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Life in Alberta’s teeming oilsands camps highlights the transient nature of the bitumen brigade


Life in Alberta’s teeming oilsands camps highlights the transient nature of the bitumen brigade

Sep 2008
Source: Oilweek Magazine

Filling the void

by Paul Stastny

It´s mid-June, 3 a.m., and already bright enough to see over the buildings of the Albian Village, the temporary trailers for overflow workers and out over an expanse of earth berms, trees, clearings, and steel structures that make up one of North America´s largest construction projects.

By day, the Athabasca Oil Sands Project, Expansion 1 is abuzz with beeping, growling machines, but now there is silence, save for the distant thump of air cannons warning waterfowl away from tailings ponds and the faint sound of a road crew working the night shift somewhere on the 50-square-kilometer bitumen mining site operated by Shell Canada and partners Chevron Canada and Marathon Oil.

Solstice in this land of almost-midnight sun has a special appeal for many. For some, it´s high time to quit this job. Maybe head south or east or west or wherever they came from, see friends and family, take a vacation-live like a regular person for awhile rather than an oilsands worker on a typical 24-day-on and 7-day-off schedule.

“Workforce turnover is huge in the oilsands,” Terry Letherby, project director for Shell´s Albian expansion tells Oilweek. He sits at a meeting table in his trailer office on site. “October and November are the worst months for turnover. That´s just before the winter. May is also bad because it´s close to summer and people start thinking about doing something other than work during the warm season.”

With the labour shortage in northern Alberta being what it is, if someone wants to take the summer off, they don´t think twice. They know there is always a job waiting for them somewhere among these projects if they want to come back.

“We have 2,800 people here,” Letherby says. “And each week we bring 350 new people through orientation.” By mid-July, that number would swell to over 3,200 employees. With 4,000 beds in the Albian Village compound, even more people could be brought in, but whether Shell will ramp up to this level is uncertain. The challenge is not just in finding the right workers, but in finding the right worker at the right time.

As construction work moves from underground-piles, foundations, pipelines-to above ground, more ironworkers will be needed. But ironworkers in Alberta have it pretty good right now in the cities with all the office and residential towers going up. The key word here is “cities,” not “in the middle of Alberta´s northern boreal forest.”

Competitive advantage

Like most who come to the oilsands, Letherby is a recent addition. He and his wife moved to Fort McMurray from Calgary in February 2007. This project is one in a long line of Royal Dutch Shell ventures Letherby has undertaken in different parts of the world.

Born in Wales, Letherby was five years old when his father, a coalmine worker, set the pattern for careers in the family. During a coalmine union strike, he decided to take the family to Zambia, where he got a job in a copper mine. Letherby would grow up in Africa, then return to study at the University of Wales and, shortly after, he started with Royal Dutch Shell.

Having worked in all over the world, Letherby knows something about attracting workers to remote locations. “The key is to provide something better,” he says. “At Albian Village, we provide recreational facilities, healthy food lines, and university training on site.”

In fact, Albian Village provides a lot more than that. The facility represents the highest evolution of the work camp. The all-inclusive development delivers superior quality of life by offering the type of big-city amenities not usually associated with work camps. It boasts an indoor ice hockey rink, a baseball field, gymnasium, running track, weight room, games room, computer room, sitting areas with couches and sofas, a corner store, pub, a Tim Hortons outlet, a cafeteria that feels more like a restaurant, and a snack room where you can grab a sandwich, fruit, and drink any time of day or night free of charge or brown-bag a lunch for the next day.

All these facilities are interconnected by enclosed walkways to hotel-style residences, which feature furnished rooms with wall-to-wall carpeting, a flat-panel television, a double bed, desk, sofa, night table, coffee table, and private or semi-private bathrooms. (The management wing gets the private bathrooms.)

Albian Village is designed to compete for workers in a global resource market. Quality of life, superior compensation, and site safety are the three pillars of Shell´s strategy to attract and retain workers.

A private airstrip a few kilometres away further raises the ante. Completed in November 2007, it is the largest non-military airstrip in the country. So workers spend less time travelling and benefit from improved safety by avoiding the congestion of Highway 63 north of Fort McMurray.

“Each day we have two round trips from Calgary-one run from Vancouver, and one flies to the East Coast,” Letherby says. “It all helps in attracting people.”

Under construction

“It´s an honour to work here,” says Daniel Elster, quality control supervisor for FAM, a German engineering and fabrication company specializing in bulk material handling and mineral processing. The company is working on something called a surge bin, a giant hopper that will provide a 45-minute buffer of crushed bitumen to deal with temporary disruptions in supply.

“This is exactly the type of work I wanted to do,” Elster says with a thick German accent. “The scale of this project is incredible.”

From the deck of the surge bin, you get a sense of just how massive this construction site is. Every structure, every steel beam, every bolt is super-sized. Hundreds of metres separate process buildings. In the midst of this sea of dirt, travel is exclusively by pickup-fitted with orange flashing lights and high-mounted flags to make them more visible to heavy equipment operators.

Elster points to a massive excavated pit some 200 metres away. Once this mine is on stream in mid-2010, 400-tonne trucks will dump excavated bitumen into that pit. A crusher at the bottom then breaks up the material. A conveyor ramp moves it out of the pit to the surge bin and then another 200 metres to a breaker building, where water is added.

The slurry is hydro-transported to the main processing facilities about a kilometre away. Here, the water and sand is separated from the bitumen. The water is sent to tailings ponds. The bitumen is diluted with condensate or synthetic light crude to make it flow and piped 450 kilometres to Shell´s Scotford facility outside of Edmonton. At Scotford, the bitumen is upgraded into synthetic crude and further refined into a number of end products, from gasoline to aviation fuel to lubricants.

Frank Bloome, Elster´s boss, says we just missed Albian´s heaviest lift so far-a 250,000-tonne component of the surge bin. The 46-year-old construction supervisor is from Magdeburg, Germany, FAM´s headquarters and home for him, his wife, and their two children. One is 18 years old and the other is three months.

Three months?

Bloome smiles and shrugs his shoulders.

He first came to Albian in September 2007 during the planning stage, then returned in April 2008 for the construction. He lives at Albian Village, which he says is the best camp he has ever been in. “It makes a huge difference. It makes it good to work here and more fun.”

A Shell construction coordinator named Tyler Metz drives us back to Albian Village. Fresh out of the University of Saskatchewan, he was hired by Shell provided he works in the oilsands for at least six months.

Metz has been here since February, working in a variety of jobs. He wants to pursue a certified management accounting degree. He could do that here, but he says he doesn´t know how long he will stay before he transfers back to the city.

The Village

The dining hall at Albian Village rings with the clanging of cutlery and talk. It is a large carpeted space filled with light from a wall of windows along its longest wall. Tonight is lamb night, but the healthy food line has other options, or you can always grab that staple of camp food: a burger and fries.

Tom Hynes sits at a table with three other men eating dinner. Hynes earned his structural engineering degree with Memorial University in Newfoundland, and is one of that growing cadre of Newfoundland ex-pats building Alberta´s oilsands infrastructure.

“About half my class stayed and the other half left the province,” he says. “Towards the last term at school, a bunch of companies came down from the West and started recruiting. I ended up getting an offer from Halliburton, so I said, ‘why not-it´s an adventure.”

He worked with Halliburton for awhile and tried a couple other companies before starting with Colt Engineering. Colt´s joint partnership with AMEC brought him to Albian.

“Professionally, this is probably the most challenging,” he says. “As for the facilities, they´re great. The biggest problem is trying to watch what I eat. I went seven days without eating pie and broke down today.”

In a couple of weeks Hynes plans to take some additional time off and ride his motorcycle across Canada to Newfoundland.

“The heart is always in Newfoundland,” he says. “The family´s back there. My little sister actually lived in Calgary up until this past weekend. She moved back to Newfoundland with her husband and two kids. So it will be nice to see them on my days off.”

Another table and another group of Newfoundlanders. Newfoundlanders in the oilsands are a bit of a cliché-it seems justified. Justin Bernard is 29 years old but looks somewhat younger. He started two weeks ago as a project coordinator with Ledcor Foundations.

“A friend of mine was working for Ledcor and convinced me to come to Albian,” he says. “I flew up for an interview and had a chance to see it first, so I knew what to expect.” Bernard says he is here to clean up his debts.

Across from him is Peter Cabral, project coordinator for Ledcor Foundations. Cabral says he came to Albian from Newfoundland for the money and the opportunity. He is 36 years old and married with two girls, who are four and two years old. A civil engineer by training, he says he had to leave the province to find work in his field. But the distance from his family is taking a toll.

“I´m setting a goal of being able to last here until Christmas,” he says. “But when you phone home and your girls are crying on the phone for their daddy to come home, it´s hard. Every single call makes it harder.”

At the same table sits Jennifer Pickett, a 29-year-old project administrator, also with Ledcor Foundations but not from Newfoundland. She graduated in accounting from Grant MacEwan College in her hometown of Edmonton, where she started with Ledcor. Five months later, she took the opportunity to work at Albian.

Even though only about 10 per cent of the site´s population is women, Pickett says it isn´t something she is particularly aware of.

“Everyone gets the impression that it´s one girl for 2,400 guys, but there´s actually quite a lot of women up here,” she says. “I´ve never felt uncomfortable about it. I like living up here and working up here. The people are great.”

The remoteness of the site also has its advantages. That and her work schedule of 10 days on and four days off allows her to pursue a higher level accounting designation online at Albian. It will take her about three years to become a certified management account.

“And even without that goal, I can rise to an office manager in my position or project accountant. There´s lots of opportunities,” she says.

One of the things you hear a lot at Albian is how working in the oilsands is a great kick-start to careers. You also quickly notice that many young people have relatively senior job titles. Mid-level project management positions are often held by people in their 20s. At age 35, some are already project directors.

Jerry Bell, Shell´s site construction director at Albian, says the lack of skilled workers across the whole market is leading to a dilution of skills.

“In the oilsands, you´re seeing a dilution of engineering skills and trade skills. There´s a dilution of the leadership skills,” he says. “The dilution of skills can reduce your productivity, so you have to put in the training to counter act it.”

“I would suggest,” he adds, “that if in Alberta, we were doing two major projects, they would be world-class projects. But what we´re doing 10 major projects.”


“You missed the big lift,” shouts Mike Hill over noise in the pub.

Like everything else at Albian, the Village pub is big. The tables are spread out to give everyone plenty of elbowroom. There are pool tables, dartboards, everything you would expect in a bar-except for music. And the light that streams in from the same wall of windows that front the dining hall below the pub gives the place more of a restaurant/lounge feel than a bar. There is no smoking here either.

Hill is a second-year ironworker apprentice from Edmonton. He works for Midwest Constructors. He and his buddy, Kenny Grove, a journeyman rigger, want it made clear that they are with Edmonton Ironworkers´ Local 720.

“I am Canadian. I am a union man,” Hill says proudly.

An open site tends to be a complex site. Albian has six labour groups working on site: the traditional unionized construction trades; CEP workers-Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada (a largely private sector labour union created in 1992 through the merger of Canadian Paperworkers Union, the Communication and Electrical Workers of Canada, and the Energy and Chemical Workers Union); the Christian Labor Association of Canada; HERE workers (Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees union); MERIT workers (an association of non-union companies); and non-union workers.

“It´s two different worlds-union and non-union,” Grove says, giving vent to some of the inevitable biases found in an open site as non-union people do union work or as one union does another union´s work. “We had to go to school for years to work here. Those guys didn´t have to.”

Hill talks about the lift at the surge bin today while Grove pulls an assortment of hardhat stickers from his pocket. One has a figure on a steel beam holding a sledgehammer in one hand and a crowbar in the other. The caption reads, “Ironworkers: Building America.” Another has a skull with a hard hat and crossed sledgehammers in the background. The caption reads, “Ironworkers: The Original Bad Boys of Construction.”

But Hill is clean-shaven, young and keen. He evidently loves his work and right here, right now, he´s making more money than he can spend.

As for Grove, he would trade some of the money for more freedom. “Every site has a different set of rules,” he says. “There´s a lot more rules here than at other camps. That´s why it´s so hard to get people up here, especially in the summertime. You can´t just sit outside and have a beer at night. We´re going to get kicked out of here right away. It closes at nine o´clock.”

Just as the place is getting going with talk and laughter, a pretty hostess makes her rounds and tells people it is time to finish up. Outside the windows, the evening sun shines on newly erected girders and joists in the empty construction site.

A special breed

At 7 a.m., the dining hall is only sparsely filled. At one table, a group of about six men sits over plates of eggs, bacon, sausages, and toast.

“So what do you guys do here?”

“As little as possible.”


“We move dirt,” another says.

The road crew has just finished the night shift. This is dinner for them.

“I wish the bar was opened all day,” says Matt Piechnik. He services road-building equipment for Thompson Brothers. “If I worked dayshift, at least I could go to the bar after work.”

Piechnik is in his 20s. He is from Cowichan Lake on Vancouver Island. He says a lot of people come here from the Island where logging and mining have taken a big hit. “It sucks to be away from home, but I wouldn´t make this kind of money on the Island.”

David Waterhouse is sitting next to Piechnik.

He sums up life at Albian this way: “Good money, but no life.”

How long will they stay?

Piechnik: “Till the environmentalists get their way and shut it down.”

Waterhouse: “Depends on when my luck in the lottery changes. Or till something better comes along or I retire. I´ll do it for five years, but not for 20. If you´re going to retire with nothing, you might as well start early.”

Piechnik: “I never thought of it that way, Dave.”

As a driver of an articulating rock truck-a “wiggle wagon” in the vernacular of the pit-Waterhouse makes $33 dollars per hour. Working 10-hour shifts, he earns over $8,000 in a 24-day work stint. Not bad, considering he spends no money except for the flight back home.

“It takes a special breed to work out here,” Waterhouse says. “Money and bitumen. Don´t know who else would sacrifice three weeks out of the four for anything else but money.”

Waterhouse comes from northeast Saskatchewan where he has a wife and three kids. Two are 18 years old and one is 16. The real work, he says, starts when he gets home. “We have a hobby farm over there and we´ve got home improvements going on. I work twice as hard there as I do here. I come here to rest.”

Ali Khedaioui sits in a plush sofa in the lobby. He is Albian´s breakfast chef. At 60 years of age, he is one of the few who has made a life for himself in northern Alberta. He has been at Albian since it opened in July 2007 and in the Wood Buffalo region for 30 years before then.

“I enjoy it here,” he says. “You meet people from different backgrounds and trades from different parts of Canada and the world.”

In 1963, when Khedaioui was 16, he left his home in Algeria for Europe and became a chef. Then he came to Montreal and eventually wanted to learn English, so he moved to Toronto where he worked for the Royal York Hotel, the first Ramada Hotel built in Canada, and other landmarks.

“I have one more year and then I will retire,” he says. He plans to do more charity when he retires, but also to travel more. He wants to see Canada from coast to coast. As a Muslim, he also wants to make the journey to Mecca and the Arab world.

Abdinasir Barre introduces himself as Barry since it is so much easier on the tongue. Tomorrow, he will officially become a Canadian citizen.

“It´s a great day for me,” Barry says.

He fled Somalia in 1991, came to the United States in 2000, which he left in the same year for Canada. He looks much younger than his 42 years, so it comes as a bit of a surprise to learn he has a wife and seven children, ages 8 to 17. He comes from Toronto, where his wife has family. She doesn´t want to move to Alberta for that reason.

Barry works as a bus driver for Diversified Transportation, which ferries people between Fort McMurray and the oilsands projects. He makes ends meet but misses his family. Because of the cost, he flies home only every second month. If only bus driving paid this well in Toronto.

The drill

It is time to leave Albian Village, but not before sitting in on an orientation of new recruits.

Jerry Bell introduces himself individually to every person already seated in the room as the rest are accounted for and handed folders at the entrance by his colleague.

When the doors close, Bell launches into a safety talk like no other. Part evangelist, part motivational speaker, part drill sergeant, his voice booms among almost 200 people.

“Our leading indicator is safety,” he says. “If productivity is down, you´re working on an unsafe site. Safety improvements result in productivity improvements.”

The three key values Bell insists each and every person in the room commits to are respect, intervention, and compliance. By respect, he means respect for human life. “But I´m a little cynical about that value-respect for human life,” he says.

“Last year, over 150 workers died in this industry. In Canada, over a thousand workers were killed.” His voice softens. “On April 26, we had a young electrician-25 years old with a wife and kids in Edmonton-get run over by one of our heavy haulers. That was our first fatality. I think it got 10 media hits.

“Then on April 28, one of our competitors had 500 ducks die. And guess what? That got 200 media hits. And the prime minister of Canada got involved. So I´m little cynical about whether we really respect human life.”

Bell´s voice rises and falls. He is dramatic, emphatic and unrelenting in his call to arms to make this a zero-harm site. He needs a united front to make this happen. He needs engagement.

At first, the voices come back weak and out of sync. But soon enough, everyone in the room understands that safety comes down to each one of them. Every voice counts.

Shell´s safety message is powerful and it seems to resonate throughout the site. This is more than a token effort, or a talking up of a so-called culture of safety. It is a kind of glue that holds together the thousands of people that work here. And it has benefits that go well beyond the obvious. It makes for a worksite where worker interaction is actually governed by courtesy.

Copyright © 2008 JuneWarren Publishing

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