Silence Kills

Foster an atmosphere where workers speak up about concerns.

By Dirk Willard, Contributing Editor

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Tony was a pain. The new plant manager, Bob, couldn’t stand him. But, he was a hero to his fellow operators because he complained — about everything.

We need more, not fewer, troublemakers.

At the time, I must admit he often drove me nuts. He’d page me at 2 a.m. because he didn’t like the sound of a compressor or maybe to whine about something. Tony wouldn’t think of interrupting his beauty sleep to meet me during the day. I got paid to solve problems, he said.

Thinking back though, Tony served a critical purpose by providing useful analysis. Indeed, I have Tony to thank for catching a few young engineers’ mistakes.

Sadly, Bob soon got rid of him. Previous plant managers had tolerated Tony because he was a good operator. Tony questioned every checklist, memo, instruction and procedure. He caught problems but was written up as a complainer a lot by Bob.

In my humble opinion, we need more, not fewer, troublemakers. Numerous incidents occur because someone chose to be polite or a “team player” and didn’t voice concerns. For instance, an electrician didn’t want to offend his friend by reminding him to wear fire-resistant overalls before opening a 1,160-VAC bucket; now, he lives with the memory of watching his friend get incinerated.

In the 1980s, the Elk Hills Reserve in California, a production site half-owned by the U.S. Dept. of Energy, ran its gas plant at well over the 150% of capacity that it was designed to handle. We were dumping “condensate,” light liquids like kerosene, into clay-lined pits because we had no other place for it. Equipment broke down and was repaired in unsafe conditions. Everyone, including me, knew somebody someday would pay the piper. Eventually, four guys did. They were working late on a Saturday night, trying to repair a flow meter. They covered the sniffer with a plastic bag to avoid the shutoff alarm. Mercifully, in a gas explosion the concussion usually kills you before the flame does.

Even after that accident, we still kept dumping condensate. A year later, a careless mechanic lit a cigarette too near one of those condensate pools. The fire marshal said it was God’s mercy that he died three days later. The mechanic had burns over 60% of his body.

Thankfully, fatal incidents like these are now rare. Still, I wonder if a complaint to OSHA would have done any good? Probably not, but I and everyone who worked at Elk Hills will have to live with those deaths.

However, can we really say that attitudes have changed that much? A recent survey of industrial workers by Vitalsmarts found that 93% of those polled believe their work group faces one or more potentially fatal dangers. Moreover, 78% witnessed unsafe shortcuts and three-quarters don’t feel comfortable talking about their concerns with management.

So, maybe Tony wasn’t so bad after all. Okay, I could have lived without the early morning pep talks.

How can we create an atmosphere where speaking out is allowed? Well, I can tell you from personal experience you won’t change a company’s attitude. Instead, focus on your own work group — start with the people who work for you. Convince them they have your confidence. You won’t tell superiors what they tell you; in turn, they’ll get your full support. It’s called team building. If you’ve been in the military no more explanation is needed. A colonel would know that what happens in a company stays in the company.

At one plant I became responsible for a product that wasn’t meeting production, quality and safety standards. I replaced a manager who was well liked by everyone but frankly wasn’t up to the task. After a few weeks, I won the confidence of the operators and did what I could to shield them from an overbearing narcissistic boss. When a fire occurred, he ordered me to blame an operator he had in mind instead of the faulty controls and poor management; I refused to rewrite the safety review.

Standing up to the boss won me the trust of the operators and my peers. Without their help, it wouldn’t have been possible to pull that product out of the gutter in three months.

Since that time, I’ve worked in plants where workers felt safety suffered — from production deadlines, operator exhaustion, incompetence, mismanagement and complacency. At one site the strain on operators trying to string together piping to keep the product flowing despite lousy procedures by engineers often was clearly visible.


DIRK WILLARD is a Chemical Processing contributing editor. You can e-mail him at dwillard@putman.net

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