Diary of an engineer: The virus

Submitted by AWL on 18 March, 2020 - 8:05 Author: Emma Rickman

“You know that Corona sales have plummeted? They’ve lost millions.”
“Yeah you can get a crate on special offer in Morrisons – we should throw a barbecue.”
“The beer! You plant-pot...”

For the last few weeks the conversations at work have been about trivialising:
“It’s only old people and sick people who’re at risk; and they die of the flu every year anyway but no-one cares – everyone here will be fine”
(“Except you D, you’re basically at death’s door.”)

Making fun:
“Me and the missus were at the check-outs and saw these two women with a trolley-load of loo-roll. We’re all staring at them and thinking the same thing, so I said to my missus quite loudly ‘Is one of the symptoms of this virus diarrhoea?!’”

“J can you stop sending me videos of dead bodies and bags of blood from Iran…?”

And when the company calls a meeting about it, ridiculing:
“So we’re having a meeting to discuss why we should stay away from each other?! What the hell are they so worried about?!”

The meeting is lead by the current plant manager, who reads out a corporate circular I’ve already seen. Veolia is continuing operations as normal, but has contingency plans in place for staff shortages; as with the government statements, all details of these plans “will become available as and when they’re needed” as “the situation continues to develop”.

Covid-19 waste at the time of the meeting was categorised as “Type B” clinical waste and therefore must be incinerated above the operating temperatures of the ERF (1500 Celsius). Since the meeting I’ve learned that this waste is now classified as a separate, highly hazardous category, and is being dealt with by specialist teams – plant workers at the ERF [Energy Recovery Facility] don’t know the details of its collection and disposal.

If a person is self-isolating, they are instructed to double-bag all bin waste and await test results. If they test positive, a specialist clinical waste team will collect the bags. If they test negative, the bags are collected by Veolia as normal.

A discussion around PPE and disinfection follows. D would like clarification on wearing full-breathing apparatus and hosing the crane-grabs; his manager says that none of the existing procedures have changed, that D can wear full-mask if he feels uncomfortable, but that the risks of contamination from bin waste are the same as they’ve always been. M requests sanitiser at the reception and weighbridge; G confirms that’s already under way.

Sickness absence procedures and policy will remain the same for the virus as with any other illness. This procedure is not outlined in the meeting, but it’s an unpopular policy that led to an industrial dispute last year.

In the control room, J explains that the “Bradford Factor” Veolia’s HR department uses is a way of keeping the number of worker sickness absences below a certain threshold; workers are arbitrarily disciplined if they phone in sick more than three times during a financial year.

Phoning in sick for several short periods marks you down for disciplining earlier than taking one long period of absence. However, absences of longer than 10 days require doctor’s notes and HR proceedings either way.

Veolia’s policy initially forced line managers to initiate this procedure, regardless of their opinion of the worker, and this was what triggered union action last year. I found this out the hard way during my first winter at the plant with a string of bad colds – instead of gritting my teeth and going back to work mid-week, I should have just taken the week off.

My manager was considerate and very reluctant, but he warned me that if I called in sick during the next six months I’d begin a disciplinary procedure. The number of complaints from workers at all levels caused Veolia to revise this instruction, and line-managers can now choose not to discipline for sickness unless they want to. My line manager does seem like a decent person in this regard, and I can understand why workers trust him, but this is no solution – he’ll be retiring soon.

During the discussion about Veolia’s inadequate policy, I ask my mentor what I should do if my partner needs to self-isolate. He’s sarcastic and tells me: isolate yourself, obviously, but you’ll be disciplined. P asks about self-diagnosis while GP surgeries are closed.

“If we have symptoms, and self-isolate for seven days, but then test negative – will we be disciplined? And if we then get better, go back to work, and get symptoms again – will we be expected to stay in? How can we prove our symptoms without sick notes? Does Veolia want us to come into work if we’ve got symptoms, just in case we haven’t got it?”

At least we have sick pay, a steady income and secure jobs. The plant can and does operate, on nights, with four operators. There are plenty of operators who would provide emergency cover if offered overtime.

However, the plant will shut down without waste deliveries, and not collecting domestic waste would be a disaster for the city and a breach of contract with the city council. I suspect it will be delivery drivers who will cause the most disruption when they start contracting the virus.

I suspect that a manager, somewhere, has a contingency plan for this such as hiring contractors from outside the city... or maybe they don’t.

Our college course has been cancelled and all teaching will take place online for the foreseeable. At first my college friends think they can have the day off (or in the pub) but then realise their managers have all been sent the same email: “Damn, looks like we’re gonna work.”

• 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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