For Drilling Jobs, Safety Means Thinking Twice, Acting Once
The editor of National Driller, Mr. Jeremy Verdusco, gives us column writers wide latitude in choice of subjects. This article was going to be about the marriage of my granddaughter, Samantha, to a fellow named Trevor, a second lieutenant in the Army Reserve, the event to take place in four days. However among the choice of subjects for this issue was safety. Oh boy, that’s one of my favorite subjects and one that I tend to be a little bit preachy on, so here goes.
I believe I could write half an issue with full pages about the subject of safety and, unfortunately, accidents in our industry. Some of these accidents were minor and some were major. Let’s face it, guys and gals who drill wells, set pumps and service them, our industry has a rather poor record from the standpoint of job safety. The things we do and the equipment we use are not super high-tech. The jobs we perform require skill — in fact, a lot of skill — and a lot of hard work, but the machines and mechanisms we use and install are pretty basic. That being said, it’s easy to see how we in the industry can become complacent and a little lax about the safety of ourselves and others around us. I’ve often felt that the industry most like ours is agriculture, where the equipment is large and expensive now-a-days and more complicated than it used to be, but still pretty straightforward. The agricultural industry, like our groundwater industry, has a poor safety record.
I’m going to write about some things that have happened to me and my father, who started my company in 1945 after many years working for another contractor, as well as a few helpers. I’m going to include a very few “stories” of accidents that happened to other industry people. In fact, a good contractor who works in my area and is a generation younger than me recently injured his foot when he dropped a heavy steel block on it (or so I was told). Steve, I hope you are well on your way to recovery and not badly hurt.
Years ago, my father drilled mostly 2- and 3-inch wells by the hollow-rod method. He had a hammer with a steel guide rod to go in the casing and a heavy weight near the top to drive this casing. It worked pretty effectively on 2-inch wells, but when he went to 3-inch wells he added weight to make the casing driving go better. He bolted a series of pipe clamps and other steel devices above the main weight and below the loop where the hook of the spudder line connected.
While driving pipe one time, one of these clamps vibrated loose and came down and clunked him on the head. Of course, he was wearing a baseball-type cap and no hard hat. He suffered a pretty serious cut but he was not knocked unconscious, and the cut healed up with apparently with no ill effects.
A few years later we moved up to drilling 4-inch wells by the cable tool method, as I have related in columns written sometime back. On one of these 4-inch jobs, for some unknown reason, my dad hooked his thumb over the casing and proceeded to bang it with the bottom of a dart valve bailer. I was in Texas attending a church youth group convention, so his helper drove him to the hospital where they stitched up his thumb. Again, he healed up with no lasting effects.
Years later, he was assisting me in changing the stroke on a BE-20W and grabbed the outside of the spudding gear clutch. He got a finger bashed up, as we idiots had failed to stop the jackshaft. Talk about idiotic! I got to drive him to the hospital that time, and with more stitches and some time he healed up. He was both lucky and a tough guy.
When I was in my teens we went out to service a pump pumping from a dug well. These dug wells were still quite common in our area at that time. I was about to go down into the well when the housewife came by and said, “You fellows know that well has the damps, don’t you?” My dad’s eyes got real big and he told me to get the H out of there. We borrowed a lantern from the housewife and lowered it into the well on a rope. Sure enough the flame went out — no oxygen. I would have been in big trouble if I had gone down in there. As I recall, we rolled up an old mattress, hooked it to a larger rope, lowered it into the well and lifted it up and let it drop, not unlike the motion of a cable tool rig. This somehow introduced air and oxygen into the well and on the second test the lantern flame kept going. So I quickly got down in there, did what I had to do and got out. I had never heard the term “damps” before, but I never forgot it. There were a lot of stories of well diggers being overcome and helpers who were not thinking being overcome also as they went down to get the stricken digger out. Sometimes, it was more than one helper. It is good that we stand on the ground surface to operate our rigs.
None of us like OSHA regulations and other safety requirements, but they are there for a purpose. They are there to save fingers, arms and legs, eyes and, yes, lives themselves.
In all my years of drilling and pump work I was only hurt badly one time, and that was good enough for me. This happened in the summer of 1956 and I remember the events like they occurred yesterday. We were drilling 2- and 3-inch wells (as I said earlier) by the hollow-rod method and 4- and 6-inch wells by the cable tool method using the same rig. We did have a hook that connected to the rope socket, but this really did not work very well for the hollow-rod method so we cut the wire line and just put a hook on the end of it using cable clamps to make a loop. When we went back to drilling 4-inch wells, we had to reset the socket. This involved separating all the 114 wires in the drilling cable, cleaning them up and pulling them into a tapered swivel. We only separated a few inches of the wires and then inverted the swivel and poured in molten zinc. Some fellows used lead and others used babbit, but zinc was the recommended metal. If you did this right, the connection was stronger than the wire rope itself. If you were drilling strictly cable tool, you had to repeat this procedure every now and then — sometimes every 80 hours of drilling — as the drill line was subjected to a lot of stress right at the swivel. This process is known as setting the socket.
Well, one fine summer morning in 1956 my helper — who went onto be a law professor, as I wrote a couple columns back — and I were heating the zinc and ready to pour it into the swivel. The heating device was a gasoline fired “firepot,” just like plumbers used to heat lead for caulking soil pipe. This thing had a gasoline tank at the bottom with a little air pump and the operator pumped up air pressure, which forced the gasoline through a heating coil and in a fine mist out to be burned. Incidentally, we used what we called white gas, which I think is something like the unleaded gasoline we use today. The firepot was kind of slowing down due to low air pressure in the gas tank and I went to pump up more pressure. I had seen my dad do this many times. Unbeknownst to me, gasoline had leaked past the plunger of the air pump and I was working with a handy-dandy gasoline squirt gun. One pull back and I had a stream of gasoline headed to my neck and jaw area. I can remember thinking, “This is going to hurt” — your mind works very fast in a situation like this.
Sure enough, I had first and second degree burns over my face and neck, and my friend drove me to our nearest doctor’s office and then quickly on to a hospital. I was hospitalized for six days and told to stay away from any work environment for a month. I did no more work that summer and in September went back to classes at the University of Michigan. I was fortunate, in that I had no scars when I healed up. But I remember that on the second day that I was in the hospital, I got out of bed and went to a mirror to look at myself. I darn near fainted when I saw myself in the mirror. I was a real mess, with big blisters and a swollen ear. I’m pretty sure God was with me that day.
I could go on for a long time about this subject. I get really upset when I see pictures of operators on rigs in baseball caps, shorts and tennis shoes. Folks, this is not the way to dress around a drill rig or a pump hoist. A common theme one hears from accident victims is that the event happened so fast. Yes, it does. I still can remember how fast that burning gasoline came up to my face over 59 years ago. None of us like OSHA regulations and other safety requirements, but they are there for a purpose. They are there to save fingers, arms and legs, eyes and, yes, lives themselves. I’m fortunate that I still have all 10 fingers; sadly too many drillers can’t say that.
So, friends, if I got somewhat long winded and preachy on this subject, I do not apologize. A favorite saying among wood workers is, measure twice and cut once. A favorite saying for our industry should be, think twice and act once.
We have had some fall like weather here in Michigan in September and today it has gotten warm again. ‘Til next time, remember to work safe. The finger, limb, eye or life you save very well might be your own.