Diary of an engineer: Slow days

Submitted by AWL on 9 September, 2020 - 11:04 Author: Emma Rickman
Engineering plant

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 piece of pipework which is too flimsy to do its job — the fluid inside it rushes around with such force that it rattles the pieces of plastic pipe apart. The whole pipe leg needs to be replaced with steel, but the budget won’t allow for it yet. We have the time to repair it, and it is our job, but it’s very disheartening to see your work broken and broken again pointlessly, when the problem could be easily eliminated.

Another apprentice installed some new lights in one of the workshops, and the worker that uses them asks that they be angled slightly differently. This pointless task keeps the apprentice busy for a day — I grit my teeth and roll my eyes.

I observe others working. An external company come in to change some valves on the crane grab’s hydraulic system. The contractor spends some time trying to get the crane to move by remote; neither of us can figure out why the grab won’t lower, and have to waste time getting help. Once the grab is down, the engineer tests the fluid pressure on each side of the cylinders which move the “petals” on the grab. He ensures that there is a pressure difference between each side, enabling the cylinders to move smoothly, all while scowling at his manager looking over his shoulder.

Another day I help some valve engineers test the high-pressure steam safety valves in the turbine hall; a process known as trevi testing. A hydraulic press is placed on top of the valve and pulls the spring upwards, simulating an increase in pressure within the pipe. Once a given pressure is reached — 8 bar — the valve should open by itself and release steam safely out the chimney. The engineers — who both have huge beards and are a good laugh — adjust the tension on the valve spring until these conditions are met.

For several mornings the qualified fitters are nowhere to be found, and the other apprentice and I kick around drinking coffee and trying to find jobs to do. I go up to the control room.

“Where are the fitters?”

“J was just here — he’s gone down to the workshop.”

“Ah, I was just there. What about D?”

“He’s delivering a motor to Sulzers.”


“In shop.”

“Anything going on up here?”


Me and J, the other apprentice in our team, try to keep ourselves occupied and second-guess where our tutors might be. We clean the lime venturi; we hammer and press a door back into its frame; we fix the discharger pipe again; we do greasing runs; we replace oils; we drink too much coffee; we have long, irritated lunches.

Everyone is a bit restless and on edge, we feel useless and left out. I’m looking forward to having the knowledge and trust to work alone.

• Emma Rickman is an engineering apprentice at a combined heat and power plant.

Other entries in the “My Life At Work” series, and other workers' diaries

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