A Grand day at Ralston Foods

Pilots enroute to Reno’s airport used to call tower, “Piper XXX abeam the checkerboard for landing.” And the tower knew exactly where to find Piper X-ray. This was written when the Ralston checkerboard still adorned the building’s silo on East Greg Street. Its name is different, the checkerboard’s gone, and George Smith, the Guru of Grain is nearing retirement. Here’s the story of that building and its function:

Inside what might be the only building in town where an employee could drown in a 200-gallon drum of clover honey, 150 souls have worked together for 1,000 straight days as of last Wednesday, often 24 hours each day, without incurring an injury grievous enough to necessitate any lost time, let alone killing one another.

            About 1,030 days ago [this is from a 2004 column copyrighted by the RGJ] I started watching the “Accident-Free Day” readerboard on Ralston Foods on East Greg Street grow, day-by-day, to about 270 days.  Then one January morn early in 2001 it fell to “001”.  Rats – someone got hurt and the tally had started over.  That September I called attention to their 260-plus days of safety in this column, fearful that it might carry the “Cover-of-Sports Illustrated” syndrome and trigger an accident.  Since then I’ve frequently noted their progress at the close of the column, often getting an occasional reader call checking on them when I went too long between updates.  Somewhere on a computer disc is the text from a column I can’t find, wherein I speculated that to keep the “Accident-free” count climbing, an employee’s carcass was converted into bran flakes and the evidence resides in 37 supermarkets all over the nation.  “Not so,” responded George Smith, Ralston’s Guru-of-Grain.  “That person was from the HR department, and was loaded on Dave Stix’ trailer, spread out in the pig pen at the Damonte ranch, but the pigs caught on and grazed all the way around him.”  Dave Stix is the south Reno rancher who buys unusable or spilled cereal for his feed lot.  And this tale, is obviously false.  I hope.

            How 150 people could escape injury in any facility, let alone in Ralston Foods for 1,000 days boggles the mind – I know of a 30-person office where the acrylic lens of a light fixture fell and put an employee into the hospital overnight.  When you visit the plant and watch a railcar load of oats get converted into stacked boxes of little doughnuts that look a lot like cheerios, the 1,000 days of safety take on real significance.  Note that I use no capitalized brand names in this column, as Ralston makes cereal for all the grocers, the mighty and small alike.

            A bulk-commodity railcar is rolled into the building – railcars roll silently and your visit could terminate right there as it goes over the top of you.  A stainless steel, food-grade hopper is slid under the car’s outlets – the product is in a sterilized environment from the time it leaves the railcar (and presumably when it was loaded into it.)  The car’s chutes open and compressed air takes it from the hopper to one of the score of silos in the tower on the east end of the building (the tower with the checkerboard until Ralston Purina – pet food – was sold to Ralston Foods in April of 1994 and the building completely revamped in a mega-million overhaul..)   Since the plant’s set up right now for a run of rice crispies or corn pops that might take several days, the oats will remain in the silo, then for a day longer while the plant is cleaned and reset to make cheerio-like cereal.  An independent nationwide inspection contractor familiar with industrial food plants regularly monitors sanitation.  I still have the bump-cap, safety glasses, elastic booties, hair net and earplugs that I wore during my visit, both for my own protection and the preservation of plant cleanliness Struck quite a figure in my booties and hairnet, if I do say so myself.  Wish now that I’d remembered to take the hairnet off before I went into Tom Young’s Great Basin Brewery after the tour – I the only man there with a hairnet.)

            The oat run may start at noon or some wee hour of the morning.  The production line, spread over an acre and several levels of the plant, takes life as the silo is vibrated to start the oats flowing onto a belt.  Computers guide the conveyor belts’ speed, the steam heating the huge cooking vats’ temperatures, and the little jets that extrude cooked oats in circles the size of cheerios onto a baking surface where they cook and harden and are then vibrated off into a conveyor – picture an endless stream of cheerios pouring onto the luggage carousel at the airport.  That much cereal.  If it’s nut-‘n-honey, lower-case, the computer may have released honey from one side and nuts from the other while a mechanical arm stirred it.  There’s been very little human intervention, save for keeping an eye on the many computer stations along the route.  But those humans have been constantly exposed to steam, scalding hot water, huge stainless kettles far beyond red-hot to the touch, conveyor belts grabbing at loose clothing, compressed air escaping, and an occasionally serious racket at some stops along the oats’ journey.

            The sea of cheerios moves above us, now being separated into chutes of ever-decreasing size until their opening matches the size of a cereal box.  Cardboard flats – supplied by the end-user grocers and preprinted somewhere beside this Sparks plant – are machine-folded into boxes.  Rolled waxed paper is mechanically sized, folded and glued into a sack as the cheerios pour into it, and the whole thing falls into the box which is then glued shut.  And this doesn’t take forever – the boxes fairly fly off the line and are mechanically stacked on pallets, then taken to the west end of the building for shipping.  A dry-bulk railcar of grain has been converted to a boxcar of cheerios, and the plant will retool for corn flakes.  If you’ve escaped the rolling railcar, the mile of conveyor system, the steam kettles, the compressed air transfer system, remember a forklift still might get you right here so don’t drop your guard quite yet.

            Ralston Foods and its predecessor have been outstanding community neighbors and employers in our valley, and in the brevity of this column it’s hard to overstate their diligence and commitment to industrial safety – or maybe writing that 1,000 safe days in a plant as complex and fraught with peril as any on the West Coast, says it all.  I thank Dan Kibbe, the facility’s manager, Steve Smith from Human Resources and the aforementioned George Smith, no relation, for their input and hospitality.  They’re shooting for two grand on the readerboard above the guard shack on East Greg Street, and we wish all 150 employees good luck.

            Now – go eat your morning bowl of cheerios, lower case, with an expanded appreciation of the veritable art forms floating before you.

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[It was the George, the guru-of-grain, who told me that the chicken crossed the road to see his brother Gregory peck.]

 

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