In this article I’ll explain what the facilities are like on offshore drilling rigs. The later generations of rigs have very comfortable modern living conditions, albeit somewhat compact compared to most onshore accommodation facilities. The accommodation block on all rigs is found under, or beside, the helideck. The helideck is the reference point for the locations on the rig with this being the “forward” end of the rig and the other three sides being the starboard, aft and port.
The accommodation block houses not only all the sleeping quarters but also the main offices for the supervisors on the rig. Atop the accommodation block and next to the helideck there is sophisticated satellite communications equipment, which provides phone and Internet connections to the outside world. The primary lifeboats are always found on the port and starboard sides of the accommodation block and secondary lifeboats at the aft end of the vessel. It is essential that all personnel familiarize themselves with the quickest route to their allocated primary and secondary lifeboats from both their sleeping quarters and also their workplace. Most rigs are a maze of levels and pathways and not knowing the quickest route to the lifeboats can cost you valuable time in an emergency situation. This is one of the reasons why fire and abandon rig drills are performed every week so it becomes second nature for everyone to access their emergency stations.
The top level of the accommodation block houses the “bridge”, which is the main office for the marine crew, especially when the vessel is in transit. The radio operator also generally works out of the bridge and is the main point of call for any emergency situations on the rig.
There can be anywhere from two to several levels within the accommodation block and sleeping cabins can be on all levels, but generally the higher you are up the food chain, the higher the level you will sleep on. As mentioned in the previous article, the cabins are generally two-man or four-man rooms. All later generation vessels will have ensuite bathrooms in each room but there are still many old rigs around the world that have four-man rooms and communal bathrooms.
For safety reasons you are not supposed to keep your door locked while in your room because if there is an emergency then people need to get into your room to make sure you have woken up and preparing to evacuate the rig. During a fire drill it’s the utilities (cleaners) job to systematically go from room-to-room checking that no one is left in any of the rooms while the crew are preparing to abandon the rig.
The galley and dining room/mess are normally found on a lower deck and meals are provided around the clock. The main meal times are at 0500-0700hrs, 1100-1300hrs, 1700-1900hrs and 2300-0100hrs, but the galley is open almost 24 hours a day so you can obtain snacks in between meal times. The quality of food varies from rig to rig but is usually pretty good. Depending on the cooks, you can sometimes get exceptional quality of meals. It’s not unusual to get top restaurant chefs working offshore because they can quite often make much more money as a cook offshore than working in a restaurant in the city. Many rigs even have pastry chefs who not only keep a supply of yummy cakes and desserts in the fridge but also bake fresh bread daily.
Being a 24-hour operation means that some unlucky people have to work over public holidays. The galley crews always put on a special spread over holidays like Easter and Christmas so even though you have to work a 12-hour shift you still get to have a celebratory dinner. The festivities are dampened somewhat by the fact that you only have 20-30 minutes to enjoy the dinner before having to go back to work and also, with alcohol being forbidden offshore, there’s only non-alcoholic wine or beer to wash down the feast. Being at home with family and friends is always a better option!
Most rigs these days have reasonably well-equipped gymnasiums on board. The bigger the rig, generally the bigger the gym is likely to be. I have been on rigs where the gym is the width of the length of the treadmill and if two people are in there at the same time then it is crowded! Others have had two or more training rooms – one for cardio equipment and another for weight training gear. Big TV screens on the walls is also pretty commonplace, and someone has usually rigged up some sort of sound system that you can plug your iPod into if you want to listen to music. As well as training in the gym, many rigs also allow the helideck to be used for recreational activities in between helicopter operations. In sunny climates the helideck is also a favourite place for rig crew to work on their tans…not a wise choice if you’re one of the few females working on the rig…. especially given that there are nearly always closed circuit TV cameras tuned into the area 24 hours a day!
Many rigs also have additional recreational activities like table tennis tables, pinball machines, saunas, and probably lots of other things that I haven’t personally seen. It used to be common to have a theatre room where people would watch “videos” but these days most rigs provide TV’s and DVD players in all the bedrooms so that has pretty well killed the social interaction that having movie nights used to provide. Most people also have hard drives full of movies that they take out with them and watch on their laptops while lying in bed.
Satellite communications equipment is becoming ever-increasingly sophisticated offshore with online communications for workers wanting to connect with loved ones back home now an accepted standard of living conditions offshore. Naturally though, this is only a side benefit of the oil and gas company’s need to transfer ever-increasing amounts of data between the field operations and the head office. Real-time data packages sent during key periods of the drilling operations (such as drilling through the reservoir formations and wireline operations) require reliable and fast speed data transfer rates.
There will always be two separate communication networks; one provided by the drilling contractor and one provided by the operating oil and gas company. Both of these networks provide free wifi for the workers onboard the rig but it is usually of very limited bandwidth and very slow. It is however, a way for people to stay in touch with family and friends and instant messaging via a mobile device is probably the most popular method of communicating with the outside world while on the rig. All offshore rigs still have an “old-fashioned” telephone in a booth somewhere so people can make free phone calls home. The commonsense approach prevails of limiting calls if others are waiting to use the phone. Most workers these days travel with a laptop or iPad and access the Internet while on the rig, just as they would if they were at home. The only difference is that they have to expect certain sites to be blocked, such as porn sites and gambling sites. These two are big “no-no’s” and generally YouTube is inaccessible also as it uses too much data for the overloaded system to handle.
Mobile/cell phone use outside of the accommodation block is absolutely prohibited, as is taking photos. Because of the possibility of gas being encountered during drilling operations, all non-intrinsically safe electronic devices are forbidden. Should photos need to be taken for operational purposes then a special intrinsically safe camera has to be used. Normal cameras are able to be used but only with the issuing of a “hot work permit” which has to be signed off by several senior people who deem the work area to be safe for the task. The use of cell phones outside of the accommodation block can, and in many cases has, resulted in instant dismissal and an unplanned flight on the next available chopper off the rig.
All rigs have day shift and night shift medical personnel on board, and usually one of them will be a fully qualified medical doctor. They work out of a reasonably well-equipped “hospital” which is located in the accommodation block and usually in an area that can be easily accessed from the helideck. With many people working month-long hitches offshore it’s essential to have a facility that can cope with not only operational emergencies arising from accidents and incidents on the rig but also everyday medical problems as well. If someone unknowingly brings out a virus that they picked up while on break then it can travel around the rig faster than a wildfire. With the accommodation block being a watertight structure it is necessary to maintain a comfortable air quality and temperature using ducted air-conditioning. Added to this problem is the fact that many people spend their whole 12-hour shift working in customized shipping containers that are pressurized and have no windows and have to share their air with several other teammates in the very confined conditions. If any of these people have a cold then you can bet they will all eventually get it. While getting a cold at a job in the city may not be that big a deal – you just call in sick for the day and drive to the nearest pharmacy to get some cold and flu tablets – when you are hundreds of miles out to sea and still have weeks before you will be flying home then it is very inconvenient. Not only do you have to continue to do your job for 12-hours a day (as there are no relief workers out there!) but you can’t drive to a shop and pick up any medication. Gastroenteritis is another common illness that crops up from time to time and is easily spread around the rig by contact with handrails and doorknobs. And when you consider that NOT using the handrails when you are walking up or down the stairs is also a sack-able offence then it can be hard to avoid picking up germs if you aren’t diligent with personal hygiene. There’s also a chance people can pick up exotic diseases during their transit time to the rig, with many workers flying in from all around the world. Any sick or injured people who are deemed unable to continue with their duties will be medivac’d off the rig at the earliest convenience. The medics who work on the rigs are generally ex-military personnel and well equipped to deal with the first aid treatment of serious trauma injuries. Depending on how far offshore and how remote the area is it can take several hours to get to a land-based hospital so you definitely don’t want to be hurting yourself out there!
One of my favourite things about working offshore (that only a mother of three kids can appreciate) is that you don’t
have to do any cooking, cleaning or washing of clothes. It’s all done for you! The most you have to do at meal times is scrape your leftovers into a bucket and leave your plates and cutlery on a bench for someone else to wash. How brilliant is that?! But wait…it gets better. Your bedroom is not only serviced but generally your bed is made for you and the bathroom cleaned. But the best part of all is that before you go to bed, you place your work clothes from that day in a laundry bag and place them on the floor in the corridor outside your cabin and from there they get collected by one of the utilities and washed, dried, folded and placed back on the floor outside your door so by the time you wake up they are ready to wear again. If only life was that easy at home!
When travelling to a rig for the first time, it’s recommended you contact anyone you may know from your company who is already on the rig to ask the following questions:
- How cold are the living quarters? Even if the rig is in a tropical region, it pays to take a jacket out with you. The air conditioning can be savage on some rigs.
- What types of power outlets are on the rig? As offshore rigs are built and work in different locations all around the world they can have power outlets that differ from what you use at your home base. Generally they are UK or US type outlets but it pays to make sure so you can take any adapters you may need for charging your personal electronic devices.
- What are the dress standards in the living quarters? Most rigs will have a “closed-in shoe” policy or “no slip-on shoes” policy. It pays to take closed-in shoes with you just in case. You need to wear closed in shoes for the chopper ride to the rig anyway. I’ve seen a person rock up at the heliport wearing only thongs (Jandals) and didn’t even have a pair of safety boots with him because he expected to get these on the rig. He was not allowed to fly to the rig.
- Are you allowed to wear work clothes inside the accommodation block? Work clothes are generally not allowed to be worn in the accommodation quarters, even if they are brand new or recently washed. Some rigs will allow clean work clothes to be worn so it’s best to check so you can be sure. You don’t want to be embarrassed by getting chastised about your mistake while standing in line to get your dinner.
- What areas are set-aside for smokers? Smoking of cigarettes and ecigarettes is only allowed in designated areas/rooms. These areas can be out on the deck, inside rooms, or both. Lighters will be provided in these areas so there is no need to take them out with you – and it is prohibited to do so.
- What wifi or Internet facilities are available? Knowing how you’ll be able to contact your loved ones while you’re away is handy to know so your family knows what to expect. The slow Internet speeds can make it difficult to download apps while on the rig so it’s best to download any apps you might need on your phone before you leave home.
As you can see, there are many rules and regulations that have to be followed when working offshore, not just when you are out on the deck doing your job but also in the living quarters. With so many people working and living in such a confined space it’s necessary to set the boundaries so everyone knows what’s expected of them while on the rig. There can be severe consequences for non-compliance and a free ride on the next chopper off the rig can be your punishment for not following the rules. Being “run off the rig” is a more common occurrence during the downturn we are experiencing now, when jobs are hard to come by and there are plenty of rule-abiding workers waiting in the wings to replace less dedicated workers. The old “three strikes and you’re out” rule has almost become extinct and replaced with a “zero tolerance” policy as health and safety standards become increasingly strict and rigidly enforced. The “foolhardy” or “larrikin” behavior of yester-year is no longer accepted behavior offshore. While the comraderie amongst some crews is legendary, you will soon find out that life on a rig is far from easy. Many jobs are labor-intensive and 12-hour shifts can be very arduous for the uninitiated.
In Offshore Oil and Gas PEOPLE Part 4 I will start to break down the different jobs, professions and trades that can be found on offshore rigs. Starting with the drilling contracting company I will explain all the positions, starting with the least experienced workers and building up to the rig manager. If you’ve ever wanted to work offshore but haven’t really understood what opportunities there are, then watch out for future posts so you can see the range of positions and qualifications needed to get a start offshore.
Don’t forget to supply any feedback or questions you may have about anything in this article or the previous ones. I’d love to know your thoughts and I hope you are gaining a better understanding of what it’s like to work offshore.
Amanda Barlow is a wellsite geologist in the offshore oil and gas industry with a field-based geology career spanning over three decades. As well as being a recreational marathoner who has run over 40 marathons in 16 different countries she is also a published author of two books: “Call of the Jungle – How a Camping-Hating City-Slicker Mum Survived an Ultra Endurance Marathon through the Amazon Jungle” and also “An Inconvenient Life – My Unconventional Career as a Wellsite Geologist”. You can connect with her through the Pink Petro community, LinkedIn: https://au.linkedin.com/in/amanda-barlow-21a08b22 or through her Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/AnInconvenientLife