Douglas Tompson, working near Torquay in 2011. Photo by Brian Zinchuk

Editor’s Note: In setting up Pipeline Online’s thriving opinion section, I am seeking voices from a variety of vantages from the energy sector. So far we’ve got geology, corporate, nuclear, investing, politics, humour (which isn’t too far removed from politics), community and service rigs. My friend Douglas Tompson brings the viewpoint of drilling rigs, having worked his way up from roughneck to company man. When the downturn hit hard in the first week of January 2015 to rack his rig, spring breakup starts now. Since then, he’s been working overseas in the Middle East, principally as a trainer.

Tompson hails from Saskatoon.

My little sister introduced me to Brian many years ago.

We became Facebook friends and I’d often send him by biased perspective on the latest government policies that were popular in large metropolitan areas but seemed short sighted and possibly counter productive by anyone with any understanding of the situation.

Brian asked me if I was interested in writing a column and I immediately answered that I’d enjoy the challenge. I enjoy writing although brevity is my biggest challenge.  When I inquired what topic I should tackle, I was advised to start with an introduction.

My name is Douglas Tompson and I’m an oil rig worker. I say that I’m an oil rig worker because it makes a long story much simpler. I used to be an oil rig worker and I travelled an unusual path into oilfield training, but I define myself as an experienced roughneck that rarely enjoys the sight of a rig floor.

My first job on a rig was in the early 1990s in Pink Mountain, northern British Columbia, as a leasehand. It was a fly-in job. I got the position because the HR department appeared to hire anyone with a Saskatchewan address under the impression that we were raised on a farm and brought the work ethic that understood long shifts outside under extreme weather conditions.

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When I arrived at the rig site, a few basic questions quickly revealed that I didn’t have the pedigree of a Saskatchewan farm family. My new coworkers were shocked, and possibly disgusted, that I can from a family of academics. This important piece of information managed to elude the drilling contractor’s HR department. They saw that I was from Saskatchewan and simply fast-tracked my job application. Fortunately, the chartered crew plane had already left and the mistake of hiring me could not be undone for at least a couple of weeks.

I spent my first few days being yelled at. I was called every obscenity I had ever known and a few that I learned very quickly. On a number of occasions, I questioned the wisdom of seeking a job in such an environment. My saving grace was the ability to lift, and move, eighty pound bags of drilling chemicals with relative ease. Despite the perceived misfortune of being the son of academic parents, I was big enough to make myself useful.

I learned very quickly that moving pallets of drilling chemicals (bentonite, barite and so forth) from the ground level to the mud tanks earned me a temporary reprieve from being yelled at. Nobody wanted this job, so I was naturally assigned to it. It wasn’t a bad job for me. At the time, I was young and much fitter. While I can still carry a bag of barite up a flight of stairs without showing any discernable effort, I would not be able to maintain the same pace for several pallets.

After my first few days on the rig, I was summoned to the rig manager’s shack. I was expecting to be yelled at for something that I’d done wrong but was pleasantly surprised that I was being asked for a favor. Without asking the details, I made the wise decision to agree to any favor that was being asked.

I was informed that the camp dishwasher had quit and that a replacement wouldn’t be available for another week or so on the next chartered plane. The rig manager needed a camp dishwasher much more than a leasehand that couldn’t do anything except pack mud.

I reported to the camp cook who had been informed that someone from the rig would be helping with whatever was needed till a replacement was flown in.

I was looking forward to an easier job in the camp than working on the rig site. Unfortunately, I learned very quickly that this would not be the case.

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I was immediately assigned to washing dishes with an enormous triple cavity stainless steel sink. Before I started, I was asked if I knew how to wash dishes. I was stunned by the question since it seemed like a silly inquiry. Of course, I knew how to wash dishes! Within a few minutes of starting, I was told that I was doing everything wrong and that my claim to knowing how to wash dishes was not an accurate statement. It seems that there were rules, regulations and procedures surrounding the mundane task of washing dishes and I wasn’t following any of them!

The camp chef patiently explained to me that the triple sink was designed for a reason and that my method of washing dishes was unacceptable. Put simply, I was doing a simple task the wrong way! Moving forward, I would be doing it the right way. The three sink cavities were for washing, rinsing and sterilizing. The sterilizing sink had a heating element to ensure that the water was kept scalding hot. I was told to empty the sinks as required and to keep the water hot at all times. As a rule of thumb, I was told that if I could put my hands in the water without rubber gloves, it wasn’t hot enough!

I spent countless hours cleaning dishes as well as scrubbing pot and pans. There was never an end in sight because of the endless cycle of meal times for both the twelve hour day shift and the twelve hour night shift. I woke up to dirty dishes and seemed to spend all day cleaning them.

On one occasion, the camp chef asked me if I’d like a break from cleaning dishes to do another job. I understood this was a rhetorical question but I played along and accepted the other job. I was tasked with the important job of peeling potatoes. It wasn’t a bowl or bag of potatoes but rather a large box of potatoes. After peeling just a few potatoes, I realized that washing dishes was a much better job.

After a long week of washing dishes, the rig manager informed me that I would be returning to the rig crew the following day. The camp chef reported to the rig manager that I took too long washing dishes and that nobody would be fed if they had to wait for me to finish peeling the potatoes. I don’t think the camp chef missed me when I returned to the rig site but I certainly gained a valuable perspective that has helped me throughout my career on the rigs.

Douglas Tompson, supervising a site near Torquay in 2011. Photo by Brian Zinchuk

Fast forward a few decades and I’d managed to rise to the position of oil company drilling supervisor. I’ve worked across Canada, the North Sea and the Middle East. Having academic parents provided much more beneficial as I moved up the ladder and was faced with mountains of paperwork as well as a requirement to understand and perform mathematical calculations.

A few years ago, I transitioned into a training position working with recent university graduates. I was often sent to the field to help provide their hands-on orientation to the drilling rig. Each trainer provides their own unique way of explaining how the rig works based on their own experiences. I start with the basics. I explain that everyone on the rig provides a valuable role in the operation and that the rig cannot work effectively if it is missing a member of the team.

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From my perspective, the first job in the operation that needs to be appreciated is the dishwasher! I explain to my students that the dishwasher plays an important role in the drilling operation and that they can help him by making sure they recognize their efforts and to clean their plates. My students understand that there is a small discretionary grade in their field evaluation and often ask me how I assign this grade. This subjective grade can be earned very easily by doing a couple of simple things:

  • Scrape your plate clean when you are finished.
  • Stack your dishes neatly when you are finished your meal.

I hope that these simple steps will be carried on after my students have left me because it goes a long way to making things easier for the dishwasher. The camp staff certainly notice these small efforts and it isn’t unusual for a larger than normal food portion to appear on my plate.

I have been fortunate to have worked my way up the ranks on the drilling rig. I understand the difficulties and challenges that each crew member faces. I also remember the problems I faced when I started on the rigs. Nowadays, my job is primarily to make things a bit easier for those that I work with.

I only wash dishes when I go home for days off but I still remember the instructions from the camp cook on how to do it properly. This summer, my son will be ready to be taught how to do it the right way! If he decides to apply for a job on a rig when he’s older, I will have taught him how to wash dishes!

 

Douglas Tompson is a Saskatoon-based drilling supervisor and training consultant.

 

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