This week I’ve felt like a thief going into work early on deserted streets. Workers are eager to chat (at a safe distance), getting in as much face-to-face human interaction as possible before we go home.
One morning me and three operators spend an hour cracking jokes about the mysterious free pizza that came with the night shift’s takeaway curry.
There have also been varying levels of anxiety, claustrophobia and fatigue. We’re on skeleton shifts – our teams reduced to one mechanic, one electrician and one apprentice, on 12-hour shifts, followed by three weeks off or on-call.
The electrician on my shift is gripped with worry about the virus and spends much of his time in the workshop trying to stay away from everyone (and social media). A handful of operatives are being shielded or in isolation with symptoms, but there are no confirmed cases.
The new manager does himself no favours by insulting everyone’s intelligence and hard work. The city managers have “panic ordered” waste deliveries from all over South Yorkshire, and for most of the week bin wagons queue all the way down the street waiting to tip their loads into the pit. All the fresh waste makes it difficult to keep under emissions limits.
The drivers, I hear, are threatening strike action because management have not considered the consequences of cramming three workers into a wagon during the pandemic.
I spend the week assisting the fitter – J – removing and replacing motors and gearboxes in awkward places; finding and carrying tools; hitting bearings with hammers; levering motor flanges with crow bars; cleaning filters with jets of compressed air; spraying fasteners with lubricant and trying to get purchase on them; tensioning conveyor belts; greasing bearings, lubricating fasteners and assembling chain links.
We become filthy every day, covered in ash, lime, grease, oil, dust and at one point treated pigs’ urea. Working on the crane J and I put on the new PPE and can barely hear each other through the heavy-duty dust masks; “I feel like I’m in Chernobyl!” “Eh?!”
J makes it look easy, but he’s a very hard worker, pressing on into overtime without breaks when under pressure. He diligently checks and re-does tasks when they haven’t met his standards.
I notice – but J never comments – that I need more physical strength; intellectually I understand what must be done, but often lack the muscles to do it. Instead I’m learning to anticipate what tools are needed, what tasks can be done simultaneously, and manual-handling with care.
When I finally lift the heavy gearbox comfortably close to my body, I realise I’ve allowed a trail of oil to follow my route back to the lift. J reassures me “Ye know that motor? I wired it in reverse twice – coz that’s the sort of thing I’d do.”
In every room there are posters, disinfectant wipes and hand sanitiser. Cleaning hands and worktops constantly – especially near the electrician – becomes part of the rhythm of work.
With all of the regulations, there’s also a sense of pride at being “needed” by society in a direct and physical way. “We’re key key workers -” laughs a young operator “Waste and power and heating – key key key!”
“Hang on power and heating are just one ‘key’, don’t get ahead of yourself.” “Would the hospitals function without us?” “Yeah, they have back-up generators...”
At the same time, everyone misses their freedom, pretends not to be worried, and speculates about when lockdown will end.
• Emma Rickman is an engineering apprentice at a Combined Heat and Power plant in Sheffield