Workers' Diaries

"We don't get sick leave. It's just statutory"

The night shift operators seem to have smashed the crane and grab into a wall. No one will admit fault, but it’s a mess. The grabs are connected to the crane with heavy shackles and thick steel cables. When we first inspect the ropes one of the guides has splayed open, which must have taken incredible force. The crane engineer replaces it immediately. I assist the hydraulics contractors on the grab while the electricians work on the crane controls. The contractors — A and S — gather spanners, rags, paper overalls and work permit, then head into the pit where the grab is parked on a concrete...

Diary of an engineer: Promotion and respect

My line manager pulls me into his office and says: “I’m sure you’ve heard by now that A is retiring.” A is the plant compliance manager, meaning she makes sure the company sticks to its emissions limits. From what I know, she works from an office writing reports to powerful agencies and issuing instructions to plant staff — health and safety bulletins, training requirements, and requests for data. A is also the most “high up” of the four women on site, and outside of the managers’ office floor we barely see each other. She’s been kind to me, but also sometimes sexist and unhelpful. She happens...

Diary of an engineer: "I realise it's bullshit"

After a botched job where we failed to weld pipe brackets onto a steel girder, I decide I need to get the hang of welding. Most of our time between jobs is taking turns at the workshop stick welder. L is the most experienced, J is very proud of his straight lines, and I’m happy to have overcome my fear of burns and electrocution — progress! The time spent concentrating intensely on a small dot of molten metal make me feel a bit light-headed. When we’re not practising welding, me and J are trying to use the new job-logging software. Unlike the old software, getting hold of jobs directly...

Diary of a Tube worker: "If we hadn't kicked off..."

“Even when Boris announced the lockdown they wanted us to continue the training. I will never forgive them for that. Sorry if it sounds like I don’t care, or I am not putting any extra back in, but that is how I feel now. If we hadn’t kicked off, they would have tried to force us into unsafe work. Now, whatever they do, I will remember that”. K, an instructor driver, is not particularly happy to be back instructing. “And even now, I ask to be released so I can do what I think helps the trainees, but instead they are just giving me normal duties, and I am sick of wearing a mask in a train cab...

Diary of an engineer: Capping the laughing gas

The apprentices haven’t seen each other since November, and it’s good to work with L. He has a lot of electrical knowledge, works diligently and has a very cool head. We work together installing a fan in the workshop (P’s fan, we call it, as it was his idea). Free of supervision, we can take our time cutting and tapping metal conduit so it fits snugly against the ceiling, running the cable neatly and listening to L’s “classic rock” playlist — now and then L breaks out in songs and head-banging. He’s twenty-one, likes cars, fishing, and scotch whisky. We learn this week about two projects the...

Red, blue and talking

The maintenance engineers are all back in the building, on normal hours. It’s fantastic being able to have breakfast at home, and commuting in at seven instead of five. The days seem indulgently short, and my free evenings are long and sunny. I’m with the electricians, so the week is filled with small jobs — changing light fittings, replacing a flow sensor, installing security cameras in the workshop, and deep-cleaning it the next day. We’re not used to working in teams; we communicate badly and make stupid errors. J sends the wrong calibration certificate to a manager; A routes the camera...

Diary of a paramedic: "Proceed with caution"

I’m working with a new paramedic. After we check our equipment we sit and have a quick cup of tea. We talk about the pay offer, the miserable 1%. He says he can’t believe that the government is using the crisis to pit those that have suffered most financially against us instead of recognising our work. Our conversation is interrupted by our first call. We go out and get on with the job. On our break there’s, unusually, a few other crews on station. One of them is writing a report about a violent incident they’ve been to, and we get into a discussion about everyone’s experiences. A few people...

Diary of an engineer: Nest of vipers

Work is depressingly slow. The fewer jobs there are, the more lethargic we become. L keeps suggesting: “We’ll do that tomorrow — spread it out. Our problem today was that we started too early, that’s why the morning’s dragging.” A trip to the control room turns into a drink in the control room, then long discussions that become increasingly awful to listen to. I offer to make a round of drinks and A says says to N — “It’s International Women’s Day, you should offer to make drinks.” N doesn’t offer. Instead everyone goes silent and looks at me, as if they expect me to make a speech. I feel...

Diary of a Tube worker: "Leave me alone, I'm staying the night"

“You can’t stay here”, W says. “Sit up, and, please, you’ll need to leave.” The man with the red face and tangled hair continues to relax on the floor, his bottle of rum by his side and the Sainsbury’s bag as his pillow. W walks back to his office, shaking his head. The guy has been here an hour, and by declaring he plans to stay the night he’s caused more trouble for himself then he might have wanted. “Excuse me”, someone says, doubling back to the barriers. I know what they are going to say. I pre-empt them. “Yep, we’ve seen him. Don’t worry he’s drunk, not collapsed.” “The humanitarian in...

Diary of a paramedic: When does your shift end?

I’m working with a newly qualified paramedic today. As we check our equipment we chat about how pissed off he is that, although he’s been doing the full role and not getting any extra support during the pandemic, he’s still on the probationary wage. He says his girlfriend is a student nurse covering wards on no pay at all. Our first job is helping transfer a Covid-positive patient to hospital using specialist equipment. We’re all in highest level PPE. It still feels very odd to be outside on a suburban street in that gear. Once we’re finished and tidied up, we try to clarify what cleaning...

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