I’ve been working with the electrical team routing cables through the plant. Cables need to be kept as dry, clean and secure as possible, following logical routes. I’ve learned that they are often in filthy and inaccessible places.
The control room computers have been on the blip; the signals from the PLCs (portable logic controllers), which communicate with all the plant’s instruments, have been switching themselves off and on at random. After a process of elimination, the ‘tricians A and J decide to replace the cables between the PCs and the PLCs.
First, A and J plan the route. The control room floor is also the mess room ceiling – working backwards from the PCs we push up ceiling tiles (standing on the dining table: to legitimate complaints) and look for space to run new cable. Behind the tiles the ceiling is a tangled sprawl of dusty cables; there are conduits through walls where space is tight. From the mess room the cable runs into the women’s changing rooms, then the men’s lockers, then up into the PLC room and into the back of a steel cabinet.
The men’s changing room is deserted, and bigger than I imagined. The rooms seem to go back and back – I keep my eyes on J and the ladder I’m holding. He swears trying to squeeze his helmet through a gap in the ceiling and knocks someone’s possessions from the tops of the lockers. Between the two of them they calculate the run as roughly 40 metres long, six lengths of cable.
Once the cable is measured and coiled round the drum, each team member takes a position at a junction in the route to push or pull it through. Once we’ve finished the mess room, I walk back into the men’s to help. This time the changing rooms are occupied, and my presence is making everyone nervous. A bloke wrapped in a towel does a panicked double take.
L, also holding a towel, says to me “Fucking hell, one more second and you’d have seen more than you want to see.”
I’ve never worked in a place where colleagues are comfortable being naked around each other. Is this what an army barracks is like? A friend apprenticed in a steel works, who resents his stupid and aggressive team leader, tells me:
“It’s his sudden move from filthy, to completely naked – no warning just, naked. I get changed in the toilets.”
Now I realise that the young male apprentices also have to decide how to deal with communal showers and changing rooms. I think it explains some of the obsessive conversations the guys have about their weight, their age and their gym routines – they can’t hide anything in those rooms; your teachers shower next to you. The managers who stay clean don’t have to share this experience.
The women’s changing room door is propped open for the cable routing, so as I leave that day I say:
“Don’t worry I’ll change in the toilet, no need to stop”.
“Nah you’re all right, we won’t come in till you’re done.”
Once I’m finished I decide to stay out of the men’s and instead shout through the ceiling ducts
“Done! All yours!”
Later that week I come in for an early shift, put on overalls, and a young operator opens the door without warning. He starts –
“Err – sorry – wasn’t expecting anyone in this early – err – can I use the hair dryer?”
• Emma Rickman is an apprentice in a Combined Heat and Power plant in Sheffield.