Now that we’ve covered the comfy aspects of working offshore…like the free food and gym…it’s time to get serious about what people actually do on an oil rig. The reason the “off-tour” facilities are so good is because when you are “on-tour” you work bloody hard! When you are working 12+ hours every day for up to 28 days straight then you don’t have much spare time to be doing cooking, cleaning and washing.
When people hear the term “oil rig workers” the mental picture that immediately comes to mind is that of roughnecks throwing tongs and slips around the drill pipe on the drill floor. Without a doubt, this would be the most dangerous and physically demanding job on an offshore oil rig, and the one the public most commonly associates with the drilling industry. While the drilling crews are the “face” of the industry they are just a small part of the total workforce that contributes to the successful drilling of each and every well drilled offshore.
In this article I’ll start breaking down the workforce and explaining all the different roles that are performed offshore. Starting with the drilling contracting company that owns the rig I’ll list, and explain, all the job titles and what they involve. Because many of the senior personnel on any rig have normally worked their way up through the ranks of the company, it makes sense to start at the entry-level positions and work our way up to the top roles. The role titles may change from rig to rig but the following list is a guide of the more common ones. This article will cover the deck crew and what they do.
The roustabouts are generally the least experienced and least skilled workers on the rig. It is the entry-level position for most people who start working on a rig who don’t have any formal profession or trade. Generally a rigging background is an advantage because their main job is helping to move equipment around the decks.
Roustabouts have the most exposure to the weather than any other workers on the rig as they generally spend their entire 12-hour shift working on the open deck areas. With the extreme remoteness of drilling locations also come extremes of climate. It’s all too common to be working in conditions of extreme heat, extreme cold, extreme winds and/or extremely rough seas so you definitely need to have a tough skin and be physically fit. According to Wikipedia: “An early 2010 survey by Careercast.com of the best and worst jobs — based on five criteria: environment, income, employment outlook, physical demands and stress — rated 'roustabout' as the worst job. Nonetheless, the anecdotal and subjective experience of an actual roustabout reveals the excitement of a challenging, adventurous job.” If this is where you are starting off your career in the oil and gas industry then I guess it can only get better!
Given the limited amount of deck space on an offshore rig, only equipment that’s needed for immediate operations are stored on the deck while other equipment is stored on nearby supply boats. There’s always a transfer of equipment going on between the supply boats and the rig and overhead heavy crane lifts are one of the most dangerous hazards that everyone has to watch out for while working offshore. Many deaths have occurred over the years from people mindlessly putting themselves at risk by being underneath a suspended load. It is essential at all times that everyone walking around the decks watches out for overhead loads and stays outside the perimeter of where the load could fall should the suspension cables fail.
Because roustabouts don’t require any previous skills they are generally sourced from the closest mainland base to where the rig is drilling offshore. With most countries these days requiring by law that international oil companies utilize a “Local Content” policy, the drilling company will usually source their unskilled laborers from the local national workforce. Because of this, roustabouts are one of the most transient work groups on an offshore rig. With most exploration wells, the roustabouts only stay on the rig for the duration of the drilling campaign (which could be just a few months up to a few years) and if the rig then goes to another country for the next contract then the roustabouts will be laid off and new ones sourced at the next location. Because of this fact, many roustabouts are employed through labor hire companies. In places where the producing fields are well established and long-term drilling is always being undertaken (for example many appraisal and development/production wells), the work continuity for roustabouts would be much more stable. Places like the Gulf of Mexico and the North Sea are two examples of this.
Like everyone who works outside the accommodation quarters, roustabouts have to adhere to the strict personal protective equipment (PPE) requirements. Basic mandatory requirements for PPE for workers on the deck include: hard hat, safety glasses, ear plugs, long sleeve shirt, long pants, (or coveralls), steel-capped work boots and impact gloves. This can vary from rig to rig but most rigs these days will have these as minimum mandatory PPE. For rigs drilling in equatorial and sub-equatorial regions there is an added personal safety risk of people succumbing to heat illnesses because of these PPE requirements. Heat stroke can have fatal consequences and it’s sometimes very hard to detect in workers as they will not want to be seen to be slacking off in their duties so will work through the signs of heat exhaustion until it escalates to heat stroke, by which time it can already have irreversible effects on the body. There are many ways of managing this and supervisors need to be very aware of how the climatic conditions can be affecting the workers and use mitigating strategies to avoid the serious consequences of heat illnesses.
The roustabouts also oversee the helicopter operations. Whenever a chopper is due on deck they will be called into action to assist in ensuring the safety of incoming passengers disembarking, outgoing passengers boarding the aircraft, and the safe loading and unloading of bags and freight. They can also be required to refuel the chopper while it is on the deck, if necessary. The engines and rotors are rarely shut down and all operations are completed “on the fly”. Accordingly, all tasks are undertaken with urgency and precision and follow a very strictly orchestrated routine.
While many roustabouts never aspire to be anything but a general laborer on the rig, many others use this start as a springboard to further their career in the industry and work their way up the ranks to a more senior drilling crew position.
After the all-imposing derrick, the massive cranes are the most identifying features on any offshore drilling rig. All rigs have at least two large cranes but many will have three or even four. Every piece of equipment offshore is heavy. Even the drill bits need to be lifted to the drill floor by cranes. Fifty tonne pedestal cranes are a heavy piece of equipment and deserve to be treated with respect. Being the workhorses of the rig means they are in constant use and therefore one of the highest areas for potential safety hazards. Regularly scheduled preventative maintenance is critical, as is having highly experienced people operating them.
Offshore crane operators have to be highly experienced to be able to handle the unusual work conditions. Unlike land-based crane operators who have a stationary worksite they are operating on, offshore operators have to deal with the motion of the vessel they are setting down and picking up from. There are six types of motion that a ship, or floating vessel, can experience and they are broken down into two categories, linear and rotational, and these each have three components to them.
HEAVE – the linear vertical (up/down) motion.
SWAY – the linear lateral (side-to-side) motion, which is generated directly, either by the water and wind currents exerting forces against the hull, or by the vessels own propulsion.
SURGE – the linear longitudinal (front/back or bow/stern) motion imparted by the sea conditions.
PITCH – the up/down rotation of the vessel about its lateral axis (side-to-side). An offset or deviation from normal on this axis is referred to as “out of trim” and dynamically positioned rigs are constantly conducting trimming activities to keep the decks of the rig horizontally level.
ROLL – the tilting rotation of a vessel about its longitudinal (front-back) axis. An offset or deviation from normal on this axis is referred to as a list or heel. Heel refers to an offset that is intentional or expected, as caused by wind pressure caused by crew actions. List normally refers to an unintentional or unexpected offset, as caused by flooding, shifting cargo, etc. With the ongoing loading and offloading of equipment and fluids from/to the supply boats this is always a motion that has to be compensated for. The rolling motion towards a steady state (or list) angle due to the ships own weight distribution is referred to as heel.
YAW – the turning rotation of a vessel about its vertical axis. An offset or deviation from normal on this axis is referred to as deviation or set.
It takes a very skillful operator to safely and successfully lay down sometimes very heavy and/or very large pieces of equipment in tight positions on a continually moving deck. Unpredictable wind and wave movements can make the task incredibly more difficult than the same load being handled on a land-based job.
Although the crane operators cabin is high off the deck they are still quite often working blind due to structures that obstruct their view of the deck where they are loading equipment. In these circumstances they rely totally on the verbal instructions over a radio or visual hand signals from a dogman on the deck that is in line-of-site of both the load and the crane operator. All lifts are a team effort with precise and clear communication. Crane lifts in very strong winds – which are quite common offshore – can be very dangerous and really test the crane driver’s and dogman’s skills to the limit.
Although not legislated, it is generally expected that an offshore crane operator holds a Tower Crane (CT) High Risk License and has completed a certification course in operating an offshore crane. Prior experience as a dogman would almost always be the first step towards a job as a crane operator. Having experience working offshore doing other deck duties, such as a roustabout and dogman, would be essential prerequisites. With efficient use of time being critical in all offshore operations it’s essential that crane operators are highly skilled and able to maneuver loads quickly and precisely. There’s little room for error and no time for repeated attempts. All lifts are a well-coordinated collaboration between the crane operator, deck crew, third-party contractors who need their equipment moved and the DLC (drilling logistics coordinator). This “offline” process is ongoing 24 hours a day, 365 days of the year, to support the high-cost “online” process of drilling the well. Much of the cost involved in drilling a well is related to the drilling operations and if these are delayed in any way by unprepared lifts of essential equipment then it starts costing the drilling company money. Being organized is key to all operations offshore. Time is money!
The typical term for a field supervisor or foreman in the oil and gas industry is a “pusher”. The person in charge of supervising all the activities that take place on the decks of the rig is commonly referred to as the “deck pusher”. The deck pusher will have several years of experience working offshore and understand the logistics of moving equipment around the decks to tie in with the hectic pace of the drilling operations. He will coordinate the crews and permits required to plan the lifts and ensure they are all done safely and in a timely manner.
The deck pusher needs to have a thorough understanding of the rig’s HS&E policies and also be very experienced in preparing and issuing work permits. Safety systems have to be very strictly adhered to while working offshore and the deck pusher must not only follow them himself but make sure all the deck workers he is supervising are following them too.
There will always be a day shift and night shift deck pusher on board the rig at all times as crane operations are ongoing 24 hours a day. The only boat-to-rig transfers that aren’t generally carried out at night are fluid transfers via hoses. Things such as fuel and drilling fluids can contaminate the environment if they were to leak during the transfer so it’s important to do these transfers during daylight hours so any leaks in the hoses or transfer system are detected immediately.
The deck pushers will meet daily with the drilling logistics coordinator (DLC) and the relevant third party personnel to plan each days lifts. Knowing where everything is placed on the decks at all times is of critical importance and the deck supervisor and DLC are in charge of managing this. Like all jobs on the rig, deck lifts rely on a detailed plan and team effort to get them done safely and in a timely manner.
This article has explained the general deck duties and the people responsible for getting them done. The next article, Part 5, will discuss the drilling crew and what jobs they are responsible for. The drilling of an offshore oil and gas well is a very complicated and highly technical undertaking and you’ll see in future articles how the drill crew works in with third party contractors to get the job done. We’re getting closer to the serious action now so stay tuned and keep reading!
Don’t forget to supply any feedback or questions you may have about anything in this article or the previous ones. With so many countries and nationalities involved in drilling of an offshore well it’s impossible to cover all the details and specific job titles because they differ from region to region. I’m attempting to give you a general overview in these articles of the typical offshore rig environment. I hope it helps give you 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