A Day in the Life of an Oil Sands Equipment Operator

a day in the life of an oil sands field equipment operator

Have you ever wondered what a day working in Canada’s oil sands might be like as a Heavy Equipment Operator? As a female Indigenous oil sands employee, I would love to share with you my experience working in this world-class industry! Also see:

What Does My Workday Look Like?

I currently work in shifts with long and short change in the middle of our set, where we switch to nights. I catch my bus just before 6:30 am and arrive about one hour later, for the start of my shift at 8:00 am.

I’m always impressed with the diversified bus company that transports us workers to and from major oil sands operations. It’s a precise system to get employees there and back safely, with one crew coming in as another crew leaves.

That time between arriving at work and 8 am is filled with picking up a lineup sheet to find out where I’ll be working in the mine and what piece of equipment I’ll be operating. Then, I get into appropriate work clothes with proper safety gear for the area I will be working in.

Next, I sign in with a supervisor, say brief greetings to coworkers and then set out to my designated work area by quarter to eight so I can relieve the equipment operator on the shift before me.

Equipment runs 24 hours. Before the worker before me leaves they usually give a quick crossover of what they’ve done on their shift so I have an idea of what to continue.

Before I get onto my equipment, I perform a full inspection by walking around it to ensure it's not damaged and check fluid levels. If anything is damaged, missing or fluid needs to be topped up, I call our equipment maintenance over our two-way radios.

The mine is filled with many other skilled trades, but we all work together to keep the oil sands moving. After 8:00 am, the area supervisor usually gives me an update on what we’re working on and we then write and review a FLHA (Field Level Hazard Assessment).

If you’re an experienced oil sands equipment operator reading this, you’re likely getting a chuckle at how simplistic I’ve made it sound so far.

I could write an entire blog on the various jobs we do within the mine, and many people who do not work in the industry don’t realize how complex it can be. 

For example, I operate all sorts of equipment including trucks, dozers, graders, wiggle wagons, water trucks, belly trucks and all sorts of haul trucks: 740, 777, 1500, 785, 789, 797, 930E, 980.. the list goes on. The latter models are 400-ton machines which carry 400 tons when loaded with bitumen and are as tall as a three-story house. Pretty incredible stuff if you ask me!

My dozer experience is with D6, D8, D10, and D11. Graders are 16M which has a 16-foot blade 24 M series while the 24 H series have 24-foot blades.

The equipment in the oil sands mine I work in is not the size you may see working on the highways. The sheer size of our equipment is a reminder of the potential for danger. A D11 for example could crush a pickup truck and barely notice it. That’s why clear radio communication between mine workers is vital. 

Some of the areas I’ve worked in range from land reclamation and the cokepit to the man mine and special projects.

Some of us are concerned about the potential to lose jobs because of the autonomous trucks, but from what I’ve seen it allows us workers to learn different ways of working in the mine.

Not everyone can do shift work. Spending 12 hours on a piece of equipment with just three 20-minute breaks isn’t for everyone. Altogether by the time we get home, it’s almost 15 hours at work.

But with most things in life, you get used to it.

Oil sands operators are required to have a wide range of education and past job experiences, many of whom have families to provide for. Some workers have difficulty transitioning from day to night shift. Humans aren’t nocturnal but the job needs to be done. The expectation is that you will come to work fit for duty. 

The expectations of your job performance others might have of you may vary with your operating experience. The more seat time you have, the more skilled on a piece of equipment you become.

I Love My Job!

I do my best to be safe, as do my co-workers, and we work together to make sure all operations go according to plan. Enjoying the people I work with makes the long hours go by quickly.

One thing I would still love to see more Indigenous people hired, maybe an Indigenous supervisor or manager. But despite that, I am still incredibly grateful for the job opportunity I have in Canada’s world-class oil sands sector.

I end my workday in the oil sands with good conscience knowing that we are environmental leaders globally and our involvement with providing the world with the responsible and reliable energy it needs is always improving.

Please Note: this article is not about any particular job site in the oil sands.

About the Authorestella petersen oil sands worker

Estella Petersen is a heavy machinery operator in the oil sands out of Fort McMurray. Estella is from the Cowessess Reserve and is passionate about Canada and supporting Canadian natural resources.