Those of you who are regular readers of this column know that I usually write about “what I know.” This is an option given all of us columnists for National Driller by our editor. The emphasis for this month is job safety, training and education. This column is about job safety, some accidents I have heard about or seen with my own eyes and, unfortunately, experienced myself.
It goes without saying that anyone in this industry — that being well drilling and pump installation and service — understands that this is a dangerous occupation. We operate some kind of power equipment, be it a drilling rig, a pump hoist, a power threader, a hand drill and on and on, at every job. I read once and believe it to be true that the average person can produce about one-eighth of a horsepower. Just about every piece of equipment we use will produce far more than one-eighth horsepower. Much of the equipment we operate utilizes 1,000 times that amount. I bring this up in that many times an accident victim says, “It happened so fast and it hit so hard.” Well, of course it did. Doing something that’s not smart for even a fraction of a second can hurt you badly, or maybe kill you.
The industry that I think is closest to ours in many respects, including a poor safety record, is farming. Think about it. Farmers use high-horsepower tractors, combines and other powered equipment. They work with augers, open chains, elevators, power shafts and all sorts of dangerous machines. Like those of us in our industry, they almost always seem behind and are hurrying and are using expensive, special-purpose, powerful machinery. I’m going to relate a few accidents that I am personally aware of that have happened in my short lifetime.
The first of these happened either because of stupidity or because the person involved was extremely unfortunate. A pump man acidized the well screen in a well that terminated in a well pit. This is not a legal activity for a pump installer according to the Michigan well and pump code. After introducing the acid, he capped the well up tight at its top. This was common practice in our industry, as it was thought the acid reaction would create pressure inside the casing and force the acid out into the formation. A day or so later, this unfortunate fellow working alone went down into the pit and released the cap. As he did this, the cap blew off and hit him in the face, knocking him out. Unconscious, he laid in the pit, breathed the acid fumes and died. It seems to me there are a couple of lessons to be learned here: Don’t cap an acidized well and don’t go into well pits alone. Maybe don’t go into any well pit.
In another unfortunate case, a driller had completed a well by the cable tool method. He laid the mast of the drill rig down and, as often happens as this is done, he had some slack wire line hanging off the mast. Wanting to have a nice, sharp looking rig going to the next job, he got up on the cat walks and held the spudding line in the position it should have been. Then, using his foot, he thought he engaged the bull reel but mistakenly engaged the spudding clutch. This rapidly brought the spudding beam up against the lowered mast and his hand was in between these two. I believe the fellow lost a thumb or a finger — whatever it was, it was a bad deal. Lesson to be learned here: Let the cables flop around a little and operate the controls from the driller’s position, not from the cat walks.
My father worked in the industry from 1922, when he began to install pumps, until 1980. By then, he had several well rigs and had drilled and repaired a lot of wells, mostly 2-inch, 3-inch and 4-inch. He died at age 92 with all 10 fingers, all 10 toes and both eyes. He was, however, injured several times on his well rig — never really badly though. In an incident that happened while I was on another job, he was driving 2-inch pipe with a drive block. It was tough going and he added a couple steel casing clamps to the top of the drive block to gain weight. These clamps were steel plates bent in the middle to near the shape of the casing and held together with a couple of bolts.
While driving casing one of the clamps let loose, fell down and clunked him on the head. Of course he was wearing a baseball cap or something like it — not in any way a hard hat. Luckily for him, the clamp did not fall too far. But it did gash his head and he had to have stitches. Fortunately, it did not affect his brain or mind, as he remained sharp until death. The lesson to be learned here: If you are attaching things to a drive block or tool string, attach them securely and wear a hard hat. After this incident both he and I went to hard hats, originally the aluminum kind and a few years later I found a very good non-metallic model that I still use. I have changed the suspension many times over the years and have always felt safer when I’m wearing this hat. My dad had several other accidents on the rig mostly involving cuts to his fingers, but he never lost one — although he did have a lot of stitches.
For myself, I had among others one case that could have been instant death and another where I was badly hurt. In the first case, I was working in a basement offset. This was at a large dairy and they had three pumps that pumped into a 2,000-gallon horizontal pressure tank. I think I may have been mounting a control box to a concrete wall. In any event, I was using a handheld electric drill. Either myself or my dad plugged the drill cord into a socket and did not notice that someone had written “220 v” on the cover plate. When I turned on the drill, I found it had attached itself to my hand by magnetism. In other words, the frame was electrified. Of course the floor was wet, but I had on a good pair of shoes and managed to jerk the cord out and, except for being shaken, I was okay. The lesson here is that the proper receptacle should be used for any electrical appliance.
In the summer of 1956, I was resetting the socket on a cable tool rig, getting ready to pour molten zinc into the swivel or mandrel. You cable tool guys will understand what I am talking about; you rotary guys can look up the process in a cable tool catalog if you can find one. My helper and I were heating the zinc with an old gasoline fire pot. Pressure in the gas tank got low and when I went to pump up air pressure the defective air pump squirted me in the face and neck with gasoline, which quickly caught fire. My helper, who went on to become a professor of law at the University of Michigan and is now retired, drove me to a doctor’s office about five miles away and then to a hospital where I spent a week, as infection of the burned area was a real concern. I came away from this with no visible scars by the grace of God and the abilities of the medical community. The lesson to be learned in this one is that I should have been using a face shield and a proper heating device. When I recovered, we did junk the fire pot and used a propone furnace from then on.
I could go on and on with 10 columns about safety but will close this one at this point. One of my pet peeves is still seeing pictures to this day of fellows on rigs wearing baseball caps. Fellows and gals, wear those hard hats, steel-toed shoes and safety glasses or a face shield all the time when you are on a job. Remember, accidents happen very, very fast and you can lose the use of parts of your body, the parts themselves or your life. Be careful — we have chosen to work in a dangerous occupation and that can’t be changed, but we can use our God-given brains to do the best we can to work SAFELY.
As I write this near the end of September we’ve had some good rain and my trusty lawn is nice and green. It is 84 degrees Fahrenheit today — way too warm for later September in Michigan. Remember, work hard, work smart and, above all, work safely.
For more John Schmitt columns, visit www.nationaldriller.com/schmitt.