… and giggles. Photo by Brian Crossman

Correction: In my last article I made a significant error. When I wrote about the “Outlaw Buckers and Oil Kings” event I neglected to give credit to Robert Schmidt of Elite Safety for coming up with the idea, gathering most of the sponsorship, organizing and executing the show. Jon Kmita and other volunteers pitched in, but Robert got the ball rolling. (True leadership) My apologies for the omission, it’s all on me. On to today’s column which, by no small coincidence is about mistakes.

Siberia. A bunch of us Canadian righands had been working on a project repairing and optimizing oilwells on a joint-venture project. It was a good adventure, and we got a lot of work done safely and efficiently. As it ended, they asked a few of us if we would come back and be instructors at a “service rig” school. We had been training Russian oilfield workers on Canadian service rigs and integrating them “on the fly” so to speak. We trained them while we performed the workovers and for the most part, they all caught on quite well.

So, the company asked several of us if we would be interested in coming back for a year or so and become “instructors” on two service rigs they had shipped in from the USA. They were a little rough, but they ran fine and were reasonably safe. The money was decent, the task would be challenging but when you have a chance to pass on some knowledge, it can also be very rewarding.

My assistant, Mark, and I had a crew of eight workers from various parts of the former USSR. They were a good bunch, and they all had experience on the Russian version of service rigs. We had taught several crews up to this point and we were really enjoying it. It had plenty of challenging moments, but overall, the crews were very appreciative and willing to learn. After a week on nightshift, we had the guys doing pretty good with the basics of a North American style service rig. They could rig up, rig out, trip sucker rods and trip pipe reasonably well.

One night shift, I collected my crew at the camp around 19:00 hours loaded them on the Ural six by six (think military truck) and drove out to the rig to relieve the day crew. Ed, the field supervisor, asked if I could leave my assistant Mark behind at camp to help the mechanic who needed some help that night. I told him that would be fine, as the Russian crew was getting pretty good and they were catching on to most of the tasks quite well. We had the hand-off briefing with the dayshift and prepared for the night’s activities.

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We began with the usual pre-job safety meeting, where we would discuss the plan for the evenings work, lessons and discuss any potential hazards we could encounter. I told the crew about the tasks planned which included tripping pipe in and out of the derrick. (Note: This was all done through an interpreter of course, my Russian wasn’t that great) When I said that there was an unusual amount of grumbling and muttering from the crew. I turned to my interpreter Uri and asked politely, “What the f—k is their problem?” So, he posed the question to the guys, hopefully without the profanity.

They replied, “We feel we are very proficient at tripping pipe and do not need to trip anymore.”

To which I said, “I disagree.”

“The blocks are stopping, it’s not smooth and not fast at all.”

(The old saying goes, “slow is smooth, smooth is fast.”)

I told them that I would be in the derrick demonstrating to the derrickman and teaching him how to latch the pipe elevators on the fly. We discussed it further and I ended the conversation with, “I want to see you tripping pipe like a Canadian rig crew.”

We went out and prepped the rig for the night and began to trip pipe into the well from the derrick. I was up the derrick with my trainees and teaching them the finer points of “throwing pipe.” Things were going well, and the guys were getting smoother at tripping pipe in the well. All of a sudden I heard some yelling and swearing (In Russian) and I looked down the rig floor. I immediately noticed that there was no “stump” on the rig floor. By stump I mean there was no pipe sticking up from the slips, which of course meant the pipe had been dropped down the well. For those of you that don’t know, this is one of the major mistakes in the rig business. There are some worse, but not many.

I came down from the derrick and had the driller shut the blind rams on the blow-out-preventer. I looked at the crew, shook my head and told them to wait right there. I walked over to my shack, closed the door and laughed my ass off. I called my field supervisor on the radio and Ed laughed his ass off too. When we finished laughing, I told Ed I would need a load of pipe sent out and a fishing tool as well. All that wouldn’t arrive until the next day of course. (The training rigs were not a priority out there)

I went back out and waved the crew to go to their shack (Rig slang for the shack is “doghouse”, which was appropriate that night) They lined up inside the “doghouse” with very sad looks on their faces. Trying not to smile or laugh (I didn’t want to make light of the situation), but looking directly at them, I told my interpreter, “Ask them if they still think the are ‘proficient’ at tripping pipe?”

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They all looked down at their feet and shook their heads in unison. I told them to sit down for a while and think about it. I quickly went back to my shack and laughed a bit more. These big, tough rig hands were acting like little boys that broke mom’s fine China. It was kinda funny. We finished the shift off discussing what happened (The roughneck opened the latch on the elevators before the driller had the slips closed and the pipe went down the well) and how we would never do that again. At shift change I told the day crew to NOT fish the pipe, that honour was reserved for the crew that made the mistake.

I don’t want to draw this episode out, so long story short, we successfully fished the pipe from the well. Nice recovery, and the boys were extra careful during the rest of the hitch, and never questioned me again about procedures or what the lessons were on each shift. On the last night of the hitch, we sat down, and spent the hitch talking about what they had learned and what they had planned for the future. We had given them all a passing grade, so they were a happy bunch. The crew had snuck out a bottle of vodka (standard operating procedure in Russia) and poured some out for a toast. As they toasted Mark, me and the company for teaching them and giving them good information to assist them with their careers, they each stood up one at a time and spoke. The theme from each short speech thanked us for all we had taught them but especially for not getting angry and failing them for dropping the pipe down the well.

A gift from Russian roughnecks. Photo by Brian Crossman

We thanked them for the kind words. I then told them that in Canada we do our very best to learn from our mistakes. I said that while it can be expensive when these problems occur, but if we can all learn from them, the lesson from the mistake becomes more valuable than money. Some lessons won’t soon be forgotten and can potentially save someone’s life in the future. We explained that they “went to school” that night and they had the opportunity to learn from that mistake and not repeat it again. Anyone can see the value in that. They then gave us presents, and mine was a hand-painted wooden bowl with spoons they had brought in at the last minute. I still have it and it is a prized possession of mine.

I guess the lesson here is to not judge too quickly when mistakes are made. Make it an opportunity to improve the person or people that made the mistake and make them better because of it. The bonus is by understanding, forgiving and coaching you will improve yourself and become a better mentor and leader.

Brian Crossman is a partner at Independent Well Servicing. He is fortunate that his many mistakes (and there are many) were usually followed up by good mentors giving “lessons in the mistakes.”

 

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