Workers' Diaries

Diary of an engineer: Control and the pollutants

There is talk among the operatives that the Environment Agency will be setting new emissions limits across the UK. Our daily limit for sulphur dioxide (SO2), which causes smog and lung irritation, is already lower than most power stations because we’re based in a city — but not by much. SO2 emissions may be reduced across the board, regardless of plant location. Another monitored pollutant is Nitrogen Oxide (NOx), which irritates the lungs, affects soil chemistry and reacts to create ozone, a more powerful pollutant. The plant controls NOx emissions by spraying urea into the furnace with long...

Diary of an engineer: Distance in the training centre

We’ve begun the new college term in strange circumstances. The training centre needs to provide some face-to-face teaching – working remotely and teacher absence hasn’t suited many of the apprentices, and the first years need to do six months of practical workshops. My group is split in two; half of us watch classes remotely, and the other half goes into the training centre, the next week we swap. The training centre is almost deserted. Staff are secluded in their offices, and everyone indoors is masked. We follow a strict one-way system, and the dining hall is spread with small round tables...

Diary of an engineer: Cutting tools

A week ago I felt like giving up, but this one I think I might be getting somewhere. This is often an up-and-down job. I’m asked to make a pin for the crane from a rough sketch. I can’t find any solid bar of the right size, so I use threaded bar. I use a cutting saw to trim a piece to size, then the pillar drill to punch a 7mm hole through the centre. When the hole ends up off-centre on the curved surface, I cut another piece and drill it again, but accurately. I’m happy that this is simple, but good, work. I’m not even fussed when A tells me threaded bar will snap too easily to be useful — I...

Diary of an engineer: Shock and learning

It’s autumn, and we need our thick coats again. Since the Outage [the annual shutdown for major repairs] something has changed among the apprentices. We are more confident, and there’s less work to do, so we are competing, suddenly, for jobs. In downtime, I do college work, then discover engineers have gone to a job without telling me — “Don’t worry about it, do your apprentice work” — I forget basic things, I screw up testing, I fake confidence and dread embarrassment. K asks us to look at an electric heater in one of the cabins and I go alone, isolate it, struggle to get the cover off...

Diary of engineer: the compressor is burning

Underneath the plant turbine is a concrete basement where most of the noisy machines operate. One of those is the air compressor housed inside a large blue box in a locked iron cage. I‘ve been working with an electrician (A), the other apprentice (L), and a contractor for Simms, who manufacture the compressors. We can’t hear each other, but we can smell the compressor burning. A explains to the contractor that the two air compressors operate in phases; one compressor will build up pressure in its cylinder and then release it onto the plant; while the air flows out of one compressor the other...

Where will the axe fall? (Diary of a Tube worker)

"I've been here 13 years, so you know what, yeah? If this fucks me, now, and it doesn't come round, I'll be pissed, pissed". D shakes their head and goes back to their food. "Well, the training [for Tube station workers to become drivers] has to restart at some point, but it's going to be a long time yet. They haven't even got enough instructors that can do the in-cab training yet". I'm in a similar boat myself. Several of us all thought we had a route out. It has been six months now since the lockdown put our training on pause, and time is really dragging. And some days drag more than others...

Diary of a Tube worker: "If no one else bothers"

Mask enforcement has faded on the Tube since July. Now the company want to do something about it. TSEO (Transport Support and Enforcement Officers), who mostly work as revenue inspectors on the buses, are now being deployed across stations. They stand around, looking a bit meaner than the rest of us. They remind people to wear masks. Some listen, others just breeze past them. Unless people kick them out of the station they’ll still come through no matter what. We get reminded everyday to use the apps on our Ipads that allow us to record people travelling without a mask. It is probably easier...

Diary of an engineer: Slow days

After the intensity of the Outage (when the plant is shut down for two weeks for maintenance which can be done only when it is offline), normal working feels lethargic, and our days feel short. So much has been repaired that there are only routine jobs to do. We have several improvement projects planned and ready to go, but the maintenance budget is exhausted, and our manager won’t order the parts required. The team of mechanical fitters has divided once again into old friendship groups and patterns which I find hard to break into. Frustratingly, we are now carrying out daily repairs on one...

Diary of an engineer: "Thank you for all your hard work"

For this entry, I’m going to quote the letter I received this week — I hope you find it as entertaining as I did. A caveat: compared to millions of people my working conditions and pay during the pandemic have been extremely good. I consider myself very lucky not be self-employed, unemployed, shielding, or forced to work while sick, among many other abuses and insults that have been inflicted on our class. This corporate letter is absurd, but it is at least a pretence at courtesy and recognition. *** Dear… In recent months the teamwork and commitment you have shown towards Veolia’s mission of...

Diary of an engineer: "If you want to sign that, no job here"

For maintenance staff, the Outage [when the power plant is shut down for maintenance and repairs which can't be done while it is working] is a short, intense period of work completely unlike the rest of the year. Although our days are dominated with twelve-hour shifts for fourteen days straight, we get to sleep in our own beds and travel a normal commute home. I've managed to scavenge a Saturday off and end a few shifts early. One of the apprentices explains how he'd wanted to "opt-in" to the EU Working Time directive when he signed his contract, but our line manager had told him “If you want...

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