Industrial Mechanics: Behind the Scenes, but not Waiting in the Wings
Equivalent in size to six Empire State Buildings, the buildings of the U.S. Congress and Supreme Court must be operational at all times to ensure the continuity of our democracy. Maintaining them at the highest level possible demands the best effort of the employees of the Architect of the Capitol (AOC) and their equipment — they can't afford to go without critical equipment for even one night.
So, who do AOC employees in the House Office Buildings, responsible for 3.9 million square feet of space, turn to for service on equipment that's often one-of-a-kind, knowing repairs have to be done fast and done right every time to avoid interrupting the business of Congress? They turn to the fastest and highest quality mechanics they can find: the AOC House Office Buildings' Industrial Mechanics shop.
Dan Murphy, assistant superintendent of the House Office Buildings, says, "AOC always works behind the scenes, but this crew is who's behind the behind-the-scenes crews, so most people have never heard of them. But without them, everything we do would take much longer and cost much more."
Industrial Mechanic Equipment Leader Brian Bradley says that although his crew works behind the scenes, they don't just wait in the wings. Rather, they try to avoid the need for repairs. "We perform regularly scheduled preventative maintenance on all of it," says Bradley. "In fact, we've been designated by some manufacturers as certified service providers."
Keeping the House Office Buildings equipment in excellent shape is the job of the Industrial Mechanics shop.
In addition to all the standard equipment that his crew maintains — including floor scrubbers, forklifts, pallet jacks, balers, lifts, fire doors and garage doors — "Anything someone else can't fix ends up down in our shop," explains Bradley. That's no wonder, since the Industrial Mechanics crew is skilled in electronics, hydraulics, electrical and mechanical systems, and can perform welding and metal fabrication.
All of those disciplines were needed when the trash truck lift at the Rayburn House Office Building loading dock failed. This was no small problem since every day Rayburn Building cleaning crews fill 225 1-cubic yard trash trucks, which can hold up to 1,000 pounds each.
Fork Lift Operator France Chambers said it was unreliable and unsafe. "It would raise up, but wouldn't tilt all the way over, so you had to use a stick to push it over further for the trash to come out." Electrician Audrey Swann was president of the Jurisdiction Occupational Safety and Health (JOSH) Committee when Laborer Levon Bennett alerted the group to the problem. "The lift was just not safe," Swann says.
The House Office Building's safety committee recommended a new, safer lift, which was installed, but operators found that despite the manufacturer's assurances, it couldn't handle the long workdays.
The problem, Bradley explains, is that "the hydraulic fluid had to cool for two to three hours after one hour of operation." In addition, when crews washed the loading dock, the electronics in the lift got wet, causing it to malfunction.
After listening to what the lift operators needed, the Industrial Mechanics team got together and brainstormed. Industrial Mechanic Edward Lindsay came up with a solution: moving the hydraulics and electronics safely out of the way by mounting them to the wall next to the lift. The team also dramatically increased the size of the hydraulic system.
The result is a system that is "100 percent better," according to Chambers. "It's a lot safer, so nobody will get hurt."
One of the repairs made by the Industrial Mechanics shop to the new trash truck lift included mounting the hydraulics and electronics to the wall next to the lift.
Another safety hazard was right next to the trash truck lift on the loading dock, which is used by truck drivers and AOC laborers. "There was a heavy metal ramp that they connected from any truck to the dock. For the taller trucks, it got pretty steep," says Bradley. "If someone was coming down it with a heavy load on a pallet jack, they couldn't slow down and it would smack into the walls."
AOC laborers, concerned that someone would get injured using the ramp, researched a solution and proposed an electric lift system. After it was installed, Industrial Mechanics and the lift operators got together to address a serious safety concern as well as a maintenance problem. Industrial Mechanic Fred Blake, Jr. stepped up with some excellent suggestions and the Industrial Mechanics team went to work.
Originally, the controls to raise and lower the lift were mounted on a 25-foot cable, allowing someone at either end of the lift to use them. However, the cable was too long for the small, busy lift area and was run over several times by pallet jacks, requiring Blake and the rest of the mechanics to repair it.
The Industrial Mechanics shop determined that the controls should be mounted to the frame of the lift with the cable run inside the lift frame to protect it. But when Bradley asked the drivers and laborers where he should mount them, "The truck drivers wanted the controls at the truck end, while the laborers wanted them at the dock end," explains Bradley. Displaying Solomonic wisdom, Industrial Mechanics split the cable and mounted controls at each end.
"All the drivers love it. They say that they wish they could have it at some of the other locations they deliver to," says Swann.
Industrial Mechanic Equipment Leader Brian Bradley tests the pressure switch on the loading dock leveler in the Rayburn Building.
As Industrial Mechanics worked on the lift, they also noticed that when it lowered, there was a risk that someone standing on the dock to receive cargo could have their toes crushed or amputated between the descending lift platform and the dock.
"It was a huge pinch point," says Bradley. He installed a pressure plate on the bottom of the leveler that meets OSHA standards. "It stops the lift from going down if it encounters only three pounds of pressure, so you can pull your foot out." He also wired the safety mechanism so that it doesn't shut off the lift. "You can raise it to release whatever's underneath."
Collaborating with Industrial Mechanics on these projects made it easy to successfully complete them, Swann explains. "Everybody wants it to be safe. Everybody wants it done right. Everybody's good at what they do."
Stopping when descending wasn't the problem that brought Industrial Mechanics to the cardboard baler. The limit switch that normally stops the baler as it rises, compacting cardboard for recycling, had gotten out of sync, allowing the platform to rise too far and inadvertently peeling back a section of steel plate in the baler frame. For safety reasons, Industrial Mechanics installed a second, fail-safe limit switch and rebuilt the controls.
"Originally, this had 220 volts coming straight to the control switches, so if it wasn't grounded, that would have gone straight through whoever touched the controls," says Bradley. "We installed a new control panel and stepped down all the controls and safety switches to 24 volts control voltage to protect the operators and mechanics."
Repairing the steel plate was more challenging, however. Lindsay and his crew found that it was welded securely in place and would have to be cut out of the frame. This work had to be carefully scheduled to ensure it wouldn't interrupt the functioning of the baler and therefore cardboard collection from members' offices.
Industrial Mechanics Jeff Weiskott and Derek Matthews perform maintenance on the cardboard baler to ensure its continued function.
Custom solutions like this are common for Industrial Mechanics since much of the equipment they work on is old, and sometimes originally installed when the buildings were constructed. In addition, the equipment was often custom-built.
"There's no owner's manual," says Bradley. "The manufacturer, if they still exist, can't help unless we write a contract with them, which could take months. So, to keep the buildings running, we have to fix it ourselves."
In the Rayburn Building garage, this meant building a new power washer and mounting it to a vehicle.
"The ramps build up a lot of soot. We were lacking in the detail work, like corners and edges," says Vincent Incitto, supervisor of the day Labor Division who was, at the time, assistant supervisor of the night Labor Division. "They used to bring a small, portable power washer down there, but it's a never-ending battle. By the time you get done at one end, which is going to be months, the other areas are all dirty."
Industrial Mechanics Derek Matthews and Jeffrey Weiskott mounted all the gear for a power washer — including a 100-gallon tank, water pump, hose reel, washer wand and a gasoline motor to power it all — in the bed of an all-terrain vehicle.
"We thought a truck might be too large and that this would be easier to maneuver," says Weiskott. This not only met current needs, but also any potential future needs. "We also put all the equipment on a steel pallet that we can lift out of the vehicle if we need to use it for something else."
This kind of planning for the unexpected is standard for Industrial Mechanics. They understand that AOC's ability to maintain the buildings of the Capitol and serve members of Congress would dramatically decrease without these behind-the-scenes workers.
Dan Murphy sums up the importance of the Industrial Mechanics crew. "Without them, the trash doesn't get removed, the floors don't get cleaned, the garage doors don't open, and nobody can deliver anything to the buildings."