Drilling is a disruptive process requiring equipment that has the capability to smash, grind, tear and destroy all types of geologic formations. Our drill bits utilize different cutter heads, varying from a traditional tricone to advanced diamond-tooth technology that allows for fast penetration rates in dense formations. We implement this equipment all over the world in challenging terrain and geological formations.

We, as an industry, have come to accept that location and drilling methods will present some amount of danger. However, if we know what is dangerous and respect it, we can minimize the possibility for failure that leads to injury or death. Reducing risk or tragedy depends on situational awareness of the entire job. Situational awareness is the employee’s full comprehension of the jobsite’s location and the job tasks, and the anticipation of what can go wrong when an unknown variable or unwarranted risk is introduced. 

The Jobsite Location

Jobsite situational awareness starts with understanding all of the known variables that could be introduced. These variables begin with environments such as terrain, wildlife, weather and footprint. The terrain is the first variable that can present a risk. Drill rigs are notoriously top-heavy, depending on the design and amount of tooling loaded on for the job. I have seen uneven and soft ground tip rigs over several times. My rule is to expect every rig to tip over and anticipate the worst situation.

After terrain, I consider wildlife. I ask, what can I endanger and what can endanger me? From rattlesnakes in Freer, Texas, to bears in Republic, Wash., I am always on the lookout for wildlife. I once went through tortoise sensitivity training for a project. One project I was on in Winnemucca, Nev., sent three men to the hospital from spider bites in 24 hours. So, it is essential to know what is on a jobsite.

Finally, the weather is a variable that has become easier to anticipate with modern technology. Regardless of where I am in the world, I start my morning with the Weather Channel, which allows me to understand what I might expect for the day. Rain, ice, and snow create hazards for moving and handling equipment. Next, we must monitor drought and wildfire conditions; a service truck’s exhaust can start a fire that can cause significant damage and endanger many. Finally, lightning is our most significant concern, and having a plan to seek safe shelter is always a top priority. 

Before we can create the proper jobsite, we must consider all manmade obstructions above ground and below ground. Contact your local 811 for all subsurface obstructions and adhere to the adequate setback guidelines for powerlines. Many jobsite accidents occur during rig setup and the first 20 feet of drilling. Electrocution and fire are 100 percent avoidable by following the rules. 

We cannot choose where our jobsite environment is, what it will be like or what manmade obstructions we might find, but we can control the footprint and layout. Situational awareness depends on creating a consistent layout plan with pits, tooling, product and specialized equipment all having a designated place. Creating similar jobsite layouts prevents slips, trips and falls, and allows employees to move safely while handling casing or suspended tooling. If a catastrophic event happens, the driller or helper has a predetermined escape plan to a safe distance. Misplaced tooling and inconsistent layouts create hazardous situations that can end in severe injury or worse. 

The Job Task

A consistent jobsite layout is the best practice. It helps our employees better focus on the complex task required to drill and complete a project. When a driller or helper must concentrate on a new variable, it increases the possibility of a distraction that can lead to injury. Drillers and helpers need their full attention on the drilling process. We should treat drill rigs as the destructive beasts that they are: At any moment, one could stop chewing up the ground and bite you. Rigs have evolved from friction brakes to rack and pinion feed systems over the past 90 years. However, with all these fantastic advances, one theme is maintained: The driller and helpers are operating in high-risk areas. When you sign on as a driller or helper, you expect to work around high-speed rotating equipment, rapidly moving percussion devices, and heavy loads suspended and moving overhead. Men and women working on these jobsites must maintain high situational awareness by understanding where these risks are at all times. 

The risk area around rotating drill rods is the first that gets taken for granted. Earlier this spring, I watched a veteran driller remove balled up clay from a 10-inch drag bit and stabilizer while it rotated below the rig’s table. He drilled the first 20 feet and then raised the bit up to the bottom of the table to remove the sticky clay. I ran over to the rig and immediately stopped him. He responded with, “We always do it this way.” I explained the dangers, and he agreed that it was not a good practice.

Six weeks later, he had fallen back into old habits. One day, he got hung up on the bit and broke his right arm, and tore his elbow and rotator cuff. In reality, his injuries could have been much worse. The average top-head rotary rig has a minimum of 3,000 foot-pounds of rotary torque, which is more than enough to tear an arm off at the shoulder. If that doesn’t scare you enough, think about how in an emergency stop — or, better yet, when a rig’s PTO is disengaged — the rig’s rotation does not instantly stop, but continues until it runs out of momentum.

Sadly, that was just the most recent accident. Over the years, I have heard countless stories of hooded sweatshirts and gloves getting caught in a rig’s rotation — with tragic results. I want you to think about the last time you put your hand in the crossover or on the stabilizer to remove clay while it was rotating. How many more times do you chance fate before you lose an appendage? 

The top-head feed system is another area that requires respect and proper use. Often these systems are guarded, and rig manufacturers have made it difficult for our hands to find a pinch point. One place that isn’t guarded is the top of the mast. I know what you are thinking: How would I get my hands 30-plus feet in the air where a cable or chain could crush it through a pulley or gear? It’s simple. Someone said, “Take that saw and ride the top-head up and cut the branches out of the mast.” Our situational awareness is in overdrive. We are thinking about not falling, cutting tree limbs, dropping the saw and holding on. One of these times, while chancing fate, you will forget to let go before the cable or chain makes the turn at the top and you will be mangled forever. We must follow the rig manufacturers’ recommended operating procedures so we can concentrate on legitimate dangers and not create new ones. 

We minimize risk by full comprehension of each task at hand.

Suspended loads are the final situation that we must always be aware of. The vertical drilling process requires continual hoisting of drill rods, tooling and casing overhead. The process is so frequent that we become complacent or too comfortable with the action. Complacency causes most hoisting failure with an improper latch or an operator hoisting up too fast. Situational awareness is knowing and expecting that the load overhead could fall at any moment, and having a plan in place to be out of the danger zone. A good driller and helper will work together with proper communication and procedures for hoisting every time. 

As you wrap up this article, I want you to reflect on your situational awareness abilities and consider how many times you put yourself in a situation that was unnecessary. As an industry, we see too many tragic circumstances that affect good people and companies. My heart breaks every time I hear of a fatality on a drilling project. Often, it is the novice who gets mangled or killed attempting to do what a veteran had done on several previous projects. These situations can be avoided by critically thinking about you and your employees’ situational awareness. Next, consider your safety program and your method for recording near misses. A near miss is any situation that did not result in an injury or damage, but had the potential to do so. Remember, we minimize risk by full comprehension of each task at hand. Every time we encounter a near miss, it is one step closer to injury or death.