Now we’re getting to the group of workers who are regarded as the “face” of the offshore drilling industry – the drilling crew. They are legendary not only because of the extremely physically demanding job that they do on the rig but also because of the shenanigans they are known to get up to when they aren’t on the rig. If there’s a drill crew stuck in town during a cyclone/hurricane evacuation then you can bet there’s going to be a lot of alcohol drunk and crazy antics performed while they sit the storm out. These guys are not only known for their hard work but also their hard drinking. While times are definitely changing, especially with the introduction of “zero tolerance” policies regarding alcohol and unsafe behavior, the drill crew still take pride in living up to their reputation of being tough both on the job and off it. They really are the lifeblood of the rig and the larger-than-life personalities of many of the people who work on the drillfloor make for interesting dynamics in the workplace. Most of the senior drill crew members have worked offshore all their working life and have known nothing else but working and playing hard. If you’re a quiet and sensitive kind of guy…then you don’t belong in a drilling crew!
Despite this, there has been a subtle shift over recent years with the hardest workers also being the more health conscious on the rig and spending their off-tour time working out in the gym. With such a macho reputation to live up to it’s important to also look the part! Physical fitness is a very important aspect of a roughneck’s job and staying in shape while on the rig is made more convenient now with all new rigbuilds seeing the importance of providing first class fitness facilities on the rigs. It’s also a common sight to see buckets of protein powders on the shelves in the galley as rig workers who are serious about their “gains” bring their muscle-building supplements to work with them. It’s like a sub-culture within a culture that already demands a high level of physical fitness and resilience.
So what are the roles performed by the drilling crew? Lets take a look at them now, starting with the least experienced workers in the crew, the roughnecks.
Roughnecks generally get their job through one of two channels:
- Being promoted from a roustabout position after starting on the rig with no, or minimum, experience in the drilling industry.
- Being employed with some experience in the drilling industry after working on land rigs. There is a lot more to offshore drilling than what there is on land rigs so even if a person has a lot of experience onshore they will still generally have to start at the beginning again when they go offshore.
Depending on the amount of previous relevant experience you had before joining the offshore drilling crew you could progress up the ranks quite quickly after getting a start as a roughneck. However, with each promotion up the ladder comes much higher responsibilities and many people prefer not to take on these more mentally demanding roles and are happy to stay a roughneck.
The main role of a roughneck is to assist in all areas of the drilling operations with the majority of their time being spent on the drillfloor. Everything on the drillfloor is very heavy and/or under very high pressures, making it one of the most dangerous places on the rig. There is always something being run in the hole or being pulled out of the hole and the roughnecks are responsible for the physical work that is needed to get this done. The driller operates the movement of the suspended drillstring but it’s up to the roughnecks to maneuver the tubulars while connecting and disconnecting additional stands of drillpipe/casing/riser etc. Through all stages of the operation the roughnecks are involved in the manual handling of all drilling and specialist equipment.
Safety equipment is always evolving to minimize the dangers to drillfloor personnel through automation of many of the most hazardous tasks involved in the drilling process but stringent safety guidelines still have to be adhered to. While machines like “iron roughnecks” are now commonly used to assist in pipe connections it’s still paramount to always be aware of your surroundings. No amount of personal protective equipment (PPE) like gloves and hard hat, are going to save you from being crushed to death if you’re standing in the wrong place when something “lets go” on the drillfloor. Unpredictable occurrences like equipment malfunctions and downhole instability can happen at any time and have been the cause of many deaths in the industry over the years.
Many of the later generation rigs will have wireless communications between the driller and the roughnecks while performing operations on the drillfloor. Clear communication is essential to getting the job done quickly and safely and wireless headsets are becoming the norm now in many offshore operations. With the driller operating from a room off to the side of the drillfloor it’s necessary to communicate with the workers on the drillfloor via loudspeaker, with key personnel commonly also having wireless headsets so they are able to communicate directly with the driller.
Being the workhorses of the drilling crew means the roughnecks don’t generally make any of the decisions - they just have to follow the orders. Having a high degree of commonsense and being able to communicate clearly are key qualities that a roughneck must have. Like roustabouts, the roughnecks are generally sourced from a relatively local workforce in the city closest to where the rig is operating. The more experienced they become, the more likely they are to get promoted to the next position in rank, which is generally the position of “derrickman”.
The term “derrickman” was originally coined because one of their main tasks was to work up in the derrick of the rig and help maneuver the drill pipe in and out of the hole. This job was done from a platform high up in the derrick known as the “monkey board”. This is still carried out today on many of the older rigs but the later generation rigs now have sophisticated pipe handling machines that automate a lot of these practices.
The derrickman’s position is where the “brain” starts taking over from the “brawn”. While still performing very physically demanding tasks, the derrickman now has a lot more responsibility than that of a roughneck and roustabout. As well as helping run and retrieve drillstring sections from the well bore either from aloft in the derrick or on the drillfloor, he is also responsible for monitoring and maintaining all the drilling fluid systems and equipment associated with the drilling of the well.
One of the most critical factors in the drilling of any offshore oil and gas well is the drilling fluid that is used to facilitate well bore stability and also to lift the drilled rock cuttings to the surface for analysis. The drilling fluid is commonly referred to as “mud” and it is a delicately balanced blend of chemicals and liquids with properties designed to optimize the drilling process. This mud is contained within a closed circuit throughout the drilling process and monitoring it is critical to the successful drilling of the well. Not only do the properties of the mud have to be maintained but the volumes of the mud going in and coming out of the well have to be meticulously monitored to make sure the well isn’t taking, or giving, any extra fluids. Catastrophic events can follow either of those two situations if they aren’t caught quickly enough. The Deepwater Horizon catastrophe occurred after an undetected increase in flow of the drilling fluid came out of the well. This was in direct response to hydrocarbons escaping uncontrollably from the bottom of the well, which eventually caused the devastating “blowout” that resulted in the deaths of 12 rig workers, the sinking of the rig, and the historical environmental disaster in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.
The start location for the drilling mud is in the pit room, which is housed in a level below the drillfloor. While most onshore drilling rigs may only have 1 to 3 pits for mud, an offshore rig can have dozens of separate pits for storing mud for all contingencies, with each pit containing mud of differing properties. These pits contain sensors for recording the volumes in each pit and these volumes are monitored by the derrickman. If he sees any discrepancies in the readings then he has to notify the driller immediately. (Many other people on the rig also monitor the pit levels, as you will see later in this series).
From the pit room, the mud is pumped via the mud pumps into the well, down the drillpipe, and then circulated back out to the surface. Once it reaches the surface it exits the flowline over a set of vibrating shaker screens that sieve the rock cuttings from the drilling fluid so the mud can then be re-used back down the hole. The rock cuttings are centrifuged to recover as much of the mud as possible for reuse. The derrickman is responsible for the monitoring of this entire circuit of the drilling fluid. Qualitative and quantitative analysis of the drilling mud is an important part of the derrickman’s duties, as is the safe and efficient running of all the equipment involved in the process. Neglecting to see the warning signs of disequilibrium in the mud system can lead to catastrophic consequences…and very quickly. You can start to understand now why some roughnecks just prefer to stay roughnecks! In reality though, it’s not just the responsibility of the derrickman to keep an eye on the mud status but also that of many other people further up the line of command, as we will see in future articles. And the next person further along that line of command is the Assistant Driller.
The assistant driller (AD) has worked his way up from either the roughneck or roustabout position and competently performed the role of a derrickman before getting promoted to officially start training as a driller. He will work from the doghouse (the room the driller works from on the drillfloor) and will generally answer all phone and radio calls so the driller isn’t disturbed from the serious business of drilling the well. The drillfloor is usually a very busy place and the AD acts as an intermediary between the driller and more senior supervisors, and the derrickman and roughnecks. He will get trained in all aspects of well control but will not have the powers to act on any well control issues without being instructed to do so by the driller or more senior personnel. Like the derrickman, the AD has to closely monitor the mud pits and alert the driller if there are any signs of gains or losses in the mud system.
All personnel from the assistant driller level and up have to have a current well control certification. The well control course is held over five days and the ticket is valid for 2 years. The entire 5-day course has to be repeated every time you need to be recertified.
Given the amount of experience needed to attain an assistant driller position, it is quite common for the AD’s to be kept on for future drilling campaigns should the rig transit to a different country. The drilling company has had to invest a lot of time and money into training these members of the drill crew so they tend to hold onto them for as long as they can. Once they are deemed capable and competent, they can be promoted to the driller’s chair at the next opportunity.
The driller probably has one of the least physically demanding jobs on the rig but one of the most mentally demanding jobs. While the drillers of days gone past would stand on their feet all day controlling “the brake” in a ramshackle corrugated tin shack, the operators on modern rigs are now “cyber” drillers and control the whole drilling operations from a huge comfortable chair with joystick controls, in an air-conditioned room complete with coffee making facilities. Generally the only time they get out of the chair during their 12-hour shift is when they go for meal breaks.
The driller has the authority to take evasive action should he detect a serious well control issue that requires the well to be “shut in”. The reaction time to detection and taking action may only be a matter of seconds so he has to have the knowledge and competency to be able to do whatever is needed to control the well. For this reason, it’s essential that the driller isn’t distracted with tasks that the assistant driller can otherwise take care of.
Along with the added responsibility comes the paperwork. The driller is responsible for filling in a mandatory IADC (International Association of Drilling Contractors) report every day which is a record of all matters pertaining to the drilling of the well for the two 12-hour shifts each day. The assistant driller and toolpusher will generally contribute to this requirement and between the three of them they will make sure all necessary activities are recorded after their shift has ended. These reports are submitted to a governing body and kept as a permanent record of the activities performed on the rig, regardless of the operations.
All drillers have worked their way up through the ranks so will generally have a minimum of several years of offshore experience. Because of the level of experience, and the cost in time and money it has taken to get them to this position, they will nearly always be permanent employees of the drilling contractor company. Once they have gained sufficient experience as a driller the next position up the chain of command is the drillfloor supervisor, or “toolpusher”.
The toolpusher is the supervisor that all the drilling crew reports to. He oversees all aspects of the drilling operations and is the intermediary between the drilling crew and the rig manager (OIM) and the Company Man. There will generally be a dayshift and nightshift toolpusher, and sometimes an additional senior toolpusher in large operations. The toolpusher will spend most of his time in the doghouse assisting the driller during critical times of the drilling operations and when things are quiet on the drillfloor you’ll find him in an office in the accommodation quarters filling in paperwork and replying to emails. As with any job, the higher up the food chain you get, the less physical work you have to do but get overloaded with additional responsibilities and administrative tasks.
The computer age has well and truly hit the offshore drilling industry, with computer systems controlling all aspects of the drilling operations on modern offshore rigs. There are dozens of sensors placed all over the rig, monitoring all aspects of the drilling operations. Voluminous amounts of data are collected from sensors that record drilling parameters (such as torque on pipe, overpull, hook height, rate of penetration, drillpipe revs, weight on bit, etc.), circulating mud properties (pump rate, mud temperature in and out of the hole, mud weight, circulating density, static density, gas content, etc.) and also sensors that detect gas and other contaminants in the air that have been circulated out of the well. Computer systems all over the rig monitor the outputs of these sensors and alarms will warn of changes in parameters or outputs that can be signals of unfavorable conditions. Daily reports have to be produced by all departments and the data collected all over the rig is used to monitor the progress of the drilling operations. The toolpusher has to make sure all of these monitoring capabilities are operative and manage the ongoing maintenance and operation of all rig data collection equipment.
Most of the computerized systems only record data and warn of any possible dangers, with human intervention needed to take evasive action. However, there are also automated systems that initiate evasive action should dangerous situations be detected. One of these is the Deadman Auto Shear (DMAS) that can activate the closing of the shear rams on the blowout preventer (BOPs) automatically, based on too high pressure or excessive flow. While the toolpusher has to make sure all these systems are operative, the responsibility of maintaining and operating these systems falls under the workscope of the Subsea department, which will get explained in the next part of this series of articles.
There’s only one more person on the rig that holds a higher position than the toolpusher within the drilling crew and that is the OIM.
Offshore Installation Manager (OIM)
The OIM is responsible for all the personnel on the rig and for the safe drilling of the well. The buck stops with him in regards to any drilling, machinery or personnel issues on the rig that fall under the drilling contractors responsibilities. He is the big daddy of report writing and will spend most of his day working in his office fulfilling mandatory reporting requirements, answering phone calls, replying to emails and attending meetings. Together with the Company Man, the OIM must be consulted before any procedural changes can be made on the rig.
The OIM will generally have worked his way up the ranks from a roustabout or roughneck position and will have decades of experience in the offshore drilling industry. In emergency situations the fate of the rig, and all people working on it, will ultimately be his responsibility. There is only ever one OIM on board – one of the few positions on a rig that doesn’t have a dayshift and nightshift representative.
In the following articles I’ll explain all the remaining roles that the drilling contractor undertakes, such as that of the marine crew and electrical and mechanical tradespeople. It takes an extremely well coordinated specialist workforce to keep the drilling operations running smoothly and safely 24 hours a day for 365 days of the year. Stay tuned!
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