Oilpatch success is a real killer

Oct 17, 2004 02:00 AM

by Mindelle Jacobs

In the rush to pump our $ 54-a-barrel oil out of the ground and fatten our pockets, rules stipulating maximum work hours can be irritants on the road to success.
Workplace safety may be an increasing concern in the oilpatch, but often job demands and the lure of quick money propel employees to work weeks or months on end without a day off.

Earlier, I wrote about long hours and fatigue in the oil and gas industry and the resulting toll -- injuries and deaths on Alberta's roads. I was surprised to learn industrial workers, including those in the oilpatch, are allowed to work 24 12-hour shifts in a row before getting four days off. It seemed inconceivable that someone could remain alert for so many days on end. Then I received a shocking e-mail from a Calgary man who's worked in the oilpatch for 30 years.
"I am a seismic surveyor and I routinely work 60 day shifts of 15- or 16-hour days," wrote Graham Grasdal. "The longest stretch I ever did was 104 days in 1978, but Ihave heard of guys who did 200-plus days without a break."

Because seismic surveyors generally only work in the winter when the ground is frozen, they force themselves to work as many days as possible, Grasdal told me.
"(Following regulations) is better than it used to be but the (24-day rule) is a figment," he said. "If the work is there, we'll do 60 days." Workers happily break the rules, he added.
"You don't do it if you don't want to do it. You make hay while the sun shines."

After about 30 straight days on the job, people get "bushed" or disconnected from reality, he said. In addition, seismic surveyors work some of the longest jobs in the oilpatch and some risk falling asleep behind the wheel, he said. A couple of decades ago, he occasionally nodded off and "hit the ditch," risking his life and the lives of others because he was so exhausted, recalled Grasdal, 51.
"I'm too old for that crap anymore," he said, adding that he pulls off the road and sleeps now when he's too tired to drive. Companies such as the one that employs him hold regular safety meetings and warn workers not to drive while tired, said Grasdal.
But the problem persists, he said. "Young fellows push themselves because they think it's expected of them."

Unfortunately, we're seeing the consequences on our roads. Between 1999 and 2003, more than 40 % of fatalities in the upstream petroleum industry involved traffic accidents. It's alarming that oilpatch employees are working such long hours, in breach of the regulations, says Patrick Delaney, director of health and safety for the Petroleum Services Association of Canada.
The phenomenon is driven by high commodity prices, a shortage of trained workers and "the usual attitude of young males that they're indestructible," he says.

The economy is so hot that businesses, including the construction and manufacturing sector, are scrambling to find workers while making sure they're properly rested, says Delaney.
"Is it an excuse? No, that's just a fact of life."
Part of the problem is that instead of taking their required days off, some workers quit, join another company and continue working without a break, says Mike Doyle, president of the Canadian Association of Geophysical Contractors.

As well, seismic surveyors don't make as much money as people on the rigs and many of them are from other provinces so they want as much work as possible, he says.
"They're not all that interested in having four days off to sit in a motel in the middle of nowhere," says Doyle.
It took years for the public to grasp the importance of seat belts, he says. Addressing the wider issue of driving behaviour, including fatigue, is the next challenge, he adds. Delaney suggests the entire oilpatch could use an attitudinal shake-up.
"We need to take a hard look at the demands we're placing on our workers," he says.

Indeed. It appears success is killing us.

Source: Anchorage Daily News
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