Diary of an engineer: Shock and learning

Submitted by AWL on 6 October, 2020 - 6:31 Author: Emma Rickman
Engineering plant

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, trying to look competent in front of the workers filling the cabin on their break. Finally the other apprentice helps me get it off the wall, disconnect the “Wall...socket...thing…?” “Spur. Fuse spur.” With the qualified electrician, we test the heater in the workshop, find no faults, and I put the cover back together. In the cabin, I reconnect the ( new vocab, must remember) Fuse Spur into the wall, close the breaker, and switch on the heater — nothing. Burning with frustration, I go for lunch.

After lunch we go back and test the spur — in my anxiety to get it screwed into the wall I’ve crushed the plastic casing and the fuse. I replace it carefully with the others peering over my shoulder. This is just like that vacuum cleaner switch I destroyed the day before, trying to force it through the too-small hole in the casing with pliers…

That afternoon J, a qualified electrician, asks if I’d like to do a job fitting new plug-sockets in the kitchen. “You’re all right with that aren’t you? You know what you’re doing” he smiles with trust and confidence. I feel ok, I know the components and I know the tools. I isolate, test for dead, drill and fit the rawlplugs, connect the conduit, wire in the socket. I feel relieved to have done something right and unassisted today. I close the breaker — nothing.

The breakers are not labelled correctly, and I don’t want to go through each one again testing for dead. It would make me look stupid for forgetting (as if I hadn’t done it correctly the first time) and it might knock off the power to the workshop sockets below, interrupting the welders. I open three breakers I think are likely to isolate the kitchen, then test the new socket I’ve fitted — 0v on the live, 3v on the neutral.

“Have you isolated?”

I don’t want to ask for help. “Yeah that’s dead.”

I follow the plugs back through the circuit and discover a live has come loose further “up the line”. Relieved to have found the fault, I push the copper back into the terminal with the tip of my finger, and it shocks me. Nothing like I thought it would be, no pain, burning or aching, just a prick on my fingertip and a shudder in my ribcage, like a quick plunge into cold water. It’s nothing compared to the embarrassment. I try to laugh it off.

“Ah — ha! — that’s not dead then.”

J is pretty calm “That shock you?”

“Yeah. Not badly though.”

“Hmm...thought you isolated it. What did the test say?”

“I thought it was dead. 3v neutral, nothing live.”

The other apprentice goes next door to open the right breaker, which of course he knows without having to check. I test the lives and read 0v, 0v, 0v. J, understandably, double-checks my testing. “You were testing a broken circuit — watch the volts on your neutral.”

“You’re right — I will do. I feel like an idiot.” I feel like a dangerous, sulky teenager, that I shouldn’t be there at all, that my boss hired me in a fit of politically-correct corporate arse-kissing, and that I should — for God’s sake — go home and stop.

“You’re ok — just don’t do it again.”

• Emma Rickman is an apprentice in a Combined Heat and Power Plant.

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