Memories of my Father - George Willard Gibson, 11/18/1918 - 9/3/2012

Entry 6a - supplemental

10 Ways You Can Be Injured or Die in a Refinery!

1. Burns

I realize that the term 'burns' is somewhat broad for working outdoors in a maze of pipes and vessels filled with flammable substances. Burns could refer to sunburn, chemical burns, catching fire in a blaze of gasoline ... the possibilities are many. So I will be specific. I speak of steam tracing burns. In an oil refinery, many of the pipes contain substances that have to be kept at a certain temperature in order to keep them flowing normally. This temperature is maintained by wrapping the steel pipes with copper tubing carrying high pressure steam and covering that with asbestos sleeves. However, in the gaps between these sleeves or around bends in the pipe, it is easy to encounter exposed lengths of tubing. This copper tubing is extremely hot. If your exposed skin brushes against it, you will get an instant first-degree burn and maybe even a blistering second-degree. The summer I worked in the refinery, we were advised from day one to wear long-sleeved cotton shirts but in 100-degree weather inside a refinery where it was routinely even 10 degrees hotter, most of us wore short sleeves. Brushing up against steam tracing happened fairly often. I probably got half a dozen burns on my arms - usually just above or below the elbow - over the course of the summer.

2. Permanent Hearing Loss

Once in awhile as you roamed about the refinery, you would see a sign warning of the potential damage to the ears from unprotected exposure to whatever sounds were present. Some of the signs specified hearing loss could occur after 4 hours of exposure. Others said 2 hours. I came across one location up above the pipe feeds in the cat unit, about 20 feet above the ground, where it said 1/2 hour. This was right above the main compressor. Working there was like working inside a jet engine. So you had to wear ear plugs. I faced this danger on the first afternoon I was on the job. My pusher - a rigger - wanted me to crawl into a 6-foot diameter vessel with a power grinder and smooth out some valve seats that had been cut off by the welders. I said no. He cussed at me, called me a pussy, and suggested I was wasting enormous amounts of the refinery's time by insisting we walk 200 yards to the supply room for ear plugs and goggles. I still said no. He finally gave in. I got the ear plugs and goggles, I ground out the inside of that vessel, and two days later, I was reassigned to a pipefitter. It is worth mentioning that this very first instance of saying no was also to protect me from danger number 3.

3. Eye Damage

It is very possible to get dangerous chemicals in your eyes in a refinery, but it is much more likely to have your face assaulted with foreign matter. For instance, operating a power grinder inside a 6-foot vessel pulled out of a salvage yard is a sure-fire way to get rust flakes stuck to every exposed surface of your body. I spent that summer wearing safety glasses, goggles, or even a full-on face shield almost every second I was in the refinery. My face got hit with rust flakes, dust, smoke, steam, vapors of assorted potentially damaging chemicals, tobacco juice, and sunflower seed shells. Those last two came courtesy of the assorted pushers I was assigned to work with. Of the two, I preferred the sunflower seeds by a wide margin.

4. Fire, non-accidental

I know what you're thinking: a fire can be a potential hazard in any line of work. In a refinery, it is particularly troubling. But I must point out that people are constantly aware of fire danger in a refinery. In this case, I am referring to non-accidental fires. And yes, such a thing did exist in the refinery. One day, the pipefitter I worked with was assigned to fix a leaky pipe in a line. This was an 8-inch pipeline that runs from the refinery out to the tank farm and carries unrefined, unfiltered pre-sellable gasoline. It is, naturally, extremely flammable. To remove the leaking section of pipe, we turned off the flow of liquid and headed out there with a brass chainsaw that cut through the steel pipe without making sparks. We then plugged both ends of the cut line to keep it from leaking any more fuel onto the ground. Back in the welding shop, we made a spool of 8-inch pipe with flanges at each end to fit into the gap we'd cut. However, in order to bolt it into place, we had to weld flanges onto the two cut ends of the actual pipeline; a pipeline which carried volatile fuel and which had leaked gallons of the stuff onto the ground over which we were welding. It was my job to stand upwind of this mess with an industrial-sized dry chemical fire extinguisher and put out the fires that started constantly as the welder worked.

No, I am absolutely serious. That's what I did.

5. Fire, accidental

This was a danger I experienced, but fortunately which was not realized. In order to understand this danger, you need to know that in 1978, the oil refinery in which I worked had designated smoking areas. No freaking shit! The inside of a petrochemical factory literally filled with explosive and volatile chemicals had areas where it was deemed acceptable to light up a cigarette! One such area was the lunch room, of course. Directly behind the building with the lunch room was a propane tank - a big spherical container roughly 80 feet in diameter with a pressure relief valve on top of it. If the tank's contents expanded too much (as it sometimes did on very hot days) the valve would pop - they actually called it a 'pop valve' - and release excess propane. When this happened, the valve made a shrieking sound as a warning. This happened one afternoon when I was in the lunch room with three or four of my college-aged co-workers who were smokers waiting for the whistle to sound at four PM so we could go home. When the valve popped, I yelled at them to put out cigarettes. They asked me why. I explained that we were hearing the propane tank's pop valve. So what? they wondered. I pointed out that propane is heavier than air. For the record, the molecular weight of propane is 44 while the molecular weight of nitrogen gas (which makes up 78% of our air) is 28. Hence, propane sinks. I was told by one of the smarter morons I worked with that I was wrong. Propane couldn't be heavier than air because that was what they used to make hot air balloons fly. I was going to explain the processes involved along with the basic theory of molecular densities when it occurred to me it would be wiser to just get the living hell OUT OF RANGE!! As I was headed toward the door, it flew open and the safety inspector, Mr. Chope, came in and screamed, "Put out those fucking cigarettes! The propane tank is venting!"

For some reason they believed him. It must have been the profanity.

6. Falling

Refineries have a lot of verticality. The reason is simple. The essential refining process consists of heating crude oil (or other chemicals). Heating makes them rise, usually up a pipe wrapped in some sort of tower mechanism. At different heights, different chemical fractions are extracted. So there are a lot of towers and pipes and things arranged at varying heights above the ground. The pipefitter I worked with had to replace a pipe in the middle of a forest of pipes about twenty feet above ground. He wanted me to stand up there on top of another pipe, then use a crane to swing a section of 8-inch steel pipe over to where I was. According to him, all I had to do was stop the pipe as it was swinging across and hold it in place.

I said no.

He couldn't understand why. I explained that this section of pipe weighed roughly three hundred pounds while I weighed roughly half that. Said pipe would swing around, knock me flying off my perch and crashing to the ground below. He wasn't sure whether to believe me. I could have used this opportunity to lecture him on basic Newtonian physics but I just rolled my eyes which caused him to scowl at me. But he knew my dad was the cat unit supervisor and I was allegedly pretty smart so he asked how I would do it. I suggested we drag the pipe into the forest of pipes, extend the crane over it, and lift it straight up. He saw the wisdom of that and this was the method we used. For the record, he told my dad I was a pretty smart kid. To be honest, he was probably just sucking up to my dad.

On another occasion, I climbed a tower, stood on a railing roughly 40 feet up, stepped across to place one foot on a flange on the side of a neighboring tower and used a pair of vice grips to remove the cap from a 1-inch steam line. I did it because a) I don't have a fear of heights and b) Tom, the instrument man I worked with, was very cool about letting me decide how to do stuff and never, ever pushed me to hurry or do anything I didn't want to do. Tom was also the one who ate sunflower seeds instead of chewing tobacco. I liked Tom.

The instrument man gig was awesome. If an instrument failed, Tom had a specific routine for dealing with it. There are two parts to an instrument. One part is the sensor and the other part is the display. The display is a gauge, a chart, or a graph located in a unit control room. To be specific, it is located inside an air-conditioned unit control room. So the first thing we would do is check out the display. If it was a recording chart with graph paper, we would check the ink level, check the pen, check the paper roll, and if it needed any of these things, Tom would send me back to the shop to get them while he sat there in the air-conditioned control room chewing the fat with the operators. If it was none of these things, then it was the sensor - usually a thermocouple located somewhere out there in the refinery. So Tom would send me back to the shop to get a spare thermocouple while he stayed there in the air-conditioned control room chewing the fat with the operators.

I think you get the gist of Tom's clever plan.

Replacing a thermocouple often meant climbing a tower. I replaced one up on top of the debutanizer column, a 75-foot high tower in the hottest part of the cat unit. Climbing a 75-foot vertical ladder is a trip, even with a safety cage around it. But up on top of that tower, sitting on the platform surrounded by a safety rail, it was 25 degrees cooler than the center of the cat unit. There was a breeze blowing and I could see all the way out to the new El Dorado Lake off to the east. I stayed up there a good half-hour after replacing the thermocouple.

I was pretty sure Tom wouldn't mind.

7. Inhaling Dangerous Fumes

There's a lot of deadly shit floating around a refinery and to be quite frank, none of it is good for you. Before you even walk in the gate, you can smell chemicals and you never stop smelling them the entire day. You smell crude oil, various hydrocarbon fractions, solvents, assorted aromatics, and waste products. And for the record, NONE of that stuff is good for your respiratory system. But the worst is probably the waste products piped out to the flare for burning. Flare gas consists of stuff so impure, so sulfur-ridden, so polluted with unsafe compounds, that we can't risk burning it in an automobile. That's right: it's officially worse than car exhaust. It is carried out to the flare in a massive 12-inch pipeline. One day, the pipefitter crew I was on was tasked with replacing a valve on that line. To replace a valve when you can't risk breathing the contents of the line, you have to execute a tricky maneuver.

First, you remove the bolts holding one side of the valve in place. Then you loosen the remaining bolts enough that the valve itself can be raised off the pipe ever so slightly. Mind you, on a 12-inch line, the valve weighs several hundred pounds. By raising it up about an eighth of an inch, someone can slide in a metal disk to cover the opening. This metal disk has a handle and is referred to as a 'pancake'. My gang had a pipefitter who was in charge, two muscle-bound pipefitter helpers, and me - the scrawny undersized college kid. So it made sense that my job was to handle the pancake. This was fine with me - the pancake weighed a couple of pounds, tops, and it looked pretty easy to hold it in place while the valve was switched out. So they took out four of the eight bolts holding on the valve, loosened the remaining four, and then opened up just enough gap for me to slide the pancake in. At that point, I held it there while they removed the remaining four bolts entirely to swap out the valve.

In the process of making the swap, however, the valve slipped in someone's grasp and knocked the pancake out of position. Being the one in charge of holding it in place, naturally I was the one guy whose face was inches from the opening in the pipe which meant I got a face full of flare gas trying to get the pancake back in position. A couple of seconds later, with the refinery swimming psychedelically in my vision, I decided to sit down and try to regain my balance while struggling not to throw up. Turns out flare gas is bad for you. I told Dad about it later but he seemed unconcerned. Apparently, if my throat and lungs weren't burning and filling with fluid, it was an indication that I hadn't breathed enough flare gas to cause permanent damage.

I was SO reassured.

8. Cancer

I know what you're thinking - one summer in a refinery is not going to cause cancer. And that is where you may very well be wrong. There are a number of chemicals in a refinery that are known carcinogens and they are not entirely contained. Asphalt, for instance, really can't be locked away in air-tight containers. And asphalt breathes benzene and benzene causes cancer. No kidding. Now the average hot day where the tar on the road is sticky and you can smell the asphalt probably isn't releasing a very high concentration of benzene at all. But it IS releasing some and the threshhold of what causes abnormal cell growth can vary widely from person to person. In other words, that summer I could have breathed enough benzene to trigger cancer at some future date. Now, thirty-four years later, the odds are good that I probably didn't. But the possibility exists. And since I had just finished two semesters of organic chemistry in the previous school year, you can bet your ass I was aware of it.

9. Hydroflouric acid

Hydroflouric acid is created by mixing HF gas with water. It was used in the alkylation unit as a catalyst. Because HF is really nasty stuff with an affinty for attacking glass and human tissue, it was kept very tightly contained in the alky unit which meant it was no danger to me at all, right? Wrong! One of the pipefitter jobs I was stuck with was on-call duty on weekends. We were on-call for one specific event which was the arrival of an HF truck from the friendly folks at Air Products. The drivers of these trucks are not about to get close to the nasty contents of their tankers. He drove the truck into position in the alky unit then wandered off to a designated smoking area to have a cigarette. Meanwhile, we donned full hazmat rubber suits (on a 103-degree August afternoon in Kansas) and unloaded a truck full of a substance that would corrode the tissue right off our bones and then the bones, should it get out of control. I sweated off 10 pounds in a half hour and I am not sure it was actually because of the heat. I was terrified every single second.

10. Getting my ass kicked

That summer, there were forty college-aged kids working in the maintenance yard of the refinery. As a rule, it is a physical job which meant most of them were larger than I was. As another rule, the kids working in the refinery in El Dorado, Kansas were more or less mostly rednecks. Mike Smith and I were not - we were rock and roll fans with long-ish hair and skinny, hippie-ish bodies. Some of the cowboy types did not like us. It didn't help that I am basically a smartass who can't keep his mouth shut. One afternoon as we neared quitting time, several of us were waiting out that last ten minutes before the whistle blew in the welder shop. A certain guy named Steve was sitting on a bench with a cheek full of Skoal doing arm curls with an 8-inch valve and waxing philosophic about his weekend plans. Beside him, Mike and I were doing the same. Okay, we weren't chewing tobacco or doing exercises with 80-lb. refinery equipment, but we were discussing weekend plans. I had tickets to see Heart in Wichita. I was definitely anticipating seeing Ann and Nancy Wilson cover Led Zeppelin and play the latest stuff off 'Dog and Butterfly'. Steve made it clear he would be attending a rodeo.

"Yep," said Steve, "I'm gonna get me a cowgirl. Ain't nothin' like a good cowgirl!"

Mike cocked an eyebrow and asked me, "Cowgirl?"

I smiled. "Yeah, you know," I said. "New hybrid they're working on up at K-State. Half cow, half girl. Stevie's really into that."

For the record, Stevie made it clear to me that he is NOT into that.

He also doesn't like being called 'Stevie'.