Pennsylvania Nuclear Worker Back to Plant Thanks to Service Dog Archer

 |  Dec 25th 2006  |   0 Contributions


Thanks to CentreDaily.com for this article.

Blind nuke plant worker back on the job with dog's help
SUSAN SCHWARTZ
Bloomsburg Press Enterprise

BERWICK, Pa. - When Mickey Franczak lost his sight a few years ago, he worried that he would lose his work at PPL's nuclear plant as well.

But with the help of his co-workers, a state agency, a nonprofit group and a specially trained Seeing Eye dog, Franczak is still on the job.


As far as PPL officials have been able to determine, his Labrador-golden retriever mix, Archer, is the first Seeing Eye dog to be cleared to work in a nuclear plant.

"It makes you feel like you're wanted," said Franczak, 46. "It's kind of nice."

It's also important to the corporation, said Miriam Mylin, PPL spokeswoman.

"Mickey had such incredible knowledge, he's such a positive person, we wanted to keep him," she said.

Franczak works in the health physics department, where employees check radiation levels, brief workers on the conditions they'll find while doing their duties, and make sure no one is overexposed. He's worked at the company since 1983.

He lost his eyesight about four years ago. First he had cataracts, then glaucoma, then a damaged optic nerve. Today, he can see only headlights at night, or bright reflections during the day. Even that sight is fading.

Workers from the Bureau of Blindness and Visual Services, including Bob Kennedy and Marcia Wazeter, helped him learn to use a cane and care for himself at home, he said. But he wanted to go back to work.

"Mentally, you can only listen to so many books," he said.

When Wazeter suggested he get a Seeing Eye dog, corporation officials inquired nationwide to see if any other plants had set up regulations. No one had, Mylin said.

They gave their blessing to Archer anyway.

The dog came from Seeing Eye Inc. of Morristown, N.J.

Since Franczak lives in the country, the dog was taught how to guide him safely along roadways instead of along sidewalks.

He was also trained to recognize the safety tape, cones, flags and other markers the nuclear plant uses to show dangerous areas.

Once he was here, Archer learned to go through the gauntlet of explosive detectors and metal detectors PPL workers have to pass on their way into work every day.

But Franczak's co-workers still had to learn how to deal with Archer.

When he's in the harness, Archer needs to concentrate on his work. That means people shouldn't pet him, play with him, talk to him or even look at him, Franczak said.

Mylin said a paragraph about how to treat Seeing Eye dogs is now included in the training manual for new employees and as part of a training video.

During the work day, Archer stays under Franczak's desk, lying on a bed a co-worker bought for him and chewing quietly on his toys.

About once every 90 minutes, Franczak and the dog walk around. And for about 15 minutes every morning, Franczak lets Archer out of his harness.

"I let him loose for a little while to say hi to everyone in the office," Franczak said. "I've got to let him have a little social time."

The plant switched explosive detectors soon after Archer arrived. The new one gives a big puff of air that scares the dog, Franczak said. So nowadays, Franczak walks through that detector alone while a security officer leads Archer around to meet him. Archer's harness also sets off the metal detector, so before letting Franczak into the plant, security officers use hand-held detectors to check Archer for metal and explosives.

Meanwhile, PPL invested around $900 in JAWS, a computer program that can read reports, Web sites and e-mail out loud. The company also got him a scanner so he could scan papers into the computer for it to read for him.

His whole department teamed up to give him the time to be trained on the software in York, he said.

Then his co-workers chipped in to get him another computer so he could use the software at home, he said.

Today, he can even read newspapers online.

Friends and co-workers give him rides into work every day.

He no longer goes into the reactor building, where narrow walkways, pump valves and other equipment make finding his way more dangerous.

Instead, he works in an office just outside the power block, where workers check in before entering to find out about the conditions inside. Franczak helps with those briefings, writes reports, keeps department logs, and makes sure others in his department know about issues that arose during other shifts.

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