Rig Wives a reminder of faces behind an industry
Posted on August 05, 2022 | By Ashley Fitzpatrick | 0 Comments
Offshore oil and gas sector workers are like many people who earn their living keeping the wheels (or drills, as the case may be) turning at Canada’s remote, restricted worksites. The workers’ experiences and viewpoints are often left behind in the commentaries, industry analysis, the public back-and-forth focused on company goals, product, revenues. It’s at least part of the reason why Rig Wives: Stories, new from Kelly Earle (Flanker Press), is receiving attention this summer.
Married for nine years now to her husband Jamie, who works offshore Newfoundland and Labrador, Earle shares some of her own thoughts on the industry, leaning into her family’s experiences. Her stories are paired with others collected from other families, describing—among other things—how having a spouse working offshore for weeks at a time can affect daily life, stresses and strengths, for better and worse.
Earle’s book speaks directly to safety concerns, disruptions in childcare, managing events onshore (like 2020’s “Snowmageddon” state of emergency in St. John’s) and relationships in an industry where companies often have global reach, transferring workers over international borders. And it’s the little things that hit you, like when Earle describes a wait at the airport with her daughter Hailey, at 6 p.m. on a Christmas Eve. “I’ve learned over the years that the oil industry is so unpredictable, and I never believe it when (Jamie) is scheduled to come home on a certain day until we are actually on the way to pick him up,” she writes.
“I try not to tell the kids the exact day Daddy gets home, because it can change and turn into lots of tears and disappointment for them and me,” she states.
Earle told Atlantic Business Magazine the book isn’t meant to be all ‘woe is me’ reading. For one thing, she said, there’s importance in job satisfaction and her husband and many others have that. She also described the benefit of having her partner at home and available for weeks at a time, between the absences. It’s just a different life. The book, she said, is intended to share insights into the day-to-day for some of the workers and their families.
In that, coming from people connected to the Canadian offshore industry, it’s rare reading indeed. Consider the last quarter century of oil production off Newfoundland and Labrador, all of the debate around the future of oil and gas. Regardless, it might be a struggle to actually picture the daily work on the Grand Banks and beyond. People outside of the oil and gas industry might know the broad strokes of what’s done on the helicopter pads, engineering rooms or rig floors, but how much do we really know about the details, or about the professional and personal stresses of workers as they go about their jobs? Do we know the labour issues? Do we know how things might be better?
In fairness, there have been few films or books outside of academic circles showing the local industry. Hibernia: Promise of Rock & Sea (Breakwater; 1997), featured photos from Ned Pratt and Greg Locke of the Hibernia gravity-based structure under construction, for example. It featured shots of the workforce. Being able to see the captured details, like dozens of workers piling aboard the Garden City to be ferried to the deep-water construction site at Bull Arm, or a trio with one person swinging their lunch pail, or an even more candid photo from a smoke break—it’s all humanizing treasure. But it’s not operations offshore. Out there, hundreds of kilometres away, access for candid discussions or photos is not just naturally restricted but tightly controlled. And open discussions onshore tend to be guided by union leaders.
The bottom line: it’s rare to simply see people or read about the feelings of people at work offshore Newfoundland and Labrador in anything not posed or processed by the companies involved. People in Atlantic Canada and beyond have also rarely ever—to be clear, in most cases they have never—directly heard the voices of rank-and-file workers here talking in any kind of detail about their lives. Is it really a surprise they’re not more thought of and represented in the grand debates?
There are stories, individual experiences, trickling through the noise at times. However, when they do, they have tended to come almost entirely in the wake of (or in the context of) tragedies like the Ocean Ranger or the crash of Cougar 491. Earle addresses both events in her book, as do others, in the stories she’s collected and included. At one point in the book Earle relays an exchange with Gary Wall, who was taken from the Ocean Ranger rig less than a day before it sank back in 1982. And she gives descriptions of her own uneasiness after the more recent tragedy of the Cougar helicopter crash and “horrible feeling that devours” when she now hears the sound of a helicopter as her husband heads to work. Through them, it’s not hard to imagine some of the challenges for the workforce. However, Rig Wives moves from interesting to being of particular value for readers, and for industry executives, when it talks about family life and the moments that will never grab a headline.
Asked what she would like to see for offshore workers and their families, if anything, Earle didn’t miss a beat. “Just show them a little bit of appreciation,” she said, before saying her husband’s employer has been good but plenty of people in the industry feel taken for granted at times.
“You just need a pat on the back sometimes,” she said.
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