Which Arm Do You Value More ?
Left or Right? Which to Lose?
I’m originally & forever a manufacturing electrical and automation engineer, even though these days I run Internet & Cloud Operations companies, and the biggest machine I manage is my laptop.
But I’ve always been a Factory Man, especially in heavy industry and for large machinery, always my first love. Pumps, motors, motion controls, hydraulics, servos, heaters, and tons of moving machinery stir the heart like little else.
Once a Factory Man, always a Factory Man.
On a day-to-day basis, Electrical, Automation, and Manufacturing Engineering means making decisions about a lot of things on a regular basis.
Such as which arm do you value more ?
Sounds like a dumb question, and one hardly relevant to engineering. And certainly not a subject taught in engineering school. But it’s deadly serious, so let me explain.
Power is Power
In medium and larger-scale factory operations, electrical power is controlled by large power cabinets and switches, usually about the size of home refrigerators. Each one can control several megawatts of power, so they’re packing a lot of energy into a relatively small space.
So what happens when one of these switches fails?
Well, it can go badly, resulting in minor explosions, fire leaping out of the joints, or worse, all of which I’ve witnessed firsthand. I can assure you it’s no fun being trapped in a small room with big switches, small explosions, and fire between you and the only door.
When do these switches fail? Often when you turn them on, often for the first time, due to defects, bad wiring, or even water that’ accumulated during construction. They can also fail later due to subsequent short-circuits, which are never a good thing with thousands of amps flowing through copper bars the size of your arms.
On & Off
Most of these switches are turned on/off by hand, with quite a lot of force, since these giant switches use big springs to quickly slam the electrical contacts open and closed to avoid arcs. Often such big movement and force are needed that you have to jump up and drag a yard-long handle in a large 3-foot circle to get the switch to open or close.
So what happens to the poor guy standing in front of the switch when something bad happens? Well, that’s where the arm choices come in . . .
Here’s the choice: Do you pull that giant handle with your left or right hand, since that’s the one in front of the gear if something goes wrong . . . which one do you value more?
For me, I’m right-handed, so I used my left hand, as I felt my dominant hand was more important. Others might use their stronger hand as they can pull the big switch bar faster and get out of the way more quickly — and you try to pull the thing in a way that you are moving away from the switch as it moves to the ON position - it’s a technique that takes practice and is easier for taller guys like me - but those switches are still a bear to operate (fortunately, modern ones are more automated now).
While I never saw or heard about really bad injuries with these switches, it was always possible and something we thought about when we talked about powering on big systems, especially for the first time when it was all untested - anything could happen, none of it good.
I Nominate You
And if that wasn’t enough, there was the related question of WHO pulls the switch … and who decides - should the boss pull it as a leader, or does he select the staffer with a family, the most junior guy, the young single employee with the ‘least’ to lose, etc.? It’s very easy to say, “Hey, Bob, go throw that switch in there, let us know how it goes”.
Not unlike military officers leading from the front or behind, taking or shunning the risks - as the boss, I certainly threw my share of switches in my day.
Interesting moral choices abound with megawatts of power all around, and between your arms …
* Good Video of Switchgear explosion - I had this happen to me, but nothing so dramatic, as fire only came out a foot or so.
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