Wednesday, May 30, 2007

I'm a Flour Girl

So, my current (temp, with the option to become permanent) job involves lots of flour. Flour can be seen suspended in the air, and a white dusting coats everything--the walls, the floors, the equipment, the people, absolutely everything. It's a constant battle to keep the place clean. Most of the cleaning is done with brushes and dust mops. The equipment, however, gets flour in the crevices and controls. When flour gets wet, it turns into glue; the hotter the water, the more gluey it is (because it becomes glutenized). This sticky mixture then dries into a cement-like hardness, so you cannot use water for major cleaning.

At the end of the day, the guys get out compressed air hoses and blow all of the flour out of the equipment and against the wall. The dust pile is then swept up, followed up by a dust mop, and finally a wet mop (with Simple Green). We never wet mop before the bulk of the flour is removed, though, because that would be a sticky, gluey, pointless task.

In my lab, I use paintbrushes to remove dust from surfaces and equipment, then wipe everything down with a damp cloth before I use any kind of cleaner. When I am washing my labware, I do a cold water rinse on everything before using hot water and soap to scrub. If I forget and use hot water to clean my salt test vials, I say a lot of foul words, then get out the bottle brushes to painstakingly remove the pasty mess from the corners.

I had never thought about how flour would be moved around a factory, but now that I know, I think it's pretty neat. They actually use pipes! I'm not kidding--there are pipes taking the flour from the silos, through the sifter, and into the mixing machines. I was really confused--flour is a SOLID, so it can't really be pumped like water through pipes. What I hadn't known at first was that there are augers inside the pipes. In addition to the augers, there are blowers that keep an air current going through the pipes in the direction of flow to prevent clogs. It's pretty neat.

Flour arrives two ways: Tractor-trailer and rail car. They look like the tanker trucks/rail cars that one normally associates with fuel transport. We get a truck about twice a week with one type of flour, and a fresh rail car about every two weeks. The trucks carry about 50,000 pounds of flour, while the rail cars hold about three times that much.

They come from the Port of Albany via Horizon Milling. When we get a shipment, I have to take a sample of the flour, and whoever was on the loading dock also gives me the seal and paperwork. The seal is a metal or plastic item similar to a zip tie. It can't be undone except for being cut. If the seal is broken, we cannot accept the shipment, so the supplier and driver are very interested in making sure that the seal is intact upon arrival. Each seal has a serial number, which I write down before discarding the seal. I put my sample through an NIR (near infra-red) machine to make sure the protein, moisture, and ash content are within specifications, and I keep whatever's left in a "library" of samples. The library is cleaned out of old items periodically, but they are kept for a pretty long time in case we have a problem.

A cool thing about Horizon Milling is their webcam. They have falcons nesting on one of their mills, and they set up a great page to show off their fleet-flighted residents.

I hope that you found at least some of this interesting. My current work has taught me a few new things, but I'm not sure how useful a lot of them will be to my future!

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