Down She Goes

Memoir Mondays

I’ve heard it said by many tradesmen that “you’re not working hard enough if you’ve never shut the place down”. The reasoning, I suppose, is that it’s so easy to accidentally trip a plant or factory that if you’ve never done it you must not be doing very much work. By that logic, I must be working like a dog.

The first time I ever shut a place down was when I worked at the paper mill. I worked in the pulp plant department, where we had these huge refiners run by monstrous motors. The combination of this equipment was a hell of a lot of noise, and when they were shut down you could hear this very high-pitched hum-whine that practically made the floor vibrate, and you’d know exactly what had happened. On the day in question I was checking out a part of the program on the PLC (programmable logic controller), and it was a small discrepancy in definition that screwed me up. On a home computer or personal device, if you’re “downloading” something, it means you’re grabbing it from an outside location and bringing it onto the device in front of you; if you’re “uploading” something, you’re moving it from your device out to the outside location. However, with a PLC it’s the exact opposite. “Uploading” means taking the program from the PLC and moving it onto the computer you’re working with, and “Downloading” means moving the edited program file from the computer back to the PLC. I intended to “upload” the current running program so that I could have a look at it, but instead I “downloaded” the old program that was currently open on the computer. The next thing I knew the air was filled with that hum-whine that meant the entire place was crashing. Luckily the pulp plant usually has a pretty large buffer before it’ll actually run out of pulp and subsequently shut the paper machine down, so we were able to “download” the backup copy of the program and get everything running again.

That was fairly embarrassing, but it only actually affected about fifty or so people. What happened out on the oil sands, however…well, let me just tell you…

First of all, the plant in question is pretty huge and there was a massive number of people working there at the time. My commissioning company alone had about a thousand people on site, plus four different construction companies, plus the vendors, plus the company that actually owns the site. So whenever the place shut down there were a lot of people standing around doing nothing, wasting money.

So anyway, one morning the programmers and engineers were testing the alarm system for the first time. The idea is that if any gas detector, smoke alarm, or flame detector in the plant is tripped – or if someone hits an emergency stop button – all the horns and lights go off, any running processes shut down, and anyone inside the main plant has to stop work and retreat to a “muster point” (a predetermined safe zone). An announcement went across the plant warning us about the test, the muster was tripped, we all mustered for a few minutes to prove that we knew what to do in case of an actual emergency, and then we returned to work. The system was proven and everyone was happy.

The following day my coworker and I were testing some gas detectors and made a very stupid mistake. You see, the techs in the control room have the ability to bypass the programming on devices that will trip the alarm system, but up until that point we hadn’t been required to do so because the alarm system didn’t actually work. But on this day, of course, everything was now 100% functional.

My coworker opened the portable gas canister that would allow us to test whether or not the gas detector was functional, and half a second later there were flashing lights and wailing sirens going off all over the site. Humorously enough, even though we’d just performed a successful site-wide test the day before, no one seemed to know what to do. An entire site of thousands of workers stood dumbfounded for several long moments before anyone so much as took a step toward a muster point. My coworkers and I, on the other hand, practically sprinted to one so we could hunt down a boss and explain what had happened. Some people were pretty frustrated with us, but it was to be expected that someone would screw up at some point now that the alarms were operational, so we were basically forgiven.

But that’s not the best part.

On the third day, my coworker and I were still working on gas detectors, so this time we were extremely careful to get in touch with a tech in the control room and ensure that all the proper bypasses were set up so we wouldn’t trip the system again. We were extremely diligent and checked back with our tech multiple times. We were confident. We were fine. We were all good.

We pulled a terminal in order to fix a wiring issue.

Flashing lights and wailing sirens.

The way my coworker tells it, he’d never heard so many profanities come out of such a small woman. The next thing we knew, we had a construction supervisor on top of us, radio in hand, demanding our names so he could report us to the head-honchos.

The alarms were cancelled as a false alarm and everyone returned to work without mustering, but a few minutes later I got a text from one of our team leads: “The foreman wants to see you in his office immediately.”

We were certain that we were getting sacked, and we were as frustrated as we were upset because we couldn’t understand why it had happened. We’d checked with our control room tech multiple times! This couldn’t possibly have been our fault, right?

We walked into our foreman’s office with trepidation, ready for the hammer to drop. What we weren’t expecting was for him to take one look at us and burst into laughter. “I love giving people nicknames,” he said, “and I’ve got the perfect ones for you two: Muster and Evac!”

We were relieved, that’s for sure, and even more so when we found out that it really hadn’t been our fault. Some moron programmer had wanted to test something and had – without consulting anyone – disabled all bypasses. My coworker and I had just been unlucky enough to be the first poor schmucks who had tripped something while the bypasses weren’t on. Twice. Two days in a row.

It’s been three years since that particular mistake, and I haven’t shut down any sites since, but I’ll never forget the hum-whine of the refiner bay grinding to a halt, or the feeling when those sirens started howling on the third day and everyone just turned and looked right at us. In fact, people on that site still joke whenever the sirens go off for a legitimate reason: “What did Tracey do now?”

But…at least it means I must be working.

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