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Oil Sands: The Heavy Equipment Operator

Updated on September 7, 2012

Fort Mac

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 797B is only one the heavy machinery that Heavy Equipment Operators operate. They can also drive wheel dozers, dozers, graders, shovels among others.
The 797B is only one the heavy machinery that Heavy Equipment Operators operate. They can also drive wheel dozers, dozers, graders, shovels among others.

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.


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    • metalFUN profile image

      Peter 21 months ago from Poland

      2 years ago we have got in our service this heavy monster (from pic). We are heavy equipment service from Poland - Serwis maszyn

    • profile image

      Nelson 2 years ago

      I am interested in heavy equipment operator training. What does it take?and what is the per hour pay of an heavy equipment operator. I am presently living in Toronto but ready to relocate

    • profile image

      Sergio Freddson 3 years ago

      I had a buddy in high school that operated one of these massive trucks and got paid extremely well to do it. In fact, at the time, the truck he drove was the largest in the entire world. People would come and see it as a tourist attraction. He said the lifestyle was difficult but he loved it—it's how he grew up. Thanks for breaking the lifestyle down though, it's interesting to see in article format!

    • profile image

      Heavyhaulalex 3 years ago

      Anybody on this I would like to chat with a heavy haul operator please?

    • Henrysmamas51 profile image

      Henrysmamas51 3 years ago

      This still sounds fantastic! I've experienced the shift work, bus rides, etc. years ago, however, after the many years, I still want to go back! :) This time through the HH program, I just hope KC will accept me, so I'm keeping my fingers crossed.

      What are the physical requirements? Will I be expected to change a tire? Where can I get a loan for the HH program? Are there any grants available? Any advise is greatly appreciated.

    • profile image

      Jonathan Scanlon 4 years ago

      This article is very accurate. Thank you.

    • profile image

      Matt 4 years ago

      I'm a success story from the oil sands, with luck and perseverance you can succeed up here. If you don't get caught up into the 'party' lifestyle, or feel the need to constantly buy new can make a great life up here. I came here back in Sept. 2005 from Nanaimo , B.C. . I drove up here to take the Keyano Haul Truck course in a K-car (barely made it), everything I owned was in the hockey bag I brought. Finished the course, was lucky enough to get a job right away....then spent the next 3-4 years working my tail off and all the overtime I could to save money to invest into my future. I was able to move my fiance' and my daughter after 6 months of work, and marry her the following year. I am a team lead now for Shell Albian Sands, and am moving to my dream home in Nanaimo next month. In the last 8 years I have paid off all my debt, start saving for retirement, and just bought my 5th house. Not a day goes by I'm not grateful for what we have been able to accomplish, and working for such a great company. This town and industry has been great for our lives. Getting started is the toughest part, and the most intimidating. If anyone has any questions, feel free to shoot me an e-mail and I will do my best to reply when I get a chance....

      -Matt Stephens

      Team Lead Shell Albian Sands

    • profile image

      WaywardImages 4 years ago

      This is an interesting topic. There are some inaccuracies, and many bang-on truths. I work at the Syncrude mine in a contractor role, operating excavators, dozers, and various haul trucks (there are at least 8 different sizes/types at Syncrude).

      Like anything in life, if you want it bad enough, you will find a way to get it. I have worked in construction for years, running all sizes of excavator right from the minis up to the Cat 385, as well as some work on dozer, skidsteer, etc. When I decided I wanted to get into mining for the stability of the year round work rather than the seasonal construction work I had been doing, it was just a matter of researching what companies were operating where, and what was required to get a foot in the door. There are a lot of mines in Canada, not just the oilsands. Nickel, copper, iron, diamonds, gold... Ontario, BC, Alberta, NWT... do your homework, and build your experience where you can. You don't need to work in mine to get experience. You only need to find a company that uses similar equipment to gain experience on that equipment. Granted, only the mines use the giants, but earthmoving companies use haultrucks, and are frequently looking for operators. Put your resume in with every company you can find that fits that bill, and go from there. Luck doesn't decide the winners... the winners are those who never quit. =)

    • profile image

      Ron Wolf 4 years ago


      My name is Ron Wolf,I currently live in Victoria,BC.

      I've been employed in the past as a Journeyman welder working in Victoria and British Columbia.

      I hold a valid"A" level in welding,CWB certified all position in SMAW & FCAW.

      I would like information on where to train as a Heavy Haul Operator.

      I would very much appreciate your help in this field of work.

      I have my own vehicle & transportation,current valid Passport,no criminal record,free to travel.

      I have a clean class 5,6 drivers license and I've just completed ICBC Air Brake endorsement course.

      Please send me any information about training for Heavy Haul operator in the Fort McMurray area.

      If a position or training comes available I would relocate or work in camp,I'm flexible.

      Thank you for your time,I look forward to a reply and discussing further training.

      yours truly.

      Ron Wolf

    • profile image

      GNIPGNOP 4 years ago

      Hello. I am working on getting into a funded program for women as a Heavy Haul Operator. It is required that I conduct at minimum 3 quick interviews with currently employed Heavy Haul Operators. If anyone would be so kind to find 15 minutes to answer some questions via email that would be awesome and greatly appreciated. If you would be into assisting me send me an email at and I will send you a list of questions for a response. Thank you in advance.

    • profile image

      AN 4 years ago

      How long has your husband been a haul truck driver?

    • profile image

      John 4 years ago

      Hi Deb,

      Thanks for this. You completely taken this option off my mind now. Hope your partner find a better job. It is so sad that people are accepting those harsh work conditions.

    • profile image

      Anonymous 5 years ago

      Clearstream trains you on either 797/793/komatsu/liebehrr. After a year you will, be trained on all 4.

    • profile image

      sacramento54 5 years ago


      thanks for your info.I would like to get a job as HEO. What should I do?

      Where Can I get a HEO licence?

      Clear stream company. WILL they train you for a job?HEO.


    • profile image

      super 5 years ago

      Clear stream is hiring HEO's and syncrude often hires from that contractor. Suncor has currently posted positions for HEOs closing date is May 30. And I am waiting for my class at Keyano and yes they are still doing co-ops.

    • DebtFreedom profile image

      DebtFreedom 5 years ago

      It's all the melting snow.

    • DebtFreedom profile image

      DebtFreedom 5 years ago

      Hi Dan, I hope you've found work already. Before they used to have co-op with the course and once you successfully completed it you were usually hired by the company you co-oped with. I don't know if it's changed now. I have to admit that the oil sands companies are bit slow when it comes to hiring for any position. If co-op is no longer involved you will have to apply for jobs yourself and most are online applications. You'll have to make sure your application is in line with their job description. Many people suggest to copy the job description and rewrite it in your own words for your resume. Of course, you must have integrity in doing this such that you actually tell the truth with what you are copying. So, make sure you don't lie on your resume when you copy and paste if you haven't done something that they require (ie. you don't have experience, just say that you are eager to work for their company and that while you have no experience in that particular position, you took your experience at Keyano seriously and are now looking forward to apply it in the field and for the good of the company).

      A good work ethic is important and safety is huge. Make sure you point those out about yourself.

    • profile image

      face 5 years ago

      Why does the food have to be soggy?

    • profile image

      Traci 5 years ago

      Sounds quite interesting, That being said I wish many of you would brush up on your grammar and typing skills.

    • profile image

      zlonestranger 5 years ago

      I have a Class A CDL. I Love truck driving but I want to drive bigger. I have no strings to my life I am just all about the job. I really would like to train to become an operator. Just have to keep trying to find out where to get training. Did see on the internet a site that had simulator class. Any body that has any networking ideas.

    • profile image

      Dan 5 years ago

      I have taken the heavy equipment operator course at Keyano College in Fort McMurray. I finished in Dec 2012 and have not had one call yet.... if anyone has any information for me I would be forever grateful... I'm starting to have regrets .... but keep thinking there will be a light at the end of the tunnel!!!!

    • profile image

      face 5 years ago

      why does the food have to be soggy?

    • DebtFreedom profile image

      DebtFreedom 6 years ago

      Hello Gerald,

      Sorry for the late reply... I know about the coal companies.. lol have stocks in them.. eeks.. haha

      Try:,, and Check out their employment sections.

      All the best

    • profile image

      Gerald Frasure 6 years ago

      Iam looking for work,I have worked on stripmines in eastern ky 18 yrs running D-11 pushing shot rock ,I have ran 994 loaders loading 789,also 1800 leturenos loading shot rock I have grounded for 8400 dragline making pades for it to sit on, worked in coal pit pulling binder off coal with 992g-d-c models I cut drill benches with d- 10 I ran fill, road lifts worked in shot breaking it down to 5700marion shovel also grounded for the shovel doing cleanups pulling cable for it, I am trying to find out who are the best companies to work for . We have had A warm winter and coal prices are down and I am layed off If you operaters are like us we try to help each other I would be greatful for anything I can find out to get A job in the mining in canada Email I am not sure if this is what if this is what this site is about worth A shot.

    • profile image

      brodie 6 years ago

      What is the starting wage out of the keyano course?? how long do u make this training wage?? what's the wage after training period?? do majority companies pay for living (rent etc) I am thinking about taking course and wanna know the average persons outcome....any info would be greatly appricated thanks


    • profile image

      Deb 6 years ago

      I'm waiting for a call to go to work , running the haul truck I'm a widow n have many kids ! Which is all pretty much of age. I'm 50 yrs old and very nervous about going up there! But kinda really excited :) so does anyone have any advice for me to watch out for! Is everyone up there r they in the union? And is it better to join the union ? Any kind of advice would b much appriciated:) thanks

    • profile image

      Debbie 6 years ago

      What r the name of the companies that hire haul truck drivers, I know shell n the thompson brothers . But who r the others ? N how would I get in the union?

      Any information about fort mac would b great:)

    • profile image

      Yves 6 years ago

      First, those that want to attempt a career change, Polish up a CV & fer peets saek, get a "spell" jheckr or sumoun wuh noes propre grhamr, yes this means u knucklehead...& have y

      er Cv poofred:-)

    • profile image

      steven smith 6 years ago

      i am locking to get in the this feal can you heple

    • profile image

      Eldred j Leep. 6 years ago

      Iam a heavey equipment operator and it all sounds good to me do thay need any help 20+years exp. In rockpit's and logging.

    • profile image

      JJ 7 years ago

      I have no money. On EI...single and would love the chance to learn and be a Heavy Equipment Operator. I am 45 years old but and very capable. Willing to do what it takes....ANY ADVICE PLEASE...I have been a Leadhand in a mill but economy made company go bankrupt. now the skills I have mean nothing to anyone other than the fact I was a leader.... Olease help

    • profile image

      John  7 years ago

      How much does a heavy equipment operator make an hr.

    • profile image

      kim 7 years ago

      Sorry this is a bit exaggerated I work here, not nearly as mellow dramatic as the author makes it out to be. Although much of the writing was accurate, much was over done. We live an amazing life. We make more than most and get a week off twice a month. Try focusing on those facts, then you will have an accurate account of our job.

    • DebtFreedom profile image

      DebtFreedom 8 years ago

      Thanks Silver and Daddy.

    • Daddy Paul profile image

      Daddy Paul 8 years ago from Michigan

      Good read. Thanks for sharing a life experience.

    • Silver Poet profile image

      Silver Poet 8 years ago from the computer of a midwestern American writer

      Someone told me there were oil sands, and I was curious to know more about it. Thank you for writing this hub.


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