On the radio the other day I heard a specialist in employment law talking about recent cases involving verbal abuse in the workplace. In one extreme example, someone had been awarded $19,000 because their boss had been repeatedly swearing at them.
My mind went back 40 years, to the paper mills at Kinleith and Kawerau where the environment was a bit different. Two incidents stick in my mind.
The first happened when I was working on one of the newsprint machines at Kawerau. We’d been having trouble with an online instrument that measured the weight and moisture content of the newsprint. During a major 8 hour maintenance shutdown, the instrument technicians had been trying to isolate the problem. They eventually came to me suggesting that a lead-in role was out of alignment. If they adjusted it, they thought this would eliminate the skewed profiles we’d been experiencing. The trouble was, a newsprint sheet travelling at 50 km/hour was not particularly strong and so was quite sensitive to the alignment of those rolls. “Will it be okay?” I asked Eric, the superintendent in charge of that machine. “We’ll see” was his response.
When it came time to start up the machine, things went very well until the paper reached the area containing the moisture meter. But, try as they might, the operators could not get the paper to thread past that point. It just kept breaking and after 30 minutes or so there was newsprint everywhere. Les, the Papermill Superintendent, was getting very agitated. He was a tall, lean, very strong man with massive shoulders and a face like a lion. Then I made my big mistake. ” Do you think it could be that lead- in roll?” I asked Eric. ” What f**king lead-in roll?” interjected Les. I started to explain, turning to Eric for support. No sign of him, he’d gone. It felt like I stood there for at least 10 minutes while Les swore at me, in front of the big crowd that gathered to watch the start-up. It was indeed the lead-in roll: as soon as we adjusted it back to where it was, the operators managed to get the paper through to the reel and the machine was producing again. Even in 1969 dollars, that little incident cost around $20,000.
Early the next morning I was already at my desk when Les walked past on the way through to his office. I tried to be invisible but he came over when he saw me cringing. “You don’t want to take things too personal” he said with a grin. “You’ll learn.”
The second example happened a few years later at Kinleith, in a rather similar situation. No 4 Paper Machine made fine paper. On that particular day our team was called in to help identify the source of a moisture problem. A wet streak about a metre or so wide had been causing rejects, bad enough that the machine would have to be shut down to sort it out. We had instruments that could help to localise the problem while the machine was still running. After an hour or so I was very confident that the streak was coming from the bottom roll of the first press.
The superintendent of that machine, a feisty little Scot, had a low opinion of the technical department and process engineers. He decided to change the top roll of the second press. When they started up four hours later, the problem remained. So we got another call to come back and repeat our analysis. When we came to the same conclusion (top roll, 1st Press), the superintendent shut the machine down and changed the bottom roll of the second press. That was a more difficult job and took about six hours. On start-up, around 10 PM, the wet streak was still there. Surprise surprise. So we were called back in to the papermill to do some more tests.
I’m afraid I must have let my frustration show. ” We’ll do the tests” I said, ” but to save you time I’ll draw you the results right now”, sketching some profiles on a nearby paper roll. Wrong thing to say. The superintendent had had a long day, had lost a lot of production and the last thing he needed was some smart-ass chemical engineer suggesting that he didn’t know his job. He started to swear and shout, frothing slightly at the mouth. Don Pratt, the general papermill maintenance foreman, a rock of a man and a fair bit taller than Eddie, came and stood beside him, placing his arm around his shoulder and glaring at me with his chin stuck out. Eddie noticed this rather intimate arrival but took it, correctly, as a sign of support and continued at full steam.
” So don’t you ever talk to me like that again, you %$@#&^%$” the superintendent finished up. “No” said Don Pratt ” or he’ll bite you on the knee!” “Yes” said Eddie before taking in exactly what Don had said. The crowd of highly entertained spectators roared with laughter and the whole tense situation simply collapsed. It was a brilliant demonstration by Don. No wonder he was so good at handling the tough Kinleith workforce.