77: Small Voice, Big Message

77: Small Voice, Big Message

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Hope & Miracles

Small Voice, Big Message

Never be a victim of inner conflict. Listen to your inner voice and fight your way bravely.

~Anil Kumar Sinha

Fred was a seasoned electrician; he had worked at the paper mill for over fifteen years. I, on the other hand, was a newbie, with only two weeks of experience. It was still a bit of a puzzle for me to find my way around the maze of old buildings and noisy machinery. I had to rely a great deal on others when it came to knowing where to go and what to do in the course of the day. Fred was the outgoing sort; he socialised at every opportunity and seemed to be friends with just about everyone in the mill. He never seemed to have a strongly held opinion on any subject, at least until the person he was talking to was out of earshot.

It was a maintenance day in the mill. We had an eight-hour window to shut down equipment, which normally ran twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, inspect its condition and make any necessary improvements. This particular shutdown day, our task was to clean and inspect a bank of 2200-volt electrical controllers. The work itself was fairly straightforward and much of the time we would be waiting to have the power turned off.

The safety procedure was that the powerhouse operator was informed of the identity of the electrical feeder. He would then isolate it and lock it out. A station guarantee would then be issued to the supervisor who had made the request when the lockout was complete. This was to be my first shutdown in the mill and I was eager to show myself as a conscientious and capable worker. Fred and I gathered our tools and other equipment together in the damp, dripping basement and waited for the all clear to be given.

After a short time, the electrical foreman arrived to give us the okay to start the work. He was very keen on getting us started, as the time allotted to do the job was a bit on the tight side. I had no practical reason to question the lockout process; after all, it had been successfully used in the mill for many years. In spite of this, I suddenly, and to my own surprise, heard a small voice in my head demanding that I confirm the power was off before we started our work. Not wanting to be seen as a difficult employee so early in my new job, I asked the foreman if we could do a voltage test on the system.

This request seemed to irritate both Fred and the foreman, and both made the observation that we already had a station guarantee from the powerhouse operator. In any case, he continued, the only tester available was located in another mill some two kilometres away. In spite of his reassurance and steadily rising impatience, my little voice wouldn’t give up. I said I was prepared to take a stand on the issue and not allow us to remove protective covers from the equipment until the proper tester was brought on site.

The foreman contacted the Chief Engineer. Soon a harried and stressed-out individual rushed onto the job site. The Chief was a large man who dressed in a blue lightweight suit with a cravat at the neck of his shirt. It was certainly not the recommended wear for a paper mill basement. He gave every indication of having been hauled out of an important meeting and not being happy about it. In spite of the lightweight suit, he was sweating profusely and the cravat, coupled with a rapidly reddening face, gave the impression that he was about to choke.

He didn’t speak directly to me at first, but through the foreman, as if he needed an interpreter to underline the severity of the situation. When he did finally address me, it was only to point out that he would now have to travel to another mill and fetch the tester, and that it was entirely my fault that the work was being senselessly delayed. Muttering loudly under his breath about new employees who knew nothing about how things worked in the real world, he headed off to pick up the tester.

I thought it was odd that there was only one high-voltage tester available to service three mills, likely an indication of how seldom it was used. As time dragged by, I grew uneasy that this stand of mine would not exactly help to advance my career prospects. I had the sense that the Chief was likely the kind of person who could hold a grudge. Perhaps I had overstepped my authority.

The little voice, although convincing, was after all still just a little voice. I am sure that very few people have ever come forward to credit a little voice in their head with sound career advice, but it was too late to start doubting it now. While we waited for the tester to arrive, the foreman confirmed that I had not made a very impressive start in my new job. I was beginning to feel a little foolish at having made such a fuss, especially one motivated by the little voice in my head.

When he finally arrived with the thousand-volt tester in his hot and sweaty palms, the Chief was out of breath and looking more than a little put out. I took the unit from him, wiped it down, and touched it to the high-voltage bars; it lit up like a Christmas tree. There was still full voltage on the system. Everyone was speechless.

I turned toward the three men and saw them stare open-mouthed at one another. Without a word, the Chief walked over to me, his red face quickly turning white, and bear-hugged me, all the while muttering, “Oh God, oh God.” With thoughts of recrimination now a thing of the past, the foreman approached me, shook my hand and in a voice full of emotion said that he had never been so happy to have one of his orders disobeyed. Fred, who seemed to have been hedging his bets up to that point, took over the situation from the two stunned supervisors and demanded that we all pay a visit to the powerhouse and get to the bottom of the lockout failure. It transpired that the operator who was responsible for the station guarantee was also relatively inexperienced and had been left on his own to muddle through as best he could.

I was never able to identify where the little voice came from, but both Fred and I certainly owe our lives to it. I never did explain to anyone why I had taken the stand I did, as many people do not believe in little voices. Since that day in the mill I have never heard the little voice, but rest assured that if it ever does pipe up, it will have my full attention.

~James A. Gemmell

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