An offshore oil rig is one of the few workplaces in the world where cultural diversity is the norm rather than the exception. Technically referred to as Mobile Offshore Drilling Units (MODU), these facilities roam the oceans and seas around every continent and fly in a workforce from all around the world.
Highly specialized professionals and tradespeople whose skills are specific to the offshore drilling industry perform most of the work on the rigs. These people are sourced from oil and gas hubs around the world with long-haul flights being the standard means of transportation to get work.
Regardless of where any rig is drilling, there will most probably be people from the following countries working on it at any one time: US, UK, Brazil, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India, The Philippines, Indonesia, China, Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, Pakistan, Russia, Norway, Middle Eastern countries and France. And these are just the majority of nationalities; there will be many other nationalities also represented.
Where this workplace differs from those onshore is in the fact that all these people still live in, and travel from, their country of origin. While most large cities these days boast very multi-national workforces, the people there now all live in the same city where they work. While they may originate from countries all around the world, they now socialize in the same circles so their cultural differences get somewhat watered down in order to conform to some socially acceptable norm of the host nation.
To draw an analogy you would have to imagine a city office block where 200 people from up to 20 different countries fly into the office from their homes around the world, work for 28 days straight, live and sleep at the office, eat all meals in a cafeteria at the office and then fly back to their homeland at the end of the month. That would be crazy, right? Well that’s exactly what happens offshore. You really can’t compare it to any other job.
Understanding, appreciating and being sensitive to cultural differences is a key quality all offshore workers must possess. Everyone on board must work as a team. Everyone has a specific job to do or they wouldn’t be there. There are no freeloaders offshore. With bed space being critical, only essential personnel are flown onto the facility.
At times it can be frustrating. Out on the deck everyone works to a common standard but in the accommodation it can be a different story. I’ve come to realise that western cultures are overly fussy when it comes to housekeeping and food. We are so demanding and expect everyone to comply with our standards of living. When there are people working on the rigs who come from countries where everyone has traditionally squated over a toilet rather than sitting on it, or where they don’t have sliced bread as a staple part of their diet, you have to expect that standards may be “different” (as opposed to “lower”) than what you’re used to. Patience and understanding is key to establishing and maintaining a harmonious workplace.
Let me walk you through an average day working offshore so you can appreciate the cultural diversity we live and work with. I will give all times without reference to am or pm because it honestly doesn’t matter when you’re working offshore. Shift work is part and parcel of the job and a great majority of the workers alternate between day shift and night shift. The times of these shifts can also change as there can be a “6 to 6” shift or a “12 to 12” shift. As my role always works “6 to 6” this is what I’ll report on.
Arrive in the gym for a workout. Some days I do just cardio, others I do just weight training, some days I do both. Sometimes I’m the only person in the gym but most of the time I share it with the rig’s electrical supervisor. He resides in the north of England and commutes to the rig, which is currently offshore from Myanmar, on a 28-day rotation. The gym is fairly small but has loads of equipment and is very functional. Out-of-work time is precious so once we got the initial introduction over and done with during my first week on the rig we don’t usually do much talking – just training. After all, gym training is serious business!
After an hour in the gym and time back in my cabin having a shower and getting ready for work I head to the mess (dining hall) for “breakfast”. Unfortunately if you’re on night shift your breakfast may be a roast dinner so cereal is quite often the best choice.
The galley crews, like the cleaners, are mostly Myanmar nationals who have been employed to work for the catering company that services the rig. Most of them only speak minimal English but they all understand the meaning of “thank-you” and “have a great day!” Like eating when at home, meal times are a time for social interaction although most of the time the conversation is purely work-related and serves more as a time to get briefed on operations that happened while you were sleeping. There can be up to 20 people or more grabbing a quick feed before work and most of them won’t be native Australians like me; in fact most of the time I would be the only Aussie in the room.
It’s time for the pre-shift meeting (formally known as the “pre-tour”), which every person on board has to attend before each shift. The rig safety coordinator holds the meeting. I’m not quite sure about his accent so only guessing that he could be from either South Africa or maybe Scandinavia… or anywhere in-between! His name, Johann, is a hint but not a strong enough one for me to figure out his home country.
Once the safety guy gives his update on safety issues he hands over to the other heads of departments who systematically give a brief run-down on events that have been carried out by their department on the previous shift and more importantly what they will be doing in the coming shift.
The mechanical department head is a heavily accented Scottish guy. The Scottish brogue is quite common on this rig. He hands over to the electrical department guy who also happens to be the English guy I trained with in the gym earlier. The marine crew is also represented by a Scottish guy and he passes the baton to the marine electrical engineering spokesperson who is a lady from Chennai, India, who looks like a Bollywood movie star…and I mean that in the most complimentary of ways…definitely breaking the mould of rig engineer stereotypes!
Once everyone from the different departments has had their say, it’s time for the Company Man (Wellsite Manager) to give a run down on current operations. With this drilling campaign being done by an Australian oil and gas company it’s no surprise that the operator representatives mostly reside in Perth, Australia. After the Aussie has his say, there’s a final message from the Captain/Offshore Installation Manager who is from Romania…where else?!
With the pre-tour taking around 20 minutes it’s time to head to the “office” and handover with my back-to-back who has been working the opposite 12-hour shift to me. The two other wellsite geologists on this campaign are a Serbian and a Filipino, both of whom now reside in Australia.
A third-party meeting is held at 6:30 am and pm so all the supervisors can brief everyone on operations to be performed throughout the coming shift. With so many simultaneous operations being performed at any one time on the rig it’s essential everyone knows what’s happening and how it can possibly impact their work. The meeting starts off with the company man giving a run-down on current operations and then he goes around the room so everyone can report on what they will be doing and if they need any help from anyone. This meeting is attended by the following supervisors or company representatives:
The Mud Engineer: The dayshift guy is Scottish and resides in Glasgow. The nightshift is covered by a Chinese guy who has a very heavy accent and is quietly spoken so you have to listen very carefully to try and understand what he’s saying. Like many of the rig workers, the more you communicate with them the easier you’re able to understand their heavily-accented English.
The Cementer: Picture a young Will Smith with a Jamaican accent and you’ll paint a fairly accurate image of this guy. Turns out he’s from Trinidad but that Caribbean accent is captivating to say the least. Unfortunately his turn to speak is over and done with all too soon. His back-to-back is a Spanish guy who now lives in South America and his accent as just as intriguing as the Trinidadians. The cementers are my top picks in the awesome accent stakes.
The ROV operator: The remotely operated vehicle crew has a big part to play in the monitoring of the drilling operations. The lead guy on this shift is an African-American from Louisiana, USA, and he just happens to be a fellow gym junkie. Our conversations never fail to end up being a post-mortem of our last workout in the gym and how we both are on the same page with our training regime. Oh, and his accent (and personality) is pretty cool too!
MWD and Directional Drilling Engineers: These guys operate the measurement-while-drilling (MWD – downhole survey) and logging-while-drilling (LWD – formation evaluation) tools that are in the toolstring behind the bit down the hole. Most of the team comes from Myanmar but there is also a Thai and an Australian directional driller. While they all speak English, some are more difficult to understand than others.
Mudloggers: The mudloggers monitor the well and drilling parameters and it is their job to identify anything out of the ordinary with all the monitored parameters. They also collect the drilled samples for the geologist and deliver all the recorded data for the well. The team will usually consist of 2 data engineers, 2 mudloggers and 2 sample catchers. Out of the 6 people working in the unit on this hitch, four of them have the first name Aung. They are nearly all from Myanmar. It seems that Aung is a very common name in Myanmar. It certainly makes it easy for me to remember everyone’s name! I think it’s fair to say they would have to be one of the most gracious and easy-going races on the planet.
Deck Supervisor: With everything on the rig being too heavy to lift manually, crane lifts are an essential part of the job. The deck supervisor is in charge of coordinating all the lifts for everyone on the rig so they have the tools they need, when they need them. Because the rig had worked offshore from India for several years prior to this current drilling campaign most of the lower and middle ranked drilling and deck crew are from India. The deck supervisors are also from India.
Once the 6:30 third-party meeting is over it’s business as usual on the rig. Other rig personnel include the drillers and tool pushers, some of who come from the USA, India, Scotland and England. There are no Australians anywhere near the drillfloor on this rig. Quite a few of the marine crew are from Scotland and the dynamic position operators (DPO’s) are mostly Indian.
That just about covers all the major nationalities that are represented on the rig but there’s always many other less common ones from around the globe coming and going from the rig. The location of the rig, and from what country the operating company is based, has a big influence on the make-up of the personnel. While the language of the rig is English there are many accents that make for interesting listening in daily meetings.
It’s not just the language variations that make for an interesting workplace. There are also many different religions and cultures represented, and with that comes acceptance of their respective practices. With many of the workers on board being Muslims, they were going through Ramadan on my last hitch so the galley crew prepared special meal times for these people so they could have breakfast before the sun came up. While there was no call to prayer over the rig PA system I suspect that was probably done in private regardless.
Despite all the variations in language, religion and culture the rig still operates at an exceptionally high productivity level and has an extremely good safety record. Being respectful to everybody’s personal needs does not need to compromise productivity and safety when it's an accepted way of living. Working on a rig calls on the expertise of specialists from all around the world and it serves as a model for the rest of the world to see how being an inclusive workplace can add value to the experience for everyone.
Now, getting back to that office job in the city where everyone lives in the same city…no thanks, give me the true multi-cultural experience of offshore rig life any day!
Amanda Barlow is a wellsite geologist in the offshore oil and gas industry and also a published author of "Offshore Oil and Gas PEOPLE - Overview of Offshore Drilling Operations" and “An Inconvenient Life – My Unconventional Career as a Wellsite Geologist”. She is also a recreational marathoner who has run over 40 marathons in 16 different countries and is the author of “Call of the Jungle – How a Camping-Hating City-Slicker Mum Survived an Ultra Endurance Marathon through the Amazon Jungle”, an account of her participation in one of the worlds most extreme multi-stage endurance events. You can connect with Amanda through the Pink Petro community, LinkedIn: https://au.linkedin.com/in/amanda-barlow-wsg or through her Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/AnInconvenientLife