And then it happened. It’s 3 p.m. Friday afternoon. The well is drilled, the casing is set, and you and your helper are tripping drill rods back into the hole to start well development. Your helper is physically working with you as he spins the hoist plug into the next drill rod, but mentally, he is in Margaritaville searching for that shaker of salt. As he raises the rod with the helper side hoist controls, it falls and hits him on the right shoulder, injuring him and halting all activities on the jobsite. The next 30 minutes are a blur as first responders show up on site and take him to the hospital. The diagnosis is a torn shoulder, and the doctor tells you and your employee how lucky he was that the rod hit his shoulder and not his head or neck. 

Now it’s late Friday night and, as you drive home from the hospital, you replay in your head what happened and what went wrong. It’s hard to recall, because tripping drill rod is a task that drillers and helpers repeat several times a day. Tripping drill rod is a task that our industry discusses as if we were a NASCAR pit crew. It’s a task with a driller and helper in complete sync, adding or removing drill rods as fast as the drilling formation will allow. That is why it is such a blur to us when we review the task at the end of the day: We trip so fast that it becomes instinct and our brains stop registering the memory. However, the next couple months will make this a fresh memory as the insurance company and Occupational Safety Health Administration (OSHA) investigate what happened. 

Drilling is a specialized industry that insurance companies and OSHA have a hard time understanding, particularly when it comes to how jobsite operations occur. The OSHA was created in 1970 to assure safe and healthful working conditions for working men and women by setting and enforcing standards, and by providing training, outreach, education and assistance. However, industrial drilling is a self-taught industry that has flown under OSHA’s radar for the past 48 years, and there are no standards that directly apply to industrial drilling. Therefore, when an incident happens and OSHA is contacted, the compliance officer has a great deal of investigating to do before he can understand the task and how the incident occurred. Next, he must apply the OSHA standard that best fits the task and use that standard to create the violation. In the case of the falling drill rod striking an employee, the officer applied hoisting and fall zone criteria. In this case, the violation stated that the drill rod should have had a secondary tether in case the primary hoisting point failed. The officer finished the investigation, found fault and wrote a ticket with a fine. The options are then to pay the ticket or try to reverse the violation. 

If no standard directly applies to drilling, how can hoisting procedures for general industry apply? Anyone within our industry understands that hoisting drill rod in and out of the hole can only accommodate one hoist point or else it wouldn’t go into the hole. An OSHA compliance officer wouldn’t directly know the procedures for tripping rods. However, it is time to become proactive and help educate OSHA about our procedures, as opposed to arguing why drilling doesn’t fit in OSHA standards. 

Federal OSHA and many state OSHAs have guidelines for oil and gas drilling that fit many industrial drilling procedures. In fact, the federal OSHA site has a full section on oil and gas well drilling, which was designed to give oil field workers safety awareness to prevent injury during all drilling operations. The site also discusses tripping drill rod and hoisting. The equipment we use in water wells and industrial drilling, and the tasks completed onsite, are very similar to oil and gas drilling. Often, the equipment is created by the same manufacturers. The oil and gas OSHA site is full of information that can educate state level OSHA compliance officers. The tripping in and out section states possible hazards and solutions. If our employees and OSHA officers understand jobsite hazards and solutions, we can educate and minimize risk. 

If the water well and industrial drilling industries share technology and methods with oil drilling, why don’t we share more of their safety standards? Any drilling company that has worked on a sizeable geothermal project or an established mine site, or drilled a cathodic borehole for a pipeline company, was required to follow OSHA, MSHA, and oil and gas safety standards for drilling operations. These requirements are used to ensure safety for everyone onsite. 

Three of the easiest standards to use are: 

  • Daily onsite safety meetings
  • Thorough Job Safety Analysis (JSA)
  • And documented task-specific operating procedures for all operations

Safety meetings should happen every morning and should start with a discussion of all tasks to be completed for the day. Next, the safety meeting should talk about jobsite hazards and protective equipment. Finally, the meeting should define emergency action plans, including distance to nearest hospital and a rallying point if there is a catastrophic failure. 

Job Safety Analysis (JSA) is a method of identifying the steps and hazards of jobsite tasks. We start a JSA with the sequence of steps required to complete a task. Then, the JSA recognizes the potential dangers in the task. Finally, the JSA helps establish the necessary measures to prevent the potential threat from happening. You can find simple JSA examples on the OSHA website. If a JSA were performed for tripping rods, we would have set the steps required. Next, we would define all possible hazards, such as pinch points and falling objects. The JSA would finish with recommendations to complete the job safely, such as ensuring the hoist plug is completely threaded into the drill rod and using hand signals to the driller when it is time to hoist the rod. 

A JSA is the basis for creating task-specific operating procedures. These procedures can ensure that all employees are completing tasks the same way and, in turn, minimize jobsite hazards. Consistency is key to a safe jobsite. 

The falling drill rod event discussed earlier has happened on jobsites all over the world using different hoisting devices: spring-loaded Quick Plugs, J-hooks and threaded hoist plugs. Overhead hazards are expected in vertical drilling, and we owe it to our employees to discuss all risks. Morning safety meetings are a perfect time to reaffirm potential hazards for the day. They are also an ideal time to access the mental and physical conditions of your employees. 

Drilling is a hazardous job and injuries are going to happen; it is how your company handles the situation moving forward that will determine if it happens again. The first step is to understand what happened and how to prevent it. Sure, there is going to be some investigation. Whether that investigation is done by OSHA or internally, the results will help you learn from the incident in order to avoid it the next time. Create a JSA and review it with your employees and peers. Remember, as a self-taught industry, the only way we get better is to share information and learn from each other. As an industry, we must do better due diligence on safety, from hearing protection to risk assessment. We must document hazards and share them with our colleagues. As you reflect on an injury, try to think back to all the near misses that led up to the incident. When we investigate a near miss, we prevent catastrophic events from happening.