Diary of an engineer: My Grab

Submitted by AWL on 26 February, 2020 - 9:15 Author: Emma Rickman
Kicking ass for the working class

There are two cranes at work which are used to continuously load waste from the pit into the furnace. Each crane grab looks like a bit like a fuchsia flower suspended from the roof, with four “petals” that carry the rubbish in 40 tonne hauls.

D, the fitter I have been having arguments with, has just moved from a contracted company that Veolia hired to service the crane grabs. His speciality is hydraulic systems. We both put on white disposable overalls over our usual overalls; plus dust masks, hoods, disposable gloves and the usual head and eye protection, then switch the crane into “Remote”. I pocket the key to make sure no-one tries to operate it while we’re working on it.

D handles the grab carefully, but he knows how it’ll behave. To me the grab is a huge and heavy piece of machinery that could easily maim us. Each petal is three times my height and ends in a sharp point; the surface has been cross-hatch welded to strengthen it and encourage the waste to run off. As I tentatively push buttons on the crane remote D says gently “Hit the other direction slightly, that’ll stop it swinging” – it does.

First D and I rest the grab fully-open. As the tips of the first petals hit the concrete, D explains how the hydraulic oil inside will take the path of least resistance. Once the weight is off the first petals, the others will collapse so that there is no stored force in any of the petals, and the grab will rest flat on the concrete.

We step underneath the petal arches with a torch. “I’m looking for wear here, “ D explains, indicating the central body of the grab where the oil is stored “There’s a leak I know on this side – just wants a small patch weld – but it’s manageable for now, we can still run with a leak as long as it doesn’t get worse.” He lifts the torch to show me the thin a sheen of oil around the leak.

Each petal has a pair of stops which prevent them opening too wide; just steel triangles but they take a battering. D looks carefully for wear and cracks. I push grease into each of the petal hinges with a grease gun, then we pull back and D lifts the grab, closes the petals slightly, and rests it back down.

“You wouldn’t believe it, but these grabs are designed never to fall over – even when fully closed.” He smiles and raises his eyebrows. “I know but I’ve seen it – it’s true – it’s unreal. But then I’ve also seen men nearly crushed by this grab – you’ve got to be careful”

“Shit, what happened?”

“They were on some steps in between the petals, trying to operate a dodgy solenoid. Suddenly the solenoid engaged and the grabs closed – they managed to get free, like, but the steps were crushed.”

I grease the lower hinges and D explains how to check the hydraulic rods are working; each needs to look clean with a thin oil sheen; not too wet, no cracks or corrosion. D tightens the taper lock bushings that secure the petal hinges.

“If you have to tighten these it’s not a simple fix – it means they’re loosening themselves. If they fail, the petal will hang slack and the grab’ll need thousands of pounds of work. These hinges really need replacing – but until they can be serviced I’ve been packing these with shims – I’ll make some more shims today...”

When D is happy with the grab we return it to service and throw away the paper overalls (we stink anyway). I notice that the workshop floor is covered with metal bushings for the petal hinges, ready for when they’re needed. I’ve learned a lot about the crane today. D is thorough and dedicated, clearly understanding the look and feel of a problem, but unlike the other experienced engineers he’s very conscientious about safety.

“I’m not very intelligent,” he said to the apprentices once “I’ve not been to university or ‘owt like that, but I got very good at what I do and made myself very valuable. It’s not hard, anyone can do it...”

A week after my argument with D, me and the younger fitter – J – are sitting in the workshop and he says to me quietly “I don’t think D gets that he’s not in a place where everyone knows him really well. Like I’ve known him for years, he can say things about me and I know it’s a joke because we work alright together, see – but you can’t just walk into a place and go saying the things he’s saying – he’s been pissing off a lot of people.”

We’ve had a slow day and we turn on the radio. I can’t believe it, but these blokes in their twenties want to listen to Smooth. Mary Wells “My Guy” comes on, and J starts singing.

“Nothing you can say, can tear me away, from my Graaab...”


We crack up. I realise I haven’t laughed genuinely and heartily at work in several weeks – it feels fantastic.

“D’s song innit – I’m stickin to my graaab….”

It sticks in my head on the way home, and I imagine the grabs doing a kind of synchronous dance.

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

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

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