Confessions Part 4


[Dividing Line Image]



by Anonymous

MAY 2002:

OK, so we were not the Dream Team.  We were more like F-Troop in tennis shoes.  The Dirty Half-Dozen.  If there was such a thing as a NOT WANTED POSTER, there would have been a price on our heads.  But unwanted is much better than all alone, and none of us would ever again believe that we were not a part of a team, even if a team of outcasts.

We were ready to take on the task of managing the coolant, and all I needed was a little information on just how it was I should go about that.  It didn’t take me long to figure out that there was no such thing as “Coolant School” by that, or any other name.  Great, I’m their leader and everything I know fits on the label of a 55-gallon drum.  When I pressed the coolant salesmen hard for information, the great secret of the industry was revealed to me… most everything they knew would fit on the label of a 55-gallon drum.  Like any good leader, I never let on to the troops that I had no idea what I was doing. 

Blank pad and pen in tow, I went to the library and started searching for information the old-fashioned way.  I found a number of articles and that was a start.  At my level, I could learn from the advertisements.  The great thing about technical articles is that the good ones reference other technical articles, so if you work at it long enough, you eventually can gather up some real information.  The Internet has made this easier, but at the time, there was no METALWORKING FLUID MAGAZINE (no charge for that one).  Truth be told, the best break I ever got was from a coolant salesman for a major supplier.  He was one of the educated and well-trained exceptions to the general rule.  He recommended the book appropriately titled “Metalworking Fluids” which is a compilation of chapters by various authors (J. Byers).  You won’t find any pretty girls browsing this one while sipping a Latte at your local Starbucks.  The title of the book demonstrates the scarcity of resources in this field.  Imagine if there was only one book titled “Baseball.”  With little else to read, I read it carefully, cover to cover.  I also read every one of the articles I found, no matter how dull, eventually reading another 30 or so articles in the process.  ‘Abracadabra’ : instant expert (relatively speaking).  Nobody was going to blow smoke up this ass, no sir.

Remember the TV series ‘The Highlander’?  I loved that show.  Every time he whacked a bad guy’s head off, he absorbed his knowledge and became stronger, harder to kill.  When you educate yourself on a subject you get a similar rush, and where I worked, the plant electrical system occasionally provided the appropriate special effects.  I didn’t know much, but I was good at learning stuff, and I enjoyed it.  This doesn’t sound special but most of the people at Factory Abyss actually wanted to avoid having to learn anything new, and if forced, to learn the minimum.  The place was a monument to this attitude, complete with cobwebs and rats romping happily along the plastic lenses of the fluorescent lights.  Consider that in the late 80’s, the VP of Engineering protested against the idea of getting PC’s for employees.  Years later, many people complained when told they would finally get computers (the mid 90’s).  I heard one of them say she would never use a mouse, that it was a stupid idea.

Remember my description of the factory?  The Highlander could have killed half the people in this plant and the only thing it would have made him was tired.  Working there was like working in a daycare for Zombies.  Intellectually frozen employees can be bigger obstacles to corporate success than poor market conditions and savvy competitors.  And they stick together, bonded by their fear of change, cooing their group-think songs like a flock of dodo birds on top of Shit Island.  Once upon a time, good people had worked here.  They had left long ago.  Now, with the market in a long decline, middle managers surrounded themselves with people who were unacceptable challengers to their jobs, the apparent theory being that low wattage bulbs appear brighter in total darkness.  People only got promoted when somebody died or retired.  There were a courageous few exceptions, enough to create an unhappy struggle, and I hope to mention some more of them.  This is the true story of some place.  Forget what you read in the company fairy tale book they eventually write about themselves.  Strangely, in the middle of all of this, building a team from misfits, (including myself) against the odds, and against procedures and policies, would be one of the most fun and rewarding times of my life.

          To keep people busy while I figured out what I was doing, I told the Chip Haulers that our immediate mission was to collect information.  We had to know what we had in this facility.  I assigned the Chip Hauler I considered most handy with a ruler the job of measuring the dimensions of every single sump in the place.  There were about a hundred and sixty of them.  He was a diligent worker with a strange but helpful interest in the metalworking fluids.  We created a Machine Database with machines identified by number, department, operation, and type of fluid used.  We also polled the machinists in hopes of getting an estimate on the average life of the coolant, for a starting point.  From this we calculated a capacity of about 17,000 gallons of dilute metalworking fluid.  From the waste manifests, we could tell how much we were disposing of each month.  At over 28,000 gallons a month, and for $.32/gallon, we were single-handedly keeping Hillbilly Waste Hauling in whiskey and overalls.  We were turning over 100% of the coolant in the factory nearly twice a month.

With all of this progress, I finally collected the courage to venture into the most dangerous area of the plant.  Danny and I carefully fitted ourselves into our full-body moon suits and walked slowly to the chemical storage area.  We started counting drums and trying desperately to identify their contents.  After about three hours in the southern sun, we agreed we would rather die of exposure to the chemicals.  We lost the moon suits and finished the job under the full protection of leather gloves.  We worked with a sweet and very knowledgeable saleswomen from a local waste company who sent a continuous parade of trucks until 80% of the drums had been removed -- full, empty, hissing, bubbling or leaking -- all of them.  We put plastic drum covers on the remaining drums to prevent new rain water from ruining them.  If you haven’t seen this happen, it's simple science.  The rain sits on top of the drum.  It is heavier than the oil inside, so if there is any leak at all (trust me, there is one) you eventually end up with oil all over the ground and several drums full of rainwater.

At the end of three days work with the sun still blazing, we were leaning on our brooms, exhausted and filthy, congratulating ourselves on having somehow managed to clean-up that horrible 30’ by 50’ chemical storage area.  We were resting there, looking off to the east, where a couple of hundred yards away was the factory.  Our hearts sank.  It was enormous.  A 500,000 square foot time capsule.  There would be 10 times as many drums and chemicals rat-holed for years in every nasty nook and cranny of the place.  Any resemblance of legal compliance would require a search and destroy mission throughout the whole facility.  It was too much to imagine right now.  It would take weeks, maybe months.  Anyway, it wouldn’t help at all unless we could get control of what came back into the facility.  We had no control at all.  Bottom line, to comply with a number of laws, we had to know what we had, where it was, and how to dispose of it.  We needed a miracle.

Fortunately, miracles do happen.  About a month later,  I woke up for work just like any other day.  I was standing in front of the mirror about to shave, when a bright beam of light broke through the bathroom window, into the mirror and onto my face, blinding me.  As I struggled to protect my eyes from the glare, a thundering voice said “I christen thee  - with the full and exclusive authority  - to write company environmental policies - and many shall ye write.”  I would never be the same.  It was a divine interpretation of the company president’s promise to support my efforts if I would just take the crappy job.  That very day, I printed out the first three polices, with full citation to the appropriate state, local, and federal laws right on the policy.  I walked into the executive offices holding them over my head like Moses, and handed them to the president with his name typed neatly below a line for his signature.  He looked at them without looking up for quite a while, long enough that I knew he had long since finished reading them.  He must have been wondering how he could say no to this.  Finally, he signed them all, slide them across the desk to me and just smiled and shook his head.  We were both smiling.  He had always liked me, but I figure he was either hating me right now or he just remembered that he would be retiring soon anyway.  Either way, he would be seeing a lot more of me from then on.

Now we were going to have some real fun.  A new policy was issued just about every week, from the complex, right down to: “No one can take home empty chemical drums to make BBQ’s or cattle feeders out of them.”  I would eventually estimate that every new policy = 5 new enemies.  A Master Chemical Database (MCD) was created.  If the product was not on the list, it could not be purchased, no exceptions.  Turns out, I was just the right guy for this job after all.  I knew what I was doing most of the time, but more importantly I was big, mean, and I didn’t give a damn if people liked me or not.  I already had lots of friends outside of work anyway.

I genuinely liked the Chip Haulers.  There was no way to ever mistake one for another, but there was something very likeable about each of them.  For the first time ever, they were doing something different, something meaningful, and working together as a team.  We had real momentum now.  The Master Chemical and Machine databases proved to be extraordinarily powerful tools.  We discovered there were no less than 23 different metalworking fluid products at the plant, and every coolant salesman was telling me they had one that would replace all of the others.  Anybody could buy coolant.  I needed to put a stop to that, which would finally piss-off the remaining shop foremen I had somehow failed to offend to that date.  I would not have the law on my side for this one, so I would need persuasive and irrefutable logic to convince my boss to let me slam the door on all of the coolant salesmen that were visiting their buddies in the plant on a weekly basis.


  1. Environmental Management is not a position for sensitive people concerned with their popularity.
  2. Get a copy of Metalworking Fluids, (Jerry Byers).
  3. Get the recommended papers on the Literature page of the MWF Magazine site.
  4. Don’t let the Environmental Engineering Department be a stiff in an office with some pamphlets he hands out on Earth Day.  That concept is old and DEAD.  Make it a real department that participates in the company manufacturing effort alongside everybody else, with staff, responsibilities, and AUTHORITY that include chemical delivery, waste transport and disposal, water management, electrical contract negotiation, plant layout, emergency response, safety, and anything else you can think of.  This structure is foreign to many, but it has enormous and far-reaching benefits.  If you think this will not work…you either 1) haven’t tried it, or 2) failed to provide real authority to the Department Manager.  He/she must have broad authority and support, and there is no exception to this, such as an assurance that “upper management will back you up”…nobody is buying that bullshit, nobody ever did, and people should be arrested for trying to sell it.
  5. If you still don’t have it, create a Master Chemical Database – start now.
  6. Create a machine database, preferably one that safety and environmental can share with maintenance and manufacturing engineers.
  7. There is no such thing as intellectual status quo; you are either learning or forgetting, and everything around you will eventually reflect your reality.  Decide which is you, then read something.
  8. Cover all the outdoor drums now, then get them under a roof as soon as possible.


Next Month:

“Subpoena Colada”