When the Going Gets (Really) Tough

Some cleaning jobs leave memories – and not necessarily in a good way. Contractors recall the jobs that really tested their mettle and determination.

Many drain and industrial cleaners will first chuckle when asked to identify their most difficult jobs. After all, when you’ve spent years unclogging sewer or grease trap lines, or waterblasting the residue from an industrial heat exchanger or sludge tank, they’re all hard jobs, right? Nonetheless, after some thought, there are a few projects that always max out the pain meter. Here, three cleaners recall the toughest jobs they ever did.

“The toughest job we do is cleaning glass particles out of a holding pit at a company that makes fire-retardant material,” says Danny DeFauw, an operator for Bob Frame Inc., a plumbing and drain cleaning company in South Bend, Ind. “The particles are a manufacturing byproduct, and we clean it out every three months.

“No matter what gloves or coveralls you wear, you look like a pincushion when you walk out of there. They’re sharp, too; the particles stick in your hands. I’ll come out with my hands bloody even with two pairs of gloves.

“But you get used to it after a while. You try your best not to touch what you’re cleaning. It takes about 40 feet of flex hose off our truck to do the job, and you actually have to get down in a pit – it’s roughly 6 feet deep and 80 square feet in size – and shovel and spray. It’s confined-space work – the whole nine yards.

“It usually takes about four hours to clean it out. It requires two guys: one guy to run the truck and one guy down in the pit. The worst part about it is the glass. Even a week later, I’m still picking out little glass pieces in my hands. Too bad we can’t charge by the particle; I’d be a millionaire.”

“Our nastiest job occurred about 10 or 15 years ago,” says Russ Box, a technical representative at Dynamic Industrial Services Inc. in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont. “We were working at a rendering plant. Trucks come in with dead animals and back up to ramps, then the ramps lift up, and the animals fall down into a big hopper with a big screw inside that grinds them up.

“Well, a hole slowly wore in the hopper, so all the you-know-what fell underneath, and it built up over time. We had to get the vacuums in there and suck up all the nasty stuff and wash the equipment down. The guys wore breathing apparatus, but still, whenever you’d take the mask off, that smell!

“We ended up throwing out our hoses and had to decontaminate the trucks because we couldn’t get rid of the smell. It was just horrible. It took 15 guys working three 12-hour days to get it done.

“To make it worse, guys kept quitting on the job. It got to be a task and a half just to find guys willing to go down there and do the work. We ended up paying guys double-time so they wouldn’t quit. It was such a nasty smell. We had some guys quit who’d been with us for a while. They said, ‘That’s it – we’re out of here.’

“There were maggots as big as dew worms (earthworms) down there. Plus it was mid-summer and it was hot and humid, in the 80s. There must’ve been a foot or a foot and half thick of animal matter. We took out three vacuum truck loads, which is about 9,000 gallons of waste in all.

“We had no clue what we were getting into. I don’t think we’ve been back since and I think most of the guys told me they won’t go back unless we pay at least double-time. Working in a septic tank would be way better.”

“One of the toughest jobs we do is clean paint booths semi-annually at a company that makes residential hood exhaust systems,” reports Doug Koltermann, president of Giddings Hawkins Maintenance Service Inc., a company in West Allis, Wis., that provides maintenance for industrial manufacturers and restaurant/food service businesses.

“One of the final steps in the manufacturing process is painting the hoods, which come into the booths on conveyors. There’s a series of three booths for different primers and colors. Robots in the booth apply water-soluble, high-solids paint, and there’s a lot of overspray.

“We go there and clean everything inside the booths – walls, duct work, fans and the like. High-solid paints are really sticky, tacky material, kind of like peanut butter, but a little more tacky. Typically, it’s about a quarter-inch thick.

“I take my entire shop of 12 employees up there and arm them all with scrapers. They wear chemical suits and gloves and boots. But we don’t have to deal with any hazardous odors. We don’t use any waterjetters. It’s strictly scraping it all off by hand.

“When the guys come out, their suits are completely covered with the material. It’s so sticky that if you run and jump against a wall, you stick to it, sort of like when David Letterman wore that Velcro suit. The job takes about eight hours, and we typically remove in the neighborhood of 800 gallons of waste from the site.”


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