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Home Away From Home

Remote camps for workers in Canada’s oil and gas sector used to be spartan, dorm-like affairs where facilities were shared and most of the food was fried, not fresh. But today’s remote camps can feature golf simulators, yoga rooms,...


Remote work camp
Remote work camp

Remote camps for workers in Canada’s oil and gas sector used to be spartan, dorm-like affairs where facilities were shared and most of the food was fried, not fresh. But today’s remote camps can feature golf simulators, yoga rooms, running tracks, squash courts, Wi-Fi, large screen TVs, cell phone service, five-star chefs and much more. Or, like days gone by, they can consist of plain old trailers with shared bathrooms and little in the way of amenities.

Indeed, the accommodations that house remote or mobile workers in Canada’s booming energy sector run the gamut from hotel-like to basic. However, there is a growing trend to improve these camps as a way to recruit and retain employees. “Part of our value proposition is that [employers] get a well-rested employee to work every day,” says Kirk Duffee, senior vice-president of operations at Clean Harbors in Acheson, Alta., which provides remote camp lodging services.

Workers used to live in remote camps with several people in a single room, but that has mostly changed, Duffee says. “The new generation, they want their own bathroom and they want their own stuff. The whole industry has changed to be able to accommodate that,” he explains.

As a result, Clean Harbors now primarily builds single-occupancy rooms with private bathrooms, gyms and recreational facilities, satellite Internet, theatres and game rooms. “We’re selling quality of life now to folks coming up to the oilsands and other remote areas,” Duffee says. For example, the company’s new Ruth Lake Lodge in the Fort McMurray, Alta. area “has everything you would need in a little town, all packaged up in a single facility,” he says. “That’s the direction it’s going, because you can get closer to the work, but you get all the amenities of a very high-class facility.”

The facility houses 600 to 800 people, all in single rooms that vary in size from 130 to 200 square feet. There are three classes of facilities: Jack and Jill (two separate bedrooms and shared bathroom), executive (similar to a small hotel room) and VIP (akin to a fair-sized hotel room).

The market “has really blown by” the old dormitory standard, agrees Craig Alloway, vice-president of sales, North America, with ATCO Structures & Logistics in Calgary. As little as five years ago, recreation on a remote site consisted of a smoking trailer and a trailer with an exercise bike and a TV.

TOTAL PACKAGE

On any given day, there are tens of thousands of workers in Canada’s remote oil and gas camps. A 2012 census found that in the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, Alta. alone, which surrounds Fort McMurray and the Athabasca oilsands, there were 40,000 mobile employees working at about 100 projects. However, that number is likely low, as the census was based on low season numbers.

It’s a challenge for employers to attract these thousands of workers to remote camps, particularly if they are not accustomed to being away from home and family, says Carla Campbell-Ott, executive director of the Petroleum Human Resources Council in Calgary. “Workers either tire of the work camps and rotational work… or they find out that other camp providers provide better camps,” she says. For these workers, it’s not salary alone but total compensation — including accommodations — that makes the difference.

That means the quality of the camp can have a bearing on attracting and retaining workers. “We have heard that employees will leave one employer and go to another one if all things are equal and the camp is better.” Alloway agrees, saying that “often, you’ll talk to customers and they’ll make the same statement — how they want their project to be the project of choice for tradespeople. It’s a very aggressive marketplace for labour.”

However, camps at drilling or construction sites in the oil and gas industry usually cannot offer the same conveniences now offered at several permanent oilsands camps, because they tend to be mobile, Campbell-Ott notes. “It doesn’t make sense to invest in them because they have to move them.”  She says drilling sites generally have higher worker turnover than oilsands sites, but many factors may explain this, aside from camp amenities, such as the harder physical labour that is involved in drilling.

HOME SWEET HOME

As much as possible, the philosophy is to give workers “a place to live when they’re not at home that is as close as equal to their home,” says Kevin Read, CEO of Nomodic Modular Structures, a remote camp builder in Calgary. “We try to make it better, but obviously, you can’t replace home. [Still] we get a lot of comments from people saying it’s actually better than their house.”

Read says the bedrooms in the structures he builds have large windows to bring in light, which can even help reduce seasonal affective disorder. Each bedroom has a 32-inch TV and queen-sized bed with pillow-top mattress. “It’s basically like a downtown condo.” In the common areas of Clean Harbor’s newer facilities, there are 10-foot ceilings instead of eight-foot ones, skylights to make them seem more airy and less prison-like and as few pillars as possible, Duffee adds. “The feedback was that the old system felt like prisons,” he explains.

Despite these luxuries, workers can still have difficulty adapting to the remote work atmosphere. No matter what the amenities are like, the common denominator of a remote camp is that it is far away from home, families, friends or social networks. So says Angela Angel, program manager at Habitat Health Impact Consulting in Calgary, who conducted in-depth interviews of 16 remote workers a few years ago as part of her social research.

“There are definitely across the board social and health stressors,” she says, including the unexplored transition period that workers experience between their on-the-job lives and their back-to-home lives. After weeks on the job, the men — and they’re mostly men — face the stress of “putting work thoughts on hold and probably coming home to a long, ‘honey to do’ list.”

Greg Thibault, manager of public health protection at Northern Health in Prince George, B.C., adds that workers who are in camps for two or three weeks straight have difficulty volunteering or doing other regular activities back home. “Soccer doesn’t stop when you go to camp,” Thibault says. “The connectedness to the community can be affected, and that can determine whether an individual wants to work in a camp or not.”

The lifestyle and working existence at remote camps is very different than the usual 9 to 5, says Katherine Power, vice-president of communication at Burlington, Ont.-based Sodexo Canada, which manages remote camps. She was recently at a hydro camp in northern Manitoba, close to Hudson’s Bay, “and there is no concept of what day of the week it is, because you’re there for 21 days straight. It doesn’t matter if it’s Sunday or Monday or Wednesday. You’re working all of them, so it doesn’t matter.”

Angel says one worker she interviewed compared being in a remote camp to being in jail, only with pay. “A lot of the workers talked about feeling patronized by security guards after a 12-hour work day. Workers talked about how they felt very limited in these spaces.”

Having to swipe cards to come in and out and all of the “you cannot x, y, z” rules led to a very disciplined, structured and regulated environment, she says. There was a feeling that they were not able to carry out normal lives, missed the normal activities they might do at home and could not even go outside the work camp fences because of security regulations.

Asks Angel: “Posting 50 rules in the hallway — you cannot do this, you cannot do that, what sort of environment is that creating? It affects workers and morale. There is a need to have rules, but there are ways to better communicate them.”

WIRED IN

Another completely separate, but “massive,” issue at remote worker camps relates to power and water. While some of the less remote camps are on the grid for gas or other utilities, others are run with propane onsite. Fresh water sewage can be trucked in and out. The same goes for wastewater and sewage, unless there are in-ground septic tanks. “We can go from being totally self-sustainable to being totally wired into a community’s services, water, power and gas,” Alloway says.

Thibault notes there is always room for improvement at remote camps, but compared to some of the camps that existed years ago and stories he’s heard, employers have recognized that healthier workers benefit them. This has translated into better housing conditions.

He gives the example of remote camps that, years ago, did not have access to phones or other means of communication. Now, virtually every camp has set up some form of tower for cell phone coverage and Wi-Fi, so that workers can stay connected to their families. “You maybe don’t get to tuck in the kids at night, but you can at least talk to them and find out how their day went if you choose to,” Thibault says. “Workers want to stay connected to their families, to their communities.”

HEALTHY COMPETITION

Competition for workers is part of what’s driving the increase in camp standards, Thibault says, adding that he has seen posters from a major oil and gas employer touting its private washrooms for all its workers.

The need for employees to keep their workers healthy and safe is another factor that is driving improvements at camps. “If I have an injury while I’m at work, it’s pushing the employer’s premiums up, it’s lost productivity days,” Thibault says.

Safety standards at remote camps tend to be better in the energy sector than in others because the industry is “far more sensitive to safety issues,” suggests Jacob Healy, director of health, safety and claims management at Sodexo. Campbell-Ott agrees, adding that safety is one of the top priorities in the oil and gas industry, so nothing happens without a safety plan or a safety officer.

Prevention is paramount because replacing an injured employee can take up to a couple of days to a week, Healy says. Prevention starts with orientation training and continues with inspection programs, ranging from pre-task hazard assessments to daily safety meetings to monthly inspections.

Oil and gas companies “tend to have very rigid programs that they expect contractors like us to participate in,” Healy says. Although the industry is considered safe, “when something goes wrong, it tends to go tragically wrong,” he says.

As English is a second language for many of Sodexo’s kitchen or janitorial workers — many of whom are Filipinos or Africans — the company is increasingly using pictograms in its instructions on how to identify hazards and how to perform tasks at camps safely.

According to Healy, the most common injuries his workers suffer are musculoskeletal injuries typical of a housekeeping workforce, as well as cuts among kitchen workers and slips and falls, depending on the season. However, heated hallways or corridors that join the living quarters to the common areas are now common in the larger, more permanent camps and are also cropping up in temporary accommodations. When workers no longer have to go outside in the ice and snow, the risk of slips and falls is minimized.

Healy says Sodexo is often trying to attract workers from as far away as Toronto and Vancouver, “who don’t really appreciate what they’re getting into. We want people to work, we want people to stay because we do invest a lot of money in their safety, orientation and training and getting them to understand the reality” of camp life, Healy says.

Knowledge is power for remote camp workers, agrees Megan Maclure, principal of Grassroots Consulting in Vancouver, who teaches a course explaining what workers can expect to face in the camps.

“Still, it’s not something you can really explain — you have to have that experience yourself. It’s a different world,” says Maclure, who also matches candidates with remote camp employers and has worked in catering services at camps for about 20 years. “Some people are in this for a long time, while others find the remoteness and the lifestyle too difficult to maintain.”

The need for good food is one of the largest drivers in remote camps, Alloway says. Not only do people want food choices, there’s a safety element attached to food, he says, noting that workers who do not get proper nutrition are more susceptible to illness.

Some camps now have healthy food programs that try to inform workers about what constitutes a healthy diet, says Thibault. While nobody is saying, “sorry, you took two sausages too many,” there is information in the dining room about what constitutes a balanced meal.

Food “is kind of the thing that people look forward to at the end of the day,” Maclure says. “If the food isn’t good, they’re going to have a really bad experience.”

Danny Kucharsky is a writer in Montreal.

Follow us on Twitter @PipelineOHS

THE MONEY TRAP

Angela Angel, program manager at Habitat Health Impact Consulting in Calgary, conducted in-depth interviews of 16 remote workers a few years ago as part of her social research. She says that the “Fort McMoney” concept — the immense opportunity to make a lot of money at the camps — came up frequently as a theme and a potential risk. Some workers with strong goals and supportive family members back home can thrive and channel their money into concrete goals. But others who take jobs at camps as a way to escape their lives or do not have solid plans can become caught in the money trap.

Because they are making so much money, workers may overextend themselves on things like credit, mortgages or new trucks. “Pretty soon, they were feeling trapped, even though there were making a lot and should feel further ahead.”

As well, Angel notes that if workers are solely focused on money, they lose a sense of self and the time or ability to do things they once loved doing. “A lot of men wake up one day and realize they’ve drifted so far away from their partner or infidelities have happened.” It’s the double-edged sword that comes along with the high pay.

Angel speaks of the “shaking of the pop bottle” concept, in which the pressures of the boom to produce and make money result in many men putting their health on hold and eventually reaching the breaking point. This occurs partly because of how men are socialized to suck things up and to work hard and play hard, she suggests, while some of it has to do with the frontier masculinity within the oil sector.

Because of existing myths and stereotypes, not much research has been conducted on the health of energy sector workers, she says. For example, it is little known that only seven per cent of the men in these work camps have less than a high school degree, Angel says. “They’re not who we think they are.”

However, the scarcity of research is changing because of the huge priority energy companies are placing on safety, says Angel, who is currently developing a mobile worker wellness assessment tool.

WET OR DRY?

One of the decisions that owners of remote camps face is whether their sites should be wet or dry — that is, whether or not they should allow alcohol on the premises. Not surprisingly, there are a wide variety of opinions on the topic.

“Some owners understand that these are adult working people and if they want to have a beer watching hockey at the end of the day, [they should] afford them that privilege,” says Craig Alloway, vice-president of sales, North America, at ATCO Structures & Logistics in Calgary.

ATCO will work with camp owners to provide either option. “Often, it comes down to how it can affect safety for their employees,” he says.

At the other end of the spectrum is Kirk Duffee, senior vice-president of operations at Clean Harbors, who says his camps have been dry “forever.” However, the company is now running a pilot project after a customer requested that the rules be amended to allow employees to drink a beer in their rooms if they do not leave them. “A lot of camps do that,” he notes.

Duffee believes tough no alcohol, no drugs rules are helpful in reducing the possibility of abuse. “You’re just not allowed onsite with drugs or alcohol. And we send dogs in (to search the rooms) and they’re generally pretty good at finding it.”

But Greg Thibault, manager of public health protection with Northern Health in Prince George, B.C., notes that even if a camp is dry in theory, it doesn’t always work out that way.

Some dry camps are monitored and stay dry, but others have less supervision and workers will bring in alcohol. “We’ve heard anecdotally that workers, knowing that the camp is dry, will be on a binge the day prior to going to camp and show up to camp not in the best condition.”

Thibault says the majority of camps are dry and that those that are wet require supervision and monitoring to ensure heavy drinking does not become an issue. When it comes to drinking, “it’s not everybody in the camp. It’s typically those few individuals that are the exception that are potentially causing an issue.”