This story was originally published in September 2000, but it offers an insight into a aspect of the Gulf oil spill coverage that's been overlooked in recent coverage: life on board an oil rig — in this case, Shell Oil's Ursa platform (above). At the time of original publication it was a brand new, state-of-the-art operation.
"Good morning, it's 5 o'clock!"
No, this is not a personalized wake-up call from a soft-spoken hotel operator. It's a different kind of reveille, one that begins with a brisk knock at the door, continues with that chirpy greeting, and ends with the overhead fluorescent lights flipping on. It's the way that every day starts on Ursa, Shell Oil's newest production-and-drilling platform in the deep waters off the coast of Louisiana. And if that greeting doesn't get you up, a personalized call may go out over the loudspeaker, telling you to get out of bed and get down to the galley.
One hour later, at 6 a.m., a staff meeting begins with a group of workers ambling in, dressed in baseball caps and shirts with name patches that read "Maxie," "Boots," "Buster," and "Princess." Some of the workers sport monogrammed overalls. Until the meeting comes to order, the only conversation is intense trash-talking about an impending platformwide Ping-Pong tournament.
Nothing in such friendly banter would suggest that this wisecracking bunch is in charge of an oil-and-gas platform that cost $1.45 billion to build and is the size of two football fields. But the cost is only one part of the equation: Deep-water drilling is also enormously complex, with a number of workplace constraints — some technological, some human. As a consequence, the men and women of Ursa, about 250 people who went through a rigorous audition process to make the cut, need to be a special breed. The job demands that employees work long hours in close quarters, do demanding and sometimes dangerous work without driving one another crazy — or else go nuts themselves. How do they do it?
Ursa operates 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. With oil currently selling at around $30 per barrel, and Ursa producing about 100,000 barrels of oil per day, it doesn't make economic sense to unplug the operation — as long as everything is functioning smoothly. The challenge, of course, is for everything to function smoothly. One mistake, and Ursa could join the Exxon Valdez in the oil-and-environmental-disaster history books. Those challenges are something that Rick Fox, Shell's asset leader for Ursa, knew three years ago when he set out to assemble the team that would help build and staff the platform in preparation for "first oil" in March 1999.
Fox, a 25-year veteran of Shell who's tackled projects as far afield as Brazil and Syria, is a student of the writings of several management gurus. And for this assignment, he set his sights on something more than good teamwork. "I figured this would be my last shot at building an organization," says Fox, 48, "and I really wanted to know whether we could create a better place to work. We needed a high level of creativity, but on other platforms, we hadn't shared information well enough. And at $1 billion plus in costs, we couldn't afford any lack of communication. We had to be stone-cold good at everything."
Building a better workplace began with the way that the platform was designed. Thanks to space-age three-dimensional design software, Fox and his team were able to participate in the design process in finer detail and at an earlier stage than his predecessors were able to on similar projects. "For example, we were able to think about how we wanted to walk around a particular piece of equipment as we inspected it, and we were able to design that in ahead of time," says Sam Mabry, a 39-year-old control-room operator on Ursa. "That sort of thing makes a big difference once you're out there working." Another improvement that got designed into the platform's environment: enough space so that drillers, operations people, and production workers could all have their own data rooms.
An even greater challenge was to match people to the platform. Executives at Shell made it clear that Ursa could not be staffed simply by reassigning the most experienced workers from the company's three other tension-leg platforms. So it was up to Fox and his team to find and then to evaluate candidates who had little prior experience in the energy business. "To us, that just created an opportunity to bring in people from elsewhere who could add value to the system because they didn't see things the way we saw them," says Arthur McAlpin, 44, one of two on-platform managers who report directly to Fox, whose office is in New Orleans. While many people did transfer out to Ursa from Shell operations onshore, others had most recently worked on submarines, repaired cardiac equipment, and trolled the shopping aisles of Home Depot.
What does it take to assemble a high-performing team to work on a drilling rig? "We weren't just looking for technical ability," says Todd Hooker, 36, a control-room operator. "We were looking for communication skills. We had one exercise called 'Lost on the Moon,' where we asked a small group to think about which tools they'd need if they were on one side of the moon and wanted to get to the other side. We wanted to see who took leadership positions and who was argumentative."
Life On the Platform
The helicopters leave every Tuesday from Venice, Louisiana for the 45-minute trip to Ursa, carrying out the new workers who are starting a shift, bringing back those who've completed one. At any given time, there are roughly 120 workers out on the platform. Most of them work a 14-day shift on Ursa, then take 14 days off. When they're on, they work for 12 to 14 hours each day. The day shift and the night shift start their 14-day hitches on alternating weeks. "That way, there's always someone out there who has been on the platform for at least one week and is aware of any problems," says Fox.
While few of the platform workers have formal training in engineering, most of them have self-taught, learned-on-the-job mechanical skills, in addition to expertise in certain drilling or production machinery. On the platform, any one of those skills can turn out to be vital. "I learned an incredible amount from those guys when I spent a year offshore in 1987," says Verlon Kiel, 42, an engineer himself, who works onshore monitoring production on Ursa. "When problems happen out there, if the weather is bad or the seas are rough, it may be days before help can come out. So the people who are working out there become the repairmen who fix things."
During the few waking hours when they're not working, platform workers' lives revolve mostly around food. Shell uses a catering company to run its galley, and the staff of six people produces a bounty of comfort food for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and a midnight meal. "It's not a job to us," says Dawn Best, 66, a perpetually smiling member of the catering crew who is affectionately known as "Miss Dawn." "We're more like family out here. I have three sons who work offshore for other companies, so I treat all of the workers here the way I'd want people to treat my boys."
For those who visit it a bit too often, the buffet line creates its own requirement: the need to exercise. Several world-class Ping-Pong players work on Ursa, and foosball is also a popular sport. Thanks to Ursa's satellite hookup, cable TV is in every room, and Internet access is available in the offices and in the library. While there is no hardship pay for working offshore, entry-level roustabouts on the drilling rig still begin at about $30,000 per year. Since there's nowhere to spend that money on the platform, many workers gravitate to Internet investing. "A lot of these guys will retire as millionaires if they're smart," says John Guyett, 49, a drilling foreman on Ursa.
Life Off the Platform
Working 14 days on, 14 days off and feeling the pressure to perform under exacting conditions can make life on the platform grueling. But for many workers, the schedule offers substantial benefits — off the platform. "Before I came offshore to work a 14/14, I was working a job that was labeled '5/2,' " says Marvin Blanchard, 39, an operations foreman. "But really, it was a 6/1 job. I'd leave home before daylight and get back after dark. Now I have built-in balance. But it took me a while to get used to it."
Because they have to make only one round-trip each month for the 45-minute flight out of the heliport at the tip of Louisiana, many of Ursa's workers buy land and build their dream houses all over the south, from east Texas to the Florida panhandle. One worker even flies in from Montana each month in his own plane. But, ultimately, every platform worker has to come to terms with the reality of family life when the job means being away from home for six months of the year. "It's always difficult to leave home and come back out here," says Blanchard. Adds McAlpin: "Choosing to work this way is not a decision that you make lightly, or by yourself."
For some people, work-life balance is a math problem: Royce Thomason, 45, an associate technician on Ursa, calculates his odds of being at home with his family at 50-50. That said, he recently missed his daughter's 16th birthday. "We threw a big birthday party before I left," he says. Others take a more qualitative approach. "Most people who work on the production or the drilling side of this business move around a lot, and that's very difficult for young children," says Guyett. "So I actually tried to get offshore, because it was the easiest way for my family to establish roots in one place."
While several workers on Ursa are divorced and are unable to have full custody of their children because of their schedules, the percentage of single parents on Ursa doesn't appear to be especially high. Male workers (only a handful of women work on Ursa) chalk that up in part to their dutiful completion of the "honey do's" that pile up while they're gone: "When we get home, what we hear is 'Honey, now that you're back, could you please do the windows!' or 'Honey, please do the lawn!' " jokes Tommy Chreene, 45, a systems mechanic.
In fact, the workers on Ursa don't leave their families behind when they're on the platform: They bring their families with them, and they share their concerns with their fellow workers. "We're all aware of one another's family interests and concerns, and we're able to talk about them quite openly," says Blanchard. "People who don't eat and sleep with their coworkers for 14 days have no idea how close we are."
Ron Lieber (email@example.com) is a Fast Company senior writer. Visit Ursa on the Web (www.offshore-technology.com/projects/ursa).
A version of this article appeared in the October 2000 issue of Fast Company magazine.