Employment in the Oil Patch: The Story of One Short Fingernail


Oil patch employment is an awesome thing for those of us who appreciate it. Ending up with one short fingernail and nothing worse in the way of on the job injury? That’s a free bonus.

Before we get to the story of one short fingernail, though, let’s take a brief look at why work in the patch pays as well as it does. There are numerous interconnected reasons:

    1. It’s hard work. If your idea of “putting out” for your employer is broadening your butt in an office chair, 9 to 5 in an air conditioned office, this is not for you.

    2. The hours are long and ugly. A standard shift (called a “tower” on the drilling rigs) is 12 hours. There’s none of this stuff about, “Eight hours? I’m outta here!” You start with 12 hours and go from there–sometimes working a straight 24 or more, depending on the particular circumstances and conditions.

    3. The work requires a lot more intelligence than outsiders realize. Try running the set of calculations needed to simply pump a load of cement down a hole and you’ll see what I mean.

    4. In addition to intelligence, common sense is at a premium. If you don’t come by “street smarts” naturally, the oil patch will either kill you or run you off because you’re putting other workers and/or property at risk.

    5. The oil patch is one of the most dangerous places to work on the planet. Not the most dangerous; commercial fishing and logging usually rank as more deadly than the patch–but deadly enough.

How deadly? That’s sometimes hard to pin down, largely because a lot of the worker fatality rankings we see published fail to break energy workers out as a discrete, separate group when the statistics are tallied. However, an AP article from December 19, 2012, points out the situation in North Dakota, the location of the nation’s largest current oil boom in the Bakken formation.

North Dakota oil patch worker deaths on rise

BISMARCK, N.D….According to North Dakota Workforce Safety and Insurance data, 29 workers were killed on the job in the fiscal year that ended in July. Thirteen of the fatalities occurred in oil patch-related occupations, and seven of those deaths were from vehicle crashes….

In other words, stay away from the oil patch if you’re a wuss, an idiot, or any combination of the two.

During my years as an oil worker, the majority of my jobs involved driving trucks, first as a bulk cement hand for Halliburton in eastern Montana and later as a water hauler for a smaller company in western Colorado. Even those driving jobs were hazardous enough. We drivers were not hired to work on the big drilling rigs, but we were around and/or on them regularly. There were locations where a whiff or two of hydrogen sulfide gas could drop you permanently. Rolling a truck on the high country switchback dirt roads was not that uncommon. One fellow employee, a female driver for Halliburton in 1982, slipped on an icy trailer frame one deep winter night, threw her hand out for balance–and lost two fingers to an unguarded fan blade powered by the cement tanker’s compressor pump motor.

In Colorado, one young idiot checked the water level in a frac tank one night…with his Bic, because he’d forgotten to grab his flashlight. Frac water is not potable; it often carries flammable gases with it. The tank flashed, burning the fool’s face badly enough to require an ambulance run to the hospital.

A year later, he did it again, exactly the same way.

My sole “trophy injury” happened while I was employed as a derrick hand for a workover rig company in Montana, circa 1982.

The workover rigs are not like the huge drilling rigs that punch two-mile holes in the ground. Rather, after a hole is drilled (or even later, after the well is producing oil or natural gas), the workover rig drives onto location (it’s self-propelled) and rigs up. The derrick hinges up, telescopes 50 or so feet into the sky, and is anchored four ways from center with strong cables fastened to eyebolts sunk deeply into the earth.

And now, the story of one short fingernail.

Note: None of my fingernails are what you’d consider particularly long. I keep them cut back to the quick, always. If I don’t, they tend to split or snag all too easily–and besides, cutting them short is easier than constantly fighting to get the grime out from beneath them.

The index fingernail on my left hand, however, is noticeably shorter than the one on my right hand.

The fingernail on my right index finger, cut back to the quick but otherwise of normal length.

The fingernail on my right index finger, cut back to the quick but otherwise of normal length.

The fingernail on my left index finger, "trophy short" from a highly educational oil patch experience.

The fingernail on my left index finger, “trophy short” from a highly educational oil patch experience.

It happened several months after I’d gone to work for Western Oil Well Services in Glendive, Montana. The oil patch had gone into a huge slump, eventually resulting in me getting laid off for the first and only time in my entire span of 45 “day job” working years. It was October of 1982, the harsh Montana winter was coming our way, and I was extremely grateful to have the job.

For whatever reason, I’d become the company’s “short relief man” when it came to derrick work. Most of the crews were relatively fixed in place, always assigned to the same workover rig with the same operator, deck hand, and derrick hand–but not me. Wherever a crew was short handed and needed a guy to handle the flying deck for a day, a week, or a month, there went I.

It was a fine, not so very cold winter day when we rigged up on a Shell location. Jerry was one of my two favorite rig operators. Additionally, the job required fishing a stuck tool from downhole. Once we’d run the rods down and made the connection, there was nothing for anyone else to do but watch the operator do what we called “jarring”.

Jarring is a sort of violent technique. The rig pulls up as hard as it can against the tool stuck thousands of feet below the surface–and then lets go suddenly–and then grabs hold again, just as suddenly. So, think about this: 100,000 pounds (or more) of pull, then snap-jerk!

That’s jarring.

Which we really shouldn’t have been doing with Rig #4. It was the company’s oldest and smallest rig. And around midmorning, while we (the crew) and numerous Shell and other company personnel were standing around watching Jerry jar the tool…the right rear jack stand casing suddenly snapped clean in two.

Twenty year old steel, see….

The -CRACK!– that hit the air was impressive. The rig, 50 foot derrick and all, lunged over sideways, doing its utmost to topple to the ground.

Most of the company men panicked, racing for their pickups, as if the cabs would protect them against a fifty foot sledge hammer, should the derrick have collapsed on top of them.

The deck hand and I held position. The lunge of the derrick was away from us, anyway, as it was away from where Jerry rode out the storm at his controls.

The derrick stretched our guy line cables like a 300 pound fat man bungee jumping off a bridge…would the lines hold?

They did. The topple had –sproinged– over to an incredible tilt, a good twenty degrees from vertical, but they held. The eyebolts were made of inch thick steel sunk six feet into the earth, the cables were cinched tight with two cable clamps at each eyebolt…and they held. We’d done our jobs right.

The –sproinging– took a while, three or four bounces before it was really clear that neither of the upside cables was going to snap.

As fortune would have it, no worker was on the downhill side of that derrick. Had the left rear jack stand snapped, rather than the right rear one, the derrick would have been looming over us, aimed directly at our heads and promising to crush Jerry if the guy lines on that side failed.

It took us several hours, using manually operated hydraulic jacks, to straighten up the rig, re-snug the guy line cables, and remove the split jack stand casing.

The company bosses had already put in an urgent order for a replacement casing, 200 pounds of round, hollow steel–but not 20 years old. It would be there when we went to work the following morning.

We gathered at our crew truck well before daylight. Jerry grabbed one end of the jack stand casing, I grabbed the other, and between us we heaved it over the side of the truck bed.

My left index fingertip ended up sandwiched between 100 pounds of incoming steel (my end of the casing) and a piece of angle iron already in the truck which I’d placed there myself, the day before.

I felt about as bright, right that moment, as the guy flicking his Bic to check a frac tank.

So, what to do? Well, reporting the injury was out of the question. The boss would make me hang around to see the doctor, which would at best cost me a day’s work. My wife and family could not afford a short paycheck. Beyond that, the injury would go on my personnel record, marking me as a dumbass and possibly improving my odds of getting fired or laid off if things got worse in the oil economy than they already were.

Fortunately, that day wasn’t too rough as work days in the patch go. I had to hold that finger out straight, like a finger gun I was going to shoot somebody with, but I did my part as we installed the new jack stand casing. The company had learned its lesson and would send a newer, larger rig to finish the jarring job, so we rigged #4 down and moved on to the next job. That one involved running rods but did not include running tubing, and rods are infinitely easier to handle. I’d bump the finger every now and then, and regret it, but pretty soon the day was over.

The fingertip was, not surprisingly, swollen to double its normal size by the time I got home after work. Purple, engorged with blood, all that.

No prob. A couple of careful slices with a razor blade across the finger near the base of the fingertip did the job, the blood drained nicely, and from then on it was simply “Band Aid and wait”. Over time, the fingernail came loose. When it grew back, it was a bit shorter, and has remained so to this day.

Bored yet?

Me, I’m getting there, but there is a point to this little tale, which is this: If you’re thinking of heading to North Dakota or Texas or wherever they’re hiring workers for the oil patch, go for it if you’ve got the guts. The pay is excellent if you can hack the work, and the camaraderie between competent workers of every stripe is a good, solid thing.

Just don’t plan on making a career out of it without being marked. If you can come through with nothing worse than one short fingernail, you’ll be doing well indeed.