Chapter 1: Night Shift
The sky was clear and cold for a June night. I was standing 110 feet above ground, and the view was excellent. I could see right down the length of the Solent to the Isle of Wight – it was just visible over the top of the oil refinery (which I was calling home for this week). It was the end of a long month: thirteen-hour nights and eleven-hour days, four days on and four days off – only there was no off time, just more overtime if you wanted it. The money was good but, I was again almost penniless.
… Looking out over the pipes and tanks all lit up like a Christmas tree when working twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week on non-stop production, it was easy to let your mind wander when things were quiet … looking at the stars, wondering if something was doing the same somewhere up there … looking at their sky, thinking the same.
“Six, this is Control,” squawked the radio on my belt. It was Steve, the boss in the bombproof control room way down to my left. I looked down as I fingered the radio.
“Control, this is Six. Go ahead,” I answered.
“What is the pressure reading now?” I was snapped back from my astral wandering to reality. I had to think. What was I supposed to be doing?
“Thirty-five hundred and going down,” came the answer. Some part of my brain was still monitoring the process, which was a good job. One mistake up here and it’s “Dos-va-dan-ya, baby.” The oil is well and truly above auto-ignition temperature: one leak and it’s a thirty-foot flame, and that’s just a small leak. I remember the safety lecture and the demonstration in the fire fighting school.
“Six, open the valve half a turn more. I want to vent it today.”
I applied the wheel key to the top of the valve and heaved. It moved reluctantly. It is rarely ever opened or closed and was very tight. I applied more effort. It moved some more, complaining almost as much as my back.
“Control, this is Six. Valve opened, pressure dropping … 2800 p.s.i. and going down. Over.”
“Six, keep an eye on it. Tell me when it’s under one hundred … OK.”
“Control, this is Six … message received and understood … Over and out.”
This was one of the most boring parts of this job. Just watching – not able to stop or go anywhere, not even to the toilet. There are six others out here on this unit, which is the size of a football field – full of pipes, tanks heaters, coolers, and chillers. Heat it up, cool it down, freeze it, then boil it. Pump it into this tank then move it into that tank.
I was at the highest point in the plant. I could not see the others but knew where they were and knew that they were waiting for me to reduce the pressure in this line so they could change the valve seat on a defective valve, which was leaking. For six days now it’s been leaking and getting worse each day. You cannot just stop the process to change it without planning how and when. It’s on the main output line, and three other plants are being supplied from it.
“For God’s sake … What do you think it is? A leaking washing machine? We will do it on the last shift on Saturday morning. It should be OK by then,” (only a small outburst by the shift supervisor). There was a lot of arguing over this but we all knew he was right. Of course, we did not want to be on shift when it had to be changed: four hours of mind-numbing boredom and ten minutes of frantic spanner-wielding panic and another two hours of praying the dammed thing will not leak when the pressure is back on.
“Control, this is Six. Come back.”
“Go ahead, Six … Give me some good news, please.” He was sounding almost as bored as I was feeling.
“Fifteen hundred p.s.i. and dropping like a stone. One thousand, nine hundred, eight hundred …”
“Control, this is Two. How long now are we going to wait? We are ready: all set up here.
“What’s Six doing? Playing with himself?” That was Ian. He thinks he’s the greatest at everything, and after Steve he is the longest-serving operator on this plant.
“OK, Two. Six is on the case. He will let us know. Should be soon, now.”
“Two, this is Six. I have a small problem. Pressure is holding at eight hundred p.s.i.. Looking into it.”
This should not be happening. I have to think, “What would cause it to not vent?” Check the supply valve, only it’s over a hundred feet straight down the side of this separator tower.
“Six, have you closed the fucking supply valve? … I bet you left it open.”
“Two, this is Six ... Yes, I did.” He is sounding really wound up, for some reason.
“Six, this is One. I will check 426 Alpha.” I looked over the edge, down a hundred feet of steel tower. It looked like it was over a thousand. I could just see him. It was the other Steve, the outside boss. He was heaving on the valve handle. “Oh, God,” I thought. “I hope did close it correctly.”
“Attention, everybody: this is One … 426 Alpha is closed and the pressure here is zero…….. Six, check the temperature and supply valve 730.”
“One, this is Six ... Checked it. It’s shut … Over.”
“‘Shut? Shut?’ What kind of talk is that? ‘Closed,’ you fucking dickhead.”
“Two, this is One. We don’t need it, so can it. He’s still new at this, so cut him some slack. OK?”
“Six this is One. Confirm that 730 is closed.”
“One, this is Six. Valve 730 is closed. The local pressure gauge is reading zero. The temperature is in the low eighties.”
“One, this is Four. Steve, that gauge could be broken or sticking. Six, check the gauge. You know how to do that correctly, don’t you?”
“Don’t break it, you dickhead. Just tap it on the side.” This from Ian.
“Ian, shut the fuck up. I am not going to tell you again. We have a problem here and I don’t like it. Six, check the gauge. Careful, like.”
“One, this is Six. The pressure is going down each time I tap the pipe. Looks like a blockage.”
“Control, this is Six. Please note that pressure gauge number 520 Beta requires servicing asap.”
“Six, this is One. You do it as soon as it is safe. We will be off line for as long as it takes to mend the leak.”
“Attention, everybody. Six, what is the pressure reading now?”
“Everybody, this is Six. The pressure is now at zero.”
“Everybody … this is One. Do it and do it as fast as possible, but be safe … No accidents … please.”
The gauge came off easily. It was OK, so I looked down the pipe. It looked OK as well. I tried to feel down the pipe with a long thin screwdriver. It would not go in very much: there was a restriction in the pipe. I felt that I was being watched: the flesh on the back of my neck was creeping. The pipe did not want to come off and I changed to the large pipe spanner. Then it started to turn.
Steve asked, “Is that’s what’s wrong? Blocked pipe?”
“Yes. Looks like it. Wax, or something very like it. Really gungy.”
“What do you think? How will you clear it out?” asked Steve.
“If it’s wax I can melt it out with the steam spear from the level below, or I could take it back to the control room workshop and clear it out there.”
“What are the dangers with using the steam spear?”
Steve was testing me and I knew it I could not bullshit my way out. Not with this guy. He was really on the case: he was one of the guest lecturers when I was going through the training school.
“Water left in the pipe could cause an explosion at working pressures … no, not at the working pressure. When it went from the high pressure/high temperature to a low pressure it would expand 1,200 times and could burst pipes and fittings.”
“So you were awake during my lecture, then. You missed out all the burns to yourself working up high in confined spaces with live steam, but you got the big problem OK.”
“So, Boss, what do you suggest?” I was trying to put him on the spot. I don’t know why I even tried. Before I finished I knew what the answer was going to be.
“It’s your job. You decide. You have about ten minutes.”
“One, this is Two. We have a big problem here. Can you get over and see this? It’s a real mess.”
“Two, this is One. What is the problem?”
“Steve, the valve seat is fucked. It’s got a hole in it big enough to put my dick in it without touching the sides.”
“On my way, Ian. Control, did you copy?”
“One, this is Control. What do you suggest?”
“Let me have a look first. At worst we put it back and leave it till we get a replacement.”
“One, this is Two ... I don’t think we can. It’s really fucked, man. I am now in the tool room. We have the old one, which was repaired at the end of last year. We can fit it … will take an hour or two, that’s all.”
“Looks like you have more time to fix the blocked pipe, Rab. Don’t waste it. Move yourself.” He was out of sight … only his disembodied voice was floating back up from several levels down.
With an old wire coat hanger and the compressed air line the repair did not take long. The climb up and down the tower was longer and harder than the cleaning. I did take a sample of the product from the sample point as I passed it on the way back for the second time: I would only have to do it when we were back up and running anyway. I was running it through the tester when Steve came in.
“Rab, do a sample from the bottom of the tower, please. Soonest.” He was looking in one of the bottom cupboards and had not seen what I had been doing.
“Doing it now, Boss,” I said. “It’s a bit cloudy but looks OK to me. Will I get someone to recheck it just to be sure?”
“No. Just do it again and I’ll watch how you perform.”
The test is really easy: all you need is a steady hand. It’s a small hypodermic syringe. True, it is not of a medical quality but is nothing to be afraid of. The sample cannot be left to cool down so Steve was watching my work on an old sample, which had started to cool rapidly. The needle is very fine and the oil is thick – almost solid, at room temperature – but it remains liquid in the centre of the bottle, which is where I collected the sample for test. It is then injected into the test machine, which runs several tests automatically. The machine should be calibrated before and after each test to maintain a correct system procedure.
Steve did not say a word during the sampling or the injection part but remained silent until I had started the test. He asked,
“Did you know it was department policy to calibrate the tester before each test?”
“I was doing that when you came in, Steve, at the end of the last test. Big Ian told me to do it before and after each test.”
“Before and after each test? I must remind him of that next time he is doing it,” said Steve.
The test finished and he asked me to explain the results to him. I read each line off the printout, explaining what each was. We were interrupted by Ian on the radio.
“Control, this is Two. We are finished here. Let’s get this sucker back on line.”
“Two, this is Control. That was fast. Are you sure everything torqued down correctly?”
“Yes. Every little thing is just as it should be. Don’t tell your daddy how to fuck, Son.”
“Two, this is One. On my way. It had better be 100%.”
“One, would I lie to you?” said Ian, all innocent-like. Steve said to him, “Yes, you would. Rab, it’s best if you get back up the tower and stand by to open the valve.”
“Yes, Boss,” I said as he disappeared out of the door. I headed back to my lonely tower and a long climb.
“Six, this is Two. What is your location?”
“Two, this is Six, on the tower between levels seven and eight. Over.”
“If you are between levels how can you use the radio? Are you hanging on with one hand?”
This was intended to drop me in it, as we are told not to let go of the ladder to answer the radio but to wait until we get to the next level.
“No, Two. I have not let go of the ladder. Out.”
“How is that possible? You got three hands, then?”
“Two, you told me only real men worked on this section. How do you think I did it?”
“Six, this is Control. Open valve 730 all the way up.”
“Control this is Six, opening valve 730 now…”
“Everybody, this is Control. Be advised we are bringing the plant back on line. Watch for leaks, please.”
“Control, this is Six. Valve 730 is now fully open.”
“One, this is Control. Please open 426 Alpha.”
“Six this is One. Will you please meet me at valve 426 Alpha?”
“One, this is Six. On my way.”
Steve was watching me, looking for incorrect procedures, as I descended the tower. Going up and down vertical ladders is not as easy as most people think. There is a correct way and several wrong ways. As the new boy I was expecting lots of this type of thing. Steve had to be sure that I was safe out on my own and that I knew the plant well enough to be let out on my own. This was my last night’s work before my first eighteen days’ holiday: all part of the shift system.
“OK, Rab. You open the valve.” He was sitting on valve 342, a bypass valve. As he said it he got up, indicating 342.
“That’s the bypass valve for the coolant system, Boss. The 426 Alpha is over here,” (putting my hand on it).
“So open it … Oh, by the way, well done. Well spotted – the deliberate mistake on my part.”
He was watching my every move with great interest. This was the most dangerous part of the job. The system has to be very slowly pressurised: the valve must be only just cracked opened to allow the oil pressure to build up very slowly. If you open it fast it can cause valves and pipes to burst, causing a major disaster: 4,000 p.s.i. oil on one side and zero on other.
“OK. You know what you’re doing. Back up the tower and watch the 730 valve.”
“Yes, Boss.” And off I went, climbing back up to the crow’s nest. I could not see him but I could feel his eyes on me each step of the way.
“Six, this is Control. What is your location?”
I was between levels so did not answer until I reached the next platform. He was somewhere down below, watching. I could feel it.
“Control, this is Six. I am on level eight proceeding up to level ten. Will call back when I get there.”
“OK, Six. Control out.”
The rest of the climb was quite hard, as I was going as fast as I could and it’s a long climb. When I was on the platform I called in.
“Control, this is Six. I am on the top now,” I managed to gasp.
“Six, what is the local pressure reading?”
“Reading 500 p.s.i. and climbing.”
“Six, this is One. Any leaks on the pipework?”
“Nothing so far. Will keep you informed, Six. Out.”
The next two hours passed without incident and the plant was back up and running only twenty minutes late. Steve in the control room had told the other plants we would be fixing the broken valve all shift. So when we were back online early it was noted in the log, and hopefully we might see some appreciation in the pay packet at the end of the week (little or no chance of that happening, as per normal). The shift finished without any further mishap.