Diary of an engineer: Clocking in

Submitted by AWL on 17 July, 2019 - 7:17 Author: Emma Rickman

I’m a first year engineering apprentice at a Combined Heat and Power (CHP) plant in Sheffield.

The plant takes domestic black bin waste and burns it at high temperatures to heat steam, which drives a turbine and an electricity generator.

The excess steam from the turbine is then used to heat water, which is pumped around the city to heat buildings — such as the local swimming pool.

This morning I cycled the two miles to work in the sunshine, all downhill. Because it’s midsummer, lots of work is taking place on the District Heating network while demand for heat is low, so my route passed a lot of cordoned-off construction works.

I arrive in the car park at 7.40am and will leave around 4.15 p.m. I’m only an apprentice so I work 8-4, no shifts; although I know other apprentices in steel and manufacturing who went straight onto nights.

I lock up my bike and scan my ID card to enter the metal gate that surrounds the plant. The Energy Recovery Facility is roughly the height of a 12 storey office block. To your left as you walk in is a large rectangular building on stilts, which drags the air beneath it up through two enormous fans — this is the air coolant system that condenses steam back to water once the plant has extracted as much energy as it can.

To your right is a large dusty warehouse called the Ash Hall, usually with two or three contractors’ trucks collecting waste ash and metals from the incineration process. Closer to the entrance is a large water storage tank, about the size of a semi-detached house.

I sign in by pushing a slide across the “Out” plate next to my name on the board. I check the board to see who is already in; there are around fifty workers in the plant, and for some reason a lot of Johns, Deans and Steves (I haven’t managed to keep track of the Steves). There are two other apprentices, one in the year above me. Apprentices work with different teams week-to-week, and this week I’m working with the Mechanical Fitters. I notice that at least one Fitter — P aka ‘Raggy’ — is clocked in and that’s good, because I can’t access the fitters’ workshop without him.

I go up to “Level 3” which is Amenities — most of the plant smells of bin waste, but efforts are made to keep the showers and mess-room clean. I pass the physiotherapist’s studio, who visits several times a week to treat plant employees and bin-collection workers (“waste operatives”). Many of the plant operators have worked in collections, and they tell me on average a bin worker walks or runs 20 miles a day.

The physio treats all kinds of injuries, and is one of the three women who use this floor; the women’s changing room is just used by me and M, the office and cabin cleaner. I’m glad of this, because from what I hear the men’s showers are huge, filthy and there is very little privacy. The tiny women’s changing rooms are where I go when I need time to myself. I change into overalls, boots, gloves, hard-hat and protective glasses, then walk to the Fitters’ workshop.

I go back outside, then back in through a concrete corridor, passing several rooms full of chemical treatment systems, then through the Low-Voltage switch room. The grey metal cabinets are laid out in labelled rows and they hum slightly. I’m careful not to knock anything with my elbow as I walk through.

To the left is another cabin for high voltage switches, which is kept locked at all times — for obvious reasons, as the switches carry 11 kilavolts.

I pass the Electrician’s (Sparkies) shop, then open a door onto the yard. The ERF is gearing up for a two-week annual maintenance shutdown, where hundreds of workers employed by outside contractors will be working on site, and these workers need space to wash, eat and sleep. A lorry is unloading metal cabins — roughly the size of two shipping containers — into the yard and stacking them on top of each other.

Other workers are building steps to access the first level cabins, and the Sparkies are fitting electrical cables into others. Beside these are thousands of scaffolding poles, brackets and wooden platforms; most of this will be erected inside the furnace, which is seven storeys high, so that workers can clean and inspect the insides.

Also piled up in the yard are the large, heavily insulated pipes used in District Heating; manifolds of pipes for furnace “feed water”; skips and forklifts; traffic cones; and fenced-off storage areas for the various bottled gases.

To the right of the cabins is the Stores building, where all new equipment, from socks to motors, is delivered, catalogued and stored. The Stores’ manager is one of the Steves I remember, because he spends some of his empty work hours building old electric bicycles. Behind Stores is the Bernard Road Boiler House, which is the main distribution centre for District Heating; to the left of that, the Fitters’ Shop, and behind all that, a large fence and the railway line.

Above all of this and set slightly away from the main building is the Stack. It’s a 75 metre tall concrete chimney connected to the plant by a wide stainless steel pipe. I learned from the older workers that the previous incinerator building was occupied by Greenpeace in 2001, protesting against pollution regulation breaches.

They climbed up the stack with ropes and painted “Toxic Crime” down it, then camped in hanging tents until the police removed them. Most of the operations team agree with the protestors “It was toxic crime! The old plant was terrible…” and of course unlike other shutdowns, there was no work to do until the activists left, even if bonuses and overtime were lost.

Since then Veolia (previously known as Onyx) have rebuilt the plant to meet the Environment Agency emissions limits, as per the European Waste Incineration Directive (WRAP).

Despite researching, I’ve been unable to find out WRAP’s reasoning — why are the limits set as they are, not lower or higher? However, there have been no protests at the ERF since 2006.

  • Emma Rickman is an engineering apprentice at a combined heating and power plant in Sheffield.

  • Other entries in the “My Life At Work” series, and other workers' diaries

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