Twelve Years at a Chemical Plant: What Fear Teaches You

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Leaning on the metal railing of a platform high above the ground, I lift my hard hat to slick my sweat-soaked hair off my forehead. I yearn for a breeze. The summer sun is pounding me into the grating. In the distance, construction workers scramble around an ethylene unit being built next to our syngas plant. Dust clouds swirl behind bulldozers. The huge furnace structure looks like a medieval castle among the tall columns and round, spiked tanks surrounding it.

"You gonna transfer over there?" asks a voice. It's an instrument technician squatting on the grating, putting a flow transmitter back in place.

"No, not if I can help it," I answer. "I helped start up this place, and that's enough for me. Climbing columns checking for leaks doesn't sound like fun anymore."

"How long you been here?" he asks.

"Twelve years."

"How old are you? You must've been just a baby when you started."

"I'm 31 now -- 19 when I hired on."

He tucks his wrench into his tool pouch. Using the pipe, he pushes himself into a standing position. "Right outa high school, huh?"

"Just about."

We take our locks and the chain off the valves protecting the transmitter from the methanol in the piping. I slowly open them, checking for leaks, then call the control room by radio to make sure the transmitter is working. I sign off the work order and watch the contractor's yellow hard hat bob as he skips down the six flights of steps.

Elevated View of Five Builders Standing in a Circle Looking at Plans

I move up to another level, the highest in my area. A whiff of rotten eggs hits my nose then disappears -- hydrogen sulfide. I've been looking for that leak for weeks with no luck.

Taking in the view, I see chemical plants stretching to the horizon in all directions. Down on the Ship Channel, a tugboat is pushing a barge to our dock.

Where have the past 12 years gone? After high school I spent three unhappy semesters at the University of Houston on scholarship for chemical engineering. I didn't like the control the department had over me and my studies.

I gained 20 pounds during a summer semester of calculus II and physics before I finally decided to quit and get a job at a chemical plant. I could earn enough to support myself and go back to college on my own terms. After two months as a welder's helper at a muddy mosquito-infested construction site, I was hired to help start up a new methanol plant. The company had the time to train an inexperienced 19-year-old female, as well as a sociologist, nurse, ex-Marine, grocery store manager, and other greenhorns of all races, ages, and nationalities.

I supported myself quite well, thanks to the long hours we worked. But I had no time to go back to school. When the pace slowed, I married and helped send my husband to college. Twelve years and two babies later, I am staring over the same old railing.

It's hard work, physically and mentally. I swelter in long-sleeve coveralls in the summer. Sweat blurs my vision through my safety glasses, which constantly slide down my nose.

I dream of the days north winds blow across the water and turn the gray steel structures into winter wonderlands. Gigantic icicles decorate each landing, turning deadly as the temperature rises and they crash to the ground. Ice coats the metal grating of the stairs and catwalks. Shivering under layers of long johns and sweat suits, we slip and slide, trying to keep the pipes thawed and the plant running.

A movement on the rocks far below catches my eye. An old friend is waving. I wave back, thinking about the people I've worked with. You can learn a lot about someone during long talks on top of the cooling tower at 3 a.m.

Sharing and conquering fear also pulls people together. Five years ago, my friend on the ground was knocked off his bicycle by a hydrogen explosion. Two nights later, I explored what was left of the burned area. The stench of charred wires and insulation hung in the air. I felt nauseated climbing a dark twisted stairway, finding my way by flashlight.

It was a miracle no one was killed. A valve we had to turn several times each shift was found 50 feet away. The heavy steel doors leading into the boiler lab were embedded in the counter where a technician would stand to run samples. Part of the catwalk where I often stood on nights thinking and staring at the full moon was missing.

A year later a tower of fire surged skyward following an explosion in the carbon recovery area. It's too big for us, I thought, as I ran toward it in my heavy steel-toed boots, my tool pouch banging against my leg.

But fire school every year trained us too well. I donned my bunker gear and followed my friends into the labyrinth of pipes and supports. Shadows danced around us where the light of the fire couldn't reach. My muscles cramped straining to hold the hose. The flames gorged on the tar-like residual oil, which oozed non-stop from the blown pump seal. Every so often a loud wail would rise above the roar of the fire like an Irish banshee, then fade away.

This is it; I'm going to die, I'd think, expecting a new explosion. I thought of my husband and my baby son, my friends and family. My eyes stung and my head ached from the fumes but there were no more explosions. The fire finally died, the metal cooled and we laid down our hoses.

Thinking of the explosions, I remember not to linger in one spot too long. I head to the cold box area. I hear a buzz and see a red light blinking on the carbon monoxide monitor in my chest pocket. I readjust the yellow barricade tape to warn people away from the leaking valve. It's supposed to be fixed during the next shutdown, when we clear the equipment for maintenance and repairs. No telling when that will be. We're making too much money right now to shut down.

Under the grating near the leaking valve is a small vessel where two welders died several years ago, overcome by nitrogen during a shutdown. By the time I reported for the night shift, the Life Flight helicopter had come and gone. I can't pass the spot without thinking of the two men, and picturing the area as I found it; discarded needles and bandages littered the grating and the rocks below. My first job that night was to clean up the mess.

    Trotting down the last flight of stairs, I adjust my earplugs against the assault of noise and merge into the shadows of the pipe alley. I whisper a prayer, the most important part of my routine round: "Thanks for keeping us safe one more day, Lord."


Barbara Shallue writes about her life at and is contributing editor of


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