I once was at an interview where a senior manager answered a question about the work-life balance of the company.   He answered simply, “Aren’t you living when you’re working?”  This made no sense to me then and I put it off as just being his way of excusing the unreasonable time-demands of the job, but heading into my fourth week of sleep-deprived, torturous (and completely satisfying) commissioning of a new plant, I see things differently.

Commissioning hard hat

My hard-hat during commissioning

Work-life balance is a hot topic no matter what field you may be in, and engineering is no exception.  There are very few engineers in industry who keep regular 9-5 office hours, and in an operational environment, shifts (and these may be night-shifts) may stretch well beyond 12-hours.  In project management , being a deliverable-focused environment, our working times are fluid and unpredictable.  Even during less-demanding phases in the project, you may suddenly have to pull an “all-nighter” to meet a specific deadline.   Right now however, we are in the most time-demanding phase of the project. 

I have been working on the design and construction of a chrome plant for the mining industry for the past 2 years and “commissioning” means that we are finally ready to start turning on all of the equipment: from conveyors to crushers to pumps;  all the way from when the ore comes out of the ground to when our final products spit out onto the massive stockpiles at the very end of the process.  Years of planning and hard work has culminated to bring us to this period and one just hopes like hell that everything will work properly.   Ironically, nothing ever works properly the first time.  Pipes will block (or explode), pumps will burn off their v-belts, the control system will bug out and water will shower (literally shower like a waterfall) from everything at random.  So we start, run into problems, stop, fix and start again.  On and on until you get the system to stabilise.

Although we worked long hours during construction, the engineers’ role comes to life during commissioning and it really is the most exciting part of the project.  This was especially true for me who has been involved in the project from the very start.  My in-depth and expansive knowledge of the process, design and plant equipment was pivotal to getting it started.  So much so, that in the early days of the commissioning, if I were not on site, nothing could happen in one of the major sections of the plant.  It’s an awesome feeling to be trusted and capable of such a feat, but the flip-side is that you cannot, under any circumstances, leave the plant for more than a few hours at a time.

I can honestly say that I have never before worked this hard.  There were days when I was here in overalls running up and down huge steel buildings, climbing onto tanks, sticking my hands into cyclones and turning valves (or attempting to at least), until the early hours of the morning when I could finally drop into bed; only to get back here at 7am and start all over again.  There were even some days (shock! horror!) that I didn’t even wear make-up!  

These past few weeks have really put hair on my chest.  Thick, curly hair.  In the words of a colleague, I grew a pair. 

Caked with mud and dust that settled in every crevice, I spent one evening scrubbing my fingernails with an old toothbrush until finally I gave up and just painted them a dark red to hide the metallic dust that crept into the corners.  Many (women) would consider this a low point in one’s life.  But for me, strangely enough, it wasn’t.  I was in my element, taking charge of my building and all the equipment contained in it, calling the control room to start or stop things, open or close things, leading a team and making adjustments, mistakes, more adjustments until finally getting the system running. Or at least until something happened to mess everything up again.  I loved the feeling of working hard for a real purpose. It was during those long hours on site, battling it out in the cold, dust and constant overflows and spillage pouring down on me that I saw for the first time my plant in action.  All the design and installation of the equipment had taught me very little about how it actually operates and how the various components of the system influence each other, but now I could see it all come to life like magic.  The disciplines  which had until then worked in isolation – mechanical, chemical, electrical and control – all came together to bring this amazing machine to life – a machine that had the power to move in any direction I steered it; and I held the reins.

I never thought that being on site late into the night, dirty, hungry and exhausted would be something I would actually want to do.  I enjoy my free time and like relaxing in the comfort of my home and spending time with family and friends.  I go running in the afternoons, cook, fuss around my house, go shopping and have my hair done like everyone else.  This past month however, I’ve had to steal time to eat, but I didn’t mind. This plant was my baby and it was learning to walk for the first time – I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.  Work-life balance simply didn’t make sense anymore. So much of my life had gone into this work, and now that the fruits of our efforts were about to ripen, we wanted to be here to witness it all.

My life will soon go back to some sort of normality and I will likely have to get used to having so much free time on my hands. The next project will be the same and there will be times when I will have to work like a dog again, but as long as I take ownership and pride in my work, that will be okay.  It’s not the same for everyone  (I don’t have a family at home), but whether you devote 18 hours a day or a fraction of that to something you are truly passionate about, that gets your engine revving,  that gives you a purpose in life; as long as you love what you do it doesn’t matter about work-life balance.  Loving what you do makes it not work at all.