I recently had the opportunity to speak with a field supervisor for an oilfield service company in North Dakota. As one would expect, a man who’s been working in the oil field for the past five years can offer some terrific insights. He also provided some intuitive discernments on the future of his industry. Below I share some of his experiences.
He headed out to the oil patch about five years ago looking for money. Even knowing that the industry was calling from all areas for work expertise, he was surprised at the number of places people were from. Michigan, Alaska, Texas, North and South Dakota, Minnesota, even as far away as Poland were just a few of the locations he named. Like most men and women that gave up the comforts of home during our recent boom, all that cash was a key driver to his decision in facing extreme weather conditions, multiple safety hazards and an overhaul on his technical education. Having a contact already in the field he was quickly hired. Over the years, he’s worked his way up from rig hand to field supervisor for a service company that installs casings.
For those that don’t know, oil-well extraction is divided into steps. The casings are the pipes installed into the well holes to channel the oil out of the ground.
A typical day at work begins with a phone call. As a service company, his team of four are always on call. Once assigned to a rig site, they load up their diesel-powered tool truck with power tongs, slips, elevators and more. They travel to the site and usually wait, sometimes for a couple hours, before having what is commonly referred to as a “toolbox meeting.” In the toolbox meeting, the service crew and the rig crew go over the plan of action, expected safety issues and differences in this job compared to the last one. A typical casing installation can take five hours to 20 hours until completion. Safety is a number-one concern for all involved.
When I was told of the need to clean and drift it immediately brought to mind images from movies where someone in a fast car oversteers intentionally causing loss of traction in the rear wheels through turns. It looks cool, but how does that fit into the oilfield?
He was quick to clear up my misconceptions. “Clean and drift is where we go out and inspect the casings, making sure the threads to both the male and female ends of the pipe are clean and ready to fit. Also that they match up and the pipes are the same type.” While not as exciting as a race car, it does speed up the installation process and helps maintain the high-safety standards his teams observe while installing the casings into the wells.
Once the team is at the site and holds their toolbox meeting, they power up the slips and elevators. As each pipe is elevated and slipped into place, they use the power tongs to torque each pipe together. Each section of the hole will contain different lengths of casing. Making sure you have the right parts is imperative. Over torquing, the pipe will “egg” it or twist it. Torqueing may cause a leak, which could have a lot of nasty consequences. Thankfully the power tongs have a meter that reads the torque pressure amount so the crew can get it to optimum torque pressure without any issues.
Once that is done, the pipe is sent down the hole and the slips are put in place again. When asked what the biggest safety concern during this process was he was adamant.
“The number one safety issue out there is hand placement. People don’t pay attention to where they put their hands and they lose lots of fingers.”
Thankfully, the company that he works for puts safety first. He’s never experienced it himself nor had a team member suffer the consequences of a moment of inattention. “The worst I’ve ever seen is someone pulling their back thankfully,” he joked.
He shared that with his company, you start in a classroom learning about the safety hazards on the job. They go over what to do and what not to do. Then you move to the shop, learning the tools that you’ll be using. The company has established a color-coded system on the tools to let the crew easily identify where it is safe to touch or hold each piece. Like our traffic signals, red is no go zone, yellow proceed with caution and green equals go.
I asked about sleep deprivation since they’re always on call. He told me, “That is one of the bigger things aside from just complacency. Fatigue can be really bad…if we’re running really hard you can get off a 16-hour job, sleep for four or five hours and then head out again, but there is something out there called stop-job authority. Everyone has the right to stop a job at any time, so if you feel that you are too tired, or you think you can’t perform the job safely anymore you just stop the job. So then we call the shop and they send someone else out to replace the person who is fatigued.”
Looking at the future of oil I asked about new technology. Was there anything out there that he was excited about, or that would make his job safer?
He told me, “They are finding ways to take human effect out of the game. There are rigs out there designed to run by computers at a desk, which makes it safer…companies are gearing up for the next big boom so they are already testing a lot of things. You joke around with your buddies to figure out, how can we make the next big thing and get our money? You could absolutely make a machine to do what I do, wouldn’t be as fast as I can do it, but it would be safer. You can replace iron, but you can’t replace human flesh and bone.”
Besides that, there are some existing things he would change. Primarily dealing with human nature. “All the egos. You have to have a good crew open to new ideas and ways of doing things. You deal with a lot of people who think they know the best way to do everything. They won’t open their mind up to doing something a different way. Everyone on the team needs to do things the same way.”
To wrap up the interview I asked if he had any little known facts about the industry he would like to share. “Well no one really knows anything”, he laughed, “so I guess there’s a lot of little-known facts. If you don’t work out there, you really don’t know anything about it. Something I don’t even know is where does all our oil go? The number of holes that I’ve seen drilled in the past five years and the amount of the oil that they tell us comes out of each well, where does it all go?”
Turns out that question is a common Google search and the results are a mix of political agenda and actual fact. We’ve had a ban on exporting crude oil since 1975. This was only recently lifted in December 2015. Exporting is off to a slow start still though as inventories are keeping prices low. Most crude oil is turned into gasoline, jet and diesel fuel and heating oils. But crude oil is also used to make tar, asphalt and paraffin wax among other things, such as plastics. So even if you’re anti-big oil, chances are you use it every day in some form or another. It’s women and men like this oilfield worker and his team that is helping to keep the industry running safely from the oil rig to our homes.
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Author: Angelique C.