What to Expect from an Entry-Level Oil Rig Job

I remember my first day on an oil rig very well. I was nervous. I had all my safety tickets. I’d done training at an oil rig school. I had all the gear one could possibly need. Still, the thought of getting up on the rig floor and working with experienced pros filled me with a bit of dread.

I wondered if I’d do everything right in my entry-level oil rig job, if I’d remember where everything was — or was supposed to be.

What I learned is that if you just dig in and do what you’re told, you’re not only going to fit in, but you’ll actually learn a lot. If you take an interest, show that you can catch on, and work your butt off, you can work your way up the ladder (literally and figuratively) very quickly.

There is a lot happening on an oil rig, and a lot to know. Here’s what you can expect from your first experiences on a drilling rig, and how you can make sure you come out on top.

You’re going to get yelled at

Listen, oil rigs are loud. There’s a lot of yelling. Even when it’s not that loud there might be some yelling. Drillers are under a lot of pressure to get pipe down the hole in as timely a fashion as possible, all while keeping their crew safe. To do so, things have to move fast — people have to move fast.

Take note of where you’re supposed to be and why. And then be there. If you’re not, someone will let you know, and they might do so in a certain tone. Don’t take it to heart. You have to have a thick skin to work on an oil rig. There may even be a certain amount of “ball breaking.”

Remember this: if they’re not breaking your balls, they don’t like you. They wouldn’t waste their breath on someone they didn’t think was not going to get it. Don’t get upset — just do what you’re supposed to do.

Being accepted on an oil rig crew is the same as any other job. If they like you, they’ll keep you around. And if your feelings are hurt because someone yelled at you to run down the stairs and hook up a winch to another length of pipe, then you won’t last long. Suck it up and enjoy the camaraderie.

You’re going to do a lot of scrubbing

My first day on an oil rig was a cold one. It was -35 degrees celsius and there was a bit of wind coming across the expansive lease (a lease is the area mapped out for the rig and everything it needs to drill).

I was asked by the driller if I had rain gear. I did. He told me to go put it on. I did. He told me to come up to the drilling floor and put on a harness. He then hooked the harness up to a winch that ran up the inside of the derrick, handed me a pressure washer and said, “Wash down the derrick.”

Don't forget your rain gear! Source
Don’t forget your rain gear! Source

Next thing I knew I was being winched up to the top of the stick (another term for derrick) and I started pressure washing mud off the beams of the derrick. We were drilling then, so there was some shaking. There was some vibrating. There was a lot of noise. I was very high up in the air sitting on a piece of leather. But I had my rain gear on so I wasn’t getting soaked. And the derrick got clean. The driller was pleased.

New hands on an oil rig can expect to do something like this for several hitches (two-week work cycles). Maybe longer, depending on how tight the crew is. You’ll be scrubbing down all the buildings until they’re clean enough to make your mother proud. You’ll wash walls, ceilings, pipes, and floors, and hoses. Whatever is dirty, you’ll make it clean. And once it’s clean, you’ll start from the beginning.

You will get dirty on an oil rig. Everything around you will get dirty. Learn to love cleaning. A clean oil rig is much safer than a dirty one.

You’re going to do a lot of heavy lifting

When an oil rig is drilling, a water and bentonite combination called mud is sent down the hole through the pipe. This mud is made by the derrick hand in the mud shack. The mud keeps pressure down the hole so that, should you get to a pocket of oil, it doesn’t all come streaming up like you see in old-timey movies.

bentonite-bags-drilling
Meet your new best friend. Source

It also helps to keep the hole open as the mud travels back to the surface through the space between the pipe and the hole, known as the annulus. This way the hole is not always collapsing and making it hard for the pipe to spin, and causing you to have to re-drill every time you pull the pipe out of the hole to put on a new bit, or any other reason.

In order to make the mud, the derrick hand needs someone to get 50 pound bags of bentonite from a truck parked somewhere on the lease. That’s probably going to be you.

In some cases, the derrick hand might help you. Don’t count on it, though. When there are things that have to be lifted, it’s on you. If you can carry two at once, do it. Be fast. Don’t complain. Get it done. Ask if there’s more that needs to be done when you’ve done it all. Better yet, find something else that needs to be done before someone asks you to do it.

You’ll be carrying hoses from one end of the lease to the other. You’ll be lifting all kinds of things when you move the rig from one spot to the next. You’ll be the go-to person for all things lifting. If you do what’s asked of you and more, you’ll be in great shape physically, and in great shape to remain on the crew.

You’re going to do whatever anyone else doesn’t want to do

There are a lot of things that fall under this category, including the things mentioned above. You might also have to drive the crew truck into camp to get lunch and then drive the dirty dishes back again. That’s actually pretty good as it gives you a little break.

Oil rigs have lights on the top. This is to keep helicopters and low-flying aircraft from crashing into them. You need them there. If they burn out, expect to get on a safety winch and climb to the top to change them. Hopefully you’re not afraid of heights. If you are, get over it.

The point is, be ready to do anything and everything.

You’re going to learn a lot

If you are paying attention, you’ll notice that there is a rhyme and reason to what you’re doing. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, but don’t ask obvious ones. Try to figure out what you can for yourself by putting the pieces together.

When I do A, we end up doing B, so therefore A is an integral aspect of getting B done.SO when you know that B is about to happen, you should start getting A ready.

There is a certain rhythm to oil-well drilling. It’s a finely tuned machine when all the parts (people) are working together in harmony, and a fast crew is an effective crew. Effective crews get more work. You want to be on that crew.

Learning is fun. Source
Learning is fun. Source

Keep your eyes open, and your metaphorical ear to the ground. The person who is one above you in the hierarchy is a good person to get to know and ask questions. They were in your shoes not very long ago, and they know what you’re going through and what you need to know to get to the next level. You make that person happy, and they’ll help you get there.

Everyone on an oil rig started at the bottom. They all know what is required to get to the top. Once you start showing people that you’ve figured out what’s happening and can be doing things before you’re asked to do them, you’re going to find yourself advancing up the ranks.

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