By: Sara Dorow (Sociology Professor, University of Alberta)
As someone who has studied mobile work for a number of years, I am struck by the sudden attention to the potential health hazards carried back and forth between oil sands worksites in Alberta and the hundreds of home communities to which fly-in fly-out (FIFO) workers return every week or two or more. Below I reflect on the current moment through the lens of that research, which has included FIFO oil workers, FIFO camp workers, and international migration workers. Especially salient is the project my partner Val O’Leary (Critical Incident Stress Management for Communities, Fort McMurray) and I are currently completing on mobile work and mental health.
‘The Double Whammy’
Alberta currently faces the ‘double whammy’ of health crisis and oil crisis. These are both separate and related issues, and have both separate and compounding effects on mobile and migrant workers. Just as importantly, this confluence of issues shines a light on the social inequalities and challenges associated with (im)mobile work that were there long before the pandemic hit.
The current oil crash is a deepening of the downturn that began to take hold more than five years ago. Back in 2015, migrant live-in caregivers in Fort McMurray were nervous and worried as the oil sands workers who employed them confronted the loss of their own jobs and overtime hours (Dorow 2016). FIFO trades workers interviewed in the first part of 2020 as part of the mental health project were on pins and needles about diminishing prospects of work and deteriorating morale in the workplace. Before any news of the pandemic, the Alberta United Conservative Party government was justifying cuts to health and education on the basis of weak prospects for oil. And then, finally, came not only the widespread social and economic effects of the pandemic but also the drastic drop in oil prices—including into the uncharted waters of negative pricing—brought on, although only in part, by the pandemic.
As with mining and construction across many parts of Canada, the oil sands industry and its supply chains have been deemed an essential service in Alberta (Ligeti 2020). This is not a surprise. The oil sands industry might no longer be readily dubbed Canada’s ‘economic engine’, but it continues to loom large in Alberta’s cultural imaginary and economic strategy.
Making the oil sands essential means, in turn, making travel essential. The industry has come to rely heavily on FIFO work for regular and unscheduled maintenance as well as everyday operations—including but not only for remote project sites otherwise difficult to access. The most recent figures (RMWB, 2018) found a ‘shadow population’ of over 30,000 staying in temporary accommodations, i.e. work camps. An increasing percentage of these workers commute from other regions in Alberta, but many still come from as close as British Columbia or as far away as Newfoundland and Labrador.
The health and safety impacts of this ‘essential’ travel are apparent in recent headlines. As I write in mid-May, more than 100 confirmed cases of COVID-19 have been traced to one oil sands site, a quarter of them among people who reside outside of Alberta. Tracing these circuits from the Kearl Lake oil sands operation to a long-term care center in British Columbia, a northern Dene village in Saskatchewan, and several places in Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and Labrador (McIntosh 2020) brings home the interconnectedness of people and places that FIFO entails. (Had we been in a boom period, or in the turnaround maintenance season when thousands of workers descend on the oil sands for 6-8 weeks of intensive work, this would or could have been much worse.)
It is important to recognize that these hazards extend far beyond COVID-19. FIFO workers carry the weariness of long rotations away from family and friends—and the difficulty of maintaining those relationships—and of long work shifts and travel days. And their families and friends and communities face the challenge of having key members gone for both everyday and special events, and of adjusting to the social demands that the temporal demands of FIFO visit on them. As we are finding in our current research project, the stresses of this regime manifest in breakups, addictions, isolation, and heart conditions.
The conditions of the FIFO regime are made for viral transmission, but travel is only half the picture – the other half is stuckedness. FIFO entails a constant back-and-forth between long-distance travel and the constrained isolation of remote camp living (Dorow and Mandizadza, 2018). Depending on time of year and the price of a barrel of oil, those camps can be quite packed. But even when camps are not full, camp dwellers get on shuttle buses together each day, and collectively shuffle in and out of common spaces like dining halls and gyms and sometimes bathrooms. As a number of respondents to our recent mental health survey noted, ‘somebody sneezes in camp and we all get sick.’
But again, the sudden awareness brought by COVID-19 of the potential dangers of close working and living quarters—in everything from meatpacking to assisted living—shines a light (or at least should) on the more sustained, systemic risks of a place like a work camp. A common metaphor for the experience of pandemic home isolation, ‘like being in prison’, is also the most common metaphor used by FIFO workers when describing camp. (That, or feeling like cattle.) Living in camp is hard on the psyche, as isolation can make a person go ‘shack wacky’ and disgruntlement can spread virally. It is a stripped down place, reduced to routines of ‘eat, shit, work, sleep,’ as workers often put it. Simple things like having your own bathroom, which is apparently becoming de rigueur under conditions of COVID-19, can and should be a basic experience of camp living. So should healthy food, work buddy programs, and work rotations that allow people to be home for more than just a few days at a time.
According to the Oil Sands Community Alliance, responses to COVID-19 have reduced both the number of people traveling and the frequency of their travel. They report workforce reductions of ‘up to 60 percent’ and the adjustments of rotations. One irony of the bid to decrease travel during COVID-19 is the move to longer rotations, and thus longer periods in camp. Some workers report not seeing their families for months. And some are driving from as far away as Newfoundland because of the difficulty of flying safely.
There are other issues exposed in the current moment, such as how many trades workers in the oil sands rely on working from contract to contract, including on the turnaround maintenance periods that have now been postponed until later in the summer, and such as the essential service also provided by frontline hospitality, cleaning, and care workers. We forget that those who cook and clean in oil sands work camps are also mobile workers, often on contract, who must both travel to and stay put in camp. They are the ones making it possible for meals to be served to tables (instead of on a buffet line) or directly to rooms for workers isolating in place; and they are losing jobs as oil sands staffing is cut.
FIFO-based industries like the oil sands have been slow to acknowledge and embrace the social and individual health issues that connect them to the many communities from which FIFO workers come. COVID-19, and the adjustments it requires, bring into view this entangled relationship of mobility and immobility.
Dorow, Sara (2016) Caregiver policy in Canada and experiences after the wildfire: perspectives of caregivers in Fort McMurray. https://www.onthemovepartnership.ca/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/Caregivers-in-Fort-McMurray-Policy-Perspectives-and-Wildfire-Experiences-Research-Report-June-2016.pdf
Dorow, Sara and Shingirai Mandizadza* (2018) “Gendered circuits of care in the mobility regime of the Alberta Oil Sands.” Gender, Place and Culture 25(8): 1241-1256.
Liget, Arlik (2020) “What’s an ‘essential’ service in the coronavirus crisis? A look at Canada’s resource industries.” The Narwhal. March 26.
McIntosh, Emma (2020) “’Alberta didn’t contain it’: COVID-19 outbreak at oilsands camp has spread across the country.” The National Observer. May 13
Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo (2018) The Municipal Census 2018
Photo Source in Order of Appearance:
Kris Krug, “Fort McMurray, Alberta – Operation Arctic Shadow.” CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.
jasonwoodhead23, “File:Noralta village Fort Mcmurray March 2018 (40893390695).jpg” CC BY 2.0