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Up All Night

Spurlock Station, Maysville, Kentucky:
At 5:30 p.m., after office staff and other daytime support personnel have left East Kentucky Power Cooperative’s largest generating plant, a group of new workers arrives.

For the next 12 hours, this fresh team of 15 to 17 operators, three supervisors, two maintenance workers, an electrician, and an instrument technician, plus six workers in the coal yard, will be on duty. They’ll make a seamless transition as they take over from the daytime team.

Plant Operator Level 3 Ryan Kissell says, “There is not a time when this plant is not making electricity.”

Tonight’s workers will be the plant’s day shift sometime next week. Altogether, four equal teams follow a set pattern of swing shifts in a sequence that repeats every four weeks, and keeps everyone alert.

Production Manager Daryl Ashcraft says, “A lot of the work such as equipment inspections cannot be done in the daytime because demand for electricity is very high. We can’t shut certain things off then, but at night the system load drops and we can do the inspections.”

The job sometimes calls for split-second timing to coordinate dozens of activities and still keep combinations of the four generators running at all times. Computers in the central control room provide valuable details about combustion chamber temperatures, steam pressures, turbine speeds, emissions control devices, and kilowatts flowing into the grid.

But computers can’t do it all. Workers in steel-toed boots, hard hats, and other safety gear are always on the move to complete various tasks inside the enormous steel and concrete buildings, and they work outdoors in all weather conditions.

Holding a long flashlight to examine a gauge amid rows of pipes, one worker comments, “A lot of the work at night is the same as things I do when I’m on day shift, but at night it’s often harder to see, especially outside. Things often do take a little longer at night.”

When inspections turn up something out of the ordinary, workers must deal with it right away. Halfway up a ladder, a worker says, “We might have to improvise to keep a small problem from getting worse and keep things going until the day shift can look at it in more detail.”

Solving unexpected problems means that schedules don’t accommodate official lunch breaks. In the control room tonight, one fellow glances toward a still-unwrapped sandwich and says, “You eat when you can—and sometimes that means right at your desk.”

An attitude of “we’re all in this together” helps build team spirit. Ashcraft says, “Not counting being at home asleep, we spend as much time with our co-workers as with our families, and we get to know each pretty well. In our work family, we know each person’s style and the little things to joke about and tease each other.”

That cheerful outlook goes along with complete trust in the skills of fellow workers. Deadly hazards are everywhere: pipes carrying high-pressure steam, crushingly heavy pieces of equipment, and, of course, energized power lines.

Frequent refresher courses about “lock out, tag out” safety procedures for every electrical circuit and mechanical component keep everyone focused on safety. For these busy workers, it’s all part of the job as the backbone of the powerhouse, keeping electricity flowing all day and all night.

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