Ernie O’Nan has just about seen it all during his decades in the storage tank industry. By the time he retired for the final time (a few times didn’t take) in 2014, he had seen the tank industry evolve from a sort of laissez-faire attitude to one by the (OSHA-approved) safety book.
O’Nan accepted a job at Globe Industrial Contractors in Henderson, Kentucky in the late 1960s. He worked on and off the next several decades with the Johnston families and their tank businesses, including Pittsburg Tank & Tower Group.
After working a while as a draftsman, O’Nan moved up the chain and became the manager of field erectors. He oversaw about 20 men in the shop, and one draftsman, all while bidding work. “What didn’t I do?” O’Nan said. He estimated he made about a fourth of what project managers do now, but that was still “a lot of money back then.”
O’Nan oversaw about three or four erection crews. Most of them were locals, unlike now, when Pittsburg draws from a much wider geographic pool.
“They weren’t nearly as educated. They were rougher,” said O’Nan, comparing today’s crews to those in the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s. They liked the bars, carried guns. I equated that with the fact that every day you live on the edge of death. I mean the way they worked there was no OSHA, there were no restrictions on the way you did things other than don’t drop it and don’t fall off.”
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) was founded on April 28, 1971. It replaced the Bureau of Labor Standards, which was established in 1922. Jobs in safety were rare, mostly seen at the federal and state government level. Some larger companies did employ safety professionals, but most did not. Most places didn’t have near the safety regimen that’s in place now.
Tankies didn’t wear safety harnesses or other gear when O’Nan started. Instead, when they worked on an elevated tank, they wore a safety belt, as a telephone lineman wears with a rope loop. They worked a lot on boatswain chairs – which consisted of a board and a rope – kind of like the famous 1932 picture called “Lunch atop a Skyscraper.”
Each modern tank worker has standard personal protective equipment (PPE), although what is standard depends on the task and what hazards are associated with that activity, said Chris Johnston, the former vice president of risk management and current head of business development EWT for Pittsburg.
“Our crews are trained to do a hazard analysis and choose the proper PPE for the tasks,” he said.
Standard equipment for a job site includes a hard hat, safety toe boot, safety glasses, and protective gloves, according to the task. For welding, a welder needs all the aforementioned gear, plus welding gloves, a welding hood with a No. 10 lens. Blasters need a fresh air hood that supplies the wearer with Grade D breathable air and hearing protection. Painters will use either a half-face mask or a full-face mask with appropriate filters or a full-face mask with fresh air.
Tank and tower work was and remains a tough job. Many of O’Nan’s contemporaries figured that they only lived once, so they might as well live it up. Even if that meant living dangerously, whether while working or blowing off steam at bars where stabbings and shootings were not infrequent.
“Every day, when you were up there, whether it was on an elevated tank or one of those ground tanks, you were subject to get killed,” O’Nan said. “They lived hard, and they played hard.”
The shop workers’ mentalities were much the same. They could be maimed for life if they were not careful. A punch press could cut someone’s fingers off. A plate shear cuts metal plates like a big knife, so it also had no problem slicing off digits. There was no real safety training at the time. People were expected to be as vigilant as possible, or they might find themselves short a limb.
O’Nan left Globe for a time and established Faith Incorporated, which specialized in tank foundations. It wasn’t until about five or six years after he founded the company, that any safety training started.
At the time, that mainly consisted of first aid.
In contrast, current day Pittsburg requires all its field employees to undergo OSHA 10, CPR, and First Aid training, said Eric Gardner, PTTG’s vice president of risk management. Foremen must complete OSHA 30.
“Additionally, we cover industry-specific training and on-the-job training to best prepare our employees to understand the hazards they will be presented with on a daily basis,” Gardner said. “Our shop employees attend a full day’s training to address all regulatory topics as well as the most likely hazards they will be presented with on the shop floor.”
Pittsburg started its safety program basically from scratch in 1996. Having worked in the safety department at multiple mines, Don McConnell was brought in to build the safety program from the ground up and cultivate a safety-first culture.
McConnell said he recalled the late Don Johnston that he wanted to get safety straightened out at the company because Johnston was tired of seeing too many of ‘his friends,’ (what he called his employees) being injured, killed, or maimed over the years.
“He wanted to change that,” McConnell said. “So, we turned it around.”
It wasn’t easy. The program consisted of a lot of rules, regulations, processes, manuals, and training. It also required people to change their attitudes about how they approached their work. ‘That’s the way we always did it,’ was no longer valid.
“We kind of slowly but surely kind of changed people’s minds about safety and about how to do their job, how to do it properly and safely so they wouldn’t get hurt and wouldn’t get anyone hurt,” said McConnell.”
It started as a safety program and evolved into a safety culture with buy-in from its employees. Regular safety training also helped retain people.
“They felt comfortable,” McConnell said. “They felt like they had an employer that cared for them and took care of them.”
Nowadays, you aren’t allowed to be four feet above the ground without a safety harness. More than once, this posed a problem with unloading trucks because there was nowhere to hook a safety harness. Pittsburg had to use a big forklift to unload safely.
Toward the end of O’Nan’s career, a crew was taking down and relocating an elevated tank in Illinois. The tank’s old site just happened to be located across the street from an OSHA training center. One worker went up in a high lift, stepped off two steps to unhook the crane, but didn’t stop to attach his harness to the high lift. An OSHA representative standing at the training center’s kitchen window snapped a picture of the moment.
OSHA immediately called and told the worker to leave the site and issued a $6,000 fine.
O’Nan was never much for climbing tanks, though he had to at times.
“I always considered it super dangerous,” he said. “Anything that you did where you got up more than 10 feet off the ground with nothing attached. The worst part about it was a lot of these guys would get complacent about the whole situation. People start thinking they can’t fall off, but they can.”
Any old tankie will have had at least one or two close calls with a bad injury or fall because it either happened to them, or they witnessed it happen to someone else. O’Nan recalled loading scrap steel into a trailer in the shop. He was holding one with one hand as the machine picked up the piece of steel and laid it in the trailer. The wires got crossed, and the machinery swung down and hit his watch. The crane operator got a hold of the steel, and O’Nan fell off the trailer from the impact as the steel moved off him. His watch was a loss, but it saved him from losing his wrist. He still has the indention where the steel fell.
Painting was more hazardous too. Workers scaled radio towers, “with a five-gallon bucket of paint hanging on their belt.”
Painters used to only wear a mask, which meant they were more susceptible to being overcome by fumes.
“If you walked up to a tank and a painter was inside, and he is singing or whistling, get him out because he’s already under the influence of the paint fumes,” O’Nan said.
He recalled a time when a painter hallucinated and stripped out of his clothing. On another occasion, O’Nan stopped by a tank manway because he heard a painter whistling and carrying on. The painter saw him and pointed the spray nozzle at O’Nan.
“I said, ‘Boy, if you spray me, I’m going to shut this manhole door, and you ain’t ever going to get out.”
Everyone must now know what type of paint they are spraying or rolling onto the tank. Painters must also read the safety data sheets to verify the proper safety precautions and personal protective equipment they need.
“Safety for painting has evolved substantially and is still evolving, and it’s not as simple as just wearing your respirators for our field painters,” said Johnston.
Probably the biggest evolution that O’Nan saw was in the technology used from when he started until he finally retired in 2014.
“I’m sure the guys who do this now are more educated, all of them have a computer,” said O’Nan.
When O’Nan started working in the tank industry, they didn’t use computers. They didn’t even have calculators – they used pencils, paper, and slide rules. Drafting was done by hand. Now it’s done using computers and sophisticated software. Work in the shop was done by stick electrodes and by hand, not by more modern plasma-cutting tables.
All workers carry cell phones and probably have for about the last 20 years. In the old days, crew members relied on payphones for communication.
“The first thing you did when you went to a town was to find the closest payphone,” he said. O’Nan would buy prepaid AT&T cards. At some point, they also bought a bag phone, which was like an analog telephone they kept in the truck. When they did get cell phones, early cell phone coverage was spotty, even though communication towers were popping up “like Christmas trees,” he said.
Nowadays, crew members constantly communicate with the foreman, project managers, and company safety officials, even if they are not at the job site. They would be in the loop on how every step of the project was completed. In contrast, in O’Nan’s early days as a project manager, if he wasn’t there in person, he didn’t know how the erection foreman was completing their tasks; he just knew when they finished.
“Communication is the key to successfully conveying any amount of information,” said Gardner. “In safety this comes in many forms on any job site, starting with the daily Job Safety Analysis and effectively including fellow co-workers in this process and verbally going over the tasks of the day, the hazards they will be presented with, and the controls that will be used.”
Technology and good communication have made it possible to keep track of workplace incidents. Safety metrics are an easy way to track how many days since an accident or incident and the direct impact on a business. It’s harder to track the indirect cost to an injured worker and how the injury can impact their family time, hobbies, or abilities to perform everyday tasks, Gardner said.
“I truly believe our responsibility is in being as proactive as we can to identify hazards ahead of time and put the right measures in place to mitigate the risks.”
Safety means something different to everyone based on their past experiences and their ability to recognize hazards, Gardner said.
“We continually work to change a person’s unsafe behaviors by concentrating on hazard recognition and being champions of safety not only for themselves but every co-worker or any person they are working with,” he said. “If you see someone doing something unsafe, you are given the autonomy to stop, correct it, and engage the person to understand why what they are doing is unsafe.”