Insane Hydraulics

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Bad Things About Being a Hydraulic Technician

Last week I wrote about 17 Good Things About Being a Hydraulic Technician, but, of course, the picture would be incomplete without mentioning the bad things. Of which there are plenty! So, today I am shining my "subjective light" on the dark side of this profession. Once again, in no particular order.

1) Hydraulic oil.

You heard me right - I consider the most important part of any industrial hydraulic system to be the worst thing about being a hydraulic tech. Sounds like blasphemy, doesn't it?

If you do a lot of hands-on hydraulics, inevitably you come in contact with hydraulic oil. And I mean direct skin contact. Hydraulic oil is nasty, it will get on your hands (gloves or no gloves), it will soak your clothes and your hair, it will get in your eyes, it will run down your arms when you work overhead and drip from your elbows or stream further down towards your armpits... Ever heard of the term "Hydrocarbon-induced occupational liver injury"? Our skin absorbs it like a beauty cream, and then the poor liver has to filter it out. No Bueno! And extremely unpleasant, too!

2) It's a dangerous job.

Being in an industrial environment is already dangerous as is, but when you couple it to a fluid under high pressure - the mix becomes deadly. I have a number of close calls of my own, and I hear about more accidents than I would like to.

Electricians receive hours of safety training about what they can and can not do when they deal with high voltage, most hydraulic techs will only get a "be careful, will you?" at best. High pressure is even more dangerous than high voltage (in its industrial variant), and can kill and mutilate as easily! And don't even start me on the countless ways a hydraulic system can store killer amounts of energy in most sneaky ways and then release it when a tech least expects it!

The nasty truth about this profession is - the only safety training that you will most likely get will be a series of your own close calls that you will be lucky to come out of unharmed. It's a shame, really.

Even if you invest in your safety education (and you should!) the danger will not go away and the accidents will continue to happen.

3) It's a dirty job.

Most of the hydraulic equipment that you'll work on will be dirty in its own peculiar way, and you'll have to deal with a gooey mixture of the hydraulic fluid and whatever airborne substance dominating the area.

Then, to top it off, 90% of the repairs and maintenance is cleaning stuff. So you'll do a lot of it, and it's a tedious and boring exercise.

Let's not forget about grease. A lot of hydraulic equipment will have some sort of a grease lubrication system, and these babies form a league of their own. You will be bringing some of it back with you (or better - on you) all the time, even if you do your best not to. If you think that oil/dust mixture is nasty - wait till you discover that there's a blob of grease-based gunk on the underside of the seat belt of your service truck when your missus decides to take it for a ride in a white t-shirt...

4) Industrial and field working conditions.

I already said that the job is dirty, but it doesn't end there. Dirty is a given, but there's always something else. I am talking about too loud, too hot, too cold, too moist, too windy, too dusty, too tight, and whatnot. Just imagine the worst possible conditions to work at - and there you have it!

5) It's a physically challenging job.

A good physical challenge is never a bad thing, but this job is physically challenging in the worst possible way. When you lift a weight in a gym - you are stretched and warmed up, however when you deadlift a hydraulic pump into your pickup - you do it with a cold body and most of the time in a single lift-n-twist motion that immediately snaps your spine in half.

The last time I visited an orthopedist about back pain, there was a mirror on the wall, and I caught a glance of the doctor's face as I was leaving - he was looking at the ceiling and crossing himself... In other words - we mess with heavy stuff and sooner or later feel the consequences.

6) Workshop related injuries.

Back pain is one thing - but everyday workshop environment can offer so much more for your amusement! Have you ever seen a fingernail turn black? You will. And more than once! Then there's also cuts, bruises, falls, burns, risk of electrocution and a lot more!

7) No fixed schedule.

We are doctors who treat sick machinery, and breakdowns tend to happen at the worst possible time. Expensive machines work around the clock - and so will you. Weekends, holidays, Christmases, and New Year's Eves - it won't matter. Something somewhere breaks - and you get "the call". This, of course, is true only for advanced troubleshooters - but if you aspire to get into this business, you'll become one sooner or later.

8) A lot of travel.

I mentioned this same thing in the good things, and it is true. I, personally, love traveling. But sometimes, it can be too much. Again, this will highly depend on the profile of the company you work for, but being constantly away from home and family can be exhausting for many.

9) Dull stuff.

Troubleshooting of interesting hydraulic failures is a very exciting task. But you will also have to deal with dull and stupid tasks as well, and this can be very demotivating. Simple service procedures are uninteresting. I am referring to stuff like oil and filter change, cleaning tanks, replacing hoses, etc.

10) It's a job, no matter how you look at it.

It's a job, a blue-collar job. This means that you will work for somebody else. And even if you earn above average, still your wages will be limited by the job market.

11) Career path can become long if you let it.

Like I said before - it's a job. However, one of the peculiarities of this job is the fact that your career path can easily become long if you let it. If you have zero experience, you will start as a hand, however - if you become a good hand, your company may "keep" you there, simply because a good hand is always needed and is hard to find. I've seen this all too many times. If this happens to you - the only way to progress is to ask for a job somewhere else. Then the same thing happens when you grow into a full-blown mechanic or a technician. Even if you can do more, a lot of companies won't encourage a promotion simply because good mechanics are very hard to find, and if you are interested in growing - you'll have to "hop" several companies before you reach your career goal. In short - it's complicated... My advice is - don't look back and don't stop growing no matter what!

12) Psychological challenges.

When you do a lot of troubleshooting and assistance calls - you deal with a lot of people and opinions. This requires a lot of people skills and can be frustrating at times, especially when you have to convince people that your opinion is correct. The same goes for your colleagues, by the way. With hydraulics, it's aggravated because this business is fed by myths, and very often you'll hear things like - "why are you wasting time filling the pump case?" or "It's been half an hour since you arrived and you haven't touched your tools yet..." And I don't even want to go into all the advice that you'll be hearing while you are working on something! Or the impossible tasks and requests. If you are short on patience - don't even think about taking on this job!

13) Very, very expensive mistakes.

Hydraulic systems have a peculiarity - even a tiny and seemingly innocent mistake or omission can become very, very expensive. I am not talking thousands, I am talking tens and hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of expenses. Complete production plants can be shut down by a hydraulic failure. The risk is very real, and when this happens - it is very scary. "Quit your job right here and right now" scary. So be prepared to carry big responsibility on your shoulders, even if you are a simple hand.

14) Stress.

This is a high-stress job. You will often do long hours. You will often work through holidays. And yet there will always be more work than you can do, and you will always be behind your already tight schedule. This is very stressful, and if you don't know how to process all the issues that constantly come up - you'll burnout in a heartbeat. This is very detrimental to health. I state this from a first-hand experience.

So there you have it. The bad things about being a hydraulic technician. Having second thoughts yet?