Working – and Surviving – On Offshore Oil Platforms

Corporate Responsibility

            Fayetteville, NC          It’s a surprise when a big-league paper like the New York Times looks at the actual work that people do and how they do it, but actually it’s unusual when any news outlet takes a hard look behind the scene at the world of work and workers anytime.  Perhaps even this time it was more accident than intention.  A reporter wanted to visit a giant offshore oil drilling rig operated by Shell Oil eighty miles out in the Gulf of Mexico, so he had go through some of what it takes to be a roughneck or roustabout on an oil rig.  Having spent the summer when I was 18, going on 19, working offshore as a contract worker on Chevron platforms out of Leesville, Louisiana, I was fascinated to read how much it seemed the same with small, but important changes.

I wasn’t eighty miles out, probably less than ten.  Near enough that we regularly saw sport fishing boats circling and tying up to the platform to try for their limit there.  Sometimes we were in helicopters, but more often we went out on crew boats or supply barges either between jobs on various platforms close by or when we came on or off of shifts, which are still 12-hours per day.  I worked 14 on and 7 off.  Chevron’s permanent staff were 7 and 7.  Eighty miles out, these workers were 14 and 14 and helicoptered on and off the rig.

Interestingly, Shell now requires anyone, hourly worker, top brass, or reporter it turns out, to go through a water survival course in case of a helicopter accident, which includes getting out of an upside-down helicopter cab underwater holding your breath.  There was nothing like that in my day. Pictures in the story indicated workers were still using the orange, rubber block life jackets that I remember, though.  We might have needed something like that more than 50 years ago, but safety – and liability lawsuits – weren’t as common then.  For example, we were moving from our platform to another where we were working and carrying the ice and paperwork to the next platform one morning early.  A crew boat was picking me and another roustabout up.  I had the paperwork under my arm.  The seas were rough with four-foot swells.  The procedure for boarding was that you would swing out on a rope to the boat, which had pulled up so you would come down in the bow.  When it came time for me to drop down into the boat a wave moved the bow in the other direction, so I came down in the water.  I didn’t lose the paperwork and kept swimming while the boat turned around so that I could be pulled in on the lower entry aft side.  I’m sure no one ever wrote up a safety report on the incident.  I was just another $2 per hour contract roustabout making money to pay for college, so no big deal, but I can see the value of an underwater survival course for sure.

The story doesn’t do much to report on the actual work done, which is too bad, but does report on the living conditions for this huge 180-person drilling and support crew.  We weren’t drilling, just pumping, so usually only four to six on a platform.  Nonetheless, the same bunk bed situation prevailed, with less privacy than he describes and no on-board laundry.  You could bring a book or two with you, but mainly you worked, slept, and ate.  He mentions “all needs” being taken care of, and he’s got a point there.  To this day, I’ve never eaten better.  Chevron let their men order almost anything they would want.  We had steak once or twice a week.  The Cheramie’s, TJ and Bozo, would make jambalaya every week.  We would wake up to biscuits every morning at 530 am, since the shift was 6 to 6.  On a big drilling rig, they undoubtedly have an entire kitchen crew on board.  These days they have TV, internet, games and more.  In my day, you caught shark off the side of the platform, maybe read, discussed the Vietnam War, heard stories about home from other workers from Alabama, Mississippi, Texas, Florida, and Oklahoma, who made the drive to make the dollar, went to bed early, and were up early.

The Times was mainly there to offset the oil companies claims that drilling offshore is cleaner and greener than doing so on land in terms of greenhouse gas emissions.  Maybe, but when you add everything up, I’m not sure.

Regardless, the story was still a good picture of what workers go through to bring the oil home, and it brought back memories of paths not taken.  At the end of my summer in 1967, I was offered a job as a roustabout drilling with a contractor in the Prudhoe Bay field in Alaska.  By passing on my sophomore year in college, and being on a rig for three months, I would make $20,000 they claimed, which in those days would have paid tuition for my whole stint in school.  I passed on the offer.  Two summers in the oil fields, one in Oklahoma and one in the Gulf had been enough for me.  As it was, I didn’t make it through but one more semester before dropping out to organize against the war, and then no much longer to organize for good forever.

One door closes, and another opens.  Roads chosen and not taken are the stories of the lives we lead.