Interview with John S., 8/1/2010

John Smith works for a nation-wide training company. Through this company he trains workers in the latest updates to building code, OSHA safety practices, and management and safety of hazardous waste cleanup. I first met John through OSHA ten-hour training as part of a month-long employment exploration. John made the ten hour class go more quickly than I’d anticipated and he had so many amazing stories of danger and intrigue that I knew I had to interview him. As you read through this interview you’ll see what I mean. Danger is, I’m pretty sure, his middle name.


JM: What is your job description?
JohnS: Right now I am an Environmental Specialist slash Safety Trainer. I do probably 80% training, 20% field work, which is almost exclusively inspecting job sights: so an insurance carrier or maybe the General [manager] will say, “come on out” depending on the size of the project “once every week, twice a week or once every two weeks and we just want the good, the bad, and the ugly.” They all kind of seem to follow the same format. I take pictures of the good, the bad and the ugly, give them a citation and stuff like that. The workers don’t care about citations and that crap. They want to see ‘what’s wrong with this picture.’ They hold safety meetings and discuss stuff like, “Oh, wow, that guy needs a tag line when they’re moving the framework.”
I love it because it’s like, hey, this stuff is going to good use.

JM: You’re an OSHA person?
JohnS: I’ve never worked for them. My training center has people who have.

JM: You’re a pre-OSHA…
JohnS: I’m a consultant. When I started out, I was the EPA guy because we were doing cleanup and you had to know all the clean up levels, DOT rules on shipping Haz(ardous) Waste, time frames … so I was really well-versed in EPA rules. We used to be Marine and Environmental Testing. OSHA was a small town in Wisconsin so far as I was concerned. When we changed focus it was like, “Wow, these guys are experts.”

One of the problems about OSHA is they have all this language but they never tell you what the hell it means. So, you have to go to resources to understand the rules. One of the things the State of Washington is doing really well is taking the OSHA standards and writing them in plain English. Marvelous documents. I wish everyone in the world had these documents because any businessman anywhere in the world could sit down and understand them. The way it is now, that [the difficult reading of OSHA rules] is why my business exists. You open the rule book now and it’s like it’s in French, man. When I started, I had no idea what they were talking about. We do a lot of making businesses OSHA compliant.

There are a couple of gals who started a paint store in East Port Plaza. They called us up and said, “We don’t know anything about this. We want you to come in and check out our new line of paints.” They paid me some money, I went down, spent maybe an hour, wrote up the report. I said things like, “This guy needs a GFCI. The heaters have to be eight feet off the floor.” All that little stuff. They just wanted to make sure their workers were safe. Which I think is nice, now they’re all working in a safe building and before they had no idea. They didn’t have stair rails … that’s weird. It was a mixture of old and new. They had gut one part and modernized it. The basement was the old archaic stuff.

That’s kinda what I do now. We do DOT training, Air Shipment training, Maritime, Industrial Hygiene, a huge gamut. What OSHA did was say, “Look, there’s a huge need to train young workers. We can’t do it all in Dust Plains, Illinois. So let’s create regional training centers associated with colleges and universities, give them some money so they can have OSHA continuing education courses, and make it all across the United States.” Our company is an external provider of those courses. Our most recent OSHA 10 Hour class was sanctioned by the U of W. Organizations are out all the time looking for grant money to pay for this stuff. That’s how it’s been. The course has been dynamite, horrendously successful in construction for young workers.

I met a guy from Canby, he was the welding teacher. He was taking his kids through a ten hour construction course. Can you imagine? In High School, getting on the ground floor of what it’s like out there, on construction sites. Man, I just said, “Boy, that is phenomenal that you’re doing that.” There are so many young kids coming out and they don’t have a clue. They get taken advantage of, get put in dangerous situations.

JM: A lot of that stuff is subtle. They say, “I need you to hang this thing up there. Here’s the ladder.” The kid may not know how to use a ladder safely and may end up doing something dangerous unwittingly. You know you have to get the job done, but no one is giving you the tools to do the job right.
JohnS: Right. I was just over at St. Vincent’s where they’re getting set up for some DOT training with an old buddy of mine and her husband happened to be there. Kenny is a master welder. You can ask anybody. He’s retired. The guy says, “I can’t pay him (Kenny) enough to get him down here.” That’s one of Kenny’s things is to mentor young kids. He’s going to work in their physical plant and show them how to weld, how to weld really well, because he loves it. He’s in seventh heaven when showing someone else. It’s like, “Here’s how you do it. Now here’s how you do it really well.” What a craftsperson. I love craftspeople. It looks so easy until you go to do it.

JM: Your company does both Earth & Environmental and Marine & Environmental?
JohnS: No. They acquired us. The Marine name had to disappear. It’s now just Earth & Environmental. I think there are more women in our office than men. We’re more of an engineering firm. All the techs go out and get their hands dirty but all the rest, the bulk of the staff, are registered geologists. They put together the scope of the work, energy audits … we’re doing a ton of energy audits for the military right now, we’re doing the clean up on Rhone-Poulenc and that’s going to be a multimillion dollar project, we’ve been on that one for, like, forever.

JM: So outside of trainings you are also doing the work you are training people to do.
JohnS: As a company, yes. I used to, but now I don’t do the field stuff so much. As a company, our field techs are out there working on all different kinds of jobs and some of the registered geologists go out. One of the guys is getting ready to go out to Government Camp, Oregon. There’s an oil plume they’re trying to trace; where is it coming from, where is it going to. So, primarily our office is made up of engineering types and they’ll put together the project and then someone else carries it out, we sub out the work to someone else. It’s a monster company. We do almost 4 billion in the US alone. The company acquires small companies like mine was. We had eight employees. But The company’s investors were like, “We have no training centers in the NW. Let’s get these guys.” Or, “We need more wetland expertise.” So they go up to Snohomish and buy out this two person company. The company is assembling chess pieces. Most recently they acquired GeoMatrix, 600+ employees, very strong California presence. They just acquired a 700-employee company in Britain. We rank in environmental firms, worldwide, I think we’re fifth or sixth. CH2M Hill is the big dog; a Portland, Oregon based company.

There are a lot of firms that do environmental clean-up. The nice thing about the company is if you have a project coming up, like Camp Pendleton clean-up, they’ll send people down there to help the existing staff to clean-up.

I’m glad I’m not involved in this one or I’d quit, the Tar Sands in Canada. They are just raping the Arctic environment. You can extract oil from sand. It takes three times as much energy, you have to de-forest everything, and then what do you do with all the water? That’s part of the process. You put it in these impoundment ponds that aren’t worth a damn. It’s like what happened in Tennessee. They impounded hundreds of millions of gallons then one of the ponds broke and it ended up in the river, killing a river. And you call yourself an environmental company? I wouldn’t even send people up …. In the winter, that’s when the work is done, we’ll send maybe eight people up and they will work with drill rigs because they are still figuring out the extent. It’s a huge area of Tar. When the price per barrel gets up there, they go to work at extracting. It’s like. “Boy, our short sightedness on fossil fuels is scary.” When you look, the Gulf of Mexico is a classic case of ‘the oil is there but it is a risky business’. And then you lose one, well, now what?

JM: And the impact of that! You can’t get enough people to go down there and clean that up at this point. What are you going to do?
JohnS: Yeah, and the technology to keep it out. Once they get the weather, there’s not a boom in the world big enough to hold it out. It’s going to come to shore. The last I heard they are thinking of making a huge dyke but … this is bunker. It will float, but with the weather it will sink and then it will kill all the bottom critters. It’s a super rich fishery.

JM: Crawdad country! Catfish country!
JohnS: All of that. We watched Poisoned Waters. Brings a new perspective to oil spills. Wow!

JM: I heard the other day they were talking about it separating. They can get a grasp on what’s on top but everything underneath they are like, “whoopsee”.
JohnS: One of the things they used for the Exxon spill, and it worked really well, was a dredger called the Essayons. Its dredging arms go way down and it dredged up a ton of the bottom that they could reach. I don’t know how deep this Gulf spill is, they may be on their way right now. It’s one of the few vessels where you can actually recover what’s at the bottom. And then it’s like you can only go so deep, dredging. There are pools in Alaska that are going to be there forever. We just can’t get to it.

JM: When they pick up that oil, then what?
JohnS: You have to put it in something. Usually what you try to do, as this stuff comes to shore, you try to push it back, get it in the water, then you skimmer it. Skimmer it, it goes to a bladder, goes to a reservoir tank, goes to a vac truck. Down there it’s bunker, so they’re probably going to use squeegee stuff. That’s where you try to keep it off the beach so you can recover it. It’s really labor intensive. In the newspaper they described how much boom they are going to need. It’s incredible. And then all the workers, OSHA is down there to make sure all these guys have training on the hazards of bunker and that they are wearing the right Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) because you’re going to have literally hundreds of thousands of people working if this thing comes in like they’re predicting. I mean, we made a ton of money off the Exxon Valdez spill. But you know, when push comes to shove, we should have just walked away. What did we do? We tore up miles of beach line, steaming it back into the water, killing everything, wiping rocks.

They have known about a bug that feeds on oil for years. They are trying to modify it. They’re trying to get it to go from Anaerobic (without oxygen) to Aerobic. Whoever does that is going to make a bazillion dollars. Seed it and walk away. The bug will digest all the oil, no harmful byproducts.

JM: There are new rules for lead paint, right, like you have to put your house in a giant bubble?
JohnS: Well, you put down ten feet of plastic, you do your work but it has to be HEPA vacuum tools, if I have a sander it has to have a shroud over it, and then when I’m done, then I spray all the plastic I was working on, fold it inward. All the stuff can go out as household garbage, which is real unusual. It’s really the people-hours that are difficult.

JM: What does HAZWOPER mean?
JohnS: HAZWOPER covers people who do cleanup work, cleaning up polluted sites. When you clean up a polluted site all the waste has to go someplace. So HAZWOPER covers the handling of waste. All our waste goes to Treatment Storage and Disposal facilities, TSDs. They can be big, they can be very small. There’s one here they’ve closed now where all they took were chlorinated solvents. There’s one up in Tacoma, very small, all they take are corrosives, acids and bases. Arlington will accept no liquid waste, so you have to solidify it: kitty litter, walnut shells, however, and then you bury it. Arlington is a repository. Whomever’s stuff is in Arlington is, as lawyers would say, jointly and severally liable forever for the waste. You can never get out from under the loop. That’s good! Whoever put that waste there pays, not you and I.

I have to do my research. I look at my sewer bill and there’s this thing, I’m thinking why are we paying for this Superfund cleanup? It’s not a lot. It’s $3.50. But I’m a citizen. Wait a minute! The polluters pay or you dip into Superfund. I know a lot of City of Portland people so I’ll find that out what the true skinny on this is.

So, that takes care of cleanup jobs, where the waste goes, the last part of HAZWOPER is for Emergency Responders: HAZMAT teams, all the semiconductor industry has HAZMAT teams, Portland, Gresham, Tualatin, so it’s a private and public sector. So HAZWOPER sets the training. If you’re going to be a HAZMAT technician this is what you have to know. It’s all competency based. The first part “HAZWOP” is like following a recipe. When you go over to Emergency Response it is like, “Whoa, wait a minute. This is competency based, I have to demonstrate competency in these areas.”

JM: What are those areas of competency?
JohnS: They talk about knowing the incident command system, your roles and responsibilities in an emergency at your facility, who’s the boss, who is not, who is the incident commander, who is the site safety officer, what procedures will we use to safely contain/control this release. Kind of standard operating procedures. It’s kind of like the Fire Department – they go down I-5 and if it’s HAZMAT incident, they’ll call a HAZMAT team. The HAZMAT team shows up with a white board. They list who’s running it, who’s the site safety officer, who’s going to run operations, and they fill in the blanks for a safe response to whatever it is that got dumped. Now with facilities, they can pre-plan all that. They know the chemicals they are dealing with, they know what kind of PPE to wear. Are these the kind of gloves for Caustic or are these the kind of gloves for Hydrochloric. They have what they call Crash Carts and all their stuff is there. They have a spill, they move the crash cart as close as possible then get to work on cleaning up the spill.

JM: So they have bins with everything they need.
JohnS: Yeah! They have little charts. It will list the acid, say, and it’ll say green glove/yellow suit. Real simple. That way, “Green gloves, guys. Yellow suits, guys.” Very efficient. These guys have been doing it so long that they are very, very proficient.

JM: How long has HAZWOPER been around?
JohnS: 1990. One year after the Exxon Valdez spill.

JM: How long has hazardous material been in production?
JohnS: Oh gosh … since the beginning of time, man. We’ve always made nasty stuff … to kill people, right?

Think about mercury, mad as a hatter. The Romans probably had more lead poisoning than anyone realized because the troughs they ran water through were made of lead. So HAZMAT has been around forever. But the regulation of it was kind of a gradual thing based on public need.
In the late 1980’s, HAZCOM, or the worker right to know was formed [Hazard Communication]. So, Julie, say you’re working with Methyl Ethyl Death, you need a piece of paper that explains everything you need to know about Methyl Ethyl Death; that’s the MSDS sheet [material safety data sheets]. That’s called the worker right to know law. You can’t be working with chemicals you don’t know anything about. But on the flip side, the cost to industry was hundreds of millions of dollars. I had to send every chemical I made to a lab, kill a bunch of rats, find out the good the bad and the ugly, and transfer that onto an MSDS sheet. Whoa! That was expensive. On the other hand, MSDS sheets are a real valuable tool. What does it react with, what does it do, what’s the splash point, all that stuff.

JM: And now that we have it, we don’t have to do it again.
JohnS: Unless you change the ingredients. They’ve done the bulk of the work so it’s not a burden when they add or delete something in their product line. That’s been a good thing because people can educate themselves about this stuff.
One of the problems is they are difficult to read because the damn lawyers get a hold of them. So it’s not skin rash. No, no, it’s Adermatitis. Here’s supposed to be the best source but we’ve got all these big words in it, so I’ve got to get a medical dictionary, I’ve got to get my firefighter buddy for the fire explosion section, and an industrial hygienist for health because nobody can understand the terminology. They are cumbersome.
JM: Do you think it could be possible for humans to stop producing hazardous waste?
JohnS: No. Watch Poisoned Waters. We are all polluters. I love the move for green energy, hybrid/electric cars, that kind of stuff, but we are always going to make something nasty and when we’re done we’re going to call it hazardous waste and put it in these repositories.

But, really, these repositories are really well designed. They’re lined, monitored so if the liner breaks we know it breaks, tightly controlled access, that type of stuff. So if you have to get rid of bad stuff, we’re alright. We [Americans] are probably one of the leading nations in the world for the cradle to grave management of hazardous waste. We have the EPA rule that says you have to manage your waste from the cradle to the grave and this is how you do it. These are hard, fast rules and if you cheat on us we are going to hurt you with fines, stuff like that, you can go to jail for five years if you knowingly and willingly endanger human life and the environment.

JM: How have regulations changed?
JohnS: A lot of people say it’s getting tougher and tougher to do business. But on the other hand you have more educated, savvy workers. The number of work injuries is down. Prior to the creation of OSHA there were 14000 injuries a year. Last year was the best year on records with a little over 5400. If you think about the number of people working in this country, that’s a very acceptable number. What OSHA is trying to do is work more with companies. They have compliance or consultation. If I was a company, the easiest thing in the world for me to do is to call up OSHA and say, “Can we see a consultant?” The consultant does all the work and you can’t be inspected for compliance. It’s a good thing. Everybody wins.

Consultant comes in and does a full-blown inspection. The consultant says, “I want management with me and I want some worker bees with me. Here’s the laundry list. Let’s sit down and figure out how to deal with this.” It’s usually money issues. We set a rough schedule and chip away at it until it reaches 100%. It takes management and workers to do this. As they get close then the carrot comes out. The consultant says, “You know what? You are so close to winning Oregon’s highest Health and Safety Award, the SHARP Award. You’re this far, why not go for it?” And they do. You can walk into a SHARP workplace and you won’t see any violations. The employees are pumped about it. You have to renew it, it’s not like it is home free but from OSHA’s standpoint there might not be a call back or three years.

JM: Talk about the history of the EPA.
JohnS: Largest protest ever on American soil was the very first Earth Day, late 60s. Tricky Dick Nixon did not want to sign it in, but in the same year he signed EPA and OSHA into existence. Industry thought this was some fad that would blow away.

JM: Damn hippies …
JohnS: Yeah! Yeah! Industry was always, well, you’d just locate your shop next to water and flush everything out. That’s how everybody thought. You have to go back and think about this for a second; we’re talking late 1960s. Ecology was not in most textbooks in the late 60s and then came along one person, a lot of historians will name her, Rachel Carson. Carson was one big contributor to the formation of the EPA. She came out with Silent Spring [ISBN-10: 0618249060], whoa man! It’s a worldwide best seller. She traced the bioaccumulation of DDT. It galvanized the public. Not only did you have 20 million protestors, you had a lot of people sitting around their living room tables going, “What are we doing?”

Man is not a good steward of the environment. You have to have a government agency to protect the environment against man.

It was a great bipartisan effort. Everyone knew if he said no to EPA, he would never get reelected. People were fed up. You could cross the Hudson River and it was filled with pollution and crap. It was like that all over the United States, just garbage piles of water. We were killing ourselves.

China is going through it. They build factories in provinces and the central government doesn’t even know about it. Yet they are supposed to have a permit to build the factory in the first place. So there is rampant expansion. “If I’m going to build a factory, I’m going to build it right next to your village so all of you can work at my factory. Oh, and by the way, I’m going to poison all of you while I’m at it because of this stuff I’m making.” They have huge cases of child poisoning, well over a thousand cases, and this is permanent damage in 6 and under. It’s tragic. They’re killing off their population. We were doing the same thing.

One of the biggest benefits for kids in America was when they banned leaded gasoline. We’d do cleanup jobs and DEQ would say, “We want a background sample.” We had arguments because, well, it’s everywhere. We couldn’t get a background because it was everyplace. They wanted a background of zero but it ain’t there.

Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, these are all protective of the environment. Remember when Reagan said we’re going to self-regulate? And that’s what Bush followed? We get away from big government and don’t have anything OSHA or EPA related happening then we get Democrats in office and that’s when things start to happen. There’s a lot of new stuff in the pipeline.

These agencies are definitely political. The people in charge are appointed to position. It’s kind of tragic because if you’re working for them and believe you are trying to make a difference by keeping this stuff out of our water, air, or where ever it happens to be, and the head is not supportive … well, it’s always a pendulum. We’re on the upswing now.

JM: Do you think pharmaceuticals are a form of hazardous waste?
JohnS: No. I think it’s one of those that we really haven’t evaluated. Over at St. Vincent’s they just started keeping their patient’s leftover pills and sending them to a safe repository. We are catching up to the industry as far as these chemicals they are manufacturing and we don’t really know anything about them. We pay the price for inventiveness.

JM: What do you do in your free time?
JohnS: I do a lot of cross country skiing, canoeing, and, my son and I, we bird every weekend. He’s the birder. I carry the scope. We just look at birds. Over the course of years, he is very good. We’ll go out with Audubon, they sponsor field trips just about every weekend, and Backyard Bird Shop does bird walks. In Portland we have a lot of birds. We have the largest wetland in the United States, Smith Bybee. And we have the largest forest in the United States, Forest Park. I love Smith Bybee. If you’re going to go in the water you need to go early in the morning. It’s a beautiful piece of water. I go all around the state doing that stuff.

JM: Is that your reward for having done this kind of work, to enjoy what you saved?
JohnS: It is. When I was doing cleanup I was very proud of what I was doing. Whatever it was, when we walked away, the environment was in good shape. This is more than just a job, it’s hard, it’s filthy and no one wants to be in that damn suit, but when we’re done there’s going to be one small chunk of real estate that’s clean.

JM: Is there a difference between clean and restored?
JohnS: Yes. What Portland is really known for is what we call a Brownfield development. If we’re not number one in the nation then we’re certainly number two. We have over 1000 Brownfields to be developed. What it does is it allows you to use every square inch. In 2004 Congress passed a new act. It took the dagger away from over your head. It’s steamrolling. The waterfront is all Brownfield development. DEQ wins, developer wins, and property owner wins. Scoop out the dirty dirt, drop in new dirt, build condos. When you go over the Marquam Bridge where Cirque du Soleil is, that was all Brownfield. That is some, along the waterfront, to die for real estate. You know the Portland Esplanade? $30,000 per foot to clean that up. It has been one of the most successful, popular, usable projects ever done.

JM: You have worked cleaning hazardous waste and drug labs….
JohnS: Yeah, well, the way it works in a drug lab is the cops nab the bad guys, they collect evidence to convict them, glassware, paraphernalia, you don’t need the product, and then we would go in and take all the chemicals, identify them, categorize them, pack them up for HAZwaste and get them out of Dodge. And then, later, when they found that, you know you can take all these chemicals out of drug labs but they still are not safe places to live (they had a two year old kid die because the house hadn’t been cleaned enough) so now the States of Oregon, Washington, and California have made it so you pre-sample the house, clean it (which is essentially washing the house three times – wash, rinse), clean and pack it all up.

JM: By wash you mean soap and water?
JohnS: Soap and water. Get out your painter’s brush and start scrubbing stuff down. And then you post sample and all that goes to the Department of Health and they issue a certificate of occupancy. Oregon, Washington and California are the first three states to do this in the United States. Drugs always start in the West and go East.

JM: When you take a container of waste to a storage site you pay, right? There’s a holding fee for each barrel, yes?
JohnS: Well, you dispose of waste by weight. Everything is by weight. If you send something to any place, they weigh the container out and it costs x-much. Since we have the river, barge companies have oil spill trailers, booms and all the equipment to protect if something happens when transferring.
That’s one thing we learned from Exxon. They said they had the capability when in fact they didn’t because they never believed they’d spill.

It’s going to be interesting how this off-shore drilling thing will work out. Exxon Valdez for oil spills worldwide is number 54. For tanker spills, it’s number 6. The largest oil spill was a platform off of Venezuela; the largest oil spill in history.

We are so dependent on fossil fuel. But I see more and more incentives as far as rebates, homeownership stuff for energy efficiency. Used to be there weren’t rebates but, gee, if someone will pay me fifty bucks to disconnect my downspouts, hey, I’ll do that.

JM: So preparedness. Are we prepared?
JohnS: Imagine you create a poison that you don’t know what to do with. Think nuclear energy. Do we have a repository for it? No we don’t. Isn’t that putting the cart before the horse? Yes it is. Come on, guys!

JM: Remember that video of those guys that get fifteen seconds to try packing a piece of uranium into a pot and they were running up and using these super-long tongs to pick up the uranium and then they’d run away and another guy would runs up, trying to scoop it up – fifteen seconds each!
JohnS: OH YEAH!  Where are you going to put this stuff? Hanford is just a temporary holder. You have to deal with this. Half life of uranium is 4.5 million years.

JM: How do they figure that out?
JohnS: A health physicist can figure that out. It’s the decay. They calculate that out. There are books that give you the half life of all this stuff. So it’s still radioactive after four and a half million years! It will eventually turn into lead, but it’s this shedding as it goes through the process. Health physicists go through like four years of school.

JM: Do you think the alternative would be to contain it and send it out to the moon?
JohnS: Too expensive. I think it’s a good renewable source but there are better ones that don’t leave you with a waste legacy. Wind and Solar. Most countries, their reactors are standardized. France, all the reactors are the same. Here it’s a hodgepodge; companies saying buy my generator, etc., so when you walk into a plant you have to figure out everything all over again. You walk into a plan in France, Germany, they are standard. What that does is drive the costs down. All the tools are the same, all the parts are the same. To me, today the way technology is going. Leave nuclear, mothball it.

JM: What is the most hazardous household material?
JohnS: Oven cleaner, without a doubt. IPH. You’re spraying it in there, remember before with self-cleaning ovens? You’re spraying this very corrosive material, you’re getting in there to get that back wall, boy if you don’t have your clothing on and eye protection – housewives have been burned, hurt, killed by oven cleaner. Anybody who has a caustic on them knows what it means to rub fingers together and have a slimy feeling – it’s pulling all the fat out of your cells. All our cleaning agents are caustics. They emulsify the oil. Dishwasher comes on, squeaky clean plates.

People are doing the green thing, which I think is totally cool. Get rid of the Clorox and use Baking Soda. It works just as good.

Then there’s, what, whole lines of eco-friendly dishsoaps. Nitrates and Phosphates are killing everything. You get plumes and fish die … But you know the biggest hazard is Agriculture. It is the largest polluter in America.

JM: So the biggest household danger is the food you eat.
JohnS: Yeah.
A lot of people are looking at how much an airplane takes and they are saying, “I think I’ll drive a car to Wenatchee next time.” Because they realize the price, what a huge consumer flying is.

JM: I know quite a few people who take the train whenever they travel long distance. And Obama is making a big push for trains, so they are bringing trains back and trains are hiring again.
JohnS: I saw in China there is a train that never stops.  That’s what consumes all the energy, starting and stopping.

JM: What was the most harrowing job you had?
JohnS: I think fighting forest fires was the most, even more dangerous than crop dusting, just from the standpoint that you really had to pay attention to what the fire was going to do. See, in the old days things were different. You apply to the forest service, you get on a regional hotshot crew – you’re one year green, three year green, four year green you’re pretty comfortable. That’s probably changed by now.
Say lighting hits, district crews go in but can’t fight it, smoke jumpers go in up to ten but they lose it. Now you need a line building machine. What Hot Shots are supposed to do is go in and build fire line.

JM: So you’re just trenching, trenching, trenching.
JohnS: Trenching, trenching, all day long, 16 hours, at the pace of you and I taking a leisurely stroll through Forest Park, you should be able to do that for 16 hours. So there’s a lot of conditioning. The crew boss can see what everyone is good at – I want this guy down here shoveling, I want this guy up over there. That way your line digging gets faster and faster. There are some guys that don’t like breaking bare ground, other guys are really good at it. We would work out physically and dig line two weeks before we actually got put out.

JM: So boot camp before you get sent out?
JohnS: Yeah.

JM: How many fires did you fight?
JohnS: Oh God…. Seven years times twenty, so a lot of fires.

JM: What was the turning point that made you switch to something else?
JohnS: Uh … well. I think I got married. Yeah. I got married.

JM: No more danger!
JohnS: Exactly. No more gone all summer. We’d go out and stand fire and the key was you stayed on as long as possible. When you’re in camp, you’re losing money. Come back to camp; wash everything up knowing you can go back out within 12 hours. Do all your laundry, a frenzy doing laundry to get it done and get back out there.

JM: You’re packing things with you?
JohnS: Water, files (for the tools), packs, canteens, damn, been so long … So you’re real mobile. You’re on the fire for a week, go home to do your laundry, they’d send us to schools, colleges, we’d use their laundry facilities and stuff, get totally drunk and then go back to work in the morning. We would fly in in these goony birds, the old DC-3, WWII, aw man, metal seats, huge noise things, the only way to get on that plane was to get drunker than a skunk and go to sleep. There were always those damn DC-3s.

JM: So what was crop dusting like?
JohnS: I got out of it as soon as I could. I crashed. I didn’t have the concentration. You’re going along the ground at 90 miles an hour, you have to have the concentration every second and I didn’t have it.

JM: You caught a wheel or something?
JohnS: No, first one I was learning how to fly a bi-plane, which was an Ag-Cat, they’re really squirrelly on the ground and I was landing on a gravel road and I just kind of slid it off the road, cracked the wing. It wasn’t any big thing. But the other one … so I was teaching and crop dusting. So you get up at 3:30 in the morning. I was teaching High School science (for six years). I could see the airstrip from the school house. I’d been out partying like a fool the night before. I show up, hop in the plane, start it, take off, swing over the river, and I’m headed right for the high school. THUNK. I look at the fuel gauge. I know there’s no fuel in this plane. So I’m coming in silent. They’re having their early morning practice on the football field. It’s either the brick building or the football field to put this thing down in. Oooo. I hit the smoker, the exhaust was hot, and one of the kids looked up and I’m pointed right at him and he sees all of this smoke and he had enough foresight to clear the field. Soon as they started doing this [waving arms] I lined in for a landing. Really bumpy, cart wheeled the plane. I thought I was home free. I didn’t know they had an irrigation ditch around the field. Oh that hurt. I didn’t break anything but I walked away thinking, “You’re going to kill yourself. You don’t have what it takes to have that 100% concentration.”

JM: Plus if you’re teaching … Was it a full load, teaching?
JohnS: Yeah. Teaching. Yeah it was, I was doing too much then. Yep. I got this one professor when I went to graduate school. He said, you know, one of the greatest teachers of all time was Socrates because he said you have all the answers. The teacher has to ask the right questions. He was good at it. That’s what got me hooked on teaching. The teaching was six to six every day, half a day Sunday and I just barely kept my head above water. I loved the work but it was just … it’d grind you down. Bone grinding. I did it five or six years and then I was finished. I loved it, high school kids, it was fun but wow it was a lot of work. The other thing was pay; back then the janitor was making more than I did. That’s why I was crop dusting.

JM: You were a paramedic in Alaska?
JohnS: Alaska was like the last frontier, man. I was up there a year after the huge earthquake they had in the 60s. They were still clearing it. They had no infrastructure. The only transportation in Alaska was the Alaska railroad. It was federally funded; the only railroad in the United States that was federally funded, because of the maintenance. But it was the life line. From Anchorage to Fairbanks by car you want to Junction then to Fairbanks; they hadn’t built the direct road. All these people who had homesteaded relied on the railroad to supply them; to deliver those two drums of kerosene for the winter. Whatever they needed came by train. So you ask “how long does it take” and they say 18 hours, maybe, because everyone would wait at mileposts and wave it down. Loading moose onto the train, offloading supplies, baggage cars were busy, busy, busy. I loved it up there. It was just too expensive. I would have loved to stay. That was the mid-sixties and a beer was a buck. That was horrendous. Things were so expensive. One of the guys I worked with, him, his wife and his kid lived in this little hovel of a place, it’d be kind of like your bedroom. That was their apartment. That was the 1960s and it was like $300 a month. It was too expensive and really undeveloped. They didn’t get any of their federal funds for highways until 1958. Forty Five MPH was white-knuckle time because they hadn’t done the permafrost thing (pavement), so there was eleven miles of highway and that was it. The rest was crap roads. Now, I went up there to do something, but took the train – now the train and the road parallel each other.

The big thing out there was icing and whiteout. You take off, you’ve got timberline but all of a sudden you’re up in the arctic where the timber disappears and you have an overcast day? Where’s the mountain? Where’s the sky? You can’t make the distinction. You’ve got ten seconds to go to instruments or you will crash. Ten seconds. That is vertigo. Vertigo is really … I’ve had it once. My flight instructor said, “I’ll tell you about vertigo. I was out farting around in Arizona, getting my night time [required hours for certification], blaring the radio, having a good time and I notice my airspeed indicator is going up. So I get the plane right but the indicator is still going up. So I’ve got this brilliant idea: point the stick at the stars.” He pointed the stick at the stars and he’s starting to shudder, he’s about redline, and he realizes, “I am pointing my stick at the headlights of a car driving across the desert.” That’s vertigo.

People think “how can that happen”. Folks, it does. You don’t know if you’re right side up, upside down, whatever. You’ve lost your spatial orientation. So many of the wrecks we did (rescue) were pilots, private pilots who got vertigo and crashed. Most of your little light planes don’t have any de-icing. You have to watch your weather forecasts.

The toughest guy I met, he crashed his plane, had burned a third of his body and he walked 15 miles to an airstrip where we flew in and picked him up. Burned and walking, 15 miles through the snow in snowshoes. You’ve got to be the toughest creature on earth.

JM: Were the burns the reason he didn’t get hypothermia?
JohnS: Maybe. I don’t know. He was travelling. He knew he had to get going. At least he knew the right direction. You get those amazing stories of survival from up there.

JM: You had a lot of hypothermia cases you picked up?
JohnS: Yeah. Their snowmobile falls into the water, that kind of stuff. If we could, we tried to get them back to the cabin because we could get them warmed up, get some warm liquids into them if they’re in good enough shape – rather than make that flight all the way back to the base before much is really going to happen to them. We had blankets and stuff but the kind of care you could get at a homestead was way better, way better. So we had these 90 pound kit bags. The bag went out first then you went out the plane next and then as you got close to the ground you release it and let it fall. All the medical stuff was in this kit bag. The doctors, they didn’t like the jumping part so they’d say, “you all go down there, get on the radio and let’s deliver this baby”. So you’d be describing the head coming out, or it’s kind of bulging and they’d say to cut skin.

JM: You were delivering BABIES?
JohnS: Yeah, well, you see in the military you’re carrying morphine, Demerol, finger blocks for kids that got hooks stuck in their fingers. But all these physicians we worked for were sharper than hell. They’d tell you to look for this or that.

JM: Alright. So now at this point I’m thinking you’re superman. You’ve done all these amazing things!
JohnS: You know, when I was younger, and my brother is even worse than me, I loved the rush. That was like drugs for this guy. Yeah, it was fun, man. Imagine jumping out of an airplane or flying along at ninety miles an hour a couple of feet off the ground. Feels good! My brother is even crazier than I am. He would do shit I would never think to do.

JM: What drew you to chemistry then?
JohnS: I’m not a chemist. I took chemistry in college. I wasn’t interested until I started cleaning up drug labs and wondered how they really were using this stuff. When we were doing drum jobs I’d ask why we were using something. I do chemistry in broad strokes. If you know your chemistry really well and are given two products you can figure out what they are going to do based on formula and all that chemistry stuff.

JM: What’s the number one lesson you want students of your training to take away?
JohnS: After all these years, it really doesn’t matter what you’re doing, just do it safely. Once you learn what safe is, stick to it. Invariably when people cut corners they get themselves into trouble. I used to cut corners all the time and then I’d end up doing twice as much work because I cut the corner and it didn’t work out. It took a long time to learn that lesson: Do it right the first time, stick to your marching orders, and you’re not going to get into trouble. You do this creative stuff, you can get into trouble, you can get somebody hurt, stuff like that. If you’re lucky enough to get an employer to show you how to do it right the first time, stick to it. It’s kinda like Maslow’s Pyramid, you get so many near misses and then something terrible is going to happen up here (at the point). The safety buck stops with you and me. It’s what you do out there on the field that determines …

JM: What’s banana oil?
JohnS: Banana oil is used for fit tests. If you are wearing a respirator, you have to be fit tested. It smells. It’s Isoamyl Acetate and it smells just like bananas. So the idea is I let you smell it first to be sure you can smell it then I put you in some cartridges (mask). I have this little vial of this stuff and your mask is on and you smell it, you fail. We do normal breathing, deep breathing, look up, down, side to side, jog in place, read the rainbow passage. Anybody can do the fit test. You’re just following a recipe set down by OSHA. If you get through the fit test and you don’t smell any banana oil, you’re respirator fits. Now me, I do the fit test with smoke. With banana oil, I’m relying on you to tell me you smell the banana oil. This stuff (smoke) gets in your mucus membranes, turns to hydrochloric, you’re going to *cough, cough, cough* like that. That’s the reaction people have. But the students, they have to gas themselves. Then it’s like, wow, this thing really works. The cartridge works!

JM: Do you have a favorite PPE?
JohnS: None of it is a favorite. It’s all miserable crap. It’s like you having to work on a sunny day in your rain gear and it’s 90 degrees. What fool would do that? The body burden, whether it’s level C air purifying or the moon suits, it’s all the same as far as what you’re poor body is going through. That’s why they give guys such an extensive physical. And you’ll see guys out on the field are fit. They’ve burned off all that fat over the course of getting acclimatized.

JM: You’re in a sauna every day.
JohnS: It is, but you work through it and pretty soon it’s like getting dressed. It’s going to be hotter than heck today, we’re going to take a lot of breaks, it’s going to be a slow day, we aren’t going to get very much accomplished, okay, so make the best of it. A lot of it is mental; working through it.

JM: Can safety plans used for hazardous sites be used as templates for everyday living?
JohnS: For the standpoint of job hazard analysis, yeah. What am I going to do? I’m going to go up and clean the gutters out. What are the hazards of that? Well, let’s see: ladder hazard. What can we do? Well, I can secure the ladder to… it’s what am I going to do, what’s the hazard, what am I going to do about it.
A lot of government agencies do this. Hazards and controls, hazards/controls — so that everybody is on the same page, all talking apples and apples. That’s what I learned from site safety plans is that if you follow that methodology, your job will go very smooth because you’re forced to pre-think it out. When we’re doing clean up and we have this plan, it goes a lot smoother.

JM: What do you want readers to get out of this interview?
JohnS: Life is fun. You can have a lot of fun. Get paid to have fun – training, that’s not work. I get paid to have fun. People ask me if I’m going to retire. Hell no, I’m not going to retire! I’m having so much fun doing this, it’s like why quit. People get themselves to where they are. It’s not exterior forces. We’re all on clear paths. We may not know where we’re going but we are definitely responsible for all that happens to us. You plot your own course through the universe. I’ve run into so many terribly unhappy people. This is quite a ride that we’re on, enjoy it.

JM: Do you think people know what the right job for them is?
JohnS: You know, I don’t think so. I think you just fall into it, kind of. When I graduated from college, I had no idea. No idea.


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  1. […] doesn’t work from our Exxon Valdez clean-up tech. This week features an interview with John Smith, HAZWOPER and OSHA trainer who has varied and exciting work […]

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