3 lessons from working at the oil sands

My job consists mainly of driving a pick-up truck in the field, locating and reading instruments. There’s something about working outside and doing repetitive tasks that makes me rather reflective, early mornings contributes too. Thanks to the words of brilliant people around me, here’s a list of life lessons from working in the oil sands. They may seem obvious, but take from them what you will ☺

LESSON ONE: PICKING YOUR PATH —————————————————————————–
A pick-up truck is considered a light duty vehicle (LDV) on site. If you’re driving a LDV, it is relatively easy to get stuck in the field. If you do get stuck, it’s bad news. Not only do you have to be reexamined for driving in the field, other people have to spend time getting you unstuck and file safety reports. Wasted time = wasted money, so … don’t get stuck. Anyways, evidently choosing the best path to drive on becomes very important to your daily task of reading instruments.

My coworker told me this after supervising my driving (can’t drive by myself yet): “Driving in the field isn’t about driving necessarily. Everybody here knows how to drive. You want to not get stuck, so pick which tracks you want to follow.” Following a path is not reinventing a path, nor is it likely to be carefully following someone else’s tracks. The decision becomes which tracks to follow and to what extend.

To translate this: whatever you what to accomplish, someone before you have already done something similar and left some tracks to follow. So take advantage of it. Learn from what has already been established, and learn from many sources. No need to go against what is already there and figure out everything all over again. Learn and then add your own. Don’t be afraid to learn from all people for fear that you’ll compromise your originality. Know what you want to get/learn and do that.

A more concrete example comes from BBoy Storm, who learns from the judging scheme for skating and adapts it in attempts to judge breaking more objectively. His judging is much more satisfying than comments such as “I like his style”, which gives no direction on possible steps to take.  Video here:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yhZvoc-9OUM .The man is a well of knowledge.


Sand is difficult to drive in. It’s easier to sink into sand and get stuck if your truck lacks the momentum. In sand, it is faster and easier to travel from point A to point B if you relax your steering. Why? Your wheels are deep enough that the ruts in the sand guides your direction, even if let go of the steering. On the other hand, if the ruts are too deep, you’re truck will get high-centered. = one stuck truck.

Most often then not, factors and influences outside of my control direct my decisions and lifestyle, not completely but considerably. Rather than to instinctively go against those forces and shape them to fit an ideal, first slow down and try to work within those limits, while still moving in the direction you want to go. You can learn to type without the best laptop, but can’t learn to type without a keyboard. If your surroundings are too restrictive that the basic resources are lacking, then a change of surroundings is necessary. Or you can work on something else in the meantime.

Where you have to live can be like the sand, somewhat restrictive; I have to stay in Fort McMurray for the duration of my internship. There’s an urge for a change of surroundings – to find a place with more dance – but there’s a lot that Fort McMurray has to offer and teach me. I’m definitely taking less dance classes each week (from 7 down to 1). I thought about going to other cities each break to take classes, but realized that I knew enough to practice by myself.

In short, grow where you’re planted; this is where you are now, so be here. There’s nothing wrong about shaping your surroundings, but you can save a lot of mental space (i.e. you’re thoughts) if you work within those restraints.


Everyday before we head out to the field, we have to complete a “field level risk assessment – FLRA”. For every task, there are hazards, which can all be  reduced by controls (task → hazard → control). To promote a safe work environment, we list our tasks, various hazards associated with that task (i.e. unplanned events that might happen), and respective controls (i.e. whatever would prevent or diminish the consequences of the hazard) before we start our job. For example,

the task of
>> driving in the mine

has hazards such as
>> traffic and heavy duty vehicles
>> wildlife encounters
>> uneven ground and sand, possibility of getting stuck

controls for “traffic and heavy duty vehicles” are
>> maintain speed limits and appropriate following distance
>> obtain radio and/or visual communication if passing heavy duty vehicle

It can become tedious.

The point of doing this everyday is to review potential risks and to be mentally equipped to manage them. I was pretty nervous about bears coming near my work area. The guy who hired me told me that if there’s something I’m uncomfortable with, think of what you can do to equip yourself better.

Accidents happen on site due to several failed controls happening consequtively, whether by not setting or not following controls. Simply put, it’s brainstorming what I need to do to give myself the best shot of accomplishing my task safely and efficiently.

The lesson is that if I feel anxious, afraid, or uncomfortable with something, I need to reconsider my steps. I can think of my goals more objectively, preparing for obvious and likely “hazards” and setting “controls” for theses.  For example, sleep deprivation is a hazard of university living, an almost normalized consequence of being in university. haha.

Controls for sleep deprivation can be
>> taking power naps
>> do your daily tasks more effectively (so having more time to sleep)
>> relieve stress by spending time outside, talking to someone, or other means
>> pack food instead of waiting in line to save time
>> etc.

Sometimes, I don’t think about the most effective path to a goal. It’s like the runner on a race, who is so keen on getting started and running fast that he forgets where he first set out to go. If you can foresee potential obstacles, then you can make appropriate preparations and keep the original course. Gotta make preparations to give yourself the best chances.

That’s all for now. Hope you enjoyed it!



One thought on “3 lessons from working at the oil sands

  1. As someone working construction in Calgary, I totally resonate with everything you said. “Grow where you’re planted” is a great summary of a lot of thoughts and lessons I’ve been soaking in–thanks for putting it into words for me!

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