Doing the Dirty Work

Lured by the promise of lucre, a writer hits the rigs.

By Kyle G. Brown

The idea of labouring in a lucrative industry, even one dominated by heavy, dirty work and long hours, drew me to the oil patch. It was the reality that made me happy to leave.

After hearing the hype about the oil industry, I wanted to know more. As a journalist, I thought, I could scoop out new stories while making big cash on the rigs.

After all, I’d heard that employers were “crying out” for labourers, that they trawled the streets in search of recruits.    I had visions of agents vying with one another as I arrived, trying to lure me into their firm. I could compare pay packets, benefits and work practices.

No such luck. In the event, a suddenly slower industry had less use for unskilled labourers. But I did find work. Not the kind of hours I had heard about, but I was, at last, in the oil fields. As a “roughneck,” or “floorhand,” I would start at the bottom. That’s also where I would finish.

Days 1–2

I spend two days filling out application forms and assuring firms that I have no drug or alcohol problems—their main concern, it seems. The manager at one company seems to have gone through the hiring process thousands of times. I’m prepared for a torrent of questions, but he asks only three.

“Any experience in the oil patch?”

“No, but I worked in construction for—”

“This is nothing like the construction industry. Could you pass a drugs test?”


“Can you take orders from macho 20-year-olds?” “um… Sure.”

I’m to meet the boys next morning at 6:30. That means I have to wake up at 5:15 a.m. normal here, apparently.

Day 3

The roads haven’t been cleared of snow yet. I try to stay in  the grooves of people who rose even earlier, but snow and ice scrape the underbelly of my low-riding Honda hatchback. Only a scooter would be less appropriate. The roads around Grande Prairie are bad enough, but the oil service roads are impossible without a four-by-four.

So I leave my car outside the supermarket, where pickup trucks idle. Inside one of them waits Tony, a wiry little guy with his face hidden under a baseball hat and hood. (All the names in this story have been changed.) He stares straight ahead as I climb into the back seat, five minutes late. “You do not make me wait, do you hear?” Through gritted teeth, I accede to the authority of this 22-year-old.

He has the heat on as high as it can go. I peel off layers, enduring the loud morning show on the local station. If you’re not used to commercial radio, it’s hard to explain the assault of noise and unsubtle ads. One car company after another puts out the same barrage of guitars and obnoxious shouting. Tony turns the volume down only when his phone rings, or the news comes on. I look out the window to take in the wide, straight, characterless streets.

Arriving at the well site, we step out into the cold, and walk to a trailer known as “the doghouse.” It’s a utilitarian affair with lockers at one end and a coffee maker and water cooler at the other. Black lockers are plastered with posters of tanned, naked women. This is where we will begin our days and take our breaks. It’s here that we will find shelter from the cold and safety from a blowout, should there be one. Beneath our voices is the constant hum of the generator next door. We dress up, putting on layer after layer before donning our coveralls.

The hierarchy is immediately apparent. Bill, the manager, or “tool push,” sits at the desk on one side of the doghouse. On the other side, the four of us sit on a metal bench in order of seniority, with Tony at one end and me at the other, beside the coffee maker.

Rustling for his breakfast in the depths of his locker is Chase, a Newfoundlander with a goatee and narrow brown eyes. He smells the sandwich to see if it’s okay, then passes it around for a second opinion.

Greg’s loud voice fills the doghouse from the moment he enters. His face barely visible behind glasses and a mop of curly black hair, he plonks himself down between Chase and me, reaching for yesterday’s coveralls. They’re grubby, but not so bad they can’t go another day. As though to justify his title of “stud roughneck” (“senior floorman,” officially), he tells of the latest women he’s met and bedded at Grande Prairie bars. I smile to hear that at 15 years his senior I’m the “junior roughneck.”  He  shows me where to find the coffee, which  I’m to make every morning. The boys take great pleasure in informing me of my other title: “bitch roughneck.”

By the time Greg’s describing how he used his thumb during last night’s session, I’m out the door and back into the cold. The strange smell can be explained only in part by the idling trucks surrounding us. Various fumes cloud the air.

Suddenly the doghouse door flies open. It’s Bill. “Who was in the shitter last?” he screams. When he opened the bathroom door this morning, the whole crapper was on fire. I look up and admit I was the last one in there.

I must be making a splendid first impression on Chase. I struggle to lift a piece of machinery—the “set,” which helps transport tiny tools along a cable to the oil well below. Hearing it can be winched up onto the rig floor from the truck, I set    it back down, mumbling, “Oh, it’s pretty heavy.” Chase picks it up as though it were a bag of trash, and runs it upstairs without a word. I look on in silent dismay.

I don’t have time to dwell on it. Greg, suddenly serious, tells me what has to be done. We’re getting ready to “swab.” That means sending cups down the cable, hundreds of metres underground, to collect the “frac oil” that has been put underground to increase the well’s production. Frac oil is a toxic man-made concoction of numerous chemicals that fracture the ground, creating more cracks leading to pockets of oil and gas. The old rig revs and groans with effort as Tony reels the cable back up, the cups loaded with the liquid they’ve scooped up.

It’s time to close the iron collar that holds the “joints” (long bits of metal tubing) in place. The collar has a few small, thick knobs that you hit with a sledgehammer  to  push  it open or closed. Greg hands me the sledgehammer. I swing, barely nicking one of the knobs. On my second swing I miss altogether and the boys back away. “Come on!” they yell, laughing. “Put out, Kyle!” says Tony. I swing once more, and connect. I swing again and again, hitting it more or less as I imagine I’m supposed to. Chase walks over, takes the hammer from me, and slams it home with two hits that sound louder and more solid than any of mine. Sigh.

Day 6

Five a.m. Why must we get up this early?

I get to our meeting spot before anyone else and enjoy a  few moments of silence before the bright blue lights of Tony’s pickup truck appear.

I grab my stuff: food, extra clothing, newspapers and magazines. Greg is up front falling asleep and I stretch out across the back seat. We cruise out of town and onto the industrial roads that cut through deep forest. The digital temperature gauge reads in the minus mid-20s. AC/DC’s “Hells Bells” comes on the radio. I look out the window at what seems a post-apocalyptic scene.

For miles ahead, little is visible save for the plumes of thick white smoke lit by spotlights in the distance. The factories emitting them become visible as we wind through the dark mountain roads.

We arrive at our well to see a line of trucks waiting. Workers from other companies have come to fracture the ground. As they’ll be doing most of the work, we have little to do. I’m told to clean tools, tidy, wipe cabinets and so on. In spite of the tedium, it’s nice to be able to let my mind wander.

I enter the doghouse to find the guys leafing through magazines. “Have you guys seen the latest Diesel Power?” Tony asks. They pass the mag around, commenting on the specs, revelling in what they’ll buy next paycheque. Not that they’ve deprived themselves thus far. Tony has spruced up his truck  to the tune of about $85,000. The others have spent countless amounts on vehicle accessories and home electronics. Not to mention the costly cocktail of drugs and alcohol they consume every week.

I read my own magazines (non-diesel-related) and await the next command.

Day 9

We’re hit by a cold snap. Much of our work is aimed at keeping the machinery and pipes from freezing. Greg and I run hoses from the boiler to steam down the machinery. As Greg walks out with the last segment of hose to bleed it out, I have to start closing off the others…but Greg is wondering why so much steam is still blowing out. I find out—under a hail of expletives—that I’ve turned the valve the wrong way, opening instead of closing it. It’s not the first screw-up of mine that he has had to correct.

Day 12

Chase tells me I am moving too slowly. It adds to a growing paranoia that I’m going to be fired as easily as my predecessor was. The boys say his English was so bad, and he made so many mistakes, that he put the others in danger. Mercifully, my incompetence is mild by comparison. So far.

Day 15

The wire line company is here today to send electronic tools “down hole” to measure the volume of gas being extracted, leaving us to do maintenance and lounge around. It’s a good day because I manage for the most part to not get yelled at. My sledgehammer has been hitting its target.

Then something momentous happens: Chase offers me a canned weiner for the first time.

Though keen to express my gratitude, I can’t bring myself to eat the strange chemical-ridden blobs. I resume reading as the boys play cribbage.

Suddenly the doghouse door flies open. It’s Bill, the tool push. “Who was in the shitter last?” he screams.

Perhaps a word is in order on the sort of toilet we are talking about. Before using it, you place what’s called a “taco”—a paper shell lined with a thin sheet of waterproof plastic—into the toilet. The taco fills up as you unburden yourself. You then step on a lever, and a flap at the base of the toilet opens, letting the taco fall onto a stove-like element that incinerates the taco and its contents.

Today, when Bill opened the door, he was greeted with smoke and flames. The whole crapper was on fire.

I look up from my paper and admit I was the last one in there. As to what happened, I’m at a loss.

The boys suggest it could have been a stray piece of toilet paper that somehow caught fire without falling through the trap door.

Ignoring my offer to clean up, Bill continues to hurl abuse as he grabs the cleaner and paper towel and marches back to the crapper. As the boss, he will decide if I stick around or not. But, the boys assure me, “It takes a lot more than setting the shitter on fire to get canned around here.”

I try to look busy.

Day 19

Today it is minus 39 degrees as we arrive at the lease. When  I blink, the moisture in my eyes freezes my eyelashes shut. I spend the entire morning sweeping snow off all the trucks and machinery.

I’m trying to move quickly to keep warm, but my fingers feel on the verge of getting frostbite.

Day 24

Even after my daily scrub the dirt remains on my hands— mostly “dope,” a black grease used to lubricate the joints. A certain satisfaction comes from getting dirty.

It hurts, but I’m lucky: I’m told I could easily have broken my leg. I report this to Bill. He nods, but doesn’t ask me to fill out the forms that I was told are such an integral part of safety here.

When it’s time to “bop on” (put blowout preventers, or “BOPs,” back on the wellheads), I put the pieces in place unprompted, impressing the boys a great deal.

But my triumphs are rare and short-lived. I grab one of the tools from the rig floor, and trip over something, falling backward, reaching out to clutch something—anything— before tumbling to the floor. The drawn-out crash drives Greg and Chase to fits of laughter. Chase tries to apologize for laughing, but can barely speak. I lie there stunned for a moment, then start laughing myself.

Day 28

Greg notices I’ve been hustling. I run for everything, pulling pipe wrenches as hard as I can—which is perhaps a bit harder than before.

Perhaps the adage is true: what doesn’t kill me may indeed make me stronger.

I’m still loosening bolts and pipe joints when I should be tightening them, though. As I hammer the collar that holds pipes in place, Chase starts counting. “One! Two! Three!”

“What are you doing?”

“That’s the number of beers you owe us. How many more times are you going to hit it in the wrong direction?”

Day 32

As Greg and I tidy the light plant, he asks me what’s in the bucket I’ve got. Frac oil. He looks around and murmurs quietly, “We shouldn’t be doing this,” before chucking it out of sight.

Once spilled, the frac oil is absorbed quickly through snow and into the ground. It’s said to prevent anything from growing in the area for about 10 years. And it has  been spilled all over the lease. The wider patches get the “shortcut” cleanup: we (usually I) scrape off the top layer, the darkest, before dumping piles of loose snow on top to hide the rest of the spill.

Day 35

Today we remove 200-pound joints from the well. Tony brings them up with the winch. Chase uses a machine to unscrew the joints from the long line extending underground, and drops them into a kind of metal gutter. I grab the joints as they slide down the gutter, their tops still attached to the winch, and guide them onto the detached flatbed of a truck.

We do this 199 times. Each time, we put a short, solid steel cylinder called a “flying drift” into the tops of tubes and joints to clear out any debris or blockages.

I have been standing too close to the “V-door,” to which the joints are lowered. I pay the price. The drift comes rushing out and flies straight at my kneecap.

It hurts, but I’m lucky: I’m told I could easily have broken my leg.

I report this to Bill. He nods, but doesn’t ask me to fill out the forms that I was told are such an integral part of safety here. He tells me to be careful, and shares his own anecdote of a bigger drift crashing into his shin some years prior.

Greg recounts a time he was knocked unconscious, and even that was not significant enough to justify recording the incident.

If you take these things too seriously, you’ll be roundly mocked as a “pussy.” What’s more, we get a certain number of points per month for having no incidents, and can earn prizes. How popular is the guy who ruins the team’s chances? The forms sit in the doghouse, unused.

I’m consoled by one thing: today is Family Day, so we’re paid double-time-and-a-half. That means I made about $400!

Day 38

Today another company comes to do an “acid squeeze,” putting acid down hole to eat away at the earth further into the formation. The well is supposed to be high-volume and low-pressure, so it needs a helping hand to tap into the large deposits.

So, again, we have little to do. Until, that is, a delivery truck spills 20 to 30 litres of frac oil just as we’re getting ready to go home.

After some perfunctory scraping, we start sprinkling snow again. Luckily there’s been a lot of it.

On his way out of the lease, Bill hits a moose and lands half his truck in a ditch. Tony gets him out with the support truck.

Day 50

I’ve started going to physio with aches in my forearms and back. After feeling for a while that I was gaining strength, I’m no longer so sure.

Day 58

The über-boss, Doug, is seldom seen except from a distance, watching us from his truck. Today he is on the rig floor and suited up. His coveralls are taut around his almost perfectly round belly.

The well is not flowing. Something is preventing us from putting any more joints down hole. Five of us are on the rig floor, pushing and pulling the wrenches on the joint in a slow-moving circle, giving everything we have to turn it around and downward, into the hole. Doug barks out commands, and, seeing no results, curses.

By now so much frac oil has sprayed that the floor is impossibly slippery. We pull the wrenches with one hand, grabbing with the other for the nearest thing that will give us some purchase. No jokes are made. Nothing superfluous is said.

My arms ache, but as the command leaves Doug’s lips we’re at it again, turning, twisting. This time more frac oil spews out than before, soaking everyone.

This joint won’t go further, so I wrench it off as Greg pulls it over and out of the way. Chase rushes to put the stab valve in place to seal the joint that’s in hole.

We’ve gotten nowhere.

With Doug back in the truck and on the phone to Calgary for a solution, we take off our clothes and throw them out. It’s impossible to wash out the frac oil.

Head office decides not to shut down the well, but instead to call in the “snubbers,” specialists who lower tubing under pressure.

The boys tell me working with the snubbers is a dream gig because you rack up endless overtime hours waiting for the snubbers to pull out one joint at a time before putting them all back in again. The boys get busy working out how much they’ll make next week.

But I won’t stay. I have been counting down my last days in eager, almost desperate anticipation. To wait in Grande Prairie to be called for work that may or may not happen in the next few days—that would be too drawn out. Out here, it’s never certain whether you’ll work tomorrow.

I have never been at home in the rigs. I have never felt more clumsy in all my adult life. Better to leave while I still have all four limbs. Besides, I am probably more of a liability than an asset to those around me.

I suspect I’m not the only one to rejoice as I swap the sledgehammer for my pen, paper and laptop.

So today is my last day. The boys are in their trucks and waving before I’ve put the tools away. No sentimental goodbyes here. Then again, they kept me for almost two months, and that says something. In some places they really are desperate for workers.

Kyle G. Brown is a TV, radio and print reporter who files stories for the BBC, the Toronto Star and the CBC.


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