Diary of an engineer: Winter Wonderland

Submitted by AWL on 23 October, 2019 - 8:46 Author: Emma Rickman

Last week there were two lime leaks at our Combined Heat and Power plant. A problem – yet to be identified – caused the Ventura to blow instead of suck, and the harsh white powder covered the plant.

Operators needed full face-masks and huge torches to get through the thick grey clouds on every level, and we lost half of the lime supply.

Lime is highly alkaline, absorbent, and turns hard as rock when mixed with water (like concrete). On the plant lime is used to absorb the pollutants in the gases emitted by the furnace, so it’s critical for preventing toxic waste. Its also eats through pumps, pipes, ducting, clothes, machines and steel walkways.

Two days ago an ambulance was called to site for ‘K’, one of the industrial cleaners, who had burning pains in his stomach. Today we’re informed that this was caused by chemical poisoning.

‘K & G’ the two workers primarily responsible for clearing up the lime, are notorious for refusing to wear face-masks, gloves or eye-protection, and now the lime is reacting with K’s digestive system. According to rumours in the mess room, he has ulcers from throat to stomach.

This news starts up another conversation which joins the dots of some plant politics I’ve only partially understood.

K & G are not directly employed by the ERF, but are paid hourly by Veolia Industrial Services (VIS). Though their work is difficult and dangerous, they’re paid minimum wage and work 10-hour days to break even. K will receive £50 a week sick leave from VIS for his injuries, as his refusal to wear PPE will absolve Veolia of any responsibility.

The ERF does directly employ Operational Maintenance Assistants (OMAs) on higher salaries and secure contracts, who do similar work, but leave all the cleaning to K & G. When OMA vacancies have come up, K & G have applied several times, but are always turned down for less competent outsiders.

This is because the OMA salaries come out of the Operations budget, and K & G’s wages come out of the Maintenance budget, run by different managers. The Ops manager benefits from K & G’s cheap labour, while not having to pay them out of his budget. He won’t hire them directly, because he would then have to pay for them.

There are currently two OMA vacancies that K & G will very likely apply for. Now K has been poisoned at work, the debate in the mess room is whether the Ops manager will cave in, and give the jobs to those that – we all agree – should have had them years ago.

Or whether, of course, K will ever come back to work.

His colleague, G, still refuses to wear a mask; “Well, it’s got me already hasn’t it?”

• Emma Rickman is an engineering apprentice at a Combined Heat and Power (CHP) plant in Sheffield.

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