Alstom's boiler plant breaks long-standing record

Alstom's boiler plant breaks long-standing record

October 6th, 2012 by Mike Pare in Business Around the Region

Boiler maker Chris Suit lowers another set of boiler pipes onto a stack in Alstom's tubular boiler bay Friday afternoon. Alstom's Chattanooga boiler making division has hit 1,000 days without lost time due to injury, a milestone the company will be celebrating with a cookout and gathering at the facility today.

Photo by Jake Daniels /Times Free Press.

History with city

Paris-based Alstom came to Chattanooga when one of the companies with which it merged, Asea Brown Boveri, acquired Combustion. In 1999, Alstom and ABB merged energy businesses and the company became known as ABB Alstom and later just Alstom.

At the start of every shift at Alstom's massive boiler production plant in Chattanooga, workers are briefed on safety and do stretching exercises.

"It has become as natural as breathing," said John Harkness, the site's plant manager.

The boiler operation in the city has set a new safety mark, breaking a record that has stood since the 1960s, according to Alstom.

Today, the company is to open up the 600,000-square-foot plant to its 400 employees, their families and safety personnel in the city after going 1,000 days without a loss-time accident.

Harkness, a 27-year Alstom employee who took over as manager of the Riverfront Parkway plant at the start of this year, said safety is a mindset.

At the start of shifts, employees are told of any potential risks in that plant that day, he said. That's followed by the stretching routine.

"We have chiropractic clinics involved," Harkness said, adding the exercises are demonstrated so workers do them correctly and safely.

Harkness said the boiler operation's workforce has a lot of people in their 40s and 50s.

"We still have a significant number who have grandchildren," he said.

Safety has become more of a focus, and a turning point was a behavioral change emphasis that was put into place about four years ago, according to the plant manager.

"There was a discussion about being aware of risks," he said. "It made us think."

Alstom is a successor company to Combustion Engineering. Less than 40 years ago, Combustion employed upwards of 6,000 and was Chattanooga's largest employer.

In 2010, Alstom opened a $300 million turbine production plant next to the boiler facility. That site is on track to employ about 350 people by early 2013, its plant chief, Lawrence Quinn, said this summer.

The boiler business builds and retrofits principally steam generating equipment for utility and pulp and paper companies. It services natural gas, oil and coal plants, Harkness said.

Currently, the factory doesn't produce components for the nuclear industry, though the adjacent turbine factory does, said company spokesman Adam Pratt.

"We service nuclear on the other side of the house," he said.

The boiler operation a couple of years ago had employed over 500 people, according to Alstom officials at the time.

Harkness said its business is tied to the economy and is improving with both orders and inquiries rising in the second quarter of the year.

"We're cautiously optimistic," he said.

Pratt said Alstom's workforce is sized to meet the needs of its customer projects. He said the change in the plant's headcount occurred through natural attrition and resulted in a staffing level suited to the current workload.

Harkness said the plant produces not just for the United States but internationally as well. He said the factory recently shipped an order to Puerto Rico and has a big job for a client in western Canada.

Pratt said that as part of Alstom's safety recognition today, representatives from the local fire department and the Tennessee Highway Patrol will offer safety demonstrations, fire truck tours and a presentation on automobile rollovers.

He said health professionals will be on-site conducting blood pressure testing and offering guidance on safe and healthy living.