Today’s safety practices in the oil and gas market are just as relevant to the water well-drilling industry. Both industries have the same goals in mind: to keep our men and women safe and to be profitable. The oil and gas industry will not start a new rig unless first, it is safe, and second, it is profitable. In the water well industry, safety starts out as our number-one focus each year but often by summer we get busy and near misses lead to nonproductive time. Nonproductive time is any time we damage equipment or people. Can we do a better job at adopting new safety practices that our big brothers in the oil and gas industry utilize every day? These three steps can help us promote safer jobsites.

  1. Communicating, documenting and sharing near misses.
  2. Creating danger zones
  3. Safety stand down

This column will examine each of these steps and how they can be implemented on your jobsite.

Communicating, Documenting and Sharing Near Misses

Ultimately, OSHA designates safety standards for all forms of drilling. Often, however, water wells are drilled remotely and by the time an inspector knows of a project the job is complete and the rig is gone. So we have to be our own safety inspectors and document when near misses occur. A near miss can be any close call or minor accident that would have caused damage to equipment or property, or injury to an employee. Documenting these near misses helps our people remember what would happen if the near misses turn to an accident.

I was once on a project where a driller and helper were using an old set of elevators to pick up 5-inch plastic pipe. The helper was struggling each time he tried to get the latch hooked on the elevator. On the fourth piece of pipe, the latch came unhooked and the joint of pipe fell, breaking on the table and mud pan. Luckily, no one got hurt on site, and only the pipe was damaged.

After our hearts had stopped racing, we took 10 minutes to discuss what had just happened. The driller said that, on the last job, the elevator had given him issues but he managed to finish the setting casing. The first near miss was on the previous job. Next, the helper explained that he should have communicated when the latch was getting harder to hook. The drilling team witnessed the second near miss, but did not communicate what was happening. Two near misses had occurred before a catastrophic failure happened. If the drill team had documented and discussed the near miss from the first job with the rest of the company, it is very likely that the elevators would have been taken out of service. You need to document all near misses not only for your business but everyone in the industry.

At the recent International Association of Drilling Contractors (IADC) Advanced Rig Technology conference, Sept. 13-14 in Galveston, Texas, a major oil and gas company presented their policy to share all near misses and incidents throughout all operations around the world. They utilize cameras on the rig floor to document and replay all events. That way, everyone in the company can watch the footage and help prevent incidents from re-occurring. Send me your near misses or accidents at, and we can start an industry discussion on how to avoid and prevent future incidents. We will use the event only and remove location, jobsite data and any names.

Creating Danger Zones 

Danger zones are any place on the job that can cause bodily harm. For instance, when the PVC pipe fell in my earlier example, no one got hurt because everyone on the job knew to stay out from under the pipe and elevator. The driller and helper had a safety discussion about the fall path of hoisted pipe. On O&G jobs, danger zones are painted yellow and have “Do Not Enter” warnings signs on all sides. If an employee is required to enter a danger zone, he and the driller know to be aware and take caution. Many water well companies around the world designate danger zones. In Australia and Latin America, many companies use a cage or barrier to prevent workers from entering the area of the rig’s table while drilling. It is good practice to create company-specific danger zones in any area with high rotation, components moving in/out, hoisting up/down, or opening/closing. Documented near misses, job safety analysis, and risk assessments can help you designate high-risk components and areas. Danger zones also help all employees by reminding them of the risk involved in drilling a well.

Safety Stand Down

Safety stand down is a safety policy that allows any individual on a jobsite to stop an unsafe act before it becomes an incident. An employee will say, “We need a safety stand down,” or “Stop! This is a safety stand down.” At that point, everyone involved takes a break to discuss the hazard. A stand down gives your team a last chance to prevent an incident from happening by having a safety discussion about all risk and dangers involved. It is also a good time to reinforce company safety policy to ensure everyone stays safe on a jobsite. I have used safety stand downs several times throughout my career to prevent drillers and colleagues from getting hurt. Most often, I utilize them to prevent new drillers from smashing or crushing fingers and hands when they put them in danger zones. In the O&G industry, safety stand downs shut down projects for several hours or even days until everyone on site understands the risk and how to prevent it. A jobsite cannot be profitable if it is not safe.

Time is money? No, Safety is Money.

As a company, it is important to consider the amount of time each task requires in order to complete a well. In your daily operations, how much time is spent drilling versus setup, tripping, well development and tear down? You will be surprised to know that less than 40 percent of your time is drilling.

Focus on any task that requires lots of repetition because it can lead to complacency, which leads you right to near misses and incidents. Every year, I hear of severe injuries occurring while tripping drill rod. Remember, you are a drilling team and you all have to watch out for each other.

The best way to think about it is, safety is a condition of employment. Safe jobsites are productive and profitable because they do not have unproductive time. Near misses become broken equipment when you are lucky, and near misses become tragedies when an employee is injured or killed. I have worked with many companies throughout the water well industry with excellent safety programs. I also walked off several jobs after the driller or supervisor refused to create a safe work environment. You always have the right to say, “Stop!” A safety stand down could prevent your co-worker from losing an arm. However, a safety stand down is only the first step. We must document that near miss to understand the danger zone better. Finally, we need to share what we learned with the industry. Each day new hires start in our industry, and they deserve to learn through education, not a tragic event. The most valuable resource to the water well industry is not water, but the people that make water come out of the ground.