Joe Wayland, Oil Field Worker

Photograph by Erin Trieb

Wayland grew up in Midland and has worked in the oil industry for nearly a decade. He is now a mud engineer for Baker Hughes Drilling Fluids in Victoria.

When I was growing up in Midland, I didn’t want anything to do with the oil field. In junior high, you learn what your friends’ parents do. It was interesting to hear them talk about the oil field, but it didn’t appeal to me at all. Those guys worked long hours and hard days. My dad ran the Allstate Insurance office, and I wanted to go to college and have an office job. What I didn’t know then was that you can’t beat the pay.

I played basketball at Midland High and for Wayland Baptist University. The second week of practice, I blew out a knee. I never finished college. After I got married, in 1991—I was 21, my wife was 20—I was struggling. We were living in Midland, and we wanted more out of life. I knew I could make good money in the oil field. I got hired by FWA Drilling as a swamper. My job was to tie the truck onto a piece of the drilling rig so it could be hauled to a new location. It was hard work, twelve hours a day, but at least I wasn’t swinging a sledgehammer. Some days we would move two or three rigs, and we’d have to drive three hours one way and three hours another.

I realized pretty quick I didn’t want to be a truck driver or a swamper, so I left to go work for Schlumberger on a cement crew. After you drill a surface hole, you run casing and then cement that casing into place. My job was to cement the pipe into place. It seemed that 98 percent of the time, when they needed the cement crew, it’d be in the middle of the night. I didn’t stay there long. By then I knew I wanted to go into oil field safety. When I’d worked for FWA, I’d seen things I didn’t like. People were getting hurt. There are a lot of moving parts on a rig; something as simple as holding on to a rail can prevent an injury. I saw a man’s hand get smashed. He was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and the collar—that’s a big, heavy pipe at the bottom of the drilling string—smashed right into it. Split four fingers wide open. Luckily, he was able to get them sewed up. One of my buddies got killed. I didn’t see the accident.

I got a job in safety in 1994 with a company called Diamond S Safety Services. We mainly inspected and serviced equipment—fire extinguishers, SCBA [self-contained breathing apparatus] equipment, and H 2S [hydrogen sulfide] monitors. Hydrogen sulfide gas can asphyxiate workers, or it can ignite. At ten parts per million, the monitor sounds the first alarm. At fifteen parts per million, it sounds the second alarm. Workers have to know that the air is okay to breathe. I took my job very seriously. When Diamond S shut down, about two years later, I did safety consulting and supervision for Midland Safety & Health Sales and Service. If a crew needed to weld a tank battery, we’d make certain there were no explosive gases around. They didn’t work until we said it was okay to work.

When I first got hired, the price of oil was $38 to $40, but when oil drops to $25 or $30 a barrel, as it did in the nineties, the oil companies start doing safety in-house, and your services are no longer needed. I took a seven-year sabbatical. I was getting fed up anyway; you get tired of the long hours and no family life. I opened a lawn-service and Christmas-lights business during that time. I got to go home at night, but I wasn’t making any money. In 2004 I went back to work for Midland Safety & Health fixing H 2S monitors. I wanted more for my two boys. I wanted them to have a college fund.

A friend told me that Baker Hughes Drilling Fluids was hiring mud engineers. The only trouble was, Baker Hughes was in Victoria and Corpus Christi, and I was in Midland. I’m divorced, but I’m still good friends with my ex-wife, so she took the boys—they are fifteen and eight—and I attended mud school in Houston before moving to Victoria. The job of a mud engineer is to make sure the drilling fluid—what we call the mud—is in check. You have to run chemical tests every day, sometimes twice a day, to determine what the mud needs: water, gel, lignite, or other chemicals. The fluid has to be the right weight to protect the hole. If the fluid pressure is less than the formation pressure, then gas might come right up the hole to see you, because nothing is holding it down. That’s where you get the possibilities of blowouts. If the fluid pressure is greater than the formation pressure, then the formation could break down and you could lose your mud into the formation. It’s a juggling act.

I’m on 24-hour call. If they need a mud engineer, I’ll be there until the problem is fixed, living out of my truck. My attitude about the oil field has changed since I was a swamper. I used to hate drilling rigs. I can’t tell you how much I hated them after my buddy got killed. But now they are more interesting to me. I like to sit down and talk with drilling crews about what’s going on. My job is to help them so they can drill the hole as fast as they can.

One night at a rig in Midland, the sky was bright with stars, and everything was going well. As I walked around the rig, everything just came together for me, and I felt like writing a poem. It

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