When DTE experienced the worst storm in company history this past March, tree trimmers and line workers weren’t the only DTE employees outside weathering the storm. No matter what the weather, Fossil Generation Fuel Supply equipment operators are working 24 hours a day, 365 days per year making sure our coal-fired plants have the fuel they need to keep the power on for our customers.
“The only things we come off the piles for are lightning and tornadoes,” said Jamie Butlin, senior Fuel Supply equipment operator, St. Clair Power Plant (SCPP). “Thunderstorm or snowing, you’re out there – it’s all part of it. During the March storm a tree fell on site, the coal dust was blowing and the buildings were shaking, but we kept working to fuel the plant. “
Extreme weather conditions, constant moving parts, and being around heavy equipment like the mammoth Caterpillar D11 dozers and scrapers all make a fuel supply equipment operator’s job challenging and risky. Employees in this position are responsible for everything from unloading coal from ships and trains, to stockpiling the coal (an art in itself as it must be compacted in such a way as to keep the coal from being exposed to too much oxygen and self-combusting or getting to wet and affecting how it burns), to ensuring the belts and motors that carry the coal to the boilers are in good operating condition. They also maintain the roads on the property by clearing snow in the winter and wetting the dirt in the summer to keep the dust down among many other things.
Foreman Walter Maitland works in the onsite control room at the Monroe Power Plant making sure that the equipment operators are getting the right blend of coal into the right silos at precisely the right time. DTE uses different types of coal that have different burn rates and are blended to achieve both cost and performance goals.
“Our biggest thing is keeping fuel to the plant. Here at Monroe we have 28 silos that need to be filled 24/7,” Maitland said. “Everything is computer controlled. We blend coal here to make sure we’re taking advantage of the market and keeping costs affordable for our customers. My job is setting percentages up for the blends, hitting silos at the correct time with the correct blends.”
No matter who you talked to, however, they agree that the most dangerous part of their job is doing lockout/tagouts. Lockout/tagout is a safety procedure that ensures dangerous machines are properly shut-off and shall not be turned on prior to the completion of maintenance or servicing work and is commonly referred to in the plants as tagging.
“The biggest risk that we’re dealing with is our tagging. We tag everything up to 4160 volts, and in areas where it’s sometimes dark, dusty, and we’re around moving parts, belts, and heavy equipment all the time,” said Mike Dandy, senior Fuel Supply equipment operator, MONPP. “As operators we’ve been told if we see anything unsafe our job is to step up and stop it and make it safe. With our peer checks and 200 percent accountability, we work safe. We don’t have a lot of issues out here.”
Tom Davis, senior Fuel Supply equipment operator, SCPP agrees that being around energized equipment is the most hazardous part of his job. “Our personal protection equipment (PPE) is top notch, but it takes more than that,” Davis said. “Jamie (Butlin) and I work swing shift together, so we spend a lot of time together and have built a lot of trust between us. It’s pretty dangerous out there – what we do – but I know he’s got my back and I got his. It’s nice having that extra pair of eyes that can double check.”
Butlin says that he’s witnessed a lot of positive changes over the past 17 years he’s been with the company.
“The company is much more safety oriented and it really shows, with last year being our safest on record,” Butlin said. “200 percent accountability has become a mindset. The attitude of the workers has changed too. When I started here we had a bunch of guys that had been around a long time but didn’t really talk to each other. Our group now laughs and jokes and we’ve built a lot of trust. We watch out for each other.”
So what drives these men and women to do the work that they do? According to Dandy It’s simple: they love what they do.
“We’re grown adults playing with Tonka toys. It’s the greatest job in the world.”