Nineteen Hundred and Eighty-One. I figured I’d sound older and wiser if I typed it out rather than just a 1, 9 , 8, and a 1. Well, maybe not wiser but certainly older.
That’s the year I began working with tools for pay. I was 20 years old and they reimbursed me a whopping $4.50 per hour for my efforts. I did not graduate from college, but I did have almost two years at a university and another year at an HVAC trade school so $4.50 an hour wasn’t anything to brag about. I had made a lot more on previous jobs.
It didn’t matter though. This is what I wanted to do. Trade school convinced me of that. I got an A on everything I did in the shop or in the classroom and it came easy to me. My career course was etched in granite. I figured I learned most everything a technician could possibly need to know in the halls of Coyne American Institute. I could not have been more wrong.
I knew that with 100 percent certainty after my first few months of work. I saw guys fabricating complicated sheet metal fittings, bending conduit, pulling wire, installing circuit breakers, threading pipe, diagnosing bad circuit boards, scaling 40-foot extension ladders like they were walking up a flight of stairs, and ripping out old boilers faster than I thought possible.
It was an incredible experience, those early days, and I did my best not to screw up anything or tick off the guys who were training me. I’m not sure I accomplished either, but I started making lists to reduce that chance. I made lists of everything I didn’t know how to do and other lists about things that I knew little about.
For example, I didn’t like not knowing how to snap in a circuit breaker. I know now that it’s a relatively simple thing to do, but when you’re a 20-year old kid looking inside an electrical panel for the first time, it can be scary. Wires everywhere, buss bars just waiting for my hand to slip and fry me like an Irish kid on a hot summer beach. This was the very first thing on my list, followed by all the other tasks mentioned above.
I wasn’t always successful the first time. A couple months after I started, they put me out on my own doing service calls and installing water heaters and humidifiers. My first humidifier took me four hours and so did my first water heater, and I’m certain neither of them were a work of art.
My biggest flop was, quite literally, a flop. I had a late-afternoon no-heat call in Barrington, Illinois. I went there feeling confident that I’d have this thing up and going in no time. I knew they had a Lennox Pulse furnace and I was already well schooled on these noisy beasts.
Within 5-10 minutes, I was close to a diagnosis. The pressure switch wasn’t closing after the draft inducer blower ramped up to full speed. The snow was coming down heavy and I was willing to bet my $140 paycheck that the intake pipe on the roof was plugged.
Another chance to whittle away at the checklist! This would be my first solo attempt at setting up an extension ladder against this two-story brick house. Jacket, gloves, boots, hat, and hood on, ready to brave this frigid Chicago afternoon. Setting the ladder was a breeze. Carrying my steel toolbox up to the top of the ladder? Not a problem for this seasoned three-month veteran. Stepping from the ladder to the roof? As big a problem as you could possibly imagine. Not even in my worst nightmare, could I envision what was about to happen next.
As my right foot was in mid-air approaching the 7/12 pitched snow-covered roof, the ladder slid out from under me crashing onto the icy driveway. I dropped my toolbox and then gravity, in all it’s infinite power, dropped me. The ladder, the toolbox, and then me. That’s the order in which we hit the driveway two stories below.
Luckily for me, I didn’t land on either. Unluckily for me, I landed on a concrete driveway. But it could have been worse. It can always be worse. There was 5-6-inches of snow on the ground and I was bundled up like my wife when our house is 68 degrees. I stuck my landing perfectly. If there were judges present, I’m sure they all would have given me a 10. I landed 100 percent horizontally on my back; and my hood, hat, and the snow level shielded my skull from splattering.
I had the wind knocked out of me for what seemed like days, but that was it. Other than my banged-up ego, I survived the crash entirely. There wasn’t a single scratch or bruise on my entire body.
The intake pipe was indeed plugged, and it stayed that way for the night. I just disconnected it inside to get them heat, and me and another guy returned the next day to the scene of the crime without yellow tape. It would have been nice to know that was an option earlier.
Mistakes were made
I made a series of mistakes on this one. I should have never attempted to scale a pitched roof with that much snow on it in the first place. It's one of the most foolish things I’ve done in my life. There is no defense of my ill-advised decision that day, but I felt a lot pressure to succeed and my boss was insanely difficult to please. No self-imposed pressure or pressure from anyone else should lead you into doing something unsafe or stupid.
Secondly, whenever you use an extension ladder you absolutely must secure it at the top. All kinds of really bad things can go wrong if you don’t.
And finally, if you must use an extension ladder make sure the bottom is also secure. If there’s grass there, use it and dig the ladder’s foot claws into the turf. If it’s a commercial building and the concrete is slippery for whatever reason and you have nobody there to hold the ladder, go to plan B. Plan B for me was to wedge the bottom of the ladder against the bottom side or rear of my truck. I didn’t check with OSHA on this one, but it did keep me alive all these years.
I was 20 with 90 days of experience. Honestly, some of those who trained me weren’t the greatest. Nowadays, safety is an integral part of every trade curriculum, and we all should be grateful for that. At the end of the day, we all have to take responsibility for our actions, so I’ll own what I did that day. I just wished I would have had “safety” and “don’t be a knucklehead” on my list.