One has a lot of time to think while making the 700-mile, nine-hour commute from Helena to the Williston Basin in North Dakota. A recurring thought that comes up is of the risks and rewards of choosing to work in the patch.
There are the obvious risks to life and limb related to making such a drive and working on the rig itself. I almost always take the interstate as conditions on the two-lane roads can be unpredictable and, frankly, too slow. While the roads in Montana are generally in good shape, the same cannot be said for the roads and goat trails in western North Dakota. Heavy truck use, terrible sub-road base soils, and lack of basic road-building materials like gravel, asphalt and concrete all contribute to the poor road conditions. Then there are the drivers. Vehicles of all makes – cars, pickups and big commercial trucks bearing license plates from Montana, Utah, North Dakota, Louisiana, Texas, Wyoming and anywhere else a person is willing to travel from – pose a threat to one’s personal safety. Most are good drivers. However, there are a frighteningly high number of knuckleheads who shouldn’t be operating a tricycle let alone a 100,000 pound semi. The curse words that freely flow out of me directed at those people would make any sailor proud.
The opportunities for getting hurt or killed on the rig are abundant, including everything from pinch points to cables under high stress that can snap or unfasten and become deadly whips. Pinch points are locations where a moving part or piece of equipment comes into contact with a fixed point like a wall or derrick leg. A person is a soft and squishy thing to get caught between a moving part and a hard place. There are also a variety of overhead threats. The most common is a steel cross-member a person doesn’t see and walks right into. Trust me, this hurts even with a hard hat on. Especially if someone is watching. Another threat from above is dropped tools or gear from the derrick hand (the lucky dog over 100 feet above the ground placing the stands of drill pipe into the board). Anything dropped from that height can bring pain or worse to an unsuspecting victim working on the rig floor. But the most terrifying and deadly overhead threat is the top drive and blocks. The top drive is a piece of equipment that turns the drill string. The blocks are the pulley attached to the top drive and they are operated with a huge winch system providing the up and down travel of the top drive and drill string. These items weigh several thousand pounds and would be absolutely devastating dropped from any elevation above the rig floor. There are also several fluid pipes under high pressure, which can spray their contents. High voltage electrical lines are all over the rig. Sometimes these lines are not installed to code and can pose a threat. I’ve never seen an improperly installed electrical line, but I have heard some very scary stories of some.
The drilling and oil companies place safety as the highest priority, so don’t think it’s a free-for-all out here regarding the health of the crews. However, the listed threats are a reality that we all accept when we climb the stairs to the rig floor. Fortunately I only have to be on the rig floor when we need to swap out our tool. Thankfully, most of my time is spent in our trailer.
The physical risks are fairly obvious, but the risks to one’s marriage and family are equally present and devastating.
They say that distance makes the heart grow fonder and for the most part that’s true. But I’ve heard stories of wives or girlfriends having enough of their man being gone for several weeks. They clear out the house and bank account and are long gone when he finally does make it back home. In some cases the young lady left at home meets up with another fellow. As bad as these scenarios are, the thought of losing the relationship I’ve developed with my kids is just as frightening to me. They are both teenagers, so it’s tough enough for them. When I’m gone the kids have more responsibility to help out around the house and have to deal with the drama that comes along with high school and being a young person. I fear that not being there to provide advice or guidance may result in some resentment toward me. I try to be actively involved in their lives, always asking questions about school, relationships and friends. Obviously it’s not as easy to do while away, despite texting, Skype, or e-mail. Nothing can replace sitting down with them and just having a one-on-one conversation.
In physics there is a basic rule that, for every action, there is an equal reaction. This fundamental rule can be applied to the reward side of working away from home. The first and most obvious reward is the financial compensation. It is very good. I’ve never earned this type of wage. Plus I am on a career path that is very promising, where I could not really claim that before. Another advantage is my increased confidence as a family provider. It feels good to be able to say yes to things the family would like to have or do, where in the past I would’ve had to say no.
The most surprising benefit to me is the stronger relationships I have with my wife and kids. I used to bring home all of the stress related to my previous job in Helena. Basically I was a miserable prick and I took it out on them. It was as if I was standing there watching myself be a total jerk to them but I just couldn’t stop myself. Now I am able to leave everything about this job in North Dakota at the completion of the well. I have about 9 hours to unwind and retool for home life as Dad and Husband. While home, I am able to help out with making breakfast, packing lunches, knocking some items off the “honey-do” list. I can provide rides and just have great talks with each of them. I have been very fortunate to this point in this adventure that the relationships I have developed with my wife and kids are very solid and are easily renewed when I do get back home.
Folks, I’m not looking for sympathy here. Our brave military guys and gals have it far worse. As a matter of fact, they inspire me to not whine about being away from home. After all, I don’t have people shooting at me and I can always jump in the truck and point her west anytime I like. I think we all make risk/reward assessments on a daily basis. I spend some amount of each drive to and from the patch evaluating and reevaluating the pros and cons of doing what I do. Perhaps one trip I’ll come to the conclusion that the risks outweigh the rewards. But for now I’m still rockin’ the Bakken.