A wellhead pumper operates power pumps and other equipment so that gas or oil can flow from the oil well. The job is known by a number of other terms, including operations technician, rig technician, pumper and well tender. Work is performed within a strong safety culture that follows detailed and exact safety regulations. Environmental rules also must be closely followed. The pumper's job involves bringing an oil, gas, or mining product from a well up to the surface by means of pumps and compressors. The pumper starts the compressor engine and opens valves to return compressed gas to the bottom of the well. The pump depressurizes the pipe and forces oil to rise to the surface. The wellhead pumper then must monitor the flow as the product travels to make sure it is moving at the proper rate. Once the pump has brought the product to the surface, the pumper transfers it to storage tanks or trucks that move it offsite. Although the wellhead pumper has long been a traditional part of the oil and gas industry, increased use of automated storage and retrieval systems has increased productivity and lessened the need for wellhead pumpers.
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The wellhead pumper is responsible for all aspects of the pumping operations: assembling pumps, attaching hoses to wellheads, starting the compressor, operating the pumps and monitoring flow. Monitoring is generally done by computer control panel, and the pumper must watch that the oil, or the material being extracted, is pumped at the correct pressure, rate, and density. He or she needs to operate the pumps, open valves and shut them off as required by production schedules, and redirect flow into storage tanks. Any blockages in the pipes must be quickly identified and repaired. Routine maintenance of equipment is part of the job, and meters and gauges also need to be maintained and repaired if necessary.
Depending on the product being extracted, the pumper may also be responsible for blending acids and chemicals and controlling equipment used to fracture gas and oil wells or rock formations. Sometimes they are responsible for driving trucks and other transport vehicles on the site.
The pumper may need to supervisor other workers on the job site; the team works together to keep production running smoothly, keeping the product flowing from the ground through the pipes and into storage facilities. The team assembles the rigs and tears equipment down, and starts and stops production following specific schedules. All the work is done in compliance with strict safety regulations. Paperwork needs to be completed, such as daily reports and communication with supervisors.
An essential part of the job role is emergency preparedness. Should an oil spill occur, or a wellhead blow out, environmental damage could be considerable. The pumper needs to be familiar with environmental regulations and follow the rules and know the proper procedures should a problem occur.
The education required to be a wellhead pumper is generally at minimum a high school diploma. Much of the job is learned on site, with companies providing training. Some vocational training is often preferred. This could include certificates related to Occupational Health and Safety, confined spaces, dangerous materials handling, H2S and first aid. Performance evaluations are also conducted on a regular basis to ensure skill maintenance.
As the job primarily involves the operation of pumps used in oil production, a pumper needs to have comprehensive knowledge of all aspects of the production process. They need to understand quality control procedures and pay very close attention to safety at all times. Monitoring gauges and measurement tools means the pumper should have good multitasking abilities, be a critical thinker able to solve complex problems, and be able to exercise good judgment and make sound decisions under pressure.
A pumper also needs good mechanical skills, and an understanding of machines and tools, operation and maintenance. Knowledge of raw materials is helpful, although much of this is learned on the job. Good mathematical ability is important. Good eyesight and hand-eye coordination are also required. Workers need to be physically fit and have strength and durability. With most jobs in the oil, gas and mining industry, drug tests are required. Many large companies also do psychological testing to ensure a worker is able to exercise good judgment in an emergency and shows no instability.
Most employment opportunities are in oil and gas extraction and mining support. Oil wells and mines are out in the field and often in remote locations, including offshore drilling rigs. Workers often live in work camps and work rotating shifts, several weeks on and a week break. Extreme weather conditions may be a factor. Skilled workers in this industry can work anywhere in the world.
In the U.S. a wellhead pumper can expect to earn an average of $42,000, but there is a wide range depending on the state, with some areas paying up to $54,000 annually. Opportunities in the U.S. are lessening with a greater trend toward importing crude oil from overseas. In Canada pumpers earn anywhere from $27 to $40 an hour, depending on skill, experience, and jobsite. Workers onsite are also often eligible for a living allowance supplement.