Local Missourian Shares Life on the PipelineDecember 21, 2014 Oil, Gas, & Pipeline Development
By: Clare McDonough, Director, Westwood Marketing & Communications
Sit and chat with John Matthews, Westwood’s pipeline project surveying supervisor, and you quickly gain a unique perspective of life on the pipeline. I had a chance to do that and walked away with a newfound appreciation of the work and better understanding of the strong values held by the teams.
John is a local Missourian who worked on the Flanagan South Pipeline Project (Flanagan South), which is a nearly 600-mile, crude-oil pipeline, owned and operated by Enbridge Pipelines (FSP) L.L.C. and completed fourth quarter 2014. At the time, it was the longest pipeline under construction in the U.S., running from Pontiac, Illinois through Missouri and Kansas, and ending in Cushing, Oklahoma.
Enbridge hired two pipeline construction contractors to build the line, U.S. Pipeline and Michels Construction, and one surveying contractor, Westwood Professional Services (Westwood). Westwood supported the project with pipeline surveying services on the entire length of the pipeline. John led the charge on the surveying, which was no small task. The nearly 600-mile project was split into four sections (spreads) with construction running east to west on each. Westwood had survey supervisors leading each spread, but John oversaw the entire effort. At the project’s peak during the fall of 2013, John was running more than 60 Westwood survey crews at one time.
Pipeline workers are tough, which makes sense given their line of work. But, spend some time with them and the odds are an easy-going nature will emerge. John is a great example. He is a 30-year pipeline veteran who lives in a small Missouri town north of the project. Though he held a pretty demanding position on Flanagan South, John was easily approachable and open to providing some insight to his world over a casual breakfast. Knowing the pressures of his work, I kept feeling like I should let him get back to the job, but he ensured me that he “still had to eat.”
A Commitment to the Job and Safety
Pipeline teams run a tight ship. They work long hours, at times full weeks, and are faced with tight deadlines. John emphasizes that the job requires workers to be sharp and constantly aware of their environment. Pipeline employees and visitors cannot enter the project right-of-way without obtaining specific project safety training certification. John says, “Every morning, we begin with a safety message. Procedures like these help keep our crews and communities safe.” Though it seems simple, John says the safety message sets the tone for the day and is a regular reminder of how important it is to stay alert.
Safety is a big part of pipeline construction and a top priority for all including owner, contractors and employees on a project. In addition to the client’s safety certification, Westwood provides specific safety training to its surveyors. A top priority is safe driving, especially when you consider that the survey crews alone put about 100,000 miles on their trucks every week. With this number of miles, significant efforts are focused on motor vehicle safety. That dedication to safety on the job and in the communities paid off. Westwood celebrated more than 500,000 hours without a single recordable incident on Flanagan South. Awesome work surveyors!
Welcoming the Short Commute
It’s no secret that pipeline workers make a premium wage, but the job requires more than most of us are willing to give; most people live away from family, friends and a known environment, work long hours, in a demanding industry with new people and move from project to project. It is a big commitment that many newcomers quickly find out they simply can’t handle. John’s Flanagan South survey team was made up of local hires and people who came from all over the country to work on the project. Many uprooted their families and purchased or rented homes, RVs, or took up residence in apartments and condos in towns along the pipeline.
John and his family moved from Texas to Missouri in 1992. Prior to joining the Flanagan South Project, he transplanted to wherever his projects required him to be while his wife and kids held down the fort in Missouri. John says, “Being so close to home on Flanagan South was a welcome change.”
In his role as Westwood’s survey supervisor on Flanagan South, John was on the front line, handling client or project issues and was the go-to guy for tough decisions. His main focus is always to keep the client happy and manage projects to meet contract requirements. Even though he leads the charge in the field, he isn’t afraid of getting into to the details. If help is needed on his team, he jumps in to assist with technical work, notes, and surveying. John tells me he loves what he does and couldn’t imagine doing anything else.
It was easy to see that John was raised with a good work ethic, a necessary trait for anyone on a pipeline job. He credits his dad for instilling a strong value system. When he was a kid, John had to work daily in the house and yard without an allowance or complaints. He had a lot of responsibilities. His first paying job was at age 13, planting trees. Early on, he understood the importance of a job well done and has carried that belief throughout this life. “Clients pay us well to do what we do, so I do my best to get them their money’s worth. It is important to me that I justify the salary they pay me and my staff. This is something I work hard to instill in my team.” It is apparent that John’s Dad’s principles rubbed off on him.
Fueling Local Economies
Having worked in the industry for decades and developed an understanding of the economic benefits of pipeline construction, John also works hard to build awareness of the value a project of this scope can bring to communities along the route. He has witnessed the benefit in nearly every town he has worked in and notes that Westwood works hard to support the objective. As part of its commitment to Enbridge and the communities along Flanagan South, Westwood worked to recruit and hire local surveying support in towns along the nearly 600-mile route. When the Flanagan South Project was at its peak for staffing, nearly 40% of John’s team was made up of local hires, which included survey rod persons, instrument persons, and administrative staff. For the first time in his career, John was one of those stats, holding the leading surveying position on the job as a local hire. Not only did he finally get to work on a project in his neighborhood, his neighborhood and family felt the benefits too through the infusion of jobs and economic boost, and of course, John’s accessibility to home and loved ones.
The local hires were just one element of the economic impact felt by the project. By the time the project was complete, millions of dollars were put back into the communities through the purchasing and leasing of trucks and equipment, local recruiting and business services, lodging, meals, entertainment, and other costs of living. This figure also includes the coordination, development, and delivery of relevant business seminars and tours to colleges and universities offering programs on surveying, engineering, quality management, and safety, but it doesn’t account for the additional tax revenue experienced in each community. One thing to note is that even though Westwood’s contribution was significant, it was small compared to that of Enbridge and their primary contractors, U.S. Pipeline and Michels Construction. On these big projects, Westwood is typically a small player with an important role, doing its best to make a positive impact.
Joining Together to Give Back
Another big way all of the pipeline members and their companies positively impact communities is through charitable giving. Wow, do these workers have big hearts! On the Flanagan South Project, direct contributions from Enbridge, Westwood, all of Enbridge’s contractors, and overwhelming personal staff donations, resulted in thousands and thousands of dollars, clothing, toys, and food given freely to support families in need within communities along the nearly 600-mile route. Every month, it seemed there was another effort to help someone out, either in the community or on the team. John is proud when he says, “The crews do not hesitate to join together when there is a need.”
I asked him about what happens when projects are complete. He says, “A lot of people don’t realize how much we collectively help local economies after we are gone.” In many communities, the economic benefits stay long after the project is complete through the addition of continued pipeline jobs. The nearly 600-mile project requires ongoing monitoring of pump stations and terminals that need operations and maintenance support
When the job of a pipeline surveyor is done, they are off looking for the next job. These days, pipeline contractors are in huge demand. Experience is hard to find because many of the experienced guys (and gals) like John, are working. John says that the longest he has been out of work in his 30 years in the industry is six months – which is a testament to how valued he is. If you are good, you are recognized, and you aren’t without work for long. The pipeline industry is a small community that is spread out across the country.
When I asked John to close our discussion by sharing his philosophy on the job, his laid back nature came through again, “Not a lot bothers me or gets me upset. When issues come up, I just deal with them. Follow guidelines and everything works out well.” What does he expect from his team? “There is no crying on the pipeline. When my team gets overwhelmed due to the complexity of the work – that’s when they know to get together as a team to work it out.”