In Case You've Wondered

My blog is where my wandering thoughts are interspersed with stuff I made up. So, if while reading you find yourself confused about the context, don't feel alone. I get confused, too.

If you're here for the stories, I started another blog:

One other thing: sometimes I write words you refuse to use in front of children, or polite company, unless you have a flat tire, or hit your thumb with a hammer.

I don't use them to offend; I use them to embellish.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

I Wasn't Expecting That

I was telling the operator what I planned for the day, so he could complete my work permit. We were in the control room for a polyethylene facility and the operator was in charge of running the unit.

Unlike in the past, modern facilities use computers and electronics to monitor the process of manufacturing plastic. Instead of having people moving about the unit (which can be unsafe), the operator can control the valves and equipment from a single workstation. Problems are solved quickly and safety is increased. The operation is observed on a large computer screen and keyboard, or mouse, commands control the equipment.

As I was speaking to the operator, and observing the screen, the smiley face at the bottom of the screen smiled to notify everything was in order. I thought for a moment about the programmer. They added their own touch to the program and made it a little entertaining.

The operator finished writing and handed me the permit for my signature. As he was handing it to me, the smiley face turned green and a frown appeared. I signed the permit, looked at the screen and asked the operator - who was now staring at the screen - if everything was okay. He said yes, which didn't give me much comfort, since the tiny face was now blood red, with eyes closed, and with an expression of extreme concern. I watched for a few seconds, grabbed my copy, went out the door, and headed to the engineer's office; to let my engineer know my concrete pour was on schedule. Hopefully, he'd been there awhile and would offer me a fresh cup of coffee.

The typical procedure for severe problems in a petrochemical facility is to warn everyone with horns. These horns, which are explained during orientation, may be simple, or not, but they are the last ditch effort for everyone to know something is about to happen. I was passing the reactor when it vented, without the warning of a horn.

Venting a plastics reactor is the last ditch effort to keep it from blowing up. The same plant I was working in had a huge dent in a water tower, where a chunk of steel hit after a reactor exploded decades ago. By luck, nobody was near the unit, when it happened. They found pieces of the six inch thick steel walls miles away. It takes a lot of pressure to make plastic and the vessels are extremely thick to handle the pressure.

Venting a reactor can just be the gasses being escaping, or a combination of the gas and raw product, which is a hot wax that sticks to skin. This plant required long sleeve shirts for that very reason. After a vent, the hot plastic was easier to remove from clothes than the skin by a doctor.

Whatever comes from the vent, it's loud. The large pipes protruding from the top of the reactor allow a substantial amount of escaping product. My ears started ringing.

I ducked, put my head down and headed toward where my crew was working. As I passed the control room, the horns started sounding and I hurried to manage my crew. I had a pretty good idea they wouldn't panic, but if they did, I wanted to at least try to stop the stampede to someplace they didn't need to go.

 I reached the crew within seconds. Only one hand had ventured away; he was fast walking toward the gate, pausing to look, and continuing his journey. The all clear horn sounded as I watched. The reactor was under control and if the damn thing blew, we were a few thousand feet too close anyway. There was no need to panic.

I motioned to the hand that was now stopped and looking at me. Carefully, and constantly looking at the unit, he returned where we were preparing to pour concrete. My concrete truck arrived within a few minutes, but a new problem arose: They wouldn't let any deliveries in, and I had one hour before I had to send the truck back.

I headed towards my engineer's office to explain the problem. The engineer, who could pull a few strings, made some calls, we waited for a few minutes, and I was allowed to continue with my pour. I don't think he liked the idea of paying for an entire load of concrete they couldn't use; plus the downtime for labor and equipment.

 I finished my pour before the hour was up, left the crew to finish, and returned to drink some coffee with the engineer. He had no idea what happened, since the warning horns didn't precede the vent. He did point out a new compressor, that pressured up the raw products for the reactor. About a year before, the old one came apart one night, and pieces were scattered around the plant. Nobody was hurt, but if the event was during daytime hours, it was likely a casualty, or two, would have been part of the disaster.

We eventually finished the job and went on to others. I worked again in the same facility about a year later to build a concrete containment for new tanks. During that project, I walked through a puddle of vinyl acetate and had my work boots fall apart within seconds. I didn't know anything was wrong, until walking felt like when a sandal breaks and I had to change my gate to keep from tripping. I changed to my rubber boots and bought some more work boots that evening.

Such is life when working construction in the petrochemical industry. Strange things happen and some are dangerous.


  1. I never liked working in plastics. Preferred stamping and welding.

    I once programmed a button to a screen that said "Do Not Touch!"
    f you touched it, it went to a screen that said
    "I told you not to touch that!!
    Call your supervisor."
    I made it password protected .
    After a while, I had to take it out.
    The supervisor tired of answering the calls.

    1. I was working in a plastics blending facility. It was full of extruders and the special blends were pelletized before shipping.

      While going to talk to an engineer, I took a shortcut to a hallway that led to the office. Before I was two steps inside the door, I was stopped, told to leave and made a hasty retreat.

      I walked into a hallway that adjoined the computer room, which kept the patented blends and procedures on file. I was unaware of the fierce competition in the industry and had wandered into a place that held the secrets to millions. If the information was stolen, the company could fold when foreign manufacturers started making their product.

  2. And here I thought working at the airport was dangerous with the running jet engines which act like a vacuum cleaner. After a few years on the ramp near them I went to Catering/Commissary the worse that could happen is fall to the ground or crush my foot. I did crush my foot. Another tale for another time.

    1. I was surprised, when it happened. You get lulled into a false sense of security.

  3. Replies
    1. I keep a "throw-away" monitor in my truck. They last around three years and can't be reconditioned. It's required when I work in a sulfur processing facility.

      I worked with an old man offshore that worked a few years in a sour gas field in Louisiana. When working near the well, they wore gas masks.

      One day, while working, one of the hands fell out. He was dead before emergency crews arrived.

      After examining the gas mask, which was working properly, they found the man had a ruptured ear drum, and the H2S was so concentrated, enough made it through his eustachian tube to cause his death.