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Friday, June 13, 2014

LLNS is neglecting maintenance

I ran across this article and thought that your blog is a good place to give varied perspectives. As for me, I've experienced delayed maintenance in my current building that resulted in a failure that caused an evacuation. Well, on the bright side, quitting time came very early that day.

LLNL has long been a leader in world class science, beginning with the leading role it played in the modernization of nuclear weapons and continuing through today with internationally recognized work in high energy-density physics. The Lab succeeded because it attracted the best scientists, the best engineers, the best technicians, the best skilled trades employees, and the best administrative support.

LLNS management is endangering our shared tradition of world class support for science and engineering. To reduce overhead costs, they have been deferring maintenance, which has reduced our skilled trades member’s ability to support critical systems. Critical systems support nuclear weapons, experiments with high energy and infectious bacteria, and the world’s fastest computers. These systems require precision machining, spark-proof electrical supply and reliable ventilation and cooling.
Deferred maintenance, an example of which is to run exhaust blowers with minimal maintenance and replace them after they fail, requires flexibility in application. Management’s implementation of deferred maintenance policy has been rigid and short-sighted, resulting in failures that routinely interfere with LLNL’s mission and create safety hazards.
Many of us have grown to expect, but not accept, that our support systems fail regularly. Rarely does a week go by without a notification that researchers somewhere onsite must cease their work in fume hoods or biosafety cabinets on short notice as some mechanical or electrical failure necessitates immediate – and disruptive – emergency roof access. In my own building – one of the newest and greenest buildings on site – we expect regular malfunctions of our HVAC system. As I write this my building’s HVAC system has not been operating for several days and the environment on the top floor, especially near the large center atrium, has become more like a sauna than an office.

Management’s run-to-fail policy for building boilers has created safety hazards. We are lucky that improper boiler operation and service by unqualified staff has not yet seriously injured anyone. Our management cut the number of qualified boiler technicians from thirteen to five in the last few years. At the same time they encouraged or allowed facility coordinators to restart boilers on their own when skilled boiler technicians were not immediately available – at least once with explosive results, including blowing off the conical cap on top of an exhaust stack.
A rigid run-to-fail policy may be penny wise for overhead payroll reports, but it is pound foolish for meeting sponsor deadlines on budget. For example, when a boiler is operated or maintained improperly and explodes, LLNS incurs extra expense to reduce its liability for major repair work. LLNS reduces its liability by contracting with an outside firm to certify that a repaired boiler is safe to operate.

Our members report that unbudgeted expenses associated with many such failures are offsetting management’s planned savings in maintenance payroll costs. These non-payroll costs are less visible in facility and support manager’s performance metrics and include: 1) sponsored project cost increases due to the unavailability of critical equipment or facilities when needed; 2) higher costs associated with unscheduled, rather than scheduled repairs; and 3) costs to bring in outside parties to perform and certify repair work.
World class management would have reduced the number of skilled boiler technicians after, rather than before, implementing the Bay Area Air Quality Management mandate to upgrade or replace old boilers. The result would have been more reliable operations and reduced carbon emissions with fewer boiler explosions and service interruptions. At his January all-hands meeting, former Director Bret Knapp could then have spotlighted our boiler maintenance program as an example of how we at LLNL “use the best-available scientific information to make rational decisions on appropriate policy responses to the climate change problem,”  as our own renowned climate scientist, Ben Santer advises on the Lab’s own website ( Instead, our former director joked awkwardly about his taking the low road and upgrading the boilers only after regulators threatened to jail him.
To reverse the slow decline in the services that support our world-class science, we must insist that our management enable, rather than disable, our administrative, technical and skilled trades employees. 


Anonymous said...

Amen to that. Let's hope Mark Martinez in F&I makes a huge difference in the up coming months. This neglect will not attract the brightest let alone convince those who wish to lease a building at the new LVOC. O&B and MUSD need to wake up and differ their bonus structure.

Anonymous said...

"that support our world-class science, we must insist that our management enable,"

How does "world-class" science fit into bonuses? Look closely and you will see science counts for very little so why should management care? In any case how does "world-class" science benefit LLNL? Where is the relevance? We are in it to make as much money before this whole thing goes down.

Anonymous said...

Oh man, thumbs up to your two comments. It amazes me when people think that research should go to the private sector. Well, this is one instance - the privatization of the National Labs - that shows privatization is not in the national interest.

Anonymous said...

that shows privatization is not in the national interest.

I am always amazed that once in a while there is an excellent statemnt on the blog. Just when I was ready to give up reading the blog due to the
a) science/scientist bashing
b) unions are bad
c) I do not need no stinking science
d) not with MY taxdollars
e) government is evil

Anonymous said...

One of the telling signs that an institution is in its waning's inability to take care of QOL the mighty have fallen..

Anonymous said...

Excellent post. Thanks. Our boiler was finally replaced last year after being without heat/air/hot water for a year or so. The NEW boiler broke down about a month ago, so no hot water. It's under warranty, but action. It makes so little sense to me.

William Smith said...

All Commentors,

Thank you for taking the time to read the post "LLNS is Neglecting Maintenance." As the author of the post, I, too, hope that Mark Martinez in Finance and Infrastructure can get the support we all need to maintain our facilities. He can't do it alone - money is still tight and major LLNS programs like WCI, NIF and Global Security and smaller programs like BBTD will have to make hard choices to free up the money he needs.

Appreciate the report on the new BOILER breaking down. Will ask SPSE/UPTE boiler technicians about the cause.

Please let SPSE/UPTE know of other maintenance problems - though preferably at rather than on this public blog. SPSE strives to solve management problems within our LLNS community - only when we hit immovable road blocks do we reluctantly alert the public that we cannot provide reasonable assurance that LLNS operations are as safe as good safety practices could make them.

Anonymous said...

There's our public-servant union boss,just looking out for our money and our safety.


More like making sure that that we have enough union workers shoveling coal, that there isn't really any coal, and that there isn't really anything to shovel it into.

As said in another thread, I'll take a few failures now and then in return for a lot less useless labor.

William Smith - President Elect SPSE/UPTE said...

Anonymous 25 June

I agree that there is some level of staffing beyond which the reduction in safety and operational risks is cost prohibitive. Numerous, severe and frequent equipment failures, however, have shown that our past practices have not supported the preventive maintenance needed to reduce safety and operational risks to acceptable levels.

Unscheduled maintenance on short notice and major, likely preventable, failures, as happened this week in a major research building on site, interfere with our ability to perform timely and cost effective research and to provide other deliverables on time and on budget.

Frequent equipment failures are showing in the long run we can't make up for programmatic budget shortfalls by deferring maintenance. DOE appears to agree as it recently mandated the performance of preventive maintenance at LLNL that we routinely performed on our own before we went private.

William Smith - President Elect SPSE/UPTE said...

Regarding this week's major equipment failure, SPSE/UPTE members were able to fix the problem within a few days and put dozens of labs and shops back in service. If our members had not succeeded, facilities was making plans to support only a fraction of the labs and facilities, perhaps on a rotating basis, for the days or weeks it would have taken to bring outside contractors in to make repairs.

This is but one example of the timely, vital, and often invisible support that SPSE/UPTE members provide to our national laboratory and our mission.

Anonymous said...

Wow. You must have received your PR training in Russia, where the Heroic Workers of the Socialist Party set aside all concerns for their personal safety and heroically fixed the leaky valve to put the country back to work.

Get real.

Something broke. It took a couple days to fix. Big deal.

A couple days' outage costs nothing compared to the larded-up year-round staff you're trying to sell.

And citing DOE as a bastion of management and maintenance cost-effectiveness knowledge is laughable.

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