Oil Sands: The Heavy Equipment Operator
Fort McMurray, best associated with the oil sands industry, is one of the hottest places in Canada for employment. There are so many available jobs in the oil sands and its supporting industries. The city itself has become a diverse and multicultural community having attracted people from all corners of Canada and the world. Located over 450km northeast of Edmonton, Fort McMurray reaches temperatures of -58 degrees Celsius with windchill.
A 797B Cat
The life worth the pay?
Oil sand extraction is at the heart of the industry. From there companies like Suncor, Syncrude, Shell, and Canadian Natural Resources Limited to name a few, upgrade the oil sands into high-quality, refined crude oil products and diesel fuel - making billions of dollars.
The Heavy Equipment Operator is the anonymous male or female working on the mining sites hauling, pushing and shoveling Canada's abundant petroleum resource.
Training to become a heavy equipment operator is short. The in-class sessions were 3 months in length, but with the need for operators, are now just 1 month long. You must then complete 3 months on-site driving. The cost is at least $5-6K at the local college, Keyano. The 3 months on-site training pays you well - at under $2k a paycheck net.
You can also opt to join a contracting company like North American, that would train you to become an operator. The starting base pay is usually about $69-$72K annually plus bonuses, and benefits among other things. Currently, bonuses may include housing and signing. There are additional bonuses during the year such as performance bonuses. But, to be an operator is a difficult job. Sure it pays well, especially with its bonuses and overtime pay, but it is a hard life.
The operator must endure 12 hour shifts, plus travel time. Depending on the company, an operator may have to travel an additional 1.5 hours to 3+ hours every shift. They are taken by bus, to minimize traffic and for safety reasons, but have the choice to drive themselves to work as well. The shifts are hard because they must wake up early with the travel. Working at CNRL or Shell means waking up at 4/4:30 am to catch the bus - and this is cutting it close, there is only time for a quick breakfast. Work begins at 6:30 am. A night shift means, you leave at the same time but in the afternoon. It means having to resist sleep and sleeping alone when you get home. Your partner and children must eat dinner without you and sleep alone too.
You have three breaks: two 15 minute breaks and a half-hour lunch break. Some days these breaks must be taken early in the work day and clustered all together, allowing you no break when you are actually tired. With only a half-hour lunch break there is no desire to go down to the cafeteria because time would be taken to get there. Instead, many operators opt for a bagged lunch - cold, soggy and repetitive.
Shifts range from 6 on 6 off, to 4 on 5 off 5 on 4 off 5 on 5 off and so on, or 7 on 7 off. For example, this means an operator must endure 6 day shifts, 6 work days off, then 6 night shifts and 6 work days off, then the cycle repeats again - unless s/he opts for overtime on their off days. For contract workers such as those of North American Contractors Group, shifts could be 14 on 7 off. The effect on the operator's body clock and sleep cycle is brutal; and, the pressure to stay awake on shifts is even worse. Mistakes can lead to job loss (even minor mistakes means a "pee-test" and write-ups), injury and even worse, death.
You must be alert when driving the biggest trucks in the world. There are too many dangers. The trucks are 797B Caterpillars - with a capacity of 360 tons and an operating weight of 1.2 million lbs. They are nearly 3 stories high and can go to speeds of 80 km/hr. The sheer size and weight of fully loaded trucks is awesome and fearsome. The possibility of driving over passenger vehicles including pick-up trucks, which are regularly found on the mine with these monsters, is ever present; and should a haul truck do so, the driver of the 797 wouldn't even notice. The mental and emotional toll on such an occurrence is incomprehensible. No one means to do anything like that, yet it happens and has happened. There are other dangers.
The crazy weather, getting -58 degrees Celsius, doesn't always mean you get to stay home. For some companies there is no change in its work schedule. Workers must work even in such formidable weather. The roads can be bumpy, slippery and muddy - all dangerous conditions on regular roads, imagine it in the mine. Slippery conditions can cause the haul truck to flip over and roll over, even several times. Fully loaded, such an event results in tragedy. This has happened too. Dumping at the wrong times can mean danger for the workers below; imagine 400 tons falling on you.
The oil sands companies however, do their best to improve their safety standards. The accidents that have happened, though possibly avoidable, have taught them lessons and resulted in tighter restrictions, rules and regulations. You are also given the option to switch around the company if you so desire. But, when the operator does get home, my family always celebrates even just the 45 minutes he has time for dinner with us, after which he must sleep right away or else his 8 hours of needed sleep is already shortened. Unfortunately, with a one-year old it's inevitably short. He works hard, endures cold soggy food, constant pressure, has little sleep and it's all for us. It has allowed me to stay home with my daughter without worry about finances, and the ability to try the things I want to - business, studies, and our family.