Magazine article Management Today

People: The Sharp End - Going beyond the U-Bend

Magazine article Management Today

People: The Sharp End - Going beyond the U-Bend

Article excerpt

Dave Waller spends a day underground as a flusher on the London sewer network.

Today, I'm going somewhere that is usually past the point of no return, as I head down below to join Thames Water for a day as a sewer flusher.

I arrive at the western division's Hammersmith HQ at 7.30am, where boss Phil helps me get an idea of what flushers actually do: monitoring the sewers for wear and tear, clearing 80,000 blockages a year, caused by everything from condoms and tampons to nappies and wet wipes, and, crucially, dislodging the vast accretions of fat that congest the tunnel walls so that the system can continue to function as its canny Victorian designer, Sir Joseph Bazalgette, intended - even as more and more people arrive in the city to do their business.

There's a strong sense of camaraderie as we gulp down our teas and pile into the Thames Water van; it's as if we're riding into battle. I'm in the back, across a table from Tim, who talks me through the maps of the territory - on which the sewers are highlighted red and our manholes pink.

Our first point of contact is in Stamford Brook, a manhole by the mini roundabout outside Carpetright. We kit up in overalls, waders and utility belt. I follow Tim down the metal ladder, rung by sludgy rung, into a dank weir chamber, where I'm greeted by the smell of sulphur and a couple of beached condoms. At chest height to my left is the slow-moving mainline east branch of the trunk sewer, disappearing beyond the wall of the chamber into the darkness. To my right is a metal railing guarding a steep drop down to the Hammersmith storm relief sewer beneath.

We have to divert the flow down to the lower level for a day, to help prevent silt from clogging the trunk sewer. Tim has clipped himself to the railing and begins removing the wooden boards that hold the effluent in. Suddenly he's right in midstream - a relentless torrent bouncing dramatically off his wader tops and cascading around him into what now looks like - and is, really - a giant flushing toilet.

'It's hard getting a girlfriend with this job,' Tim admits once we've returned above ground. We disinfect and disrobe in the back of the van, and I ask if he likes it. He says, yes, a 'tremendous amount'. But, then again, his previous job was digging graves. …

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