Lots of companies talk about safety. But, when companies are ready to listen, they can go to an event like the National Drilling Association’s recent convention outside Baltimore, and hear from an expert like Chuck Valenta of Terracon. Valenta, with NDA President Dan Dunn of Major Drilling America, held a panel discussion there about “transformative” safety. They shared a lot of good ideas, so National Driller followed up with Valenta after the event to find out a little more. He’s a regional exploration manager with Terracon working to standardize that company’s drilling practices. Our interview here is edited for space and clarity.
Q. What makes you qualified to talk about drilling safety?
A. My whole life — well, since I joined the military — was built around heavy equipment. One of the key assets to running is your operators, and you aren’t worth a damn if you can’t keep those operators safe. So I’ve made it a point to do the research and to study what the problems are, and [conduct] our own site visits, on how to change that. Through my military background, I was an instructor all the time — mentoring people on how to take care of themselves, their equipment and not get hurt doing it. And that consists of, gee, since 1977.
Q. Describe some of the common injuries you see among those working on drilling sites.
A. The typical injury at one time was catastrophic. If you go back to 20 years, even 15 years ago, the industry as a whole was getting people injured where they couldn’t come back to work, because they would not pay attention. It was all about production, it was all about getting the job done, and there were too many risks taken. We’ve done a good job as an industry, with assistance from organizations like the NDA … on recognizing safety and those catastrophics. And the vendors have done a really good job of altering things to keep that [catastrophic injuries] from happening.
But the typical injuries [now] are related to repetitive motion, which is strains, muscles, joints, which come up a lot. Part of that is also related … to not giving education to our younger [operators]. … When we were doing it, we didn’t pay attention to it. So we’re actually trying to educate those younger ones to take care of their bodies.
So that comes up a lot, because more than half of the people that are still drilling today are over the age of 40. That’s why it’s a very prevalent injury. We’re talking just lifting procedures. We’re constantly looking up, so you put stress on your neck. You’re constantly working your arms above your shoulder, which the shoulder is really a very stressful, complicated joint. We see a lot of shoulders go out. We see a lot of neck problems. We see a lot of wrist issues with the older drillers. So, it is a prevalent accident — well, it’s not really an accident, but a prevalent injury.
The other one that really hinders all of us, and it was brought up during my discussion, is hand injuries. Hand injuries are more or less related to pinch points and not understanding where you can and can’t put your hands. What’s really bad about the hand injuries in our industry — although we consider them minor — is we get lost time, which makes it also difficult for the driller. It takes them out of commission. It hurts us as an industry, because that stuff gets tracked. Today’s society is really about safety. It gets publicized, with all the accidents, and it hinders you from actually being able to compete for work. Let’s face it, the bottom line is that we’re in this to bring in our revenue. This is where safety comes into play. Although our main concern is that of the employee, if you don’t make money, then there’s no employee.
Q. How does the nature of injuries vary with the age of the worker?
A. Yes, I did talk about that and I had a slide put up there and I broke it down into four categories. One to five years [on the job] was the highest, but the majority was in that first two years. I think that was close to 30 percent [of total injuries]. But the next highest was what we call the fourth category: drillers with more than 20 years experience. That was at 20 percent. … In that 20 percent, probably more than 10 percent is due to joint failure for repetitive motion, because age comes into play. As we get older, we get things like arthritis, cartilage is wearing out, stressing like in your neck and vertebrae. … You’re still mechanical, even though you’re biological. Your bone structure is not designed to keep your neck pointed with your eyes looking up at the mast. … That other percentage, a lot of times it gets to complacency. You get too comfortable with what you’re doing and you’re willing to take a risk because you’ve done it in the past.
They are people of action. They don't want to let anything hold them back from completing a task. If they get hurt on the job, they throw some grease on it, wrap it up with a towel and they continue right on working.
Q. So that’s for the veteran operators. What about younger ones, what do their injuries typically look like?
A. Those are the pinch-point ones, or they don’t pay attention to their surroundings. You’ve got more slips and trips, believe it or not, in that group as well for sprained ankles. They’re rushing to get the job done because they feel it’s important, so they move quicker than what they can think. It really is an education. Know your whereabouts. Know your body. Know your decision-making process when you’re performing a task.
Q. How are the roles of the driller and the driller helper different when it comes to preventing injuries?
A. First off, that older driller’s got to remember he’s made a lot of mistakes and he’s got to pass on his knowledge. One of the things I do sometimes in a group is I’ll say, “Alright, everyone put their hands in the air. Take a look at it. Are all those nubs still there?” You’ll be surprised. … Here’s the old mindset: They used to wear those injuries as a badge of honor. “Look, I did this and I’m still going strong.” They didn’t think about it when they did it, but … that’s the mindset we do not want to put into our younger drillers. Just like with kids, you want your kids to do better than what you did in life. You do everything you can to get them to a point where they can achieve that. Well, that’s the mindset that an experienced driller has to have with that upcoming, potential driller. He’s got to pass on his knowledge. He’s got to pass, not only the good knowledge, but the knowledge he has that was created by accidents or bad situations. Not holler, or slap at the guy — “Don’t do that!” Just say, “Hey, look” — and hold up his hand — “You see that finger? I shouldn’t have it. Look how flat it is. I don’t want you to go through that.” Or, even scars. “Look, I’ve been down this road. I’ve hit an electrical line. It blew me away. Don’t ever take that chance.” It really is more of a teaching from the older to the newer generation. Let’s face it: We don’t have very many people to draw from, anymore. So we have to bring them along correctly.
Q. What does a good injury prevention plan look like?
A. We can get into risk assessments and mitigation but, really, it’s educating from the start at that entry level on all the dos and don’ts, and bringing them that real-life scenario of what has happened, and what we’ve learned. Getting them to open their mind up because we actually — and I’m going to tell you, all the major companies — are trying to set a standard, bringing those people in, to pre-train them or adjust their train of thought on safety protocols.
Terracon, specifically, about four years ago embarked on what we call a journey. That journey is called IIF — injury incident free. You have to have a belief that it can be achievable. So we’re really trying to change how safety is viewed by all. It’s easier to catch them in the beginning than it is to change them on the end of their career. That old adage, “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks,” believe it or not sometimes applies. … Most drillers are thick-skulled and highly opinionated. But, they’re damn good at what they do. Basically, and I’ve run into this before, “This is the way I was taught. This works. I know it. It’s proven.” Well, that doesn’t mean that it’s the best way. Trying to get them that open-mindedness, to look at things, is difficult in the older drillers.
Q. How is an injury prevention plan different for a large company, like Terracon, versus a small company?
A. The only big difference, believe it or not, is the amount of money that you can spend on it. Because, whether it’s a big company or a small company, it’s really going to be on your leadership, which then there’s no difference. It’s having the right-minded person that believes in the safety that can be achieved. Actually, believe it not, for the smaller companies belonging to an organization like the NDA or like the National Ground Water, is of great assistance to them if they utilize it. We have enough money and experts in the areas, where we can put the programs together, we can afford the downtime for the training and we can do it in house. The smaller companies sometimes don’t have that ability and they turn to experts to assist them. At least with these agencies it’s at minimal cost, and sometimes at no cost depending on what it is, if you’re already a member.
Q. You spoke at NDA about educating field personnel who have different levels of education, or perhaps are not native English speakers. What are some good tactics for delivering the message of safety across education or language barriers?
A. When we talk about the education barriers, we’re not talking about the intelligence levels of an individual, we’re talking formal education. A lot of us in this industry did not get that higher-level, formal education. … You have to know your audience. You have to approach them on their level of understanding. If you talk to a group of engineers, you’re going to address them a little bit differently because you don’t have to — they’re looking for those statistics, they’re looking for those numbers. You see where I’m going with this? When we talk with drillers, you have to relate directly with them. Your knowledge needs to be on the same level of the topics that theirs is.
As far as those that are non-English speaking, or, let’s say, those that are foreign, you’ve got to relate to what their levels are. So, more of a hands-on approach. Showing works better. Face-to- face works better. And that’s what you’ve got to boil it down to. You’ve got to get it together as individuals, more so than anything else. As far as a language barrier — and let me even spread that out a little bit more — geographically, not just foreign, but geographically jargon is different. If you’re somebody from, say, New England and you’re talking with somebody who’s drilling down in Alabama or Louisiana, how they refer to a topic or subject may be a little bit different and misunderstood. So getting that pictorial up there, getting that face-to-face or even stopping and saying, “Hey, tell me your experience with this subject” so you get a feel for how they perceive things. You’ve got to get that audience and understand that audience that you’re dealing with.
Q. How can employers approach the topic of safety when employees have a “walk it off” mentality toward injuries?
A. I’ve been trying to deal with that one for a long time. [Laughs.] Again, it goes back to that macho thing. And I can relate to that. … But it’s different when it comes to on the job and safety. They all think that it’s important. Here’s one thing that I really respect in the larger community of drillers: They are about getting things done. They are people of action. They don’t want to let anything hold them back from completing a task. If they get hurt on the job, they throw some grease on it, wrap it up with a towel and they continue right on working. It’s not a walk-away mentality. It’s that they feel their work is more important than their own body. You’ve got to work hard on convincing them that it hurts more if you don’t take it — and you’re going to be out of work more — if you don’t take care of it [an injury] properly.
I think when I gave my presentation I talked about Terracon using a program called WorkCare. I even put a picture of one hand that was crushed and one hand that was pinched. Both accidents put the guys out of work for an extended period of time. … That hand that was crushed, it was very obvious why he was put out of work for a while and he couldn’t continue work that day. But the finger, however, that was pinched and swelled up and had that nastylooking fingernail on there … after the weekend it swelled up so bad he had to go to the emergency room. But if he had taken care of it from when it happened, he probably wouldn’t end up missing a week’s worth of work. That’s what they’ve got to understand, and that’s what you’ve got to try to teach to them.
That’s why I show two extreme pictures and say, “Hey, the outcome’s the same. You lose time from work, we lose time from the job, and you don’t get to finish what you set out to do.” That’s the problem. I’ve been in that same predicament myself, where I injured my finger and I wrapped it up and continued to work. This is where I learned from experience and I don’t want people to go through the same thing I went through. It got infected, and I was down for a week and a half. Of course, we’re talking 25 years ago. … You asked the question about what makes you experienced to talk about safety. It’s those life experiences that I don’t want others to go through.
Q. I’m hurt. Now what?
A. What we would like them to do is to call our on-call medical assistance and explain the situation. They will tell him how to care for it. If they deem it necessary, they’ll make an appointment and tell him he needs to go seek medical attention right away. But they’ll also take care, tell them what they have to do that evening. Actually, they’re not going to force the guy to go see a doctor, but they’ll recommend it. A lot of them kind of fight it — some of them. However, they’ll give them information to help them treat that injury, which we call immediate first aid on the jobsite. And, they’ll tell them to monitor it and call them back to see if there’s any problems within the next day or so.
So, it really is a little bit of self-administrative first aid with some professional guidance, so that it won’t turn into having to go [to the hospital] because it got infected, or having to go because they treat the injury wrong. … That’s the situation we’re trying to avoid, is mistreating it and making things worse or not treating it and it becomes worse. The program has really paid off for us. In no way do we want them to call them if it’s a true medical emergency. It’s in our safety plans to immediately contact 911. … In other words, it’s not the supervisor telling you, “Hey, just go rinse it out, put some iodine on it and stick a Band-Aid on it.” We’re not qualified to give them medical advice. But the person on the phone they’re talking to is.
Q. How important is a safety record to a drilling company?
A. Most jobs like in the oil industry, the power generation industry, certain factories or car manufacturers, even state and federal contracts, they want to make sure you are a safe company to work with. Because it’s not just your company that’s at risk, it’s everybody on that jobsite whether they work for you or not. … If you don’t maintain certain standards in the industry, you will be disqualified from competing for work. This is where our operations mixes in with a little bit of safety. If you’re disqualified from competing for work by your safety ratings, and I think that most industries want your EMR (Experience Modification Rate), which is your reportables, below 1 percent, and there’s another category called TRIR (Total Recordable Incident Rate), which was at one time referred to as “lost time,” and say they want you down around 1 or less than 1 percent as well. If you can’t compete for the jobs, what happens to that employee? There’s a lack of work, you can’t afford to keep the employee or he’s not getting that many hours. So it’s not just the employee that suffers. It’s everybody that employee is responsible to help support. If a guy’s got a family, and he can’t put the hours in because they have a poor safety rating and aren’t getting the work, how long is he going to stay at work? His kids suffer, his wife suffers, he suffers, the company suffers — it’s all tied together. That’s the way the entire industry, not just the drilling industry, but industry as a whole, is going.
Q. Did I miss any obvious questions or is there anything else you’d like to add on the topic of safety?
A. I would say that, as an industry goal, we still have a lot we’ve got to touch on. We’ve still got a lot of minds that we have to change. The worst part of it is, there’s a lot of companies out there that are undercutting these procedures just because they think that they can make more money. You really are going to be able to make more money if you can keep your employees healthy, if you can keep them safe, if you can keep them working. That’s where your asset is, is your manpower — not the machines you’re running.