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What's it like to work at an oil field on the North Slope?

  • Author: Annie Zak
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published February 20, 2016

ALPINE OIL FIELD -- Alaska's North Slope on the oil fields of Alpine and Kuparuk is a moonscape during winter.

The flat, sparse landscape blends into the sky, both the same white-blue color under a dim sun, making the horizon line at times hard to discern. Fierce wind kicks up at a moment's notice, swirling the snow and reducing visibility.

Working at ConocoPhillips' operations at these fields means managing extremes.

People at the company's sites near and within the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska are urged to carry Arctic gear at all times, even while just passing between buildings. They wear protective glasses during bus rides, in case something hits the windshield and chips the glass. Temperatures easily reach 30 degrees below zero with the wind chill factor.

Most people at the Alpine Central Facility and Kuparuk Operations Center in this area work for two weeks straight, for 12 hours each day.

There's not a whole lot to do on the Slope while not working. People eat, sleep and work out.

Some workers use a long hallway they call the Green Mile to get their exercise. Others go to the gym. Workers lead exercise classes, which have included Zumba dance routines, yoga and the intensive 90-day workout routine P90X.

Heather Bottrell, a ConocoPhillips employee, acknowledged the environment might seem isolating, but the two weeks off every month make up for it.

"You spend as much time here as you do with your family at home," said Bottrell, whose family lives in Anchorage.

Bottrell is in a smaller group of oil workers on the North Slope: Women. That was obvious at the airport, boarding a plane transporting workers from Anchorage to Kuparuk one recent February day when just a handful of women stood at the gate in a line of mostly men.

"It's a lot of guys," Bottrell said later, on a bus driving around Alpine. "They treat you really well. I've never had an issue."

Another extreme for North Slope workers is the practice of safety and health.

Workers are told to wash their hands or use sanitizer before donning plastic, disposable gloves to eat in the cafeteria or grab a bag of chips from a small snack room. They are reminded constantly to hold onto handrails, even if they are just traversing a few steps indoors.

"SAFETY STARTS HERE," reads a message painted on the floor inside one of the company's deafening drill rigs.

"It's definitely part of our culture," said Amy Burnett, a communications specialist at ConocoPhillips.

That safety-mindedness is something the company has been honing for more than 10 years, said Scott Jepsen, vice president of external affairs for ConocoPhillips Alaska

"I think we're getting to the point where we're having a lot of success with it," he said. "We call it incident-free culture."

About 1,650 people work at Alpine and Kuparuk combined. In order to make the facilities safe, there's on-site emergency services, regular safety seminars, health clinics and physician assistants.

And a massive amount of food.

Kuparuk serves up -- in just one week -- one ton of potatoes, 750 dozen whole eggs, 51,000 cups of coffee and juice, 1,500 pounds of bananas, 8,000 donuts and pastries and much more.

"The logistics are truly amazing," said Ty Maxey, manager of Kuparuk operations, describing the site as essentially the largest hotel in rural Alaska.

On the flight back to Anchorage for two weeks off, workers can buy a drink for as little as $2 -- a far cry from much pricier alcohol on other airlines. (Workers fly to and from the Slope via Shared Services Aviation, a joint venture of ConocoPhillips and BP.) After two weeks at an alcohol-free facility in the dead of the Arctic winter, plenty jump at the offer.

Read more: ConocoPhillips cracks open giant petroleum reserve, with good results

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