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Camp life takes toll on Canada's transient workers

A unique set of physical and mental health challenges awaits skilled workers housed in artificial communities across the country - and services to support them vary significantly.

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A row of camp trailers at dusk near Fort. St John_ B.C. This camp can house over 1_200 workers.

Camp life takes toll on Canada's transient workers

A unique set of physical and mental health challenges awaits skilled workers housed in artificial communities across the country - and services to support them vary significantly.

Matt Haynes was done watching his life go by.

“I would catch myself... wishing away two thirds of my life.”

Haynes was part of a “shadow population,” transient workers who travel long distances for short-term, often high-paying work. Frequently scheduled on rotating shifts of a week or two on and a few days off, workers are sometimes required to stay in accommodations known as “work camps,” an industry solution to ensuring enough skilled workers are available for remote or big projects when there aren’t enough locals to fill the jobs. The camps can range in capacity from fewer than 10 people to more than 10,000.

Matt Haynes worked in scaffolding before transitioning into a health and safety role. Submitted by Matt Haynes
Matt Haynes worked in scaffolding before transitioning into a health and safety role.

While on night shift at a work camp in northern Alberta, Haynes set up his phone, framed it for a video confessional and hit record. “I’ve spent the last 10 years of my life in these work camps,” said Haynes from his small, white-walled office, 90 kilometres north of Fort McMurray. “A career based out of mostly being away, sacrificing a lot of hours for a lot of things.”

He was tired of missing time with loved ones. He was tired from weeks of night shifts and he didn’t want to fall asleep behind the wheel again. One near-death car accident was enough.

Haynes quit, packed his bags and moved to Costa Rica to start a new life.

It’s a “different human community — so remote and so artificial,” says Angela Angel, a sociologist who has worked with employees and companies on strategies to improve worker well-being. “These work camps have expanded and grown to communities that rival the size of host communities. So why are we not looking at these new very important human communities?”

Companies are building entire artificial communities but little is known about what this means for workers and their families. Of the more than two dozen workers Discourse spoke with, camp life was often described as isolating, monotonous and physically exhausting. And today, the oil and gas industry struggles to bounce back from the 2014 downturn, leaving uncertain futures for workers and the families they support. 

'Really tough'

At the end of his shift Zeweter Hunegnaw, a camp janitor at the Barge Landing Lodge 65 km north of Fort McMurray, tells us about his family back in Toronto. Francesca Fionda
At the end of his shift, Zeweter Hunegnaw, a camp janitor in Alberta, tells us about his family back in Toronto.

“The last two years [were] really, really terrible,” says Zeweter Hunegnaw, a camp janitor in Fort McKay, Alberta.

“We are lucky we still have our jobs, but we don’t know the future. If I get laid off from here, I am sure it is going to be very tough.” Since 2015, Hunegnaw’s union UNITE HERE Local 47 has seen more than 5,600 layoffs.

Another recent blow to the industry came with the cancellation of TransCanada’s Energy East pipeline this October. The controversial project had promised more than 14,000 direct and indirect jobs annually across the country, including 3,770 jobs in New Brunswick. New Brunswickers will have to keep looking east for work, leaving behind a province that has had annual unemployment rates above the national average for decades.

02 WHERE ARE WORKERS LOOKING X-minFor workers travelling across the country, flying back and forth can be exhausting and expensive. Hunegnaw has worked in camps for four years. He tries to go home to Toronto from Fort McKay when he can to visit his three-year-old daughter. But it can be a challenge depending on how many days off he receives as well as the cost of travel.

“It’s really, really tough. Your partner has to be the same mentality as you are… We are surviving but I don’t know the future.”

Ian Robb is president of Hunegnaw’s UNITE HERE Local 47, the largest local union representing remote site workers in the country. “It’s a tough place to work. I mean you're away from your families... away from the normalcy of living,” he says, thinking of the almost 3,000 camp workers he represents. “The worst part about camp life is you miss the family events... your kid’s school, you miss parent-teacher interviews, you know, firsts. A lot of young folk they get up here for the good money and they realize they miss half their life.”

In an effort to reduce costs, companies have increasingly stopped paying for flights home. Now attitudes of employers have shifted to, “You should feel lucky to have a job,” says Sara Dorow, associate professor of sociology and department chair at the University of Alberta. She's interviewed dozens of camp workers and is part of On the Move Partnership, an international project looking at worker mobility across Canada.

Some companies are able to provide a variety of rotational schedules that allow people time to fly home and recharge. But for those stuck with a bad schedule, with not enough downtime to fly home, Dorow says she noticed some workers would stay in camps for months and months on end.

Jan Noster calls those bad rotations “family killers.” He’s president of the Construction Maintenance and Allied Workers (CMAW) union. He remembers a worksite in Kitimat that had 41 days on and one week off. “A horrible, horrible shift,” he says, where the turnover was so bad the company eventually adjusted the schedule to allow more time off.

Challenging stereotypes

“Boisterous crowds of young, single men with little education, massive pickup trucks “jacked up to the moon” — and fistfuls of cash.” That’s the stereotype that comes to mind when people think of boomtown workers, says sociologist Angel in a white paper for Target Logistics, a provider of worker accommodations around the world.

Coats and boots line a mud room at a camp near Fort St. John in the Peace River Regional District, B.C. Francesca Fionda
Coats and boots line a mud room at a camp near Fort St. John in the Peace River Regional District, B.C.

“It is generally believed that when these “work-hard, play-hard” guys finish their shifts, they take to binge-drinking, drugging and reckless driving — triggering spikes in drug dealers, prostitutes, bar brawls, sexual assaults and car wrecks,” she writes. But for Angel, those descriptions are often exaggerated and fueled by media headlines.

A boomtown full of young, deviant men is an image that industry and the Regional Municipality in Wood Buffalo (RMWB) have fought hard to shake off, using data to back it up. In 2012, the municipality conducted an in-depth demographic profile of their shadow population and found more than half were married or in common-law relationships and the majority were over 35 years old.

The municipality also challenged how crime rates for the area were calculated through a 2012 report. In 2012, the region’s population was more than 116,000, but Statistics Canada figures used a population of approximately 65,000, a number that excluded the shadow population. Including the shadow population in crime rates put Fort McMurray closer to the national averages for some crime and further from the “Boomtown on a Bender” image some headlines have made it out to be.

While the stereotypes might be exaggerated, drugs and alcohol are present in work camps. Many of the industries using camps, like construction, oil and gas, have higher than normal substance use rates. “It is probably happening behind closed doors quietly and it's there for sure,” says former camp worker Jarod Hughes. Camp life “can make you or break you,” he says. “You can prosper if you are disciplined and stay away from the party scene, or you can really blow it.”

Of the camp workers Discourse spoke with, many recounted the strong bonds and friendships they built through the shared experiences of making it through each day of work and each night at camp. “These guys are my lifelong friends,” said one worker. “I was trapped in with them… You eat together, you work together, you work out together. You repeat.”

Many workers opened up about the struggle of maintaining healthy relationships with their loved ones back home. “The one thing I will say is a very true stereotype about being in Fort McMurray is it is really hard on your personal life... a lot of guys up here have all been through divorces,” says Hughes. “They make the sacrifice of being up in the oil industry away from their friends and family to make money to support their families.”

It’s those kinds of conversations Angel says should become a regular part of health and safety to prepare workers for the unique challenges of camp life.

The evolution of camps

“It has been a real evolution of work camps in the last little while,” says Matt Haynes of his 10-year camp career, first in scaffolding and transitioning into a health and safety role. “At first it was just a bunch of guys, pretty primitive camp, we all worked together… There was a lot of alcohol, a lot of drugs and people would try to dull themselves.”

But when industry realized living conditions greatly influenced productivity, the companies brought in more services and amenities. Workforce housing became a recruitment and retention strategy. “There was more energy put into things like ‘Let’s have our coffee shop, let’s have a workout room, let’s have a dining hall,’” says Dorow.

Camps also started enforcing stricter rules, codes of conduct, banning drugs and alcohol, some even using drug dogs to perform random searches.

Top-notch facilities were great to have, says Haynes, but that wasn’t the most important thing. “There needs to be more support for people who are fighting depression, fighting issues… with the isolation of working in camp,” says Haynes. “We don’t say, ‘Hey, how are you doing man? Are you okay? Are you feeling alright?’” He believes mental health is a taboo topic at camp.

Angel believes these discussions need to happen very early in the process and needs to directly involve workers. “You talk to them. You ask them… You need to understand the specific context of the work camps and the work sites themselves because they do vary. Some are abundant with amenities, others are quite bare basics.”

To guide this process, she created a Mobile Worker Well-Being Assessment Tool (MWWAT) that looks at the physical layout of a camp but also the supports for mental health, social engagement and recreation. She proposed the idea in her 2014 thesis and had some positive feedback, but after the downturn, she says it didn’t seem to be a priority.

A pamphlet on depression sits at the front desk of an open camp north of Fort St. John, B.C. Francesca Fionda
A pamphlet on depression sits at the front desk of an open camp north of Fort St. John, B.C.

Who’s responsible for the mental and physical health of workers while living in camps? It’s not obvious. While working, most of that responsibility falls to the employer and is enforced by various provincial and federal labour laws. But if workers are off duty, the level of services depend on the individual camp operator.

Camps are categorized as “open” or “closed.” Closed camps are restricted to workers with one company or project and are more likely to have taken part in an environmental assessment. Open camps are not necessarily tied to one project and can house a variety of contractors and workers. They operate more like hotels.

Dorow says there is a huge difference in how open and closed camps are run. “In some of the closed camps I know, they had more access to counseling, things like yoga, that were really focused on well-being in a holistic sense for mental health.” But in the open camps she visited, there were no mental health services on site, with employers likely providing services such as an employee assistance program through an outside human resources company.

04 EAP USE BY INDUSTRY -minDiscourse visited open and closed camps throughout the Peace River Regional District in B.C. and the RMWB in Alberta. On our reporting trip we saw a wide range of available services and resources: from the Encana Prairie Lodge in Fort St John, which had an on-site ambulance, access to a physician’s assistant and a space for Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, to an open camp where the cook joked that the local bartender was the best place to go for help.

In B.C., Northern Health put out guidelines for camps in its region that specifically address mental health, addictions and disease prevention. But these are not mandatory.

Some companies are paying more attention. Suncor has a crisis management line available 24/7. Open camp operator Horizon North says it has a mentorship program for new workers, and Outland Camps says it has training programs to let employees know how the company will support them if they have addiction or mental health issues.

But from what Matt Haynes has seen, it isn’t enough. He worries some of the initiatives exist merely on a public relations level. “I have never walked into a camp where they really sat me down, particularly with the newer workers, [and said], ‘Listen, you are about to engage in something that is very different than you are used to, we do have resources to help you deal with it, here’s where they are.’”

Haynes remembers wishing his days away in camp and turning to fitness as an escape. “Guys were going to use drugs and alcohol, I decided I was going to go use the gym… That’s just kind of something that kept me on the straight and narrow.”

Now, Haynes is running a fitness company in Costa Rica. What started as a way to escape the isolation of camp life became a reality. “It’s absolute paradise out here,” he says.

But back in Canada, despite the downturn, workers are still crisscrossing the country for work, many trying to build a community from strangers while leaving the families they support back home. With the added stress of the slowdown, union representative Ian Robb worries more workers will need access to mental health tools and services. “You know the mental stress that is going on now... jobs coming to an end... there is going to be more and more illness, and mental illness.”

Camps have evolved from a stack of trailers to mega-complexes, but they still have a way to go. “We want to make sure it’s a safe environment for those workers to come,” says Robb, “and I think there are lots of opportunities at these camps.”


This piece was edited by Katie Lewis, with fact-checking and copy editing by Jon von Ofenheim. Discourse's executive editor is Rachel Nixon.