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Roughneck, Bruised Head

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Issue: 48 Section: Labour Geography: West Grand Cache Topics: labour, natural gas, gender

November 25, 2007

Roughneck, Bruised Head

A tale of women, toughness and safety in Alberta's gas fields

by Tim McSorley

Culture of toughness: Alberta’s gas fields. [cc 2.0] Photo: Andy Orr

Chantal Desharnais is no stranger to the outdoors or manual labour. Still, the 24-year-old Quebecker, who had previously worked in construction and spent a summer living on the banks of a B.C. river picking fruit for income had reservations about going to Calgary to work in the natural gas industry for the summer. But it was the moral dilemma of working in an industry she has ethical disagreements with, not the physical labour, she was concerned with, says the student in international relations at the Université du Québec à Montréal. As many before her, though, the lucrative work provided an opportunity to make enough money over the summer to cover her tuition fees and help with student loan debts.

But while she says she was prepared for the physical rigour of the work, she never expected the sexism she would face–or the serious injuries she would sustain. After one month on the job, Desharnais would need to be transferred to an office job in Calgary after suffering a concussion, receiving five stitches to the back of her head, and a severely spraining her shoulder.

Despite what seems to be an ample need for workers in the Alberta oil and natural gas fields (the natural gas industry in Canada alone employed 151,327 people in 2006 and is growing), Desharnais found it difficult to get hired once she hitchhiked her way out to Calgary. Company after company refused to grant her an interview. While most companies were coy about the reasons why, she says it was clear that they weren’t interested in hiring women. Eventually, however, she started asking companies outright if they had a policy of not hiring women. While she says she sensed hesitation when she first contacted Geokinetics, her eventual employer, their human resources and personnel manager claims the company never refuses to hire women.

“We never refuse to hire someone if they are a woman–we’re an equal opportunity employer,” says Stephen Menchuk, who hired Desharnais and is familiar with her case. “We have so many positions to fill, sometimes we even hire 50, 60-year-old men. They don’t necessarily work out in the field, but there is a lot of work that needs to be done at the base-camp that isn’t as physically demanding.”

Interviewed at the end of June, Desharnais was at work by the beginning of July, flown out to the base-camp in Grand Cache, Alberta, where the company, which specialises in geological exploration, was checking the area for natural gas deposits. She was one of only two women on the crew, and says she felt it right away. Beyond what she saw as a culture of “only the tough survive,” the fact she is a woman seemed to make it all that more thrilling for others to see her fail.

“As people get off the bus, you can tell they’re judging how long they’ll last. Once you’re there for a while, you start to hear the comments too. It’s especially hard for women.”

The challenges started almost immediately, she says. For the first two days she worked with all the new employees on the line crew–the regular work for rookies in the field, following the machines clearing brush to lay the explosive line behind it. But on the third day she was sent out as a trouble-shooter alongside a 15-year company veteran known for taking few breaks and working long hours. While line crew follow tracks already cleared by machine, trouble-shooters clear their own path, going from one trouble spot in a detonation line to another. By the end of the day she was exhausted and demoralised. Upon returning to the camp, two of the older colleagues asked how her day was.

“When I told them I was out with Paddy, they burst out laughing, like it was some inside joke,” she says. None of the other new employees were sent out as trouble-shooters.

Despite the tough day, Desharnais stuck with it and was eventually transferred to work with someone a little more easy-going. Then, towards the end of the month, she was transferred back to line crew. While the work atmosphere was still far from comfortable, she felt the worst had passed. But after only three more days on line crew, she was once again unexpectedly reassigned, this time as a shooter’s helper.

But according to Menchuk, there was another reason for her constant reassignment. “I didn’t want to tell Chantal this to her face, but I’ve been told that she just couldn’t handle the work out in the field. She isn’t very big and it’s tough work carrying 30 pounds of equipment through the field and up mountains. I was told she just couldn’t keep up. Transferring her to shooter’s helper was to give her a chance; she would just need to follow behind and clean up after him.”

According to Desharnais, however, she was constantly at the head of her group and was in fact told, along with one other colleague, to slow down so the others in her group could keep pace. And while working as a troubleshooter or a shooter’s helper meant carrying less equipment, it definitely wasn’t easier when it came either to cardio or to the safety issues involved. “It was clear that they wanted to put me in a difficult position,” she said.

The job of a shooter is to detonate underground explosives sending out seismic waves to see if there are gas or oil deposits; a shooter’s helper is a kind of a sidekick, helping to set up the area, and clear away the wires after the explosion. Desharnais was assigned as a shooter’s helper in the morning, and, according to her, not given proper training except for one colleague who offered her some advice on what equipment to bring. According to Menchuk all employees receive internationally recognised training at the beginning of their employment and are updated in the field. While he wasn’t on the ground in Grand Cache, he says he couldn’t imagine someone being sent out without proper training.

“We always ensure our employees wear the proper safety equipment. Safety equipment doesn’t eliminate hazards, but it reduces them as much as possible.” Attempts were made to contact Desharnais’ on-site supervisor, but Menchuk said he is currently out of the country and not available for comment.

According to Desharnais, upon arriving on site her partner, the shooter, had no time to show her the ropes. After being dropped off by helicopter they walked half an hour into the bush to the site where they would be detonating explosives. When one of their two walkie-talkies died, the functioning one was given to her partner. She stayed back while he went to lay and detonate the explosives. All along, however, she assumed she would receive some kind of warning that the detonation was about to go.

“All of a sudden the explosion went off, with debris in the air. All I remember was being hit in the head and the shoulder,” she says. While Menchuk says he was informed she was 30 m from the explosion (the required distance) and behind a tree, Desharnais says she can’t really be sure how far she was because she was never signaled where the explosion was coming from. Upon returning to find her, her colleague radioed in that she had been injured. “But he would only say I had hurt my shoulder, and not that I thought I was hit in the head. He told me the blood on my neck was just from scratching it on branches when I fell,” she says.

“Even I didn’t really know the extent of my injuries until I got into the helicopter, but I knew I had hurt my head,” she continues. “It was only once I saw the look of the pilot when I took off my helmet in the helicopter and the blood started going everywhere.” The impact of the collision with the rock had cracked part of her helmet and cut her head badly enough that she would need five stitches once back at the base-camp, and would eventually be diagnosed with a severe concussion. “When we got back to base-camp, the medic even said that if he knew I had injured my head he would have flown out to get me instead of waiting back at the camp.”

According to Menchuk, the type of injury sustained by Desharnais is rare in general, and a first for a shooter’s helper (Desharnais disputes this, saying she was told on several occasions of shooters and shooter’s helpers being seriously injured on the job). “We do everything we can to ensure our employees’ safety,” he explained over the phone from Calgary. “But as I tell everyone, in the end you need to be aware of your surroundings. No one wanted Chantal to get hurt, and we’re sorry that she did.”

Desharnais sees something more troubling. “There was a constant diminishing of my concerns,” she says. Desharnais feels that if she was a man perhaps her co-worker would have paid more attention when she said she had injured her head and not just her shoulder. “They just seem to think you complain for nothing.”

Menchuk agrees that it is not always easy for women in the oil industry. “It’s both the work and the atmosphere,” he says. “You’re sending out a woman with a crew of 50 other guys. Issues come up, things like separate bathrooms and you need to share with the cooking crew because there are only three toilets on site.”

Diagnosed with a sprained shoulder and receiving five stiches to the back of her head, it was unclear for three days, before she was able to return to Calgary, whether she had a concussion. While she was X-rayed in Grand Cache, there wasn’t a head trauma expert at the hospital who could tell her the extent of her injuries.

Desharnais’ troubles didn’t end with the injuries. According to Menchuk, Desharnais “declined” to go back out to the site when safety personnel went with her partner to examine the area in order to file an incident report. Desharnais remembers it differently. “They asked if I wanted to go with them, and I said yes. I wasn’t feeling well [from her injuries] and went to lie down. I found out later that they had gone without me.” The ensuing reports, except for the one she wrote herself, were based mostly on the shooter’s account of the incident and downplayed the lack of training she received and the lack of communication on site. She still has copies of the reports she refused to sign because of her disagreement on the facts.

It is clear that many may think that Desharnais’s complaints are simply sour grapes because she was hurt on the job. Menchuk claims he isn’t sure why Desharnais is still pursuing the matter. “We treated her the way we would treat any employee. She decided to quit her modified work load [an office job in Calgary given to her at full pay after her injury] and go back to Grand Cache to try and convince her supervisors to change their reports. We’re sorry for what happened, but there isn’t much we can do now.”

But in an industry that is continuing to grow in Canada, Desharnais feels stories like hers need to get out. It isn’t about the fact that the work is hard, she says, or even so much that she got hurt–even though she still suffers from headaches and concentration problems from her concussion and has mobility problems with her right shoulder. It’s about the fact she wasn’t properly trained and her safety wasn’t ensured in the field, and that in large part she believes this was because she is a woman. “I may keep looking into this and talk to lawyers. But really I just don’t want to see this happening to anyone else,” she says.

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