With her plant preparing to demonstrate a new selective catalytic reduction and desulfurization system to visiting VIPs, Maya identifies a serious problem and halts the work. See how stepping up for safety led to Marnie and Maya becoming problem-solving teammates—and good friends.
It was 6 a.m. and the conference room mood was a mixture of tension and boredom, as the plant engineers and operators were briefed by the manager. “This demonstration of our environmental control equipment is critical for gaining investment support. Remember, we have guest engineers from companies around the world inspecting the selective catalytic reduction [SCR] and desulfurization system commissioning. Our future depends on success with no delays! Unless these systems pass inspection, we risk losing loans for other upgrades. Remember, each of your jobs depends on what happens today!”
Maya Sharma, age 26 and a graduate of the Indian Institute of Technology of Mumbai, sat and coiled her long hair to fit into her hard hat, frowning as she listened. She was the lead shift operator during this commissioning and she was not happy. A third-generation engineer, she had been raised on the principle to always act with caution and prudence for safety. And the fast pace of this environmental upgrade worried her. Corners were cut, inspections skipped, and there was too much custom fabrication.
Vinit, an experienced operator and her mentor, nudged Maya and whispered, “You are very tense today. Are you still having problems with your scooty?”
Maya shook her head and flipped to re-read the HAZOPS review. “I will have you know I put new rings on the piston and honed the cylinder until it was a mirror, and the engine runs exceedingly good.”
“Ha,” whispered Disha, the junior operator. “She cares more for piston rings than a ring around her finger.”
“And you should care more about the startup procedures,” Maya retorted. “Like takeoff and landing of an aeroplane, equipment is often most dangerous during startup and shutdown.”
Vinit nodded. “Ignore her Maya; I share your concerns and we’re doing what we can.” True, Maya thought, but was it enough? Each day the construction crew made mistakes from working long hours. Incorrect parts had been delivered, and while some could be field-modified, others were just put into service with a prayer that things would work “well enough.” The plant staff were capable and conscientious, but this was unfamiliar technology—and the fact that everyone must work around new equipment and dangerous chemicals meant risk was everywhere.
The meeting adjourned with a stern warning from the plant manager that commissioning would start at 13:00, and any delays would result in reprimands or terminations. Maya thought, “This is not a safety culture. Why am I working at this power station?” She asked the question already knowing the reason—it was the duty of care of an engineer to protect the environment and ensure all are welcomed safely home by their family after work. Since graduation her career and responsibilities had risen quickly by her talent for finding and solving safety hazards before anyone was injured. While her graduate advisors said she wasted her time working at a power plant rather than taking her master’s to a PhD, Maya knew life was much larger than the classroom and books. Without the practical knowledge of plant experience, she would be missing a critical part of learning. So, she applied her intelligence and research skills while also humbly listening to the instruction of the experienced plant staff—from the engineering manager to the custodians.
And this is why she knew there was something wrong at this plant.
A Canary in the Coal Mine (or Rather, Crows in the Break Area)
It started more than a month ago. Maya was having lunch with her colleagues in the shade of the boiler building. As usual, everyone shared their home food, passing roti and tins of hot family specialties around, talking about sports, their children, and television. Maya listened politely, but loved watching the ever-present crows sitting in the scrubby trees nearby, or dropping to the ground to inspect (and eat) something interesting (Figure 1). There was a dark intelligence in their eyes, and an air of confidence Maya envied. Her habit of feeding them leftovers while they swirled around her and even sometimes followed her back inside the plant building, led to her nickname of Kavala (crow in Marathi).
1. Maya enjoyed watching and feeding the crows, but she would find many of them dead in coming days. Source: POWER
That day, however, the crows stayed distant, calling out to her constantly, and forcing her to walk an extra hundred meters to deliver their daily roti. They seemed wary, almost scared to take food from her. As Maya walked back toward the plant, shaking her head at the quirks of the crows, she noticed a mass of black feathers on the ground. Walking carefully, she found a dead crow, barely a day gone, and then noticed another, and another—more than ten in all—and none showing any signs of injury.
She looked around for the cause. She was under the air heater ductwork, but nothing immediately harmful was present. No steam vents, chemical tanks, or visible electrical hazards were present. There was construction for the SCR in the area. Could there be an electrical short charging a metal surface and electrocuting the poor crows? She headed toward the engineering offices for advice.
Electrical Risks Pervade, but No Fault Found
Weary and hot, Rahul, the lead electrical engineer wiped his head. “We checked every line, the grounding, equipment cabinets, and the transformers. There are no stray currents or current imbalance,” he reported.
“What about an intermittent problem when certain equipment is operated? Or when two pieces of equipment are operated simultaneously?” asked Maya while staring at the electrical one-line diagrams trying to find something wrong.
“And what if it is three or four equipment items at once? Do you know how many permutations that could be?” Rahul replied with exasperation.
“Combinations, not permutations, I think, and yes, you are correct. And would not the ground fault interrupters have tripped on the new equipment anyhow?” mused Maya.
“Provided we had received all that we ordered, yes. But less than half the circuit protection equipment has been received. The rest will not arrive until after our commissioning date,” said Rahul.
“What?!” Maya started. “We will not have proper electrical fault protection during the commissioning?!”
Rahul waved his hands. “We can only do what we can do. Besides, Kavala, we found some of your departed friends in areas with no nearby electrical equipment. They are pests. Who cares?”
As the commissioning date approached, the crows continued their strange lunchtime behavior—sometimes coming right up to Maya’s table, sometimes disappearing completely. Then, two weeks before the deadline, Maya was walking toward the elevator near the SCR when she stopped, stunned at what she saw: Crows—dozens of them. Some looked as if they had died just that day, others were nothing but bones and feathers scattered by other scavengers. “Whatever is killing them is doing it steadily. But what?” thought Maya.
Never Be Afraid to Do the Right Thing
At 10 a.m. the plant management was meeting with the foreign engineers, giving them an overview of the new environmental systems, while the engineering staff tested the systems to ensure they would work on command. Meanwhile, Maya sat in the control room, nervously counting prayers for the safety of her co-workers on her jaap mala. Noticing her concern, Vinit brought her a welcome cup of tea, smiled, and said, “Go and take another look. I have faith in you.”
Gulping her tea and gratefully thanking her mentor, Maya headed back to the SCR. As she rode the elevator to the top platform, a nagging suspicion grew in her mind. For the last two weeks she had counted the number of dead crows each day, noting they accumulated randomly. On her own initiative, she had carefully taken one of the newly dead crows to a veterinarian, who said he could find no electrical injury or any obvious cause of death. However, one of her co-workers reported her to the plant manager, who lectured her over “poking her nose into things” and a “creepy obsession with dead birds.” She left the office fighting back tears with a reprimand that being “troublesome” would result in immediate termination.
Exiting the elevator, Maya greeted the SCR testing crew, who, along with half a dozen crows perched overhead in the shade, were idling near the main ammonia header and distribution lines. She asked the foreman again about ammonia detection. “Ma’am, as I have told you, each time the ammonia sprays are tested, we send someone with a hand detector, and he has never encountered any leaks.”
Suddenly, Maya had an idea. “Can I see the testing schedule?” she asked, and with a bored shrug the foreman handed her a stained clipboard. Maya opened her phone to check her notes, and almost dropped it in shock. “Quickly, where are the continuous ammonia detectors?” she asked.
The foreman shrugged. “They will not arrive for another month. But I tell you, when we start the ammonia, we send someone to check things. You worry about nothing.”
“Has anyone been here checking right when the system starts?” Maya asked. Again, the foreman shrugged. “Why? There are no leaks.”
“I see,” replied Maya, a strange calm coming over her. Looking up, she stared into the eyes of a nearby crow, which tilted its head and returned her gaze with confidence.
Wise words from her Auntie Komal came to her then: “Never be afraid to do the right thing.” Quickly walking to the row of toolboxes, she ignored the questions of the work crew and took a thick piece of chain, a padlock, and lockout tag. She wrapped the chain around the main ammonia control valve and locked it shut, then headed for the elevator, pursued by an astonished and irate foreman.
Safety Is ‘Key’
2. Maya and the foreman make a lasting first impression before the group of foreign engineers. Source: POWER
Maya burst into the control room, pursued by the foreman. Her timing was unfortunate. At that moment, the plant manager was giving the foreign engineers a control room tour and showing off the new distributed control system screens. Faced with both Maya and the foreman arguing in front of him and his guests (Figure 2), the plant manager yelled, “Enough! What is the meaning of this?”
“Sir!” howled the foreman. “This … woman has locked out the ammonia valve on the SCR and refuses to give the key!”
“Sir!” shouted Maya. “There is danger in the ammonia system! The work crews are in danger as are our guests! I …”
“Sir! There is no danger!” bellowed the foreman. “We have tested this every time!”
Red-faced with anger and embarrassment, the plant manager glared at Maya, then said, “Grab the key from this woman and let me deal with her!”
“Sir,” gulped the foreman, “she has put the key inside her, um, underclothing.”
Eyes wide in disbelief, the plant manager was about to yell further when suddenly there was a laugh, followed by a contralto, “How wonderful!” from behind the throng of foreign engineers.
Everyone watched silently as an American woman walked to face Maya. Small, middle-aged with white flecking her brown hair—and the palest skin Maya had ever seen—her face carried the lines of long experience, but her eyes were a sharp and piercing green that seemed to see … everything.
“I don’t know the story—yet—but the passion of this young engineer’s concern for safety speaks volumes to me. How about everyone else?” With amazement, Maya watched as all the foreign engineers nodded or voiced eager assent with looks of deep respect. Even the plant manager paused, silent but fuming.
Maya’s dark eyes met the green. “Ma’am, excuse me—who are you?”
A broad smile contrasted with the seriousness of her gaze. “I’m Marnie Surfaceblow, vice president of Surfaceblow & Associates International. Tell us your story, and let no one,” Marnie cast a fierce look towards the plant manager, “interrupt you.”
Two hours later, after testing the ammonia system with all in attendance, the plant management, foreign engineers, and Maya assembled in the control room. Marnie had the floor, and used it to effect.
“This potentially deadly situation was due to three unconnected problems—the first being that your ammonia pumps aren’t the right size for this system. You took what was delivered and decided to use it because it was under your system max pressure, but you neglected to note that sometimes when you start up a pump like this, there’s a serious pressure spike, like water hammer, but with liquid ammonia,” said Marnie.
“The second problem is your piping gaskets are sub-par, so every time you start the system, the pressure spike leaks ammonia through 28 injection lines on each level. It wasn’t that much, but given time, the gaskets would have worn more, or even blown, leading to a deadly ammonia leak,” she continued.
“And then we come to the murder of the crows. Which ironically … never mind.” Marnie paused in thought. “Look, unusual events at power plants need to be investigated. A pile of dead crows may not seem like a big deal to people who don’t enjoy having crows around. But when the pile appears suddenly, and soon after new equipment that uses toxic gas is installed, you should take notice. Some birds aren’t sensitive to low ammonia levels, like chickens. Crows, on the other hand, are. In fact, you can use small amounts to keep them away from bird feeders. And here we have the most unforgiveable sin—you were going to run this system without the continuous ammonia leak detection system online.”
“But we had a deadline, and schedules, and we needed …” blustered the plant manager.
Eyes blazing with full Scottish fury, Marnie rounded on the plant manager. “What you needed to do was show a duty of care toward your employees and the environment! If not for the actions of this young woman here,” Marnie pointed to a highly embarrassed Maya, “people may have been injured, or killed! We would have understood and appreciated a delay in commissioning for safety! But this … this is just shameful!”
As the debriefing continued, Maya sat silently, overwhelmed with a mix of pride and embarrassment.
A ‘Joyous’ Pair
Maya trudged towards her scooter for the long drive home. The deep blue sky was on the verge of turning to black. As dusty ash trucks lumbered slowly by, Maya thought, “Some call this ‘the time of cow dust,’ not fly ash.” As she was about to start her scooter, she heard what was now a familiar voice, yell, “Hey! Our lady of the crows!”
Turning, she saw Marnie Surfaceblow standing next to a shiny black SUV. In no mood for joking, she replied flatly, “My name is Maya Sharma, ma’am.”
“No offense intended. I love crows! My family crest even has crows on it. Or maybe it’s dragons?” Marnie tried to recollect. “Maya … that means illusion, yes? Well, it’s no illusion that you ruled the plant today!”
Maya looked at the ground. “Perhaps, but my reign has ended, ma’am. I was terminated for insubordination,” she said.
A string of creatively unladylike curses from Marnie shocked Maya, but not as much as what came next. “OK. You impressed me today, Maya, and that takes a lot. Want to travel the world and have adventures with a quirky engineering genius as a boss? By the way, where is my phone?” Marnie asked with a quizzical look on her face.
“Your mobile is in your left hand, ma’am,” Maya frowned. “You are serious about the offer?”
“I’m always serious, except when I’m not. You’re intelligent, you’re a problem-solver, and you’re brave enough to do the right thing in the name of plant safety. Throw your scooter in the back and I’ll drive you into town. We can discuss it over dinner. My treat,” Marnie said.
Hesitating, Maya remembered other words from her Auntie Komal: “Never let a free meal go to waste.” Minutes later, riding in the air-conditioned leather luxury of the SUV, Maya asked, “What does your name mean? I have not heard it.”
“Excellent question! It means joy in Scottish,” Marnie replied.
Maya nodded. “My family name—Sharma—can translate as joy.”
Marnie laughed and exclaimed, “Then, it’ll be a joy working together, kiddo! All we have to do is decide on what to eat. I’m thinking … Indian?” Maya couldn’t help smiling.
—Una Nowling, PE is an adjunct professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.