Years ago, when I started in the drilling business, training of new hands was almost non-existent. Drillers expected new hands to know what to do and how to do it without any instruction – almost as if they were supposed to be born with the knowledge of how to make the tongs bite or slip the drill line. This generally led to a lot of yelling and cussing by the driller until the new hand figured it out. It also led to a poor safety record. Drillers actually have told me, “If he hurts his back or mashes his hand, he won’t do it again.”

Fortunately, times have changed. Some of these changes have been forced on the industry, such as those by EPA and OSHA, and some have been forced upon us by insurance companies that are scared that some shyster lawyer is going to sue them over every injury – imagined or real. But some changes have been voluntary. Since most drillers are pretty stubborn, it has taken a while for them to realize that doing things the right – and safe – way actually is faster and more productive than taking dangerous shortcuts. You might save 10 percent in time on a well, but if you spend 150-percent more time fixing a train wreck or re-drilling a well, you really haven’t saved much, if any. I think BP is starting to realize this about now. On the other side of the coin, safety regulations can get a little ridiculous.

I was drilling a big well in a nuclear plant some years ago. I think we all can agree that safety needs to be a pretty big issue in nuclear plants, but sometimes they get a might carried away. One day, I was welding up something at the rig when I felt a tap on my shoulder. Now, my crew knew way better than to stop me in the middle of a rod unless it is a real emergency, so I was about to come out from under the hood and cuss at somebody. There stood a young lady safety engineer. She had a degree, and large book of things to look at on the rig to see if we were safe. I laid down the rod-holder, and stood up to speak to her – first mistake. She immediately wrote me up for leaving a rod in the holder. She didn’t realize that if she had waited 2 more minutes, I would have finished the rod, and dropped the stub in the stub-bucket.

Nowadays, crew training and safety go hand in hand. The JSA (job safety analysis) is a part of every crew change. Before the term was invented, I always took time with my crew to go over all the aspects of the job we were going to do next; I would tell them what to watch out for and how I expected them to do it. It was as much about training as it was safety. I didn’t necessarily do it every day, but I did do it when we started the next phase of a project. Running casing, coring, rigging up or down, all have different hazards and duties, and I found out that more work got done and fewer people or parts got torn up if everybody knew what to expect. Sometimes the older, more experienced hands had heard it all before and rolled their eyes, so I directed most of my comments to the new guys – but the others got to hear it again anyway. Now we all sign a form that says we have done what we always did. Safety and training should be equal parts of the same program.

As our industry has matured, some very good programs, such as continuing education for drillers, have appeared. Unfortunately, these usually were mandated by the state instead of organized by the drillers. Once again, we had to be dragged, kicking and screaming, into the modern era. These programs usually are aimed toward the licensed drillers and the managers of the companies.

There is a real shortage of structured, organized training for entry-level people. There are a couple colleges and a few vocational schools available, but the programs don’t seem to have taken off like they should. This leaves training to the drillers; so whether or not we like it, or are any good at it, we still have the responsibility to train the young hands that eventually will take over the industry.

An update on my brother, Willard: As you have heard, my Willard is quite the outdoorsman, so when he heard about the oil spill in the Gulf, he got himself a job cleaning pelicans. He came home the other day, and told me he’d been fired after cleaning – and gutting – only 56 pelicans. I gotta talk to that boy ….