Workers' Diaries

Diary of a firefighter: “Smoke issuing, persons reported”

It’s 11.50pm on a Thursday night. We’re getting ready to settle down to bed when the lights come on and the bells go down — we’ve got a shout. I drop my bedding in a heap, run out of the dorm and slide down the pole to the fire engine. You’ve got sixty seconds from the bells going down to the appliance having to be out the bay doors. I step into my fire boots and pull my leggings up by the braces in one movement. The guvnor comes round the corner from the watch room with the tip sheet in his hand. He shouts out to us: “Smoke issuing, persons reported”. My heart rate quickens. Persons reported...

Diary of a trackworker: Who knows best, workers or managers?

There are times when you feel like shutting down and letting management just completely fuck up as they go in circles trying to obey the latest “drive” for efficiency while not listening to us on the sharp end. One example. We have had a faulty cable for some weeks now which was due to be changed. A team went out, but found that the rules for changing said cable were conflicted, i.e. the tests were described for an old style cable, not for the new “plug and play” connectors. The first team reported this back, saying that they needed a certain bit of kit, and so the job was pushed back. Another...

Diary of an engineer: High tech and recycling failures

The Recycling and Energy Recovery Facility in Leeds is much taller than the plant in Sheffield, slicker and modern-looking. The whole power station is housed under a giant wooden archway and walled with thin panes of glass (identical, for those familiar with it, to the archway of Sheffield’s Winter Gardens, but ten times the size). One side of the 12-storey building is a beautiful vertical garden with its own irrigation system. R: “This garden costs the council £1,400 a month to maintain. But it’s part of the contract, it’s a public building.” The bin wagon parking area is an underground...

Diary of an engineer: Poring over the permit

After a month of 360 decision-making and discussions with friends and colleagues, I’ve taken the job offered me as Compliance Technician. I’m now working in an open-plan office with two of the senior engineers. There are technicians, managers and contractors coming in and out all day for chats, updates, complaining or getting permits signed. P — the young Slovakian bloke doing maternity cover for the plant accountant/receptionist — is friendly and good fun. Somehow rumours have sprung up that he has a prosthetic leg (he doesn’t, and walks normally, I don’t get it.) We are both new starters and...

Diary of an engineer: "Can't run ethically without that"

The manager, M, steps back from his standing desk towards the whiteboard. He draws a large pipe, with two smaller pipes branching off it. M: “We’re going to put two stab-ins into the chimney stack. These will extract some of the gas — “he draws a tank connecting the smaller pipes “and send it into a centrifuge — “he draws a spiral of air within the tank “which will extract the carbon from the gas.” M grimaces: “But it’s not very efficient or useful. Carbon capture and storage… what’s the point in putting the energy into this process, then burning carbon to transport it, just to put it back in...

Diary of a firefighter: First day on the watch

My first priority when starting work at a large London fire station was nothing to do with being an operational firefighter, but to get to know the station culture. It’s a pretty unusual working environment, where you eat, sleep and work in close proximity for sometimes gruelling 12-hour shifts, and shared lives, danger and trauma can create strong bonds. It can be an intimidating environment to join, and I’d heard stories from our trainers and others about some pretty tough beginnings. A firefighter, O, has volunteered to be my mentor and support me with settling into station life and...

Diary of an engineer: Reshuffle in the power plant

One of the operators is retiring, and we gather in the control room for presents, leaving speeches, a raffle and a free lunch. The man retiring is T, “the Scotsman”, with the driest sense of humour on the plant. The Ops team gift him a fishing rod and a bottle of famous grouse, and G makes a speech about how “we’ll all miss T’s constant stream of abuse.” When T speaks, he’s very serious: “It’s been an absolute pleasure to work with you these past 35 years. I’ve made some great friends here — unfortunately they’ve all started leaving, so it’s time I went too. “Covid has made me think about my...

Diary of a Tube worker: These times are a bit awkward

I’ve come in off the front to have a break. D has just walked into the room from a meeting with a manager. “They have said they can just terminate our contract”. “Really?” F says, putting the duty book down and looking pained. “Yeah, it isn’t just you can’t be an instructor, if we continue to refuse we either go back to just being an operator or they sack us”. (Train operators who also work as instructors have been refusing some modes of work they consider covid-unsafe). “So what are you going to do?” “Well, I might take their option to stop for six months and go from there”. “Maybe if I was...

Diary of a Tube worker: “Why not just tell us the info?”

“Red means stop. Yellow means slow down and green means proceed. Really it’s as simple as that... Now some signals you need to do a certain speed for them to clear and some will almost always clear as you approach them but they might not so you need to be ready to stop. If you are motoring into a red signal, you’ve got a problem” “Hit a platform at a certain speed and you’ll be fine, you can crawl in for now but once out on the road you’ll want to keep to time. Then the routes will just become second nature and you’ll get used to driving in different weather conditions and then you’ll be fine”...

"We don't get sick leave. It's just statutory"

The night shift operators seem to have smashed the crane and grab into a wall. No one will admit fault, but it’s a mess. The grabs are connected to the crane with heavy shackles and thick steel cables. When we first inspect the ropes one of the guides has splayed open, which must have taken incredible force. The crane engineer replaces it immediately. I assist the hydraulics contractors on the grab while the electricians work on the crane controls. The contractors — A and S — gather spanners, rags, paper overalls and work permit, then head into the pit where the grab is parked on a concrete...

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