Diary of an engineer: Night shift

Submitted by AWL on 25 March, 2020 - 7:34 Author: Emma Rickman
Sheffield at night

I was rostered onto District Energy (DE) last week (ending 20 March). There are lots of repair jobs; because of the major leak near the swimming pool last month, sections of the network have been isolated several times.

As pipes cool and warm back up the metal expands and contracts slightly, leading to leaks at other weak-points. As well as these there is street-resurfacing to complete, and a big hole in the ground to fill.

D, my mentor, is a chatty ex-miner with dodgy knees. His role is to issue work permits to the civil engineering contractors, supervise jobs, isolate the network where necessary and assist with planning and access. On Tuesday night he has a job to supervise on Norfolk St, and I decide to go along. I haven’t worked at night since pulling pints in a London pub, so I take a flask of coffee.

At 10:30pm the streets are empty, but the plant is (reassuringly) running as usual. D explains straight-off; “I got a call from C (head of the team of contractors) at 7:30 asking where I was! He said he thought we were starting at 8 – I said no, permit’s at 11.”

The job is a night-shift because the repair is next to Arundel Gate, a busy bus interchange opposite a theatre. The machine now positioned on the junction is a large box-like wagon with a hose suspended on a hydraulic ram. The machine sucks gravel into it like a vacuum cleaner.

To avoid disruption to traffic and extra highway works permits, this job needs to start late, although the workers are obviously frustrated. They begin positioning the hose the instant D steps out of the van. The operator moves the arm with a set of levers held in front of him on a strap, like the controls to a toy plane.

The two District Heating pipes emerge from the ground, step over a section of buried concrete, then turn 90 degrees to head under the main road.

I’m told the concrete block had been an anchor for the old pipe, which is still visible set in the concrete where it was cut up.

Instead of removing the concrete, it was faster during an emergency repair to route new pipe over it. The new pipe will also have to be anchored at some point to ensure steam hitting the bends inside doesn’t cause it to rock under the pavement.

The hole where the pipes go underground is 6 metres deep, and for temporary stability the hole has been back-filled with gravel.

Now, to install more durable support, the gravel needs to be removed. To open the hole from above, the manhole cover is shunted off by three strong workers using leverage tools. The frame the cover sits on shakes worryingly. Then the hose is lowered into the hole and makes a racket sucking out gravel. All the workers watch the hose closely under lamps powered by a portable generator; I sit on one of the pipes so I can watch from the side – the gravel moves, slowly dragging the rest around it like a pile of sand. I stand up, warm.

“Is that the flow or return?”
“Flow,” says D “You wouldn’t be sitting on that without insulation I’ll tell you that.”

Much earlier than I expected, D drives me to McDonalds, which is busy despite the pandemic. None of the workers are wearing gloves or hair-covers; the drive through is closed.

A young man shifts from table to table, talking to himself. We order and wash our hands, and as we eat I try to avoid talking about anything personal or political. D is the sort of person who really wants you to open up, but I still don’t quite trust him, so I keep it as trivial as possible.

Back at site the hose has hit some larger debris and the vacuum won’t lift it. “We can get the stuff around it,” C says “but that leaves the heavy stuff at the bottom, and we have to get that out.”
“You need harnesses and confined space [permits] to get in there.”
“Should’ve left the manhole off.”

D and C chat a bit, then D tells them he’s going back to the yard for a bit “If you can’t do it you’ll just have to ring me.” In the van he says “If a contractor is struggling, there’s no point breathing down their neck – leave ‘em to get on with it.”

In the empty office, D dims the lights and falls asleep for an hour or so. I drink my coffee and feel groggy. Around 3 am we head back – the truck has been emptied twice and the gravel is moving slowly again. It’s cold and wet, and D doesn’t feel the need to get out of the van. A group of skateboarders troop past from the city centre – maybe they were making the most of the empty streets; it’s surreal to see lots of boys in cut-offs and caps at 3 am in the rain.

A drunk driver reverses very slowly into the back of one of the pick-ups. The woman next to him gets out immediately, and calmly abandons him. There’s no damage, but he’s bladdered. We watch him arguing with a worker trying to get his insurance details, give up, drive his car out of sight then come back to carry on arguing – eventually both D and the contractor phone the police. The driver is trying to look casual but he sways as he walks and his hands flex in and out of his pockets.

At 4.30 the hole is not empty, but the machine operator has finished his shift, and packs up. The workers are sluggish, including D, who drops the manhole lever into the hole trying to get the cover back in place. Two young men in a police car show up casually and take a statement from the contractor; apparently they find the car quickly, but the driver has cleared off.

We replace the fences and guards – the job is not close to finished. C signs off the work permit, and I head back to change and cycle home.

• Emma Rickman is an 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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