Confessions Part 3
CONFESSIONS OF A METALWORKING FLUID MANAGER
PART 3 F-TROOP
I was now 6 months into a ‘4 years to life’ sentence as the plant environmental engineer. I was doing hard time in a hellhole and would need to find ways to make life more interesting if I was going to survive. Any prisoner, hostage, or otherwise oppressed person will tell you that even minor tormenting your captor-superiors is one of the most rewarding forms of entertainment in these circumstances.
All my life, whatever my job was, even sweeping a factory floor, I always found that it was far more fun to do my best, and to try to find a better way to do it. On a summer job at the end of my freshman year of college, I remember watching a Japanese guy sweep the floor by his machine. He held the broom with a wide grip and moved the broom with a very deliberate sliding action. His upper body moved with the broom in a graceful motion. I copied him, and found that it worked very well. I also experimented with cross-strokes and other brush patterns trying to find ways to clean faster and stir up less dust. When I returned to the tool crib, the supervisor wanted to know where the hell I had been. "You told me to sweep, so I did." He glared at me. "I've been looking for you for over an hour!" I was one of those specially gifted people who could get in trouble for doing a good job. This attribute made me perfect for environmental engineering.
Doing my best at this job meant knowing every violation of every law and regulation in every square foot of the plant. I was finding more daily. It was simply impossible to correct things as fast as I could identify them. As the word got around that I really knew this stuff, employees started whispering stories to me about “the building that used to be over there” and “where the drums were buried” and “the nasty rash that Freddy has.” Freaky, freaky stuff. Over time I would discover that most of it was true.
My nightmare was quickly becoming management’s nightmare. This was certainly NOT what they had in mind. Six months on the job, and I had acquired enough information to make myself the second most dangerous person on the property. (#1 was a Secretary was rumored to have handled the "personal files" of certain senior executives). Suddenly, they knew if they really pissed me off I could blow more whistles than a referee at a Raiders game.
I had little trouble talking my boss out of a secretary and an hourly employee to help with chemical and waste management. My boss was an older gentleman, but unlike the others, and lucky for me, he really wanted to improve things. The secretary I hired from outside. I didn’t want anybody from this place, with their crappy attitudes and poor work habits, working that close to me. She was perfect;loyal, hard-working, and smart. She would make life much easier. The hourly guy, Danny, was a quite, shy, portly fellow that nobody wanted. He would breathe hard and sweat after climbing the three steps from the shop, but he worked at a steady pace. He was with us two days when he told us how his fingernails had turned green and started falling out back when he worked in the plating area. He showed us how they were starting to look better now. At the secretary's insistence, I convinced him that it was a job safety requirement to take a bath every single day, since we were “working with chemicals.” He took this news with astonishment, which turned to disbelief when we began to discuss the benefits of deodorant and anti-bacterial soap.
I now had a small, decent smelling staff and could start getting things done. I went out of my way to take good care of each of them. I was training Danny, and getting him little stuff like gloves, cool safety glasses, overalls, and a job grade increase based on the specialized training he was getting. The three of us had daily meetings at 2:00, 15 minutes maximum, to discuss things as a team. No other manager in this factory would start meeting regularly with hourly staff for more than 4 years. At that time, in true company style, they took credit for the concept in a company bulletin.
I knew absolutely zero about the “Coolant” except that the stuff was everywhere. On the floor, on the machines, in the air, on the people, in a tank outside, on the ground, and in a few hundred drums scattered about. You didn’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to realize this stuff was a major problem, and so I decided to approach the new Maintenance Manager about it.
Old Bill had taken his in-plant retirement program to the house. Jess was a young and hardworking country boy who wanted to make a difference. Because of this, he did not fit in well and the foremen didn't like him. He would eventually become a strong ally of mine, but not today. I asked him about the coolant and he immediately suggested that I take over responsibility for it. “It really belongs in environmental, don’t you think?” He would even recommend that our boss assign a couple of the “Chip Haulers” over to me to handle it right away. I leaned a little closer and looked him in the eye. "Now whoa thar country boy. This is looking way too easy. Are you trying to help me out or are you feeding me shit with a shovel?” When he burst out laughing I knew I was going to get the straight skinny. He was having trouble managing his staff, and it would help him to have a couple less. The coolant was something everybody kept bitching about and he would love to unload it. He explained that the Chip Haulers knew how to handle it, and could show me everything. Yeah, that part sounded familiar. I wanted to meet these Chip Haulers first, and watch them do this job before I committed to anything.
What I was introduced to was nothing less than the three stooges rolled in oil and peppered with dirt. They ranged 18 to 63, including 3 nationalities, 2 languages, and a full assortment of tattoos, body piercing, bibles, and an accordion. It was a carnival freak show. "Chip Hauling", it turns out, was the absolute bottom-of-the-barrel hourly job. They were the lowest paid, least respected, and filthiest people in the entire shop. These guys were either on their way in, or on their way out. The position was for new hires (on the way in), and employees who had received so many "points" that they had been demoted (on the way out). They were the last in and the first to go every time there was a lay-off. This way the system provided a 'temporarily there' and 'permanently disgruntled' staff for whoever managed them.
I learned how management strategically designed around the training problem that this kind of turnover creates when the Chip Haulers were showing me the basics of coolant management. They took turns cruising around the shop, one on a forklift, the other on a “tug” pulling a “sump-sucker,” until somebody yelled at them to stop and told them what to do. That was it. That was their job. Zero training required. Drive around until somebody yells “Hey Boy” and then do whatever he said. Usually this meant to dump the steel shavings (chips) from his machine, thus the name "Chip Haulers." But other "Hey Boy" jobs included empting his trash, bring him the coolant of his choice, or suck out his machine sump. Every Chip Hauler dreamed of not being a Chip Hauler.
There were the obvious side effects. Coolants were spoiled someplace in the shop at any given moment. People were improperly mixing coolants together; machines, machine tools and parts were rusting; tool life was uncontrolled; and people were filing workers' compensation claims for dermatitis. The shop was a mess of drums and oily floors. The beneficiaries were coolant and tooling suppliers and the waste coolant "disposal" company. It was coolant chaos.
I looked at this in disbelief. I returned to Jess and told him I wanted the men, but he would have to give me all three, and I didn’t want them for three weeks. He agreed. I figured I could be on drugs and improve this situation. Jess didn’t like waiting three weeks to unload them, but I needed 3 weeks to learn something about the coolants and the machines before I took responsibility for this mess.
We got all of the Chip Haulers together with us in my office. It would be the last time we ever met on my carpet. I promised them that if they were loyal to me, worked hard, and worked together as a team at all times, looking out for each other, (and bathe daily), that they would never have to answer to “Hey Boy“ ever again. I promised them that they would have fun, they would be trained, they would be respected, and that they would be a part of the very best department at the plant. Lastly, if they did all of this, they would make more money. They looked at each other and then at Danny who nodded his head convincingly. They all started smiling and nodding their heads. I shook each of their greasy hands as the secretary waved politely with one hand and held her nose with the other. Everybody now had three weeks to worry.
OK then. So it wasn’t the “dream team.” It was F-Troop. But I had plans and I made promises. We were going to kick ass and take names, right? Right... Well, maybe not right away. First, I needed another education, fast. So where’s Coolant School? There must be one, right? Yeah, right again.