Women Talk About What it's Like Working on an Offshore Oil Rig
"They just work you until you're broken and then you're done. It's very high turnover. It gets to a point where you weigh up your odds."
On the surface, oil rigs come with a particular masculine vibe. Maybe it's the fact Bruce Willis and all his world-saving pals from Armageddon were rig workers, and the fact this is about the only reference point I've got. Or maybe there's truth to the notion that total isolation and dangerous, often filthy work appeals predominantly to men.
To find out, I reached out to three women who'd worked on oil rigs around Australia. I wanted to ask them whether life as a female rig worker is as strange as I imagine it, and to get a sense of what it's like out there, on those mini floating worlds populated almost entirely by dudes who look like the guy above.
Worked on a rig for three years but recently changed positions
VICE: Hi Sandra, can you describe your job in a nutshell?
Sandra: In a nutshell, you drill a hole and you get oil. I went to university in Melbourne, did a PhD in chemical engineering, and then became a field engineer for a multinational oilfield service company in Perth.
What was your work schedule like?
I worked night shifts. Midnight to midday, or 6 PM to 6 AM because of the 24-hour operations. Time is funny out there. It's 28 days on, coming off, and being on call for whenever they decided for us to come back on.
That's a lot of time at work. You stayed there for three years though, so it couldn't have been all bad.
At the start it's fun, you're learning, you're taking helicopters to the rigs, you're getting fed. Like, the food is great out there. I went to Malaysia twice, Abu Dhabi twice, Houston once, and Siberia. I made a lot of friends, which was probably because none of us actually had lives outside of work.
Do you think your experience was unique as a woman?
There aren't many women out there, but there are a lot more female engineers than anything else on the rigs—aside from cleaners, catering staff, or sometimes personal trainers. Going out there, you'd expect it to be really blokey, which it is, but at the same time I think things have changed a lot. Most guys were too nice. If they swore they would be like, oh, I'm sorry! They would go out of their way to make you feel okay.
How did working on a rig affect your romantic life?
I was in a relationship when I started the job and we broke up about a year in. It was doomed to begin with. My partner now, I actually met on the rig, he's a driller. I think that happens a lot. For engineers in my company, most people find their partners within the company because we just didn't have time to see anyone else.
What was the catalyst for you to finally leave?
They just work you until you're broken and then you're done. It's very high turnover. It gets to a point where you weigh up your odds. It's either work like a dog and not see your friends and family, or find another job that probably pays a bit less.
Were there any specific experiences that made you leave?
When I was on the rig, my grandfather had a stroke. I called up my manager and he said, "Family first, go home!" I went back to Melbourne the next day, and was there for the next three days with my grandfather. On the fourth day my manager called me and said, "You need to go back to the rig, we've got no-one else." When I got back to the rig, my grandfather died. That was probably the worst: the fact they said family first , and then days later said, you've got to go, there's no-one else.
That's tough. Would you recommend this kind of life?
I'm a lot tougher after doing it all. I've worked 32 hours straight so I can handle hard work and pressure a lot better now. There aren't many people who've had that sort of experience, so it's definitely something I don't regret.
Hi Belinda, can you tell me how rig life affected your personal relationships?
Belinda: Well, I actually met my husband offshore—a lot of couples meet offshore. We were both working for the same company. When I met him I was angry all the time, simply because I was so tired. He basically put up with me!
Nice. Where do you go to be intimate on the rig?
You can't really do it because if you're caught, you'll really regret it. On a rig I used to work for, they caught two people together in one bedroom. They were separated and never worked on this rig together again. One was going off, another was coming in.
Why was the punishment so extreme?
Sometimes you can share a room with a man but you will work a different shift to him. Like one doing nights and another doing days. It's more about privacy.
What else can you get reprimanded for?
When you take the chopper to go to the rig, you have to take a breath test. If you show a positive result for drugs or alcohol you won't be allowed to go onto the rig. You'll actually lose your job. A few of the guys from other companies showed positive results and they never came back to the rig. It's just dangerous to be on the rig when you have alcohol in your system. Your level of awareness has to be very high all the time. A pipe could drop on your head, wires can burst under high pressure... in some scenarios, fluid could spill uncontrollably onto the deck. That's why you practice safety drills every week.
Hi Nerissa, tell me about the pay working on an oil rig.
For engineers you start off at a base of about $80,000 as a trainee. Once you start going onto the rigs, you get a daily bonus, which can be about $120 a day. With your first promotion your salary goes up by $10,000—plus your daily bonus. As you get more senior your base salary and your bonus increase. Directional driller salaries are ridiculous, about $300,000 a year. They steer the well, and if you're steering the well and the drill in the wrong direction, that's potentially millions of dollars of loss.
What's the food like?
Pretty good. They cook a big meal every six hours because people are working different shifts. One of my rigs did this seafood barbeque. It was cooked for us on the helideck. It was nice to be outside and watching the sunset, to have your dinner there. They did that every Sunday.
Do you ever get anxious out there, or claustrophobic?
It's quite a depressing place sometimes because you're so far away from your family and friends. You can't call in sick like you would with an office job. A lot of relationships fail, a lot of marriages fail. I know I've struggled with a relationship while on the rig.
What else do you find difficult about the lifestyle?
We're only allowed to work at most 16 hours a day, but I was once awake for 30 hours working. This is really unsafe but very few times it must be done. For example, if you are the senior engineer and the junior guy can't handle troubleshooting or a failure on their own, you need to stay up to fix things.
Would you recommend the experience?
I say do it but just be careful. It can be a bit of a trap, because of the salary and also because of the kind of work we do. Once you get into that industry, it's a bit hard to leave.
**All names have been changed.
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