Excerpt for Plant: Two Industrial Tours by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

PLANT

Two Industrial Tours

by

Roger Williams

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“Plant” and “Food Plant” were originally written 2002-2004. Although technology has marched on, much of what Roger describes would sound familiar to the average worker in a factory or a food processing plant even today. Step into a world that most people rarely think about.

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©Roger Williams 2002, 2004, 2018

Cover Image Courtesy Creative Commons via Pixabay

Cover Design ©2018 Peachfront Press

Plant

Plant was Originally Published on kuro5hin.org Sat Jan 19, 2002. This is the original unedited text.

Dry limestone crunches beneath my feet, and the hot Louisiana sun beats down past huge racks, each an impenetrable maze of plumbing, wiring, and catwalks. The very ground vibrates with a low mechanical hum, the echo of countless motors and pumps. In all the landscape there is no sign of life; not a blade of grass, no birds, not even insects. I might be on Mars for the sterility of it all, except that I can look down one road -- only one! -- and far away, past a chain-link fence and state highway, spy the verdant canopy of a lowland swamp.

There are several hundred places like this in Louisiana alone, where humans have ripped Nature from her mooring in order to plant a testament to practicality and pure engineering. Like demons, they all have different personalities yet are instantly recognizable as members of a single, unique class. Nothing else built by humans is quite like a chemical plant. All chemical plants are built on a similar model. The "racks" are like reverse play-houses built for the Jolly Green Giant, with steel-mesh floors separated by 20 or 30 feet, sometimes rising 10 or more levels high. The lower levels are accessed by steel-mesh stairs, the higher ones by more stairs or heavy open-cage elevators that are human-rated but really designed for moving equipment. The racks are arranged in blocks like city apartments, separated by streets that usually are named. The racks support holding tanks and reactors which are interconnected by a bewildering maze of plumbing and wired with thousands of sensors and controls. Control rooms may be blockhouses at a distance on the ground or tin shacks high up in the racks, near to the processes they attend.

Welcome to our facility. Drop your pants and bend over.

Before you can see the racks and the plumbing, you have to get in. Southern hospitality notwithstanding, the Plant's first acknowledgment of your merely human existence will be The Sign. It comes in variations but the tone never changes:

By entering this facility you agree that you and your vehicle may be searched at any time. The following safety equipment is REQUIRED for entry into this facility:

*Hard Hat (approved type)

*Safety glasses with side shields

*Chemical goggles

*Respirator (approved type)

*Valid safety pass

The following items are not permitted within the facility under any circumstances:

*Illegal drugs or alcohol

*Firearms

*Cigarette lighters

*Cameras (unless accompanied by pass)

The guard will put his hand on a Bible and swear before all nine billion names of God that the camera ban is to prevent industrial espionage, but few of these places really have any secrets worth stealing. I've always believed the real problem is that they don't want June and Ward finding out what is going on only a few miles from the school, playground, and new subdivision.

Now listen while we tell you how safe you're going to be while you're here.

Before you can get that safety pass, you usually have to take some "training." This will be a little slideshow or video which reveals useful information about how to stay alive and out of the way while you're foraging in the bowels of the Plant.

At Big Chemical Company, Inc., your safety is a top priority. In order to ensure your safety, we need for you to follow a few rules.*This map shows the emergency assembly areas at BCC. You should maintain an awareness of the nearest assembly areas.

*In case of emergency, park your vehicle by the side of the road and leave the keys in the ignition. *BCC is equipped with numerous windsocks. In case of emergency note the wind direction and proceed on foot to the nearest assembly area which you can reach by going crosswind from your location.

*BCC uses [particularly noxious chemical] in its processes. If you smell [perfectly ordinary smell] immediately put on your respirator and proceed crosswind to the nearest assembly area.

*The BCC siren announces all emergencies. Always be aware of the emergency code for your area! For example, here is the sound of an alarm for the [noxious chemical] unloading area:

WHONK WHONK WHONK

WHONK WHONK WHONK WHONK WHONK

WHONK

That's code 3-5-1. You will be issued a card which lists the other [four dozen] such codes in use at BCC. When the emergency has cleared, one long blast will signal that it is safe to return to work:

WWWWWHHHHHHOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOONNNNNNNKKKKKKK

*BCC maintains a strict lockout/tagout policy. Never remove a lock or tag from a control yourself. It is your responsibility to remove your own lock or tag from a control when your work is complete. Failure to observe lockout/tagout rules can result in uncontrolled energy releases and/or injury [ed: things going boom and people getting killed].

*Pay no attention to the guy behind the curtain, or his wallet.

So you don your hard hat and get your safety card and pull your vehicle through the gate and past the truck scale, following the map of the Plant to the intersection of J street and 3rd Avenue. It's now, if you have made a habit of flipping through the Grainger catalog, that you will start adding up how much it cost to build the place. And you'll quickly run out of digits in your mental calculator as you do so.

Industrial equipment is fabulously expensive compared to consumer goods, and here you have an entire city of fabulously expensive industrial crap. The budget for valves alone will be millions of dollars. Add in a few tanks (each of which cost more than a typical residential house) and the sensors and wiring stainless-steel piping and energy utilization and it's very easy to reach the US$100,000,000 mark and start getting dizzy. It's not unusual for a Plant to cost more than $1 billion, and if you have the misfortune to work on a machine that's at a bottleneck in their production you're likely to hear some variant of this:

Well, son, you take all the time you need to fix that, but just bear in mind that we're losing $400,000 an hour while this line is down.”

OOOOOH, what's that SMELL?

It's impossible to keep volatile chemicals completely contained, and most Plants have a distinctive smell. In some the smell is oily and sulphurous, in others sharp and acidic; the truly terrifying Plants are the ones that don't smell at all. No smell doesn't mean there's nothing in the air, it just means that you don't get any warning that there is.

Some Plants have pandemic corrosion problems. Chemicals eat away at the concrete foundations, they eat away at the steel mesh so there are dangerous holes in the rack scaffolding, and they eat holes in the employees' skin which are passed off as "that damn rash." I have seen type 316 stainless steel (which is a better grade than anything you have in your kitchen) turn brown with rust in a matter of weeks.

Other places are so spotlessly clean that they are more worrisome than the overtly dirty ones. One local Plant has a density of safety and, interestingly, anti- industrial-espionage signage that reminds one of the adverts on a NASCAR racer. In the obligatory safety video you are reminded that, “Here at BCC we work with [omigod] which reacts violently on contact with water or air. WARNING TO WOMEN OF CHILD-BEARING AGE: [omigod] is a powerful teratogen, and if you are or might be pregnant you MUST consult with a Plant nurse before entering operating areas where [omigod] is handled.”

I propose Localroger's Law of Plant Safety: The more safety notices you see in a place, the less safe the place is.

Plants take pride in their safety records because safety is so hard to achieve, but it's a rare thing to see the "days since last lost-time accident" sign in front of any industrial facility with four digits. Industrial accidents happen all the time and unless they claim multiple lives or spill out beyond the perimeter fence, they aren't news.

Unbearable Sameness of Being

Plants don't win architecture awards. The one concession to aesthetics which some Plants make is that they are located on oversized tracts of land, surrounded by berms of earth and trees, so as to be as invisible as possible. On a more practical level this also reduces the inevitable damage if something fall down go boom. However, people like to live close to their workplaces and even when they are located in the middle of nowhere, Plants have a magnetic attraction which tends to cause towns to form around them.


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