He ambles through the shadows until reaching the base of a dark mountain of granite haloed by a soft white light from the plant. A Cat 980G Wheel Loader roars not 20 yards off, but between the mounds, the noise is deadened – muffled to the point where conversation is easy though infrequent.
He pulls a small flashlight from his pocket, raises it to shoulder height and like a seasoned detective at a crime scene angles it toward the ground.
“If there’s oversized in here, it’ll stick out like a sore thumb,” he says while moving the beam of light quickly up, then to the left and right. “You’ve got 89s, 7s, 6s and 5s. If there are 7s in with these 89s over here, I can spot them as soon as I walk up on it.”
Unlike an actual crime scene, there’s nothing scandalous about this investigation. It’s common for Quality Assurance Supervisor Anthony Patterson – part of a routine he adopted when he joined Ruby Quarry’s quality control lab in 2001. Each morning, Q.A. supervisors from across the Company perform similar checks to ensure Martin Marietta’s products are the very best.
“I’m particular about the quality of the rock because to me, a quality issue is embarrassing,” he says. “If I hear that double ring from the phone’s outside line, it usually isn’t good. Very seldom does someone call to say, ‘Hey man, that’s a great job you did.’”
It’s nearing daybreak when Patterson’s pickup rolls up to the shores of a retention pond at the edge of the site.
Monitoring Ruby’s water quality is one of the tasks he’s inherited over the years as government regulations have tightened, but there are no environmental samples to be taken today. It’s enough at the moment to shine his flashlight toward the pond’s far end to make sure the water is flowing as it should. When he’s satisfied all is progressing properly, he moves on. There’s always another round of rock samples to collect.
There’s nothing fancy about his lab. It’s a simple building with two desks and a stove in one room and all varieties of equipment in the other. On the wall are certifications and accolades; Patterson was Georgia’s Quality Control Technician of the Year in 2002 and has received a number of other honors, including the 2007 President’s Award for Quality Control. But the man’s sense of pride isn’t derived from a plaque or a crisp piece of white paper with bold lettering and an official seal.
His road to the lab began officially in 1986 when at the age of 23 he joined the Ruby team as a haul truck driver. He was much younger when he first heard the quarry calling.
“My daddy was a mechanic here until the day he retired. We used to pick him up after work. When I was 12 – maybe 13 – I came down and, I’ll never forget it, they had a blast right down over here,” he says, pointing toward a wall in the pit. “They had trains and all of these trucks and I thought, man, that’s interesting. That’s impressive. That’s what I want to do.”
Many of the men and women Patterson met during his childhood at Ruby were his co-workers when the site celebrated 1 million work hours without a lost-time incident in the late 1980s. When the quarry reached that milestone again in 2015, Patterson took more ownership of the achievement. Not only had he been there for nearly every day of the safety streak, he had trained or otherwise mentored many of the younger employees who helped make the feat possible.
Working with this next generation and ensuring that a quality team takes over when people like him and Plant Manager Cliff McKeever retire is of the utmost importance, Patterson says.
“Quality control is my responsibility, but really, it takes everyone,” he says. “I interact with just about all of the employees. As a supervisor, many of them come to me anyway whether they’re Q.C. or not. Some of them are 20 or 21 years old and they’ve got a lot to learn and a lot of maturing to do. I just try to remember how I was at that age and help them along however I can. Sometimes it’s best to just listen.”
The morning grows old as a wall of low-hanging clouds moves on shortly after 11 a.m. and the pattern of his work starts to reveal itself. The stock piles are searched. Water flows are monitored. Rock is sampled. All is clear. There is little surprise to his day and, ideally, this is the way it should be. The predictability allows Patterson to focus on the nuts and bolts of quality assurance.
If an intense amount of focus and attention to detail is required to maintain safety at an operation, then an equal effort is needed to maintain the quality of an operation’s rock.
Patterson has taken this lesson in diligence home repeatedly over the past three decades just as he has countless others, but as the years wear on and those steel-toed boots become just a little heavier at the end of each day, his thoughts often turn toward a more distant question: What mark will he leave on the quarry that has supported multiple generations of his family?
“You want the people coming in now to be better than you, to not go through what you went through,” he says. “I look at the younger employees and I think, ‘If I train you right, you should be better than me.’ If that’s how it turns out, then I’ll know that I’ve done a good job.”