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Are you really aware of your surroundings whilst working, or just doing your job?

  • marimac 

By Andrew Perks

Being aware and paying attention to what is around you, where you are, and what’s happening can be really important, it may even save your life.

Sometimes for whatever reason, we miss something that we may be looking right at, hearing, smelling, etc. I’m sure that we all have some lack of awareness and/or have not been paying attention at various times. Lack of awareness and attention can be caused by several factors such as exhaustion, sickness, demands on your time, stress, boredom, hunger, lack of training, and so on.

Being aware and attentive in the operation and/or maintenance of industrial ammonia refrigeration systems and their component parts is important. With increasing knowledge, training, experience, and awareness we can better understand the systems we work on and /or properly maintain them.

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I know I go on about training and experience but at the end of the day, muscle memory is what will see you through when you-know-what hits the fan. There is no substitute for that and gut feel.

Lack of awareness and not paying attention may result in missing something important, and/or doing something incorrectly, either of which could result in a hazardous situation developing.

An example of an engine room on a ship. Image credit: Creative Commons | Wikimedia
An example of an engine room on a ship. Image credit: Creative Commons | Wikimedia

The following is a story which I picked up in an IIAR publication – I have added a few comments to it but it really says it all:

Many years ago, whilst working with my dad on a floating seafood processing ship in Alaska I was involved in two incidents of note. One of my jobs was to do the hand drawings (this was before electronic drafting programs) of the ammonia system. The other job was to help with the piping part of the refrigeration system.

First incident: I was a fair gas welder at that time and my dad showed me some of the pipe re-routing that needed to be done. After explaining what he wanted me to do, he left me to do my work while he went to work in another area of the ship. A few hours later he returned to see how I was doing.

“Well son those are pretty good welds, and the routing looks level and straight. However, things will be a whole lot better if we connect that liquid line to the liquid line over there, instead of the hot gas line you now have welded it to.” Fortunately, the plant was fully pumped down.

Although I had thought I had understood the pipe re-routing explained, my lack of knowledge of what lines were where and what that meant resulted in some of my work having to be corrected to avoid a significant system operation problem.

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Later: I was learning to be more aware when I was told and/or shown something to pay more attention and get confirmation that my take was the actual requirement. Never enough time to do it right the first time but always enough time to fix it – sound familiar?

Second incident: The second incident had a huge impact on the whole ship operation.

On the first day that we were on the ship I was given a tour through most of the relevant sections and systems. One of the most interesting areas we went through was the engine room. There was no shore power available, so a large generator was continuously running.

As we went through the generator room, I noticed a sound coming from the generator, kind a of a “chirping” noise. I asked my dad about that sound, but he wasn’t sure and as the plant was being operated by the ship’s crew, we left it at that.

Over the next couple of days, we did our work and the ship continued processing the large amounts of shrimp that were being delivered. One afternoon, suddenly the lights went out and it got eerily quiet. We made our way up to the main deck and we could see a little smoke coming out past the gallery gangway door. I didn’t have a clue what had happened, but my dad immediately headed towards the engine room.

What had happened was that the chirping sound the generator had been making was the indication of a problem that the engine room crew had ignored, though some of them may well have been aware that sound wasn’t right. No action had been taken to investigate and correct the reason.

Unfortunately, whatever happened inside the generator resulted in a large hole in the side of the machine – allowing oil to spray out, coating and setting on fire a primary electrical panel on the wall. Most of the ship’s power was routed through that panel.

Fortunately, the CO2 fire protection system activated quickly, putting out the fire. After hours of work, the destroyed power panel was bypassed, and finally the back-up generator came online. An additional problem was that just before the power failure, a large amount of shrimp had been transferred to the ship for processing. After several hours sitting in the sun that shrimp had to be condemned.

Awareness and observation will improve with experience and training but even someone with little experience can be aware and attentive enough to realise something might not make sense, so don’t be afraid to raise your concerns. Remember there are no stupid questions when it comes to safety.

With our sight, hearing, touch, smell, taste, and gut feelings, potential problems can many times be avoided, and we all know that most serious incidents start small and escalate. Whether we are new to some activity or have a lot of experience, we should consciously strive to improve and maintain our awareness and ability to be attentive.

SAQCC Gas training is all about safe handling but it is no substitute for additional hands-on experience. Where possible get involved in those additional training courses that provide hard earned field experience.

Till next month, stay safe.

About Andrew Perks

Image credit: Andrew Perks

Image credit: Andrew Perks

Andrew Perks is a subject expert in ammonia refrigeration. Since undertaking his apprenticeship in Glasgow in the 1960s he has held positions of contracts engineer, project engineer, refrigeration design engineer, company director for a refrigeration contracting company and eventually owning his own contracting company and low temperature cold store. He is now involved in adding skills to the ammonia industry, is merSETA accredited and has written a variety of unit standards for SAQA that define the levels to be achieved in training in our industry.

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