Diary of an engineer: Proud to keep the heat and light on

Submitted by AWL on 19 January, 2021 - 5:57
Engineering plant

My first job early Monday is to swap a burnt-out heater. The workshop is freezing and L really feels the cold. We put on hi-vis puffer jackets and thick gloves — I’m glad of my bomb-proof boots. M, who cleans bin waste off the tipping apron, is almost invisible behind two snoods and a balaclava.

The switch room is always warm, and we spend a good afternoon in there dismantling a pump soft-start to replace the cooling fans behind heavy copper bus bars. We drink a lot of instant coffee. L spends most of his lunch break on the phone trying to resolve some personal drama, and J checks in with his kids who are doing online lessons.

I help some contractors replace a hydraulic cylinder — S is tired, he’s driven from Middlesbrough to start work in Sheffield at 6. He’s been getting up at 4:30 for months and has only accrued three days annual leave since September. J tells me later that after five years of working for this company, they offer you one extra day of annual leave.

When we emerge from behind the furnace, it’s snowing hard. The view over Sheffield is beautiful. Over the afternoon slush builds up in the roads and freezes over. We waddle like penguins across the yard carrying barrels of grease and road grit. J rewards us with some birthday cake, then sends me home early so I can walk home in reasonable time.

The following day I know how S feels. I get up at 4.30 to walk into work through the snow and just can’t seem to get enough coffee. We calibrate oxygen, emissions and pH instruments, do routine checks, greasing and clean blocked lime out of the venturi.

We receive an email about the plant accepting used Covid test-swabs for incineration. We’re instructed not to touch the bags of swabs under any circumstances, and to wash down shovelling vehicles with harsh chemicals. The workers who clean up after the bin wagons are sceptical. Their job inevitably means coming into contact with waste.

One afternoon we go to fix a light fitting in the toilet next to the weighbridge. The toilet is one of the tiny cabins the bin drivers use while they’re having their wagons weighed in and out. The difference in wagon weight is used to calculate how much waste has been collected and incinerated, and Sheffield council pay Veolia for this by the tonne.

The toilet is tiny, icy, and filthy. It reminds me of a festival portaloo after a week of continuous use. We fix the light, but that’s no improvement. L tells me that A, who cleans the men’s toilets elsewhere, is supposed to deal with the drivers’ facilities, but obviously he’s been avoiding it. Maybe no one notices, or the drivers aren’t important enough to worry about.

The maintenance team are angry on the drivers’ behalf. J starts a facebook argument with “Some idiot who thinks bin drivers should be out shovelling snow if they can’t do collections... They’ve no idea do they?” We’re also worried about NHS friends and family. “Who’s going to train to be a nurse now? My mate’s missus hasn’t had a break all year.”

Walking home one evening I’m struck with how warm and secure the plant looks in the dark snow. The days are long, but they’re steady and reliable. I feel proud to be helping keep the heating and lights on, and I feel lucky not to be in the chaotic pressure-pot that an ICU must be this January.

If you are working in the health service, respect to you; you deserve a pay rise, a holiday, and proper NHS funding.

• Emma Rickman is an apprentice engineer at a Combined Heat and Power plant.

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