A Department of Homeland Security memorandum dated March 19, 2020, designated several drilling sectors — including water, energy and infrastructure — as “essential” during the Covid-19 pandemic. “If you work in the critical infrastructure industry, you have a special responsibility to maintain your normal work schedule,” the memo states.

Given our designation as essential workers for critical services, we need to keep water and other drilling deliverables flowing. How do we do that while keeping crews and customers safe? Well, Covid-19 is not unusual from a contagiousness perspective, so pay close attention to cleaning protocols. But, beyond that, our new normal involves staying educated and up to date on safety and procedures, so that we can continue to provide water for drinking and cleaning. Doing that, as we have always done, will give experts the chance to research a better way to stop the virus.

To learn more about best practices for safe operations, I spoke with Dave Bowers, a friend, industry colleague and fellow writer at National Driller. He is an instructor with the International Union of Operating Engineers, Local 150 AFL-CIO, Apprentice, and Skill Improvement Program. Bowers has presented safety and drilling classes throughout the country. We spoke on Friday, March 27, 2020, as confirmed cases in the United States reached nearly 95,000. Our conversation here about drilling safety in a global pandemic has been edited for space and clarity. 

Q. The government deems the people we train as essential workers. We have to be out working in a pandemic, while many many others observe shelter in place orders. How do we operate safely? 

A. We are not teaching new skills to combat this virus; we use these skills every day in our industry. We decontaminate equipment after jobs. Excellent water well companies disinfect their equipment before drilling the next water well. Now we are deconning to protect the health and safety of our crews.

First, we can clean our equipment correctly before we use it with the right sanitizer. Next, ensure we are the only ones using our equipment and tooling. If a tool comes to us that we were not the one to touch last, it has to be sanitized before we touch it. Finally, we have to make sure everyone is using the same safety procedures. 

Q. As a drilling community, what is the best procedure for decontamination?

A. Soap and water work great, along with correctly specified sanitizers. I just had a company ask me, if I could steam clean would that be enough? Historically, steam cleaning has worked well for drilling equipment, but hot water is not going to kill this virus. If we just go out and steam clean, there is a possibility that, if there is a contaminant on there, we just created an aerosol out of it and we can breathe it in. We need to wipe equipment and tools down to prevent splashback. 

Q. When cleaning equipment and tooling, do we need to be in full PPE? 

A. Yes, we must wear full PPE: mask, face shield, gloves, possibly a Tyvek suit to prevent getting what we call in the Hazmat world “all crapped up.” Now, we carry that contagious crap home to our families. With this virus, I am not worried about me. What bugs me is bringing it to my 80-year-old mother, wife or one of my kids, and them not being able to weather it. My son is going to be a firefighter. He’s 18 years old and if he gets Covid-19 and it damages his lungs, his entire career — the path he chose in life — has been altered by a mistake I made by bringing this crap home. I can’t live with that. 

Q. Where should we clean — at the job or back at the shop? 

A. Both. If our crews pack and clean/sterilize everything right there, that is great. Then, the next day, we are in good shape with sanitized equipment and tooling. 

Q. Former National Ground Water Association President Jeff Williams just posted about a company policy of his crews practicing social distancing outside of work. We do everything correct to stay safe at work; how do we trust that our teams are doing the same after work? 

A. We must ask each other, are we all doing what we are supposed to to social distance and stay safe? We have to educate our crews on being smart. Even when we do everything right, there is still that X factor of catching this virus. I teach FAA classes for drones as well; there is one aspect they teach that I believe applies to our industry. We must accept the risk to go out and do what we are doing right now. The conditions we are in right now, there is just more risk. 

Q. I believe we have to change our safety meetings until this virus is under control. Do we add a section to our safety meeting asking, how do you feel? Or, do you believe you were exposed off work? 

A. Yes. The entire morning safety meeting has to change. We have to maintain social distancing at our meeting to be able to bring up the question, do you feel OK? Or, do you think you could have been exposed last night? Because, if we are all standing next to each other, did I just lose the whole crew? We have to adapt our operations while we fight this virus continually. 

Q. Is there confusion on what to use for disinfection? 

A. I had a driller ask me if he could use Break Clean. I told him I don’t know. Soap and water do a great job. I had another driller ask if he should use chlorinated water and jersey gloves to handle the tooling. Sure, it would start to disinfect. But what about handling tooling with slippery hands or the amount of contact on your skin? We need contact time to kill the virus. Everyone should go to the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and local health department guidelines for the best information on disinfection. 

Q. What is your advice for mitigating risk while working during the Covid-19 pandemic? 

A. It’s simple: good personal hygiene. Wash your hands for 20 seconds. If you don’t know how long 20 seconds is, try singing happy birthday. Next, don’t touch your face. Make sure you maintain social distancing of six feet. Decontaminate tools and equipment daily. Finally, trust in crews to follow the procedures we designed with them. This is our foreseeable future, so don’t do anything that is a risk to yourself or anyone else. 

Q. We have injuries without a virus; how do we change our safety culture? 

A. Look at the root causes. What was the procedure on the job? Was the root cause because of all the bad things going on with Covid-19? Our minds are elsewhere right now. Every bad thing that has ever happened to me on a project was caused by my head not being in the game. We can’t afford in the drilling industry to lose focus on complex tasks. That temporary lapse in attention leads to so many other bad things happening. 

Q. How do we keep crews focused in the Covid-19 situation?

A. We train our crews and give them the right procedures to recognize risk and stay focused. Think about OSHA’s focus four: 1) Falls, which hurt the most people; 2) struck by, which is being hit by an object; 3) electrocution; and 4) caught in-between. Most accidents on a jobsite still link back to the focus four. 

Q. Elaborate on the focus four.

A. You have falls. That’s number one. The most people are injured or killed every year from falls. Anything over 6 feet in height, we need fall arrest such as personal fall protection or guard rails. We should prefer railings over personal fall arrest, which come with more hazards.

Next, we have “struck by an object,” which ranges from someone dropping a tool and hitting someone to working next to the highway. The highest amount of struck-by accidents involve your eyes; that is why it is vital to wear safety glasses.

Electrocution is the third highest. Just the other day, we had two young men killed by raising a rig’s tower into power lines. The setback rules exist to protect us from high voltage. Yes, the general industry is 10 feet; however, we need to remember that cranes require us to be 20 feet from any line for which we don’t know the actual voltage.

The final focus four is “caught in-between.” That is when something heavy comes against something immovable. … Caught in-between pertains to employees in a trench or a piece of equipment that backs into someone. [For example] there was a sad accident on a caisson drill where an employee went between the counterweight of the drill and the retaining wall. He was crushed. 

Q. If we focus on these four, our crews will be safe the majority of the time? 

A. These four make up the majority of project injuries, and OSHA needs us to focus on them. But in our industry, each job will have a different set of risks and potential for injury. We have to know the risk and understand where our “out” is if something goes wrong. We have to be thinking, if this situation goes wrong, how do I get out of the way? 

As essential workers, we have to be there to provide water, but beyond that, you need to be here for your family and community. That requires us to operate safer than ever, realizing that everyday medical attention may be unobtainable. We have to work safely, decontaminate our tools and equipment, and continue practicing CDC guidelines to prevent the spread of Covid-19. Be safe out there. 

A New Normal for Jobsite Safety?

Coronavirus adds a new layer of risk to drilling jobsite First-Aid and safety. A pump installer this week got his hand crushed on a job. The crew immediately took him to an urgent care, where he was turned away. Next, they took him to the emergency room, and he was again turned away. His smashed fingers were not as critical as emergency cases of Covid-19. They advised him to try a local fire station for triage. 

At the fire station, they stabilized his injury and told him to get to the E.R and wait because it was likely he would lose two of his fingers. He spent 12 hours waiting to be seen, and yes, they amputated his pinky and part of his ring finger.

In normal conditions, he is seen at a hospital, stabilized, given painkillers and immediately referred to a specialist.

“We start all projects with the plan for no one to go to the hospital,” Bowers says. “Injuries are always a bad situation. Now, a situation is a big deal; they might not get the care required. Then they likely got exposed to a contagious virus.” 

Bowers adds that, in situations like this, he hopes recovering employees separate from colleagues and family for the 14 days or until a test rules out Covid-19. During a pandemic, even a minor injury can potentially be life-changing for the injured and their loved ones.