As VGC Group’s women in construction champion, I decided to get some hands-on work experience.
I wanted to understand what it takes for a woman to work on site; the challenges, the lessons and the bonuses.
I worked on the Thames Tideway Tunnel project for a week, starting on Monday 18 June.
The project is a set of new tunnels to increase the capacity of London’s sewerage system. Sir Joseph Bazalgette’s original sewers – built in the middle of the 19th century – were designed to cope with a population of up to 4 million. Today London is home to 9 million people, and the system just can’t cope. Building a new super-sewer should solve the problems. It’s really important work and I was delighted to have a chance to play my part in it.
I needn’t have worried
I was nervous as I set off on my two-hour commute to Wandsworth, wondering what sort of reception I would get. What would I be walking into? Would everyone be friendly?
I needn’t have worried. Soon after I’d arrived the briefing began: everyone introduced themselves and I became part of the team. I was told about all the different jobs being tackled, and what the work on that site would achieve as part of the Thames Tideway project.
On Monday and Tuesday morning I was working on the site at Dormay Street. It is one of the sites in the west being delivered by the BAM Nuttall, Morgan Sindall, Balfour Beatty joint venture. That’s where I’d been in May for my induction, that covered everything I’d need to know to make a safe start.
I was going to work as a traffic marshal. Everyone knew that I’d never worked on site before, but they were very keen to show me the work that they were doing, and explain why they were doing it. So I was often called on to help with different tasks.
It was a little nerve-racking at first, I must admit. Every time anyone suggested I help them out, I’d say, “I don’t know how to do that!”. Their response was amazing. Instead of taking over, they’d say, “give it a go, and I’ll be here to help out if you need me to”. There was no hint of sexism in any conversation – gender was irrelevant, what mattered was making sure you could do the job.
The whole approach was about pulling together
I soon discovered that a sense of humour was vital; it was really important to lighten the load of what could be long days, when you can’t just step away from a situation. In this kind of environment it pays to get on with your co-workers when you’re all under pressure.
The whole approach on site was about pulling together. We made a team, whether we were experienced or just beginning, managers or labourers. If you’re naturally a team player, you’ll feel very much at home on site. And it isn’t a case of all being able to do the same thing: you work within your capabilities.
On the Tuesday afternoon I was transferred to King George’s Park. That was a new site near Dormay Street that was just being prepared for site workers. So I was helping to unload articulated lorries, close off the roads to let the lorries enter and exit site safely, and get things ready for the team.
Tideway supporting women
Towards the end of the week each person was given an ‘observation’ card: we were encouraged to report on things that we thought were good, and those areas that could be improved. All the cards were collected and taken to the site management office, where the results were transferred on to a spreadsheet. One of the things that the women asked for was a bench in the changing room, so that we could sit down when putting on our boots. A small thing, but quite important. And the bench was provided.
I met a young woman called Brooke. She had started as a ground worker but was working as a traffic marshall until the site was developed to the point at which she could take up her original job again. That’s because Thames Tideway was so keen to keep her employed.
One of the main things to consider is just how demanding the work is, every day. Of course, it didn’t help that I’d been up since four every morning, in order to leave by 5am for a 7:30am start on site. (That’s not usual at VGC: we make sure that no-one has the sort of commute that puts additional strain on a working day.) But working a 10-hour shift with two breaks, on your feet for much of the day, and tackling physical tasks, well, it takes a lot of strength. I think I’m reasonably fit and strong, but I was exhausted at the end of every day. Not only that, but my clothes were a lot looser at the end of the week – I must have lost about 8lbs!
The other thing to say is that the demands of the job can make it very difficult to fit in any kind of social or domestic life on a working day. I saw almost nothing of my teenage daughter during my labouring week, and found that I was too tired to even contemplate meeting up with friends outside working hours. All my energy was focused on the job at hand, which meant that all chores had to be tackled at the weekend. It was an interesting experience for me, on a one-week trial. But for those running a home and bringing up children – men or women – I saw that it can bring many challenges.
On that subject, flexible working is an excellent concept, but it won’t work when everyone needs to play their part in the team at the time that the task needs to be completed. And if you’re offering one person the option of flexible working, perhaps to collect their son or daughter from school, you would need to extend the offer to everyone on site, which just wouldn’t be practical. Lots of the people I worked alongside have school-aged children and rely on the support of family members to keep everything running smoothly. It’s a case of putting the needs of the job ahead of your individual needs.
That said, I enjoyed every day I spent on site and got a huge amount of job satisfaction from the week. Working in this kind of environment, where you can see progress being made week by week, is very rewarding. To be even a small part of a project that will make a difference to London and its community was so fulfilling and I’m proud to be able to say “I did that”! I was very sad to say goodbye to everyone I’d worked with, but when I went back to visit them recently, everyone came up to ask me how I was doing, which was lovely.