The first time you run a team you don’t expect it to be during a pandemic, but this is just what happened to Natasha Bacciarelli. As a graduate trainee, she found herself staying away from home while helping to protect her team as they carried out essential maintenance work on a major gas pipeline during the coronavirus crisis.
Graduates rotate through different placements to learn about the business. Since joining the scheme in 2018, after completing a Masters in Chemical Engineering, I’ve worked at the Isle of Grain Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) Terminal in Kent and with the Gas Innovation team in Warwick; but I wanted to get some hands-on experience with big engineering projects, so I joined the Pipeline Maintenance Centre in Derbyshire.
Our work involves using what we call a PIG, a Pipeline Inspection Gauge, to pick up any issues in the pipeline. We then list them in order of criticality and, for the worst ones, we may need to excavate the pipe to inspect it and judge what repairs are needed. We then reinstate the pipe and you’d never know we’d been there – that’s my favourite bit, as it’s so satisfying. We also perform maintenance activities on other pieces of equipment on the gas network, such as valves or compressors, and if there’s an emergency, like a gas leak, we’ll be the team to respond.
Now I’m working on Feeder 10, a 45.53 km gas pipeline that runs from Penicuik to Boon on the Scottish Borders. The pipeline was commissioned back in the 1970s and required critical maintenance work to secure the gas supply. To do the repairs, we’re using a mix of advanced paint to help seal the pipeline or applying a sleeve, which is like a giant metal plaster, to encase and protect it.
As a Project Supervisor, it’s my job to manage the day-to-day running of the site, making sure we have the right equipment to carry out the maintenance work and that the team is safe. Obviously, since the coronavirus outbreak this has involved a lot more work.
The key thing is maintaining social distancing on site. We’ve also using Air Fed masks, which we usually use to protect against fumes – they’re different from the PPE healthcare staff wear, but they’re effective against the virus too. We use open air, all-terrain vehicles called Argocats to get people around. We’re also doing extensive cleaning on door handles and all hard surfaces, and have hand sanitisers on site and in every vehicle.
The whole team of around 14 of us, plus contractors, are isolating in the Tontine hotel in Peebles. We stay here for 12 days at a time – always in the same room – then have two days at home before coming back. It’s not like normal jobs where you travel and go out to explore the area. We’re eating all our meals at the hotel – sitting on allocated, socially distanced tables – and only leaving to go to the site, to protect the community around us.
It’s still fun though. We’re getting to know each other really well and we’ve done bingo nights and quizzes to keep ourselves entertained. In some ways, living together makes it easier to support one another, as we can chat about any concerns we have during our downtime. I know who on the team has children who are off school or a vulnerable person they’re worried about, so I can ask after them and make sure they’re doing alright over breakfast or after dinner, when we’re not focused on the job in hand.
We’re working in a disused quarry at the moment, which is about a mile from the laydown area so, even though we can’t get out and about, if you walk between the two you can get quite a bit of exercise. So far, my record is 8 km in one day.