Saving a lot of money and almost getting killed


(Originally written Aug. 30, 2014. This is an edited version of that)

Dear Ezra and Lian (when you’re a little older),

A couple weeks ago, my co-worker and I helped save the people of Ontario a lot of money. It’s not a big deal. The people I work with do this sort of thing all the time. Nobody congratulated us or gave us a gift. It was just another day at work. Within a couple hours, I had made a few paper work mistakes. My intelligence and work ethic were being questioned. It was all in good fun. It’s what people, especially guys in an industrial environment do. They laugh at one another when they make mistakes. Then we fix the mistakes. It’s a little bit mean, but my little buddies, you need to learn to let things like this go. You will get yourselves needlessly upset if you don’t. You will waste too much energy on it. Take satisfaction from doing a job well. Smile at the jokes, keep your head down and keep on working.

My co-worker asked a good question. I went and argued his case. Due to a miscommunication and misunderstanding, one of our generators was going to be shut down for 40 hours longer than it needed to be. “Equipment breaks and people make mistakes.” It’s one of the first things I learned when I started working full time when I was 19. Same job as I have now. Even highly trained and paid professionals make big mistakes. There was going to be a lot of chances to correct this mistake and I’m fairly certain someone else would have found it. “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.” It was just a stupid mistake. No one was trying to rip anybody off. Maybe I’m more forgiving than I should be, but you both need to learn to forgive people their stupid mistakes. It is not just good for them. It’s good for you. You can’t spend your whole life hoping people get what they deserve. You will be miserable. Let it go.

Here’s a story from 20 years ago when I was 21 that will tell you what I mean. I had a little job to do at work; close 2 little valves and open another. Hang yellow tags on all 3. I found the right valves. Just then, two other operators walked up and took off a yellow tag off the bottom of a tank near me. They walked away and I started my job. I closed 1 valve and put on the tag. Then I noticed the floor drain 1 foot away from me started to have some steam come out of it. Hmmm. I opened up the second little valve and put a tag on it. Now there is water and steam bubbling out of the drain. I go to close the last valve, but I hesitated. I looked at the drain again. I stopped what I was doing. I walked behind the elevator, picked up the phone and called my supervisor. “Hey, buddy, I’m here on the Turbine Hall doing this job. Two guys were doing a different job and now there’s some water bubbling out of the floor drain. Do you know what’s going on? Is that normal?” (Remember I’m young and inexperienced.) My supervisor said, “How much water and steam is coming out of the drain?” So I put my head around the corner to see about a 50 foot column of boiling hot steam and water shooting out of the floor drain right where I was standing. 1000s of litres of hot water was shooting in the air and spilling all over the floor. If I had stayed there 2 minutes longer to finish my job, I would have been cooked alive. It would have been very painful way to die.

I was in such a state of shock, I don’t remember anything from there until I got to my big boss’s office hours later. We went over what happened. The drain pipe on the tank had 2 drain valves which is not normal. The guys taking off the yellow tag thought the 2nd valve with the white tag was already closed, so they left the yellow tagged valve open. The guys who wrote the procedure thought the white tagged valve would get closed. We used to write all these procedures by hand. Recently we had started using computers. It saved a lot of time and stopped a lot of spelling mistakes. However, when it created a “de-isolating” procedure, it just did the reverse of the “isolating” procedure. The writers didn’t check close enough and make changes. They should have written to have both valves closed and assumed nothing. As hot water came into the tank, it went through the open valves and down the drain pipe to a “sump”. When the sump and the pipe filled up, the pressure pushed all the boiling hot water up through the open floor drain and all over the spot I was standing moments before. Assuming too much and putting too much faith in new technology caused this accident.

The station manager convinced me that nobody had really made a serious error. It was the fault of bad information and a bad computer program. He asked me not to write a Significant Event Report. (The big ones, get read all around the world-wide industry.) At the time, it made perfect sense. I was eager to forgive everyone and move on. So I did. Unwittingly though, I was covering up a serious mistake. All the procedure writers, computer programmers and workers needed to hear this story. Things needed to change so that it never happened again. Instead, I walked around work for over 17 years never telling anybody. I didn’t want anyone’s reputation to get hurt. That was dumb, dumb, dumb.

Paying attention and thinking that maybe something is wrong saved my life. Assuming everything was safe and not paying attention for just a minute meant these guys almost killed me. This is why I get more upset with you than I should when you don’t pay attention. Bad things happen when people lose focus on safety. I’m trying to protect you from a dangerous bad habit.

If I had died, I would have been the 7th nuclear power worker to die in North America and 1st in Canada. My accident would have been front page news and studied for years by those in my industry. Grandpa and Grandma would have been offered a lot of money not to sue the company. If it went to court, it would have received a lot of attention. Given the circumstances, there was probably criminal negligence causing my almost-death. Anti-nuclear activists would have used this accident as “proof” of an unsafe industry needing to be shut down. It would have been a political and legal storm swirling over my dead body. I’m glad I listened to that overwhelming sense that something wasn’t right and moved. It would have been terrible to put my family, friends and co-workers through all that.

Keeping secrets is silly. Usually the bad stuff we worry about doesn’t happen. You will carry an unnecessary burden trying to protect yourself and others. Just tell the truth and free yourself. Keeping secrets is stupid. Others miss out on a chance to learn from our mistakes. Kids, please learn from all of mine.




P.S. Next time I tell you about one of my secrets or mistakes, I will make it a lot shorter.