Wednesday, April 16, 2008

The power of a badge and a gun

Last night one of our temporary contract employees put down some tools and left the area for a few minutes. When he returned, the tools were gone.

He was unhappy, which is understandable.

But things progressed from looking around and asking questions, to raised voices, to aggressive body language, to threats and pure unbridled belligerence. A few swings were taken. Luckily, none landed.

The on-site contract supervisor asked for some backup from our off-duty sheriff’s deputy who was moonlighting for us. The law officer came to the scene, and all belligerence stopped immediately. There’s just something about that badge and gun that often takes the fight right out of a man.

The unhappy employee was escorted off the plant site, relieved of his entrance pass, and sent home to cool off.

It turned out that they weren’t his personal tools anyway, but some he was using that belonged to the plant. All he’d needed to do was go over to the warehouse and check out some more. We would then have either found the tools, or been watching for them trying to walk out the gate at shift change; but he would have been cleared and still on the job.

Sure, getting a replacement set would have required him to go (in a golf cart, by the way) some distance away and request it, but that would have been easier than working. But long hours and many days with no time off bring about short fuses.

We decided that our temporary security force (the deputy) was certainly worth what we’re paying to have them there.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

H R was giving out pink slips

(Another Turnaround Tale.)

And I was loving it!

I made a big show of walking down the hall, handing employees an 8 1/2 by 11 sheet of pink paper, and telling them, "Here's your pink slip from H R!"

One or two of them actually started to get a look of shock on their faces, but that look was quickly replaced by a grin.

What was going on? We have so many vehicles more than normal in the plant parking areas that we had to assign different parking zones to people depending upon where they reported to work. The folks who work in the Adminisration building were assigned to the north parking area. Each area was color-coded. Guess what color went with the north parking area.

The idea was that in the morning we have attendants at the entrance to each parking area. If you don't have a piece of pink-colored paper (your parking slip) with "North Parking Area" printed on it, you won't be allowed into that lot.

My point is that a huge amount of planning goes into one of these turnarounds to ensure not only that we have enough workers and materials, but that there are extra rest rooms (porta-potties, mostly), wash rooms, eating areas, clothes-changing areas, and other necessary infrastructure and facilities to handle 5-10 times the normal crowds.

Just like a big public event, parking has to be controlled as well.

Oh, and this weekend we had a first! On Sunday, we randomly tested 34 people for drugs and alcohol, and nobody tested positive! (First test in two weeks that didn't result in at least one worker leaving the plant.)

As you can tell, we really DON'T look forward to these turnarounds.

But we don't usually get to hand out pink slips, either.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Another Turnaround Tale

Several days ago at my plant, an employee (out of several hundred) of contract firm “A” approached an employee of contract firm “B” with a proposition. Something like . . .

“Hey, man, I got a great idea. There are hundreds of us A company employees here, and nobody can keep track of all of us at one time. There are also hundreds of you B company guys here.

“Why don’t you help me get hired onto B company’s payroll to work with you?

“I’ll keep my job with A company. Every day I’ll show up, report in to both bosses, and keep busy. If your boss asks you if you’ve seen me, you can vouch for me that I’m really doing a great job. I’ll punch both time clocks, and nobody’ll know that I’m pulling down two pay checks.

“I’ll split my second check with you! It’ll work!”

And you know, it just might have worked!

Fortunately for us the B company employee declined, and came to tell our plant safety supervisor, Jay, the story. Jay called the on-site superintendents of both A and B companies, passed on the allegation, and left things in their hands.

They investigated. They determined that the story was the truth.

They debated the merits of letting the dishonest employee actually carry out his scheme for one pay period and then file theft and conspiracy charges. (Please note that I spelled “conspiracy” with a lower case “c”. I DO NOT want to stir up the OTHER one, with the upper case “c”!!) But The B company superintendent didn’t want to let his company be scammed, even as a “sting” operation, so the A company boss fired the conspiring fellow and sent him off to attempt his dirty deeds elsewhere.

It’s a shame he didn’t apply his craftiness to better ways of getting his work done. He might have been able to earn his way into a much bigger paycheck he didn’t have to split with anyone.

Well, anyone except Uncle Sam. (I had to throw that in, since today is Tax Day Eve.)

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Turnaround Tales

Process plants, such as refineries and chemical manufacturing facilities, take what they call “turnarounds.” They will shut down a production unit, “turn it around,” (perform major maintenance and cleaning which can only be done when the pumps, motors, and other equipment is cool and de-energized), and then start it back up again to resume production.

Since the plant is losing huge potential income and profits while it’s out of production, management spends great sums of money to ensure that the turnaround takes as short a time as possible. This includes working half the plant personnel on days and the other half on nights, 12 hours on and 12 hours off, seven days a week with no days off until the turnaround is complete. It also includes hiring outside contract firms to provide hundreds of additional skilled, semi-skilled, or unskilled laborers to get the work done quickly.

Yes, my plant is in the middle of one such turnaround.

We’re a small plant. Our normal staffing level is 140 employees plus about 50 permanent contract folks. Right now we have over 500 people in the plant all day and all night, Mary Ann. (That’s a song reference, in case you didn’t get it. Harry Belafonte. Some sources have it as “Marianne.”)

Having that many temporary workers in a small plant for a month or so requires some adjustments. For instance, we had to create a new parking lot for the nearly 400 extra vehicles coming and going twice each 24-hour period. We also had to arrange for some extra plant security, especially around shift-change time, to prevent a lot of tools and other expensive equipment from walking out the plant gate hidden among the crowds of people.

Last Thursday our plant employee gate attendant (NOT a security guard) noticed a man walking by dragging a length of heavy-looking insulated wire. She stopped him and asked what he had. He dropped it and ran to his car.

The wire turned out to be a heavy-duty copper welding lead, probably worth all of $25 at a metal scrap dealer but costing several hundred dollars to buy. The county sheriff was called, the man apprehended, and charges were pressed. The point wasn’t so much to punish the man as to make a point to all the others who might be tempted.

In fact, the man was mostly unhappy about the fact that he was caught when, he said, nobody else was; the inference being that many were getting away with similar theft.

Yes, he confessed. We made a public show of having three sheriff’s cars (with lights flashing) park for over 30 minutes at the plant entrance before taking the man off in handcuffs.

It was mostly for show. We also had several deputies stroll through the big new parking lot looking into cars. They weren’t really expecting to find anything, but they were very visible.

Will all of that help? Maybe. But probably not as much as the fact that we’ve now hired several off-duty deputies to stand at the gate in uniform (wearing their weapon) as people come and go at shift change. We’ll see.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Today I signed the biggest check...

. . . of my entire life.

The amount was over 1.3 million dollars!

Too bad it was a check from my company to a vendor who is providing manpower and materials for a major process unit refurbishing.

No, I don't get a cut. And no, I don't have the sole power to approve amounts like that. By policy all checks for over $5,000 require two signatures.

But for a few minutes, mine was the only signature on that puppy. I considered making a copy and framing it, but decided it really wouldn't impress anybody so what was the point?

Anyway, right now we are going through a 30-day maintenance shutdown on most of the plant's equipment. This happens about once every three years, and it's VERY expensive. One of the biggest costs is the lost production while we're down, so we spend whatever it takes to minimize the downtime.

Including bringing in several hundred extra people to disassemble things; rebuild, repair or replace them; and then reassemble them. Also including replacing a lot of items that may have useful life left in them, but which might not last all of the next 3 years. We don't want an equipment failure to force us to shut down early, or on an emergency basis.

Why do I sign checks when I'm the Human Resources manager? Well, it's one of those practices that are in place to make stealing or embezzlement more difficult. The more people involved in the process of paying your bills, the bigger a conspiracy would have to be to actually steal.

So one person approves the invoice, another prepares the check, another (one or two) actually sign(s) the check, and yet another mails the check to the payee. The finance manager oversees this process. I got to be one of the "lucky" ones whose signature is registered at our bank.

Thus today I signed away well over a million dollars with a flourish of the pen, shrugged as if it wasn't my money and so didn't matter, and went onto the next check.


I thought about putting my name on the "Pay to the order of" line, but decided I like my job too much.

(Maybe if it had been 3 million . . .)

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Golf course hazards

You never know what you’re going to encounter on a golf course. Including, of course, errant golf balls struck by other golfers – or even by yourself!

I think the most painful injury I ever sustained on a golf course was self-inflicted. The ball was close to a concrete cart path and had to be hit across the path toward the hole, but kept low to avoid tree limbs ahead.

Yes, I know . . . if you stay in the fairway you don’t face these problems. But c’mon—not even Tiger Woods’ ball lands in the fairway every time!

Anyway, I took a mighty swing and succeeded in keeping the ball low. In fact, it was SO low that it hit the one-inch-high edge of the concrete path and ricocheted back and up striking the back of my leading wrist as I continued the swing toward a follow-through. That follow-through was never achieved. I let go of the club and was completely convinced I had broken the wrist.

No, I didn’t let loose with a string of colorful words. Don’t be disappointed—it wasn’t due to my great restraint. Nor did it have anything to do with my respect for the sanctity of the quiet, pastoral environment. Rather, it was simply a matter of my inability to draw a breath or find my voice in the face of the blinding, searing pain!

Turned out it was "only" a deep briuse, but it still hurt like . . . Well, it hurt.

And there are other hazards to be aware of on the course besides those white spherical missiles. One such hazard is the amazing Texas tree-climbing turtle.

What? You don’t think turtles can climb trees?

Well, think again. I have photographic proof!

And lest you suspect that I might have placed that turtle in the tree, here’s another shot—this time with TWO turtles on their way up.

Everyone knows about water hazards on golf courses. Almost every course has at least a few well-placed wet areas that have an unnatural attraction for white plastic-coated spheroids. But what many fail to realize, or think about, is what (besides hundreds of golf balls) might be IN that wet area.

Here’s one example:

(Any of you herpetologists out there care to tell me what species this is?)

And finally, there are aggressive, nasty geese.

What . . . you don’t think geese are particularly hazardous? Well, take a gander at the face of this . . . er. . . gander. He’s hissing! Check out that tongue!

You’ve heard the expression, “As rare as hen’s teeth,” right? You think a goose doesn’t have teeth? Well take a really close look at this guy’s oral weaponry, and tell me that you’re not reminded of a Tyrannosaurus Rex.