teflons lasted for many days, which was fortunate because they could only be changed when the plant was shut-down. Even though a spare set was always available and ready to swap in, shutting down for 20 minutes was like going to the corner store for cigarettes in a white-out: it really wasn’t worth it. Chances of not making scrap for a couple of hours was slight. Sometimes we got lucky, but other times, we just couldn’t get the plant "lined-out" with the exact conditions we had before the shut-down.
I had elected to do the replacement because during the longer shutdown, a hard piece of gel or a foreign particle (like a piece of wood from a pallet mixed in with the recycle material) had gotten into the die and was screwing up the board. I rapidly opened the die and the plates to dislodge it, and in so doing crushed the shoe Teflon. Damn! I had to shut-down.
It was 11 AM. We had all been working like dogs, the sled type, since 7 AM. The operators were cranky, hot, sweaty, tired, hungry, thirsty. This was typical of startups when scrap was being made: no breaks, only hard, tiring work. So, before I installed the set of standby shoes, I told everyone to take a break of ½ hour. Once I started the plant up again, it could be that we would not see lunch until 4 PM, so it was important that they had at least one break in the day. (One of my operators was a Newfie, the guy who rammed the pop machine with the fork-lift because he didn’t get his drink. I didn’t need him any more cranky than he was.)
Telling The Boss Where To Go
To set the stage of my last confrontation ("The Last Hurrah") with any Dow manager, it’s important to know that exactly 3 days previous to this day, on Aug 14, 1979 I tendered my resignation because I registered for full-time classes at the local college, beginning in September. So poor Alex was hit with another resignation, a plant that wasn’t running and had not produced much product in the last couple months. He was cranky.
He came to the control room and asked me why the plant wasn’t running. I told him the story about having to change Teflons. "Yeah, so what? How come you’re not starting up?" Again I explained that my operators hadn’t had a break in 4 hours and needed a rest. My answers didn’t seem to sink in that they were fair and logical. Alex was relentless in his counter-questions, not really caring what my excuses were. "Start the damn thing up", he said. I lost it. I screamed at him: "Well get the f--- out of my control room and let me do it then!" He walked out and I gave the horn signal to the operators that a start-up was imminent. Of course they came to the control room wondering what the hell was going on and if they could at least finish their poured cups of coffee. I said yes, but in 10 minutes there would be foam coming out of the die. I never took a break at all that day. It was one where I left the plant with my lunch box pretty well undisturbed.
Blowing Up Dow Chemical
After telling my supervisor, Alex, to "get the f… out of my control room", the plant was started. As expected I made a lot of scrap, which was palletized and put in the warehouse where operators would retrieve it later for recycling. I finished my 3 day shift, had 3 days off, then came back for the last 3 days of my existence at Dow Chemical, because I had tendered my resignation effective at the end of that cycle. Returning the first evening of my shift I had brought my movie camera so I could take movies of the "saw-line", not because of some disloyal act, but just because I wanted a record, a memento, so to speak, of my time there. I was loyal to Dow to the final days and would never have sold any secrets to anyone, no less than I would sell out my country. I also brought along, in my truck-camper that I took to work that evening a case of beer for my operators. Okay, okay, that was probably bad, but my intention was just to have a glass for everyone, sometime early in the morning, like about 2 AM. I just wanted to say goodbye to my crew in "style". I never would have let them have more than a glass of beer, such that it would impair their work. That would have been criminal.
I went to the lunch room to put my lunch in the fridge and was surprised to see 2 SuperTechs there: the one I was replacing on shift, and another one who should not have been there. "What are you doing here?" I asked.
"I was asked to come in by Alex, who by the way, wants to see you in his office", was the reply.
At that moment a representative from employee relations was in the lunch room and said he would accompany me to Alex’s office.
I entered Alex’s office with a coffee in my hand, which I put down on his desk. Then I asked "What’s up?". The answer came from the ER guy who said that I was being "terminated" early. I asked what for and was told that I "made too much scrap on my last shift". Now this was pretty ludicrous because not only has no one ever been disciplined for making too much scrap, they would never be dismissed for it. Besides, all shifts had times in the last 5 years where they made nothing but scrap for the entire shift, continuing on to the next. Making scrap was much like a saw-mill that turns out wood boards: depending on the quality of the feedstock, how well the saws cut or are maintained, determines how good a product they produce. The garbage that comes out is sold as inferior low-grade wood, like those cheap kiln-dried studs a person buys for 89 cents each. We had no such luxury at Styrofoam, except for the fact that all scrap was recyclable, using the "reclaim" extruder.
I ask Alex to show me this scrap, because every pallet that came out of the die, whether scrap or good product was inventoried and tagged. We couldn’t just say we made scrap and then have some business on the side where we sold it as good stuff. There were controls. He refused. I said I had the right to see the evidence that is being used to make the decision of terminating my employment. Again he refused and started to become irritated. When he could see I wouldn’t let up, he used another excuse: "Because you were abusive", he said, in reference to my telling him to F-off. That was "probably" true, but certainly not critical enough to fire me over it. I then made reference to his abuse of power by making me start up the plant without giving the operators a break. We argued back and forth, to no avail: he wanted me out of there. Despite the fact that Dow was going to pay me for the next 3 days which I was not going to work, and let my reasons for leaving stand, that is, I DID resign, I was really, really pissed off by Alex’s abuse of power, and his refusal to even consider my side of the story. Sooooo…..
When I realized he would win, because of that power, I started by calling him every dirty filthy name in my repertoire. Then I stood up, smashed his desk mail-box to the floor, and pushed my cup of coffee over, causing the papers still on the desk to get soaked. I then turned to the door to see the ER person just frozen there, and I told him to "Get the f--- out of the way or I’ll move you!", as I angrily shook my fist.
Hosing Down The Boss
I guess this was a little more than what they expected so they got on the phone real quick to get security out to our plant. He arrived to supervise me clearing out my locker. After that was finished, I walked down the hallway to the production floor where I was going to turn left to go to the control room so I could say goodbye to my operators. The passage was blocked by Alex. I went up to him again, and screamed a blue streak at him again, because I was even more pissed that he wouldn’t even let me say goodbye. At that moment, I thought about going back into the hallway to get a water extinguisher, the kind we used for water fights, come back out and just drench him. By then however, the security guard was sort of preventing me from going anywhere. I probably could have just "dipped in" to get it before anyone knew what I was going to do, but I didn’t. To this day, I think about this, and wish I would have gone through with that plan. I’m sure the remaining operators would have made a martyr out of me!.
This Rodney Got My Respect
One of my operators, Rod, who came right out of school to work at Dow, heard about what was going on, and he got real pissed off. He walked up to me and Alex, asked Alex for confirmation of what transpired. When I responded with "I got fired", Rod ripped off his hard hat and threw it at Alex’s feet, with the comment: "If this is how you guys treat people, then I don’t want to work here. I quit!" And he did.
A week or two after this happened, someone organized a farewell luncheon/beerfest at the local pub for me. There was a good turn-out: all the operators and SuperTechs that weren’t working at the time were present, and I think Tom (the foreman) may have been there as well. I was surprised and elated to see my old boss Terry there, because of his past and present position, I would have understood his absence. Terry and I had our problems too, one of the reasons why I sent a letter to him about 20 years after I worked for him, apologizing for my behavior.
After the farewell lunch I invited everyone over to my home for a "continuance". I was quite shocked when most of them showed up! And with their wives. We had a few drinks, some food, and I passed around a letter I had written to Alex with copies going to top management of Dow. I knew it wouldn’t change anything but I wanted to go on record with the correct facts, not the bull that Alex was feeding them.
About a year later, Alex committed suicide.
My association with Dow didn’t end there. First of all my wife worked there in a secretarial capacity in one of the new plants. Her supervisor told her that whatever happened between me and Styrofoam wouldn’t reflect on her. Of course I took this to be a gawd-damn insult to the highest degree, because I was ready to end my time at Dow with dignity, not humiliation. The things that transpired weren’t my fault. I fed her back information and comments to tell her supervisor. Whether or not she ever did, I’ll probably never know, because if I asked, I know she’d give me the answer I wanted to hear just so she would not have to be caught in the middle. Second of all, and this really tore up my life for awhile: there was a bomb scare at Dow, and I became a suspect.
I got a call from the RCMP telling me there was a bomb scare phoned in to the complex. Did I do it? No, I did not. They asked if they could come over and talk to me about "it" and Dow in general, to which I replied "sure, I have nothing to hide" and "I’m willing to help in your investigation". I really was naïve. I guess they wanted to profile me and see if I would slip up in the interview and say something that would implicate me. Two of them came over, in plain clothes (but in a squad car) and they interviewed me for about an hour, explaining they had to go through the motions because I had been a "disgruntled" employee. This automatically made me a suspect. I agreed with them, while denying I had anything to do with this. Would I take a Lie Detector test? I thought about it for awhile, told them I knew they weren’t foolproof. What if the machine said I lied? The answer was "you have nothing to worry about if you’re innocent". (Put that in your book of famous last words, along with: "The Titanic can never sink").
The reason I quit Dow was so I could take Electronics at NAIT, so I was pre-disposed to things that were electronic in nature. So, the idea of seeing a lie-detector up close, and being able to quiz the operator on its operation was quite intriguing, so I said yes. Talk about an experiment gone wrong.
There Were No Doggies At K-Division
A couple days later, after school, I went to K-Division headquarters to take the test. So far, everything was "just like on TV", and the lie detector test was no different. After hooking me up with the probes the operator adjusted for baseline by asking me questions like: "Is your name Bob Found?", and "Do you live in Fort Saskatchewan". Then they told me to lie to a pre-determined question, which I did. This was their baseline. Let the test begin.
The real test started with the same questions. I was anticipating the BIG question, and had already become nervous, because I had no idea how or when they would ask it, and I was thinking "what if the machine says I’m lying?" So they finally dropped the bombshell: "Did you, (on such and such a date) phone Dow Chemical and indicate that there was a bomb planted there?" I said no. I looked over at the machine which was to my right. The operator had been marking up the paper tape as it came out of the machine, and when I answered the last question, he made another mark. I didn’t see anything unusual there, no different than any other spot. If fact, the histogram that was created didn’t appear to be any more unusual than at any other time.
The guys (the operator and one detective) left the room, leaving me in the chair where I had taken the test. I remember it was quite hard, like those oak chairs that the government used to use in the 50’s and 60’s. It also reminded me of the chair they electrocute criminals in.
When the detective returned, I asked in a cocky voice: "Well, did I pass? Heh heh heh".
"As a matter of fact, you didn’t," came the reply.
I looked at the guy, certain he was making a joke because he was a pretty nice person, before the test. He said "No, I’m not kidding. The test indicates you’re lying to us".
I said "Bullshit! How can it show I was lying when I DID NOT lie?"
He then pulled out the paper and pointed me to some squiggly lines, saying "See, right here. You lied. The machine is "just a machine". It can’t lie. It didn’t make the lines by itself".
Man, I was REALLY starting to sweat now. I pointed out to him that in his introduction to the machine he said that the machine is never less than 95% accurate, and is mostly 100% accurate. I challenged him on that, asking: "If it’s so accurate, why isn’t it allowed in court?". Now this really pissed HIM off! He tried to intimidate me by putting his hand on my chair and his face 4 inches from mine as he literally screamed at me! I felt like I was in boot camp with Sergeant Major Clint Eastwood as my commanding officer! Just like TV.
After this unexpected and unfair treatment, I managed to get out of the chair and leave. The inspector followed me, making sure he never touched me, because to do so would be a hostile act. After all, I was there on my own free will. I hadn’t consulted a lawyer, in fact when the RCMP were in my house, they said I didn’t need a lawyer if I wasn’t guilty! It’s amazing how they can twist things around and manipulate people like that. I guess it’s their job. I was insisting that I was innocent but the inspector kept harassing me, to the point where he got in front of me, stopping my egress. Then he looked me in the eye and said, "You’re a dangerous man. You’re enjoying this aren’t you? You think you can beat the system, don’t you? This is all a game to you!"
Now he was really pushing the envelope, and realizing that I could not argue with an irrational man, much less poke him in the mouth, I managed to get out the door and to my vehicle. That night I relived the entire event minute by minute in a conversation with my wife, which I recorded for posterity. I still have it on reel-to-reel tape.
About 3 months or so later, I heard through the grapevine that the RCMP found their man, a pipefitter or millwright who had been laid off or fired from work. Seeing the opportunity for vindication, I sent a letter to the RCMP asking for an official apology. I got nothing.
Despite the harassment of this event, and all the speeding tickets I got from the Mounties, I still have lots of respect for them. Must be because of the show "Due South". I was asked one time by a friend if he should take a lie detector test as a condition of getting a new job. I said, "definitely not!" and told him my story. My contention was that he could fail the test and forever be branded a liar.
Reflecting back on the situation, I can see how a crazy person could have done a lot of damage and killed lots of people with a bomb. Having worked in the Ethylene Oxide Plant and Chlorine Plants, I was privy to information on what could cause damage. For example, ethylene oxide has been used in liquid fuel rockets. It has a lower explosive limit (LEL) of 3% to 100%, and explosive power greater than dynamite. The 3% figure means the material will explode with as little as a 3% concentration in air, with air being the other 97%. The 100% figure means it will blow up even if there’s no air, because of course, the "oxide" means the chemical is an oxidant. As a comparison, gasoline will not explode if there is no air, even if it’s 100 % gasoline vapours.
Dow, I love you and always will.