24 May, 2012

The "Spidey Sense"

I don't know if this happens for all mechanics, but over the years I seem have to developed a "spidey sense".  More commonly referred to as a "sixth sense".  I first noticed it during my time at the courier company's shop.  I did a lot of services and it was very repetitious work.  Doing the same thing over and over during the course of the day, I would sometimes start to wonder if I had put an oil fill cap back on, or had I forgotten to tighten an oil filter etc.  Since the vehicles were all the same, there was nothing that stood out on any of them to help me remember.  I did most of my work after the vehicles were done being used for the day so if I thought I had forgotten something, the solution was a simple walk out to the parking lot for a look.  However, we once had a manager from one of our terminals in the northern part of the state come down for a couple of days.  They drove a company van down and it came due for service while it was with us.  I serviced the van and then moved on to the next project.  Not long after, I couldn't remember if I had tightened the oil drain plug.  I went to see if it was tight but the van was gone.  I panicked.  I tried and tried to remember tightening that plug but I couldn't confirm it.  Forgetting a drain plug is a cardinal sin for a mechanic and I worried about it all night.  So much that I barely slept.  When I got to work the next day I expected someone to tell me the van had a seized engine because all the oil drained out of the engine.  As I walked toward the shop I saw the van out in the parking lot.  Hurray!  I grabbed a wrench and walked over to the van, expecting to find a tight drain plug after spending the whole night worrying about it.  It was only hand tight!  I had not tightened it. I vowed that I would never let that happen again.  I began the habit of checking  drain plugs just before I drove the vehicles back to the lot.  That way it was fresh in my mind.  I still have moments when I can't remember if I had done something and it's worst when someone (like my current foreman) is nipping at me telling me to "Hurry up, we have a lot of work to do!"  I'm not the fastest mechanic and that is because I have to be thorough so I don't forget things.  When I get into too much of a rush, I forget things.  I know my limitations.  I would rather be hollered at for being slow than for causing an engine seizure.  A perfect example is what happened last night.

We had a truck in the shop from a recently acquired regular customer.  We had to change king pins, steer tires, a tie rod end, a drag link and then align the thing.  I started the king pin job two days ago.  Yesterday the day shift finished the suspension work and then I aligned it.  The driver had been waiting at the shop all day, my foreman was giving me the "hurry up" speech and the alignment was very difficult.  One of the last things I do during an alignment is straighten the steering wheel.  The steering wheel would just not come off on this truck so I went to rotate the column shaft where it connects to the steering gear.  I pulled the shaft off the steering gear, found it had a master spline (which means I couldn't rotate the shaft to where I wanted it) and then slipped the shaft back on.  Took the truck for a test drive and then sent the driver on his way.  Immediately after that I went on a service call and right after the service call I did another alignment.  As I was putting my tools away I saw a ratchet with a 5/8" socket on it and wondered "Now what did I need a 5/8 socket for tonight.. HOLY SHIT!  DID I TIGHTEN THE STEERING SHAFT LOCK BOLT?  DID I EVEN PUT IT BACK IN !?!?"  I totally panicked.  The first alignment job, I could not remember if I had put the lock bolt back in the steering shaft.  The shaft could possibly slip off the steering gear rendering the vehicle uncontrollable.  To add to my anxiety attack, the ratchet's "on/off" lever was still in "off".  Long ago when I couldn't remember if I had tightened something, I started looking at the ratchets and impact wrenches to see if they were in on or off.  When they were in the on position, I generally found whatever fastener I was worried about was tight.  When the tools were in the off position... on rare occasion the fasteners were loose.  I got in the habit of putting my tools away at the end of each job because looking at the tools reminded me of certain things.  It jogged the memory.  The driver of the truck with the questionable steering shaft was long gone by the time I thought about the lock bolt.  I looked for a cell phone number.  We didn't have the driver's number.  I called his company hoping to get his number.  They were closed.  "Shit, shit, shit!!"  The anxiety attack increased in intensity.  I went as far as driving to all the truck stops within 20 miles, and also to the warehouse I know this company picks up loads from, hoping to find him parked and sleeping.  I didn't find him.  I didn't care about anyone knowing I possibly forgot what is probably the most important bolt on a truck.  I just wanted to resolve the situation before anyone got hurt.  My pride rebounds with time.  An out of control truck will cause a lot of damage.  I started worrying about people getting hurt or possibly killed, getting thrown in jail for my negligence, losing my job, disgracing my family name... the list goes on.  I called the company every half hour until someone answered.  The lady couldn't give me the driver's number, but dispatch could.  They would be open two hours later.  It was the worst two hours I've had in a long, long time.  I finally got in touch with dispatch, they gave me the driver's number and I called him immediately.  It went to voice mail.  I was hoping he simply didn't hear his phone.  I left a message about my concerns and asked him to call me back as soon as he could.  More anxiety.  "Was he laying in the middle of a wreck?  Was he sleeping?  Did people get hurt?"  Fifteen minutes later (felt like an hour), the driver called me back.  He was about to stop and said he would check the steering shaft.  He was alive!    He called me back after stopping and said the lock bolt and nut were wedged between the steering gear and frame, and he had put them back in and tightened them down.  Problem solved.  I will be beating myself up over this for a long, long time but I learned from it and luckily nobody got hurt.  I will never again let an agitated foreman or an impatient customer distract me from taking the time to double check (triple in some cases) my work.  I'm human and I make mistakes, but I make the effort to ensure mistakes happen as infrequently as possible.  Preferably not at all. Sometimes the "spidey sense" saves me from mistakes, sometimes it doesn't.  My coworkers think I'm being too paranoid, but I find it a necessary part of the job.  I should have been asleep hours ago, but sleep can be done without for a little bit.  Especially when the alternative is an accident.  This post is my confession.  It had to be written to clear my conscience and put an end to a nauseating anxiety attack.  Please don't judge me too harshly.

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