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Dickies at Work The Power-Plant

Aug 17, 2007
Probably the most adventurous job I've ever had was engineer work at the coal-burning power plant. You have to look at pictures just to understand the sheer mind-boggling scale of it. The boilers themselves stand some thirty stories high and the smokestack qualifies as a small skyscraper. As you work here, you feel yourself become an ant crawling through the guts of a car engine.

If you have a phobia, a coal-burning power plant will challenge it. Heights: the decking on most floors is a grating you can see through, the elevators are cages riding a vertical track on the outside of the building, and you'll frequently find yourself stepping out on a beam over hundreds of feet of space. Claustrophobia as you wriggle through hatches and pipes to reach parts of the machinery for maintenance. Hazardous chemicals are everywhere; coal dust becomes a substance called "fly ash", a fine powder produced as a side product to make cinderblock with. Fly ash under a microscope looks like a cockleburr seed; get it in your eye and only surgery will get it out, get enough of it in your lungs and you've had it.

You have to wear protective gear just to be near the place. The Dickies coveralls favored by the carpenters, electricians, technicians, and engineers is usually enough as long as you aren't in a "hazmat zone" - or a zone where hazardous materials are. Of course, you also have on your hard hat, hearing protection, safety glasses, and boots. Steel-toed boots, preferably. Get within a hazmat zone and now you don the famous industrial "bunny suit", a white hooded coverall with gloves and booties, making you just one cotton tail and a set of ears away from being a giant Easter icon. An industrial-strength filtered dust mask and air-tight goggles complete your ensemble, with your workbelt strapped around the outside of all that.

Where will you go next? Perhaps out to the coal ponds, vast concrete lakes of coal slurry reservoir which resemble a tar pit. These look solid enough to drive on, but even trying to walk across them will cause you to sink as if in quicksand. Or maybe you'll be inside the boiler, a vast echoing chamber where no air circulates, no light shines and coal dust and ash trickles down the walls as you climb around on the scaffolding set up inside. Maybe to the underground pipes that pump the water to the cooling towers, navigating a maze of pipes and gates coated with the slippery residue.

Naturally, the Dickies uniforms have to provide for maximum fit, durability, and comfort under these torturous circumstances. Carpenters were often to be found sporting the bib overalls or coveralls, in denim blue or a sporty brown, but always with the carpenter cut, having pockets and loops all over to hang various tools from. Engineers preferred the basic blue coveralls, usually with a name patch in distinct red and white over the chest pocket.

Most of the maintenance work on a coal-burning plant is done during a planned shutdown, called an "outage", when one unit is shut down for a couple of months and the other unit or other plants in the area take up the slack producing power. During that time, crews work round the clock to get the work done and get the unit back up on schedule. Since it can get cold nights up on a steel beam in a high wind, we were grateful for our snug insulated Dickies jackets and hoods, providing maximum warmth with minimal encumbrance.

One of the most exciting jobs is tearing down and replacing a cooling tower. These are a row of buildings about six stories high and a city block long, the inside of which is a vast jungle-gym of beams. These buildings have a row of fans on top of them which must be removed first, by crane, since each of them is the size of a house. The building is a giant radiator for spent water, which having been heated to steam, is piped to the top of this building to fall through it, being both cooled and filtered in the process before being pumped back to the boiler to cycle again. These buildings naturally become crusted with lime and hard water deposits and their wood rots, and they have to be replaced every few years. They must be torn apart from the inside out, since the fill will be cleaned and used in the next building.

Climbing through these with a safety belt always tied off feels like nothing so much as a big top circus act. In this environment, the Dickies coveralls have to move with you, as you climb ladders, grip beams, edge across catwalks, slide through portholes, and wiggle through narrow gaps. Never trust a step, as that wood beam might be rotten, the board you're trusting for your handhold might snap, the post you've anchored your tie to might come unbolted. Below you is a six story drop, but it's not the free-fall through open space that would kill you. Beams and machine parts lace through the building's guts like a honeycomb; you'd be pummeled to death before you hit the ground.

Dickies work-place wear is designed with this kind of usage in mind. The fabric is rugged enough to withstand the various abrasions you're bound to come in contact with. It is flexible enough to allow you to stretch to that extra toehold across the gap. And the water-resistant coveralls are great at keeping the various kinds of goop and gunk away from your skin. They can take exposure to this cocktail of industrial chemicals and come out wash after wash with no damage done.

A tell-take whiff of acetylene wafts towards you from a welder operating a cutting torch. Sparks fly off of the welder's fiery work as he sits astride a beam cutting a retaining plate in half before it can be hauled down on ropes to the ground crew below. The sparks jumping from his work and bouncing down through the maze of beams and decking below are just one more hazard for your Dickies to endure, as they stand up under a barrage of hot falling sparks without taking damage where ordinary clothing would become a Swiss cheese of charred holes.

The environment is for the tough, the rugged, but most of all, it is for the engineers, the technicians, and the laborers, the ones who make our high-tech society go. The ones who looked to the sky first and dreamed what we could achieve.
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Freelance writer for over eleven years.

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